Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The sun looked like it was searing into her skin -- there was a hint of sizzle where she was sweating with the heat and where the sweat beads evaporated. It was an unusually dry day, the omnipresent humidity missing even though there were no trade winds. Her skin repulsed me slightly. Who these days still sunbathes shamelessly? She was beginning to get a little past her prime. But she always did whatever she wanted, and it usually involved spending my money. I don't know, I guess I did the same, but what else were we supposed to do? Some days I just felt adrift. Too much money, too much time. You'd think that was a good problem to have.

She shifted slightly and sighed. She looked like she might be falling asleep, but I couldn't see her eyes under my aviators. She like to borrow my stuff. Annoying. It was like she was putting her mark on me through my belongings. I knew from the start that she was going to use me. I shouldn't complain though, I was using her just as much.

"I know what you're thinking," she said.

"No you don't," I said.

"Oh, I think I do." She sat up, pulled her knees up, stretched her arms forward, elevated one eyebrow, pulled off the aviators and tossed them to me in one graceful swipe, then stood, balancing from the slight rock of the boat, adjusted her suit bottom, and dove into the water. She didn't make a splash; a perfect Olympic ten. Everything she did, she did well, and she knew it. I watched her swim to the surface. She emerged, swept her hair back out of her face, treading water calmly.

"When are we going back?" she asked.

"The harbor or the mainland?" I asked. She thought for a moment.

"You said we were going to Italy."

"I'm going to Italy, you're not." She looked hurt and turned away. I got up and walked around the top of the bow of the boat and went down in the cabin to the fridge to get another beer. That's when she screamed--at first just a high pitched wail, then she screamed my name several times. I didn't fall for that manipulative crap of hers any more. I took my time on my way back up. She had climbed back up and was standing, dripping on the bow, clearly not half-eaten by a shark as I had hoped.

"Took you long enough!" she screamed.

"What?" I popped the cap off the beer.

"Look!" she pointed up into the sky, towards the island. I turned around and looked up, shading my eyes with my hand from the glare of the sun. There were spots in the sky, moving spots, thousands of them.

"You see them?" she asked.

"That's not natural," I said.

"I thought I might be having a stroke. What do you think they are?"

"Haven't a clue. Could be volcanic I guess."

"That far up?"

"I really don't know. Meteors maybe."

"That's an awful lot. Maybe we should head back to the harbor," she said. We were ten miles out at least, with the spots in the direction of land.

"I don't think whatever it is, is heading our way," I said, even as I thought it felt a little ominous in its unknowness. The dots did look bigger now. She moved closer, putting her hand on my shoulder -- not out of any feigned attachment to me, or even fear, but to bolster her balance as she stared up.

"Don't you have a pair of binoculars down below?"

"Yeah," I said. I moved to get them.

"Maybe they're just birds," she said. Big birds I thought. "Or an insect swarm."

"Over open ocean?" I called out. I fished the binoculars out of a drawer in the galley.

"They're bigger," she said, ignoring me. I came back up on deck, and she held out her hand to receive the binoculars. I put them up to my eyes instead, and adjusted the focus. I didn't understand what I saw. They were spherical, red, smooth, and falling slower than they ought to, like they were half filled with helium, carried on the slight breeze.

"They're closer than I thought."

"What are they?" she asked. I dropped my hands. Her arms were akimbo in response to my earlier snub.

"Well?" she asked. I handed her the binoculars. She held them up and looked.

"They look like plastic balls. I really don't know what they are."

"Hmmm," she muttered. "Would you mind starting the engine? I think we have to get out of here."

" They'll hit land first," I said.

"I'm not suggesting going back, but look over there." She pointed east. They were coming down there as well. I looked to the west, and they were there as well. They were enveloping the sky. We both looked to the north, and it was still clear blue.

"It's getting thicker," she said, and it was beginning to look like swarm. "You think we could outrun it?"

"There's nothing north of here, and I didn't bother to gas up before we left." She glared at me. "I didn't think I'd have to evade a falling sky."

"Well you're useless in an emergency," she sniped. She handed back the binoculars and went below. I didn't need the binoculars now to see the redness. They began blotting out the sun. I realized that they were coming in from a strange direction...had they been meteors. They shouldn't be coming from the south. They looked to be several feet in diameter, but it was hard to tell.

She emerged from the cabin, zipping up her wet suit. She had her mask and a knife in one hand.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I don't think this boat is safe. We can't stay here, and we can't really leave, so I'm waiting this out under water. I suggest you do the same," she said. I hated diving in deep water. I had an irrational fear that some hideous kraken would creep up from the deep and curl a tentacle around my ankle and try to keep me as a pet until I asphyxiated.

"We don't know what this is," I said.

"What's to know? It's a bunch of large objects falling from the sky. We stay on the surface, we risk being hit. We go under, well, maybe the water will absorb the impact."

"I meant, we don't know how long this will last. The tanks have maybe a half hour of air."

"Well, do what you want," she said. "I'm not dying here, I'm not dying now. I'm diving." She checked one of the tank valves. I watched her a moment, then went down into the cabin and suited up as fast as I could. I took my credit cards, car keys, and a wad of cash and stuffed them into a freezer bag from the galley and shoved them into the front of my suit before zipping up.

When I got back up, all I saw were her fins before she splashed into the water. I checked the sky. The light was dim now, sort of brownish. The water was grayish instead of blue, and the red orbs were hitting the water a quarter of a mile away. The sound was loud and crushing, and they displaced a lot of water. Some of them exploded as they hit, and white streamers of some viscous liquid splayed out fifty feet or more in all directions. I was frozen in place. Somehow it was beautiful.

My heart felt like it was trying to escape my chest. I closed my eyes and looked away, trying to be calm. I was probably going to use up my oxygen in ten minutes if I kept breathing like this. The objects had arrived faster than they ought to. I threw myself into the tank harness and quickly tested the airflow in the mask. I couldn't find my fins. I found my way to the side of the boat, trembling, and pushed myself over.

I tried to push downward, but without fins, and with my buoyant middle-aged paunch I wasn't getting very far under. Then I felt something grasp my wrist -- my heart leapt to my throat. I looked down, and it was just her hand -- she was pulling me down. Well, maybe she did care something for me after all.

We made it thirty feet or so under when the first orb broke through the surface next to us. It descended, still whole, a good fifty feet. It brought parts of the boat with it, including the windshield, encased in a veil of air bubbles. Great. I looked up. Most of the boat was still there, the bottom of the hull intact at least.

The orb started rising fast past us, and popped to the surface, bobbing next to the boat. She pulled me further under, and I pushed as much as I could as well. More orbs were slicing through the water leaving vast contrails. The ocean was churning. One of the orbs broke as it hit, and it didn't descend as much as the others. Sheets of white material fanned out from where the red skin ruptured. It wasn't quite a liquid. It reminded my of half cooked egg whites.

She was treading now; trying to stay in place. She pulled me closer, held my head, and looked me in the eyes. I'm not sure what she wanted to say, but it looked like she was trying to get me to breathe more slowly. She pointed to my tank. I nodded. We stayed in place for what seemed an awfully long time as the orbs kept coming down. More bits of the boat swirled around us. The water was getting very dark. The sun was being blocked by a layer of the white stuff and the floating balls. Where the orbs burst, the skins floated down past us. They didn't appear to be connected to the material within.

Finally the ocean calmed around us. It was almost pitch black. She squeezed my hand. The only thing we could do was try to surface. We were probably really low on air, but there was no way to find out until it was too late. I squeezed her hand back. She started kicking upward.

We reached the underside of the white layer cautiously. There was a little more light here, but it was still nearly impossible to make anything out. She wanted to let go, but I didn't want let her go -- it meant I might lose her completely. I grasped her hand tighter. She pulled me up. She must have pulled off her mask because I could hear her muffled voice. It sounded like, I need two hands to cut. She pulled my hand to her tank harness. I grabbed on. I wasn't sure what exactly she was doing but within a minute I could see a crack light. We swam up through the hole and surfaced.

I ripped off my mask. The stink of methane was almost overwhelming. My eyes burned.

"Oh dear god, that is rank," she said. All the orbs appeared to be bursting, as far as the eye could see, as if contact with the water was a catalyst. The rupturing seemed somehow intentional. I examined the white stuff more closely. Some of it felt like citrus pith, and some was stringy. The stringy parts connected to millions of translucent balls the size of large capers. She watched me as I pinched one between my thumb and forefinger. It burst easily and oozed a thick clear liquid with tiny black spots. It smelled slightly sweet.

"Don't taste it," she warned.

"Wasn't going to," I said, "if I can possibly avoid it."

"It looks organic. And uh, reproductive."

"Yeah. Think we can make it to the boat?" It was just a few feet away, mercifully still mostly intact, but I wasn't sure how to get to it.

"Yeah, we can." She started cutting through the strands in the white material, towards the boat. I pushed the layers apart behind her, folding it up over itself, widening the breach. We made it to the boat in a few minutes. She climbed up first, then pulled me in. The boat was covered as well, so we set about clearing it all out after we took our tanks off. As we worked, the white layer took on a ruddy hue. The pithy parts were hardening. It wasn't quite brittle, but it was becoming difficult to pull apart the strands. For some reason it reminded me of that epoxy that comes in two tubes and has to be mixed together.

"It's oxidizing," she said. "Or something like that. I'm no expert in alien goo."

"What? You think this shit's from another planet?"

"Well, I never saw this stuff on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, so I'm betting it's not indigenous." She wiped her hands on her wet suit, then unzipped to her navel. "Do you have another theory Einstein?"

I looked down at the sticky, stiffening strands in my hand. I had been so preoccupied with my immediate survival that I hadn't really thought about it.

"It seems improbable. I mean, how did it get here? We're ridiculously far away from any possible alien planets. And interstellar space travel is unlikely."

"Wow, you really have a nerd side," she said. Scenes from my awkward teenage years flashed before my eyes. "I don't know, maybe it was just waiting out there for millions of years, and we just passed through a cloud of it."

"I just don't think we can jump to any conclusions." Her theory seemed as reasonable as anything though.

"Well, how much of it do you think there is?" We both look all around the boat. There was white in all directions, but to the south, where the island was, we could see its gentle mountains -- white-covered mountains. The sight of it made me queasy.

"You don't think it could be, everywhere?" she asked.

"Well, if your theory is right, then it probably isn't. Half the planet at most. Maybe just a small region here." She just looked at me, expressionless for a moment.

"So, half the Earth could be covered, in which case we're screwed, or, just this area, as far as we can see, is covered, in which case we're screwed. So either way, we're totally screwed."

"Maybe not totally. Maybe this stuff will dissolve in a few hours," I said. "Maybe it's not meant to be in the ocean. Or on a planet altogether."

She sighed and put her hands on her hips for a moment, looking down at her feet. She started scraping more of the harding pith from the boat.

"Maybe," she said, "we should just stop talking about it." I got back to work as well.

An hour later we had most of it out of the boat. I thought about trying to start the engine, but the lingering scent of methane warned me away from igniting any sparks. The orb material was a deep russet and very hard now. It was starting to wrinkle and crack over the surface of the water. Where the bottom of the layer showed through it was still white. The layer looked to be about three feet thick now. Maybe it had absorbed water, but it was still very buoyant.

She was scanning the horizon with the binoculars. She had shed her suit entirely and was wearing her bikini with one of my t-shirts thrown over it. Even though I was uncomfortably hot in my suit, I wanted the least amount of my skin in contact with any of the alien goop. Already, where it had dried to my hands and feet, just the thought of it there irritated me. The material itself seemed completely harmless, but I preferred, at all times, to be very clean.

"We have one bottle of water. And of course a whole fridge-ful of beer." She turned her head away from the binoculars briefly enough to glare at me. "We're going to have to decide some things fairly soon."

"I think we can make it back to land," I said. "We can get fresh water there."

"How are we getting there? Even if it were safe to run the engine without exploding ourselves -- although maybe that's not a bad idea at this point -- there's no way the motor can cut through this crap. We're pretty much stuck."

"The boat's stuck. We're not. I think we can walk."

"What? Do you not see those cracks? It'd be like trying to make it across an ice floe in the arctic."

"I think it's possible. I'm going. You can come with, or not. Your choice. You're the one who said you didn't want to die here."

"What's waiting for us over there then?" She pointed towards the island. "Even if we get water, there's still just more hardened goo all over the place. Where do we get food? Where do we get shelter? I mean, everything must be destroyed there, all the buildings, 'oh the humanity' you know. You saw how deep those things went into the water when they landed."

"Well, it'll give us time. If this just happened here, we're bound to be rescued." She looked at me for awhile, scrutinizing.

"You're uncharacteristically optimistic," she said. "Where's that coming from?"

"I feel kind of free," I said. I was. I was suddenly unburdened from future obligations and plans -- completely severed from my previous responsibilities.


"I don't think you'd understand."

"Well, whatever. I don't know. Maybe it's worth a shot. How far is it do you think."

"Five miles," I lied. I was beginning to want her around me, annoying as she was. Besides, I didn't really feel like dying alone.

"I think it's a bit more than that."

"Yeah maybe," I said.

"Alright. I'll go," she said.

I finally took off my wetsuit. It was making me sweat too much, and we needed to conserve our one bottle of water. We gathered up what we could salvage, which wasn't much, and bundled everything in a t-shirt. I tied it to two ends of another t-shirt and slung it securely over my chest. She carried the binoculars, my sunglasses, and nothing else.

She tested the solidity of the hardened goop first. She walked out several feet on the nearest patch. She looked a bit wobbly, but the layer didn't break or buckle.

"Seems okay," she said. She moved over to the nearest crack and examined it. "It's not broken all the way through. It's sort of stretchy. Still, we'll want to avoid them." She jumped over it when the crack was smallest with the oscillation of the ocean surface.

I slipped over the bow of the boat and tried to land as gently as possible. It did seem solid.

"Come on," she said. I didn't mind that she wanted to lead. She was much more surefooted than me and I tried to follow her path around the wrinkles.

We were walking carefully for a few hours before the sun started to set.

"I hope the moon is out tonight," she said. The western horizon was getting pink. "We could use the light."

"It's just past full," I said. My feet were starting to hurt. The surface was a little bit prickly, but mostly I just wasn't used to walking this much.

When light from the sunset faded, the moon rose. She noticed it first. I was too focused on trying to make out where my feet were going. She stopped dead and I bumped into her.

"Oh shit. That's not good," she said.

"What?" I asked. She pointed to the moon. I felt my stomach flutter. The moon was a dull orange. I could still make out craters, but the shadows were softer.

"I hope that's just something in the atmosphere making it look like that," she said.

"I don't know." I thought about the pink sunset, and how normal it looked. It seemed unlikely that this event had done anything to the atmosphere. And if this stuff had landed on the moon as well, it couldn't oxidize, although maybe the color change wasn't oxidization after all. Surely it didn't hit the moon as well, and not the entire near side, which was facing towards the Earth when all this hit us. That would mean the whatever we passed through was vastly large -- unimaginably large. It meant the worst. This was everywhere.

"At least it's some light," she said, and she started forward again. I followed.

We reached shore an hour or two after the moon passed its zenith. The alien layer was rumpled up in great ridges on the beach, presumably pushed there with the tide. We climbed over, and up towards where the highway should be. There was some tall wild grass poking up here and there, and I felt immense relief.

We rested at the edge of the blanketed road. We slept briefly out of exhaustion, curled up together, and woke to the sunrise. Even though we were in the tropics, it was a little cold. I hoped it was just my perception and not some permanent change in the climate. My stomach complained, and my head desperately desired some coffee. I stood and stretched, surveying the ocean surface. It was good that we decided to leave when we did. Over the ocean, the layer had grown fuzzy. Black tendrils extended a few feet straight up. The tendrils were only the thickness of grass blades, round, not flat, but they had nodules in several places up along their length. They looked like joints, and occasionally the tendrils accordioned at the nodules. The jerky motion made it look like they were trying to push themselves further up. Who knows.

Over land, the layer was just dry, crusty, and brown. I was hoping it was decaying. She stood up next to me, and slid on the aviators. She looked over the ocean.

"Interesting," she said.

"Yeah. We should probably head inland before those things turn into ravenous three-headed space monsters." The corner of her mouth twitched slightly at that.

Down along the road I saw something moving. I nudged her to look. We waited and watched. It was a man, another human. We both waved at him. He stopped for a moment, then waved back and came running up.

"Hey!" he shouted excitedly.

"Hey there," I said. He was an older man, portly, local. He had a big grin on his face.

"Isn't this just amazing," he stated, his smile widening. He held out his hand and we shook it in turn.

"How'd you survive?" she asked.

"I have a basement, that's how. Not many houses around here have one, but I made sure my house did when I built it. How'd you survive?"

"We were out at sea," I said.

"We stayed underwater in our scuba gear when they hit," she said, subtly taking credit for the idea.

"Wow, you must have been far out there. It's pretty shallow for a ways out."

"Yeah, we walked here last night," I said.

"Well, I'll be. That crust held your weight?" We both nodded. He eyes grew big, and his grin wider. Clearly, this was the most entertaining thing that had ever happened to him.

"Come on then." He started walking back the way he came, motioning us to follow. As we walked, he continued speaking. "We've got a sort of shelter at the elementary school. Running water, can you believe it? Don't know how long that will last though. We've got food too. Electricity's knocked out though. I guess that's to be expected." She stopped dead.

"To be expected?!" She yelled. The man stopped and turned to look at her, slightly confused.

"Oh," he said, "well you know what I mean." He started walking again. She followed, but was noticeably beginning to sulk.

"Did you happened to catch any news coverage of what was happening before the electricity cut out?" I asked.

"No, I didn't. I was out fishing when it started. Someone at the school said they heard something about it, but basically know one here really knows what happened."

"It's pretty obvious what happened," she said. The man was beginning to look a little tired with her.

"How many people are at the shelter?" I asked.

"Oh, about a hundred I'd say. Those of us who can are out looking for more survivors. There's a sort of plan to clear this stuff away. I guess we'll try to throw it, uh, onto the ocean or something. We tried burning it already, but it's not very flammable."

We walked along in silence, the dried crust crunching beneath our feet.

"It seems like it'll get all Lord of the Flies really quickly," she said.

"Huh?" He looked confused again. I wasn't sure if he got the reference.

"That many people, limited food. We're going to be on top of each other in no time. There will be problems," she clarified. He stopped and turned to face her.

"I don't know how you people live on the mainland, but out here we help each other. We work together, and we share. Keep that in mind." He started walking again.

"Sorry," she said meekly. I put her arm around me, and we headed off.

"I think we can make it," I said, "this might be survivable." In a way, it was a relief. It seemed like a potentially unpleasant future, but it was something new and different. I didn't have to be me anymore, I didn't have to uphold that rich-kid facade. Maybe I was just delusional.

"Yeah," he said. "We are like cock-a-roaches!" He laughed. "We'll survive. You can be sure of that." The man started whistling.

She reached down for my hand, and we walked together.

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