Joe Bell gently lifted the newborn off the dead woman. He hoped the boy hadn’t noticed her going so still. He was certainly crying like he had. He wrapped the baby in his jacket. God help him if he let the kid catch his death now.
He looked back down at the child’s mother. Could he have done something? Did he do something wrong? If he had ignored the woman’s plea to stay put; if he had dragged her bodily to his truck and booked it to the nearest country clinic, would the boy in his arms still have a mother?
Regardless of whether her end had come from his error or hers, the lady from the sky had trusted the trucker with her child, and that was as close to sacred as he could imagine anything being. Even more than she herself had been.
He couldn’t risk moving her body, not now. A baby could be explained away if they were stopped by someone; a dead woman, not so much.
“S-sorry,” he managed to get out as he turned to head back to the road, blinking back tears. He was grateful her eyes were closed.
A few hours later, Bell stood in the middle of his rented cabin at the Sandman Road Inn, trying to rock his unexpected travelling companion to sleep. Calling it a cabin was being generous. It was more of a tent made of drywall, left standing all year round. He worried that if it rained, the whole structure might be washed away. Still, he’d at least been able to shell out the extra dollar a night for a mattress, and he’d been able to give the baby a whore’s bath in the toilet block.
He was still just the “the boy”, or the “baby”. He didn’t know if he had the right to name him.
He wasn’t crying right then, but Joe still hoped he would sleep. There was something disquietingly aware in those moss green eyes. They followed his own, like he understood everything that had happened to him. Were his eyes even supposed to be green? He remembered someone telling him white babies were all born with blue eyes, unless they were Polacks.
Joe was fairly sure the baby was no Polack.
He was hoping sleep would delay hunger, too. He had no idea where to find milk powder at this hour. He had no idea if the kid even took milk. He might need moon dust for all he knew. It was yet another imponderable question about the child’s future, both near and beyond. Bell had already ruled out leaving him on an orphanage’s doorstep. Even if that didn’t feel like the coward’s way out, he couldn’t help but imagine it leading to the poor boy’s insides being spread out over some quack’s workbench.
Joe’s mother was dead, he had no sisters, and none of his brothers were married. There was his cousin Agnes, but that bridge was only held together by ash.
He could always bring up the boy himself. No, not even worth considering. What kind of father would he make—a bachelor trucker hauling cargo up and down the country all year round? What would he do, homeschool the kid in the truck’s cabin? What other option did he have?
The baby started wailing again, louder this time.
Joe sighed. “I know, buddy, I know.”
There was a knock on the door. Bell froze. Could it be the army, here to question him about that poor woman? Who could have seen him on that deserted spit of road? Or maybe it was the police come to take the baby? Why? Was there any law against a man going around with a kid?
The knocking grew more insistent.
Joe looked down at the screaming baby, forcing a smile he did not feel. “Looks like room service is here.”
If the increase in pitch was any indication, the boy did not appreciate the joke. He set him down on the mattress and opened the door, cursing the owners of this dive for not putting peepholes in their doors.
The man waiting on the other side looked like he had been the single recipient of all the Depression’s hardships. Poor fella couldn’t even afford shoes and pale flesh drooped around his mouth like a basset hound. His faded blue overalls were stained a sickly yellow by the road inn’s neon masthead. The tattered straw hat he wore was missing its top, gray hair poking out of it like wisps of mold. There was a dazed, sleepy expression in his eyes.
Joe decided this was probably a neighbour of the moment, here to complain about the crying. Uncharitable bastard.
He grinned embarrassedly. “Sorry, pal,” he said over the noise. “Wife stepped out for a bit of fresh air, and the baby’s pining. You know how it is.”
The man grinned back. Far too much. “You are lying,” he said cheerfully, barging his way past the trucker. Before Joe could stop him, he was standing over the baby. “That is some exquisite camouflage, I must say. I should take pointers.”
The baby’s cries ceased. An angry air hung between him and the intruder.
Joe grabbed the man’s arm. “Now look here—”
The man’s face exploded, something fast and sharp lacerating Bell’s chest and flinging him into the wall hard enough to crack it like eggshell.
The thing’s head now resembled an open blossom, a bone-tipped stamen undulating at the centre of its glistening petals of flesh. Dozens of lumps twitched beneath their skin, tearing open to reveal an array of china-blue eyes. “Sorry about that,” gurgled deep from within it. “The fauna here can get aggressive.”
Joe lay slumped behind them, trying to breathe through broken ribs. The cuts on his chest were burning like his own blood had turned to acid. Despite all this, he managed to get back to his feet and charge the monster. “You leave him—”
He was slammed against the ceiling this time, his attempt to brace himself earning him two sharp cracks from his legs. The creature let him drop back to the floor.
“For crying out—one second.”
The thing proceeded to drop all pretense. Joe heard a dry, almost hollow thump as the false man’s skin began to peel. Not splitting apart to reveal something, so much as literally peeling, like a piece of fruit being slowly stripped of its outer layer, the skin hanging like a loose sack from one end of it. What lay underneath made the trucker dry heave. It was like some kind of landborn coral—hundreds of interconnected, tumorous veins, the missing link between plant and animal, all pulsing and writhing and yet still surprisingly dry. His eyes parched just from looking at the thing, as if he were standing in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Then the thing began to move. It lacked what Bell would have called limbs, much the same way that it lacked a face, or anything else beyond that strange, protean mesh of tendrils, lined with those wretchedly human eyes. It could still move though, the openings between the tendrils elongating and thinning as it stretched itself, the mass almost folding towards him.
The cancer-worm loomed over Joe, hollowing out into a black tunnel of teeth and hooks.
I’m going to die, the trucker thought to himself. The pain of his broken legs was smothered by adrenaline, but that wasn’t helping him move any. This thing is going to kill me, and the kid… he’ll be lucky if he just gets eaten.
The beast lunged at him, only to halt just short of his face. Ichor dripped onto his forehead. It reared up again, emitting an awful, keening shriek, before falling upon him again. Still, no contact.
Was it toying with him? Joe was filled with rage, even stronger than the fear. Rage and shame and self-loathing. He’d failed. He couldn’t save that poor, fallen woman, and now he was going to let her son die, too—
The ceiling vanished, leaving the room open to the sky. There was a man. He had stars for eyes and a cloak of night, and he towered over Joe and the worm.
No, the trucker realized. It wasn’t “a man.” The haze of fear and confusion evaporated, and all that was left was him, looking down at himself. The giant seemed to regard his other self with bemusement, but also pity. It was the most aggravating thing in the world.
“Just do it,” said Joe. “Whatever needs to be done, just get it over with.”
He became an exception in the laws of physics. An edge case in everything. He decided how the world reacted to his presence, and how he reacted to it. It was too much, he was too much. He needed to whittle it down to something he could use.
Luckily, there was something to work with. It was both new and ancient. It was men in circus leotards smashing cars on boulders. It was angels ripping apart tanks in newsreels. It was Hercules holding up the sky. It was himself, beating back death with his bare fists.
Joe rose to look the monster in the maw. His feet did not touch the ground.
He punched the thing right through the wall. Holding no delusion that would be enough to kill it, he shot out of the room after it. The sensation was exhilarating. He could move in any direction he wanted without the slightest effort. He didn’t move through the world, the world moved around him.
The thing had come to rest near the toilet bloc, and seemed to be abandoning its formless state for something more defined. Tendrils were knitting together into long, crustacean arms, with which it pulled a small, bronze cylinder out of the centre of its mass. It swung around to look at the incoming human projectile with two bulbous collections of eyes.
What looked like a miniature sun fired out of the cylinder, momentarily turning night into day. Joe swooped low to dodge it, letting the sphere sink into the earth like its older brother dipping below the sea.
He tackled the monster to the ground, laying into it with his fists. It hissed and churned beneath him, desperately searching for an arrangement of cells that would let it escape him. It grew mouths to bite him, but their teeth broke on his skin. New orifices spewed something that smelled faintly of sick, and made the grass beneath them sizzle. Barbed tendrils tried wrenching off the new superman to no avail.
Drunk with newfound might, Joe forgot his fear. How had this mewling, formless lump inspired such terror in him?
Then it ate him.
Maybe that wasn’t the right word. It didn’t chew him, and its digestive juices could do nothing to him, but Joe was engulfed by the thing all the same. It was a strange experience, being eaten by something that didn’t really have a mouth. The creature warped, its top and sides expanding around him like some sort of wave. He pulled back his fist with a growl, ready to beat and tear his way free of the thing, and surged forwards. The creature’s extended ends meshed together behind him, and everything was dark. He didn’t care. He started clawing. Then, it was gone. He was under the stars once more. No, among them. There was moisture in the air. He looked around himself, searching for his wayward foe, for the truck, the cabin. Anything. There was nothing to be seen, except steppes of clouds dusted by moonlight. He roared, aimless fury building up in him with nowhere to release.
Then he felt it. A touch on his mind, a caress from a hand the size of a mountain. It hurt, yet there was no malice there—only a plaintive fear. He had never felt anything like it before, but still he recognized it immediately. The child’s cries matched his mother’s, it seemed. He turned towards the horizon, and sped forward through the empty sky.
The visitor congratulated itself on thinking to pack the micro-vortex. It might have been in real trouble otherwise.
What an odd night it was. First, after centuries of glacial pursuit, it’d managed to snare itself a gravid star-goddess… and it let itself be knocked out of the sky by a podunk Gatekeeper. The alien reminded itself to pay this world’s moon a visit if all went well.
A herd of the planet’s most successful wildlife had been spooked out of their hovels by the noise of their fight. Milk-heavy mothers with their mates and calfs holidaying in the shadow of their world’s latest geopolitical spat; vagabonds hauling foodstuffs and their kind’s latest approximations of technology across the continent; ashamed lovers in search of a safe place to rut.
They gawked and screamed, and one or two of them even fired primitive projectile weapons at the visitor, stinging it like insect bites. A few poison laden belches and envenomed darts took care of all that
Peace restored, the visitor took a moment to work out its body again. Much as it valued its species’ hard-won morphological freedom, it liked having something to look at in a mirror.
An idea occurred.
It stepped through the broken wall of the cabin. The child was floating above the mattress, hugging his knees with a thumb jammed between his gums.
Imitating the human nursing instinct even with no eyes on him, the visitor observed. Can’t say this creature isn’t method.
“It’s alright, little one.”
The infant turned towards the source of the voice. The speaker was a tall, queenly featured woman with cornsilk hair and lilac eyes, draped in a red, toothed gown, one eye over her left shoulder lazily watching the room.
The child so dearly wanted to believe it was her, but even so new he wasn’t that foolish. The woman was too pale, and he could never imagine his mother smiling so cruelly. More importantly, when he touched her mind, it felt like claws being scraped across stone.
The imposter approached him. “I’m not going to hurt you child. That thing with your mother? An accident, mostly, blame my aim. I just wanted to show you two off to some colleagues of mine. I mean, what do you really have to look forward to here?”
It risked putting its hands around the baby, pulling him close. “Good boy. Now let’s get a move on.”
As the visitor stepped over the bodies it had felled, it pondered the way forward. It considered swallowing the star-god for safekeeping, but decided that wouldn’t be necessary. Not when he was being so cooperative. Then there was getting back to the ship. The visitor could sprout a perfectly serviceable pair of wings if it wanted, but that would require leaving behind a great deal of biomass and knowledge. And it had already been left so ignorant by the crash…
Instead, it headed for where the humans kept their vehicles. It went for one of the larger cargo-haulers, deciding that having a bit of weight to throw around might prove useful on the road. The key was easy enough to bypass, one of its elegant fingers elongating and flattening to replicate its grooves. Luckily, the nervous system it had borrowed from that farmer had some experience with these vehicles.
“We’re on our way,” it said brightly to the child in passenger seat as the engine roared to life.
They drove for some time. The young star-god wondered what had happened to Joe. Did he still live? If he did, would he ever be able to find him? And if he did, what good would it do?
He sensed something bright and angry and familiar high above them.
Joe Bell stared down at his truck as it chased its own headlights. God damn it, he could actually see through it if he squinted hard enough, like his gaze was turning metal into glass. He’d been relieved for a second when he first spotted it, and saw the child’s mother driving. Her resurrection would only be the third most miraculous thing he’d witnessed that night. But then he felt the waves of despair coming off the boy.
He had to get the kid out of there, but what other tricks did the creature have up its sleeve?
Focus on the fuel tank, a small, insistent voice told him. It was like his conscience was putting on an accent.
What good would that do? Joe wondered.
Just do it.
Joe frowned at the tank on the underside of the cab. There was a spark, and the black sludge turned into liquid sunshine. A fraction of a moment later, the truck exploded.
“Shit-shit-shit-shit-shiiiiit!” Bell screamed as he plunged towards the fireball. He ripped the door off the burning cabin, dreading what he’d find inside.
What he found was the creature slumped smouldering on the wheel. Next to it, the boy sat dressed in ash, embers glowing in his hair, kicking his legs quite happily.
Joe smiled, reaching into the cabin for the child.
He almost fell out of the air. Just managing to catch himself, he attempted to reorient. His vision was swimming. He could barely feel the heat of the fire, but he was sweating as if he did. The wounds on his chest were still burning.
He looked down his blood soaked shirt. The flesh around the cuts was puckered and inflamed, leaking green pus. The veins of his chest looked like they were clogged with soot.
The baby looked at Joe questioningly.
He smiled back at him. “Come on, kid. Let’s go find somewhere for you to rest your head.”
Sarah Allworth was jolted from her dream about Adolf Hitler and the mountain of peeled bananas by the sharp knocking coming from downstairs. She rolled over in bed to try and rouse her husband. She whispered, “Jonah,” a shake, “Jonah!”
He groaned, “What is it, sweetheart?” still half-convinced he was asking Katharine Hepburn.
Another round of knocking.
Jonah looked at the alarm clock. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out any numbers, but he could make out words: too bloody early.
“Why on Earth would anybody be knocking on our door at this kind of hour?” his wife asked.
“Don’t know,” he replaced blearily. “Very polite burglars?”
Sarah frowned. “Not funny. We should go down and tell them to clear off.”
“Wouldn’t that just be giving them what they want?”
More knocking, more demanding this time.
“Whoever it is clearly aren’t going to let us get any sleep till we do.”
The couple made their way to the threshold. Just in case, Mr. Allworth brought his softball bat. He opened the door.
A sweat drenched, bloodied young man fell through, but did not hit the ground. Good thing, too. His legs were bent at the most unnatural angles. In his arms was an ashen baby boy.
The man shoved the baby into Mrs Allworth’s arms. “Please, take him,” he panted. “Please-I-I can’t keep going. Flew for hours. Don’t even know what country I’m in… is it night time again?” He grabbed Mr Allworth. “If that thing comes here, you light it on fire. It won’t stop moving if you don’t—”
He couldn’t speak anymore. Time broke down for Joe Bell. There was the sensation of being carried, of being in the back of a moving car. The woman, still holding the child, kept asking him his name. As if that mattered.
A country clinic, lights being flicked on. Needles breaking against his skin. Someone mercifully holding an ether rag under his nose.
It’s alright. You did your best.
He had, hadn’t he?