“If we hadn’t gotten there in time, who knows what kind of ‘big fish’ tabloid tale this might have turned into,” Director Galingale said as she scanned her card for the secure lower level elevator.
Dietrich followed the Director into the elevator, still encumbered with his carry-on. An hour before, he had come out of the airport with no clue why he’d been summoned back to headquarters with such urgency. He had been on a research trip to Europe, where he’d gone to procure more primary texts for their general research division. Now he felt the familiar excitement and nervousness at the prospect of encountering a new being or entity.
“How did you find it—him?” he asked.
“One of our special assets was used, and that’s all I was told,” the Director said. “That and the fact that you were specifically requested.”
Before Dietrich could ask why, the elevator doors opened and the Director rushed him down a well-lit corridor at the end of which was an airlock style door guarded by two agents in maroon uniforms. And though the Director had described what he would be seeing beyond those doors, the sight still took Dietrich’s breath away.
A ring of light below the cylindrical tank illuminated its inhabitant, the Agency’s newest acquaintance and perhaps their newest ally.
Dietrich stepped toward the tank and peered at the creature, the being, inside. Dietrich was told the being was most certainly male and he resembled a squid. A torpedo-shaped body sat atop a mass of waving arms and tentacles. He was twice the size of Dietrich. His eyes were bigger than Dietrich’s hands. He was a vivid shade of indigo blue with streaks of violet and lavender and some green freckling under his eyes.
Those eyes. They followed Dietrich. They seemed to widen, and he felt a faint sense of relief and well-being. Dietrich grinned. He wanted to put his hand up to the glass, but he resisted. He’d been warned not to touch anything on that sub-level. And having had more than his fair share of run-ins with dangerous and unpredictable objects, he was keen on following that particular order. At least he didn’t have to wear an all-hazards suit. It had been a month already since the creature had been found and that was the Agency’s standard quarantine window for unknown biologicals.
“Mars Dietrich, meet our guest.”
“Is he comfortable in there?” Dietrich asked, gauging the size of the tank.
Director Galingale chuckled. “One of the first things we tried to convey to him was that we’d get him a much bigger tank when we could formulate enough water to fit his specific needs. And one of the first things he told us was that he was fine and dandy in that little tank. He’s traveled a long way through vast open spaces. He says the tank feels cozy.”
“How have you been communicating with him?” He turned to the Director. “Telepaths?” The Agency had some telepaths. No one at Dietrich’s level would know how many or how powerful they were. It was a dangerous and fearful ability to have, especially in a secretive organization. He had heard rumors that the Agency was working on ways to dampen or cancel the ability, so it could be…regulated.
“I’m not at liberty to say. In any case, Lovecraft over there has managed to get enough of a coherent message across to make us worry that he’s not here just to say ‘hello’ and make our acquaintance.”
“He doesn’t seem to have a name, so everyone is calling him whatever they want in unofficial conversation. His official temporary designation is Epsilon-429.”
Dietrich started. Epsilon. That was the designation given to extraterrestrial organisms. He suppressed the urge to ask. The Director handed him a tablet and told him that all he needed to know and was authorized to know was on that tablet, including his current assignment.
“Long story short,” the Director said. “Epsilon-429 can only communicate in images and emotions. He seems to be trying to tell us that Earth was warned, long ago, so that we would have time to prepare for some catastrophe that’s coming soon and may have started already. What this catastrophe is, we can’t quite make out yet. And naturally there are some who are calling our guest’s intentions into question.”
“I know I just met him but my gut says he’s benign.” Dietrich suspected part of his trusting feelings came from the gentle waves of well-being he felt in the alien’s presence. They were likely psychic, not chemical, as the containment tank would have blocked biological and chemical signals. If Epsilon-429 was a social being, such an adaptation made sense for the purpose of bonding. But it might also mean the doubters had reason to suspect. Such an ability could also be used to mask deception. But Dietrich wasn’t just relying on his higher emotions. As he’s stated, he had a gut feeling.
The Director nodded. “Much as I would like to believe your gut, we need more. What he’s asking us to do is…impossible actually, as things stand now. We need to find proof.”
“Proof of what? I’ll help, of course. But I don’t get it, ma’am. This seems like a job for the cosmic division. Why am I here? Who is it that requested me?” He wasn’t even the best of his division. He was far too interested in everything to become an expert in any one thing.
“Find proof of this early warning he’s talking about in the literature or oral traditions. It’s not in our histories. I’m not at liberty to answer your other questions, Agent. And this is not a voluntary assignment. You’re to drop everything and get on it. If you want anyone else on your team just name them and they’re yours. And don’t worry. You’re not alone. The science teams and the language experts are studying 429. But so far, they say that he is trying to tell humanity to do what it cannot do, flee the planet.”
“I’m hoping you’ll be able to help with that too. What he’s conveying so far doesn’t make much sense. ‘The end of truth’ is the best translation. But we’re not confident on that.”
Dietrich frowned. He could understand the hubbub over the alien in the tank, even if that alien hadn’t brought a doomsday message with him. But he still didn’t quite understand how he had gotten involved.
“If I have questions,” he asked, glancing at the tank. “Will I be able to ask him?”
The Director nodded and at the same time a voice burst from hidden speakers in the ceiling.
“It would be a pleasure to speak with you directly, Agent Dietrich.”
Dietrich raised his brows and stared at Epsilon-429.
The Director glanced up at the ceiling and gave Dietrich a tight-lipped smile. “That wasn’t him. That was the…translator. You’ve been granted full access to 429.”
When the Director gave him the short version of the longer story, Dietrich had expected much more detail in the contents of the tablet. Details that would help him start hunting down references. Maybe even something that would trigger a memory of some story he’d read. He was familiar with so many legends, tall tales, myths and versions of myths, fables, and fairy stories. “The end of the world” was too general a concept to go on.
So for the first week, he spent every day with Epsilon-429. Though he had full access, he was always chaperoned by a nameless agent who monitored the conversation. That was understandable. If the fate of the planet was at stake and the alien was the only one who had any insight that could help them avoid whatever doom was coming, then someone had to make sure Dietrich didn’t say anything that might worsen the situation, like accidentally insulting their cosmic guest. The limited number of other agents and technicians who had access to the alien were likewise watched and monitored.
The alien kept referring to himself as a messenger. So Dietrich gave him a name, Hermes, after the Greek messenger god. It was preferable to calling him an alphanumeric. Through the disembodied voice that came from the ceiling they spoke, and Hermes did his best to convey details.
From what Dietrich gathered, there was a vessel that arrived on Earth long ago. It was not sent by Hermes’ people but by another race. They were coming to warn and to help. There was a problem with the vessel. A technical malfunction likely and it crashed. It had been aimed at a continent on Earth that was inhabited by ancient humans.
The translator must have been getting better. Most of the questions Dietrich asked were ones that someone had already asked Hermes and ones that Hermes had answered and the translator, whoever or whatever that was, had tried to translate. But instead of general notions of catastrophe from the skies, Dietrich was starting to get some details.
Hermes had been sent to Earth not only to warn but to gain knowledge. What he was warning them about was already happening somewhere else. Somewhere near his home. He and his people had fled the planets they inhabited. But whatever it was they fled from seemed to be spreading like a plague. They had heard legends about a few races throughout the known inhabited worlds who had managed to fend off the catastrophe. Whether or not these stories were true, Hermes and others like him had been sent to find out. One of the resistant races from their legends was human beings, or so it seemed.
Hermes continued to urge them to evacuate the planet just in case. Dietrich and the others who spoke to Hermes had to explain again and again that they could not. They didn’t have the technology. Hermes didn’t seem to understand or accept that a race he had expected to be mighty seemed so helpless.
“Are there no gods that can protect you?” The disembodied voice asked one day. And while the voice of the translator conveyed no emotion, Dietrich felt desperation emanating from the tank. Hermes meant higher beings who were capable of transporting them away. His own people had been guided by another race from beyond their solar system. And Hermes seemed to be feeling guilt and pity.
“All right, that’s enough,” the ceiling voice said. “I’ve had it.”
Dietrich widened his eyes and looked at Hermes, suddenly worried that their guest had given up on them. It took him a moment to realize that the irritation in the voice was not coming from Hermes. It was coming from the owner of the voice.
The airlock door to the chamber suddenly opened and before the guards outside and inside the chamber could stop him, a rather large gentleman stormed into the room and marched up to Dietrich.
“This is how we should be working,” the man said. “Face to face.”
The guards were trying to “sir, this way” the man and corral him out of the room, but he wasn’t having it. Dietrich felt waves of amusement coming from Hermes.
Dietrich presumed that the man was the translator.
He turned to one of the guards and pointed at Dietrich. “You can’t give the man clearance to one thing and not the other. How’s he supposed to put the puzzle together when he doesn’t have all the pieces?” He turned back toward Dietrich and stuck out his hand. “I’m Ben.”
“Sir!” one of the guards warned.
Ben sighed as Dietrich took his hand. “That means I’ve already said too much, so you won’t get my last name this time, Agent. Sorry about that.”
“Mars Dietrich. But you know that already. Most people just call me Dietrich.”
“Why? I’d make people call me ‘Mars’ if that was my first name.”
Dietrich smiled. He had one of his gut feelings about this mysterious translator.
Ben shifted his gaze to the guard. “I’ll be careful what I say.” Then shifted it back to Dietrich. “I’m the ‘special asset’ your Director told you about. I found my buddy in there floating in the—“
“—in some undisclosed body of water. Long story short, I can hear his thoughts. But I don’t know his language and he doesn’t know mine—ours. We’re working on that. He’s learning faster than I am. In the meantime, he’s giving me images and emotions. You’re probably getting some of that from him.”
Dietrich nodded and Ben continued speaking, the nervous guard standing behind him.
“This catastrophe he keeps talking about. It’s frustrating because I don’t know what he’s showing me. I can’t…” He frowned and shook his head. “Maybe if you saw it, you’d understand. You’re the expert after all.”
“You’re giving me too much credit. But…it would be helpful to communicate directly.”
“I have an idea,” Ben said. “It won’t be dangerous, I don’t think. But it may not work. And even if it does, it sure as hell will be unpredictable and possibly pointless.”
“What I can do…it doesn’t work on people. At least I didn’t think so, but I’ve had some…well it seems that I may be able to do it if a person is sleeping.”
“Because conscious brain functions are turned off?”
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “That’s been suggested, but I’m no scientist. We’ve been discussing it.” Here he turned toward Hermes. “We may be able to include another mind in our conversation. Like a three-way phone call. It’s hard to figure out if you don’t know what buttons to push. But once you do, everyone hears what everyone else is saying.”
“Only one of those ‘everyones’ is asleep.”
Ben nodded. “I think you’d figure out what to look for in your research or archives or whatever much faster if you could just talk to him directly.”
Dietrich felt a slight excitement rising in his gut. “I agree.”
“Only problem is that the powers-that-be haven’t approved it because some of them are still afraid of Epsilon-429 over here.” He pointed his thumb at Hermes.
“My boss calls him Lovecraft, after the author. Ever heard of him?”
Ben winced. “Lovecraft? Yikes, I’m pretty sure he would be insulted if he understood that reference. He seems to think of himself as a regular guy, easy to talk to and get along with, open book personality, that sort of thing. That’s part of the reason his people sent him.”
“Well it’s good to know he’s not some ancient cosmic horror.”
“From what I can tell, he’s about my age. I think he has a family out there too.” Ben looked wistful for just a blink.
“What is his name?” Dietrich asked.
“I don’t think he has one,” Ben said. “Because of how his people communicate, they don’t really have names. It’s not as long and complicated a thing to convey ‘my brother’s sister-in-law’ through telepathy as it is through words. He likes the name you gave him though.” Ben raised a brow then shook his head. “Really puffed up his ego.”
After two months with little to show for it from all the studying and research and interviews with Hermes, the “powers that be,” as Ben called them, agreed to the plan to link Dietrich’s mind with Hermes. Dietrich suspected they were eager for an agent to have direct contact with Hermes. He wasn’t allowed to ask and Ben wasn’t allowed to say, but Ben seemed to be more of a consultant than an agent.
Dietrich, Ben, and Hermes were hooked up with every kind of monitoring device known to the Agency as they began their first attempt. Dietrich drifted off into sleep and even as he did, he began to hear the voice of his alien friend.
A calamity rode on the stars and dropped from the heavens to the earths.
There are destructive creatures in the world, ones that drink blood and eat souls. There are destructive forces in the world, ones that suck everything into their maws, whirlpools, black holes. But this thing is worse than all. Some might say it isn’t. Some long for nothingness. Some would be just fine with ceasing to exist once they were dead. Not me. I long for there to be more beyond the veil of death. I have a wonderful life and yet I want to learn more, be more, see more. I don’t know if I will. But I do know that if what I’ve learned about this creature is true, then we are, all of us, doomed. Not to a slow extinction. But to utter annihilation.
We would cease to be. We would never have been. And we would never be again. Nothing we had ever done or suffered or felt or knew would mean anything. It would all be gone.
When Dietrich woke from the nightmare vision, he was sweating profusely. He blinked his eyes but could see nothing. He sat up and felt a slight nausea and a pressure at the front of his head. Not a headache yet, just pressure behind his right eye. His stomach was roiling. He called for water and when someone handed him a glass he poured it over his head.
He felt hands on him and he begged them to let go. He felt so hot, so stifled. He heard voices, but they sounded hollow, distant. His vision began to return. His body cooled and he began to breathe more slowly, more deeply.
Ben was down too, lying on a cot, groaning. There were half a dozen agents surrounding Hermes with their weapons drawn.
Dietrich felt a wave of fear and anxiety coming from his alien friend. It didn’t help his condition any, but he waved to the guards to stand down. They didn’t listen.
Neither he nor Ben could put into words what they had experienced in their shared dream. Hermes had spoken. He had conveyed images, concepts, stories, emotions, and other perceptions that had overwhelmed both humans. But he had gotten enough across that Dietrich could start searching.
Dietrich used his research as an excuse to avoid meeting with Hermes for a while. He didn’t blame the alien. But he couldn’t handle the reminder of those unsettling feelings and sensations. He did speak with Ben and between what the two of them could remember, he began to see clues in their shared nightmare and in the other knowledge they had gathered from Hermes. He found the proof that the Director had been looking for, though it was scant proof. But it was related to a legend much renowned in human history.
“One account,” Dietrich said to the full room. He was in a conference room on a sub-level above where Hermes was being kept. “That’s all I could find for now with the support of my division. I don’t expect to convince you that I have confirmed Epsilon-429’s intentions and story.” He glanced at Ben, who sat in the front and gave a firm nod. “Under different circumstances, I would expect to intrigue you. But today, I’m here to entreat you. It’s only one account. Just a story. A fairy tale. But there are some serious truths in this tale.”
Dietrich had found a text written in the 1500s by a scholar who recorded a story told by a Spanish minstrel. The minstrel claimed to have learned the story from a lost source from the ancient world. That lost source was a firsthand account of what appeared to be the crash of an alien vessel, the inhabitants of which were actually dead, but who carried with them “devouring demons” who left behind only bones and ash.
Dietrich repeated the minstrel’s tale.
A young boy saw what he thought was a falling star shoot through the sky one night. It blazed through the sky so brightly that the night looked like day, and his eyes tracked the star until he saw it crash into the forest beyond the hill where he stood. Surely others had seen it and others would chase it, and perhaps they would get there first, but he would try anyway. He would find a star fallen from the heavens and bring it back to his dearest friend. Better yet, he would bring her with him, so she could see it was truly a fallen star and not some trick he was playing on her. In the sky he saw the great ringed orb that served as home and seat of the night gods. He gave a nodding prayer to it as he went to fetch his friend.
When they reached the crash site, they found not a star but what appeared to be a structure like a tree trunk made of metal. And they saw a tremendous keyhole half the height of themselves in the side of the object. Through the keyhole poured an ominous shadow of a clawed creature, and the boy and his friend hid themselves and huddled in fear as they watched. But following the shadow, casting the shadow, was a rather benign-looking creature. It appeared to be a toddler, but it moved as one who is older would move. Its gait was certain and its gestures more dexterous and graceful than that of a child who has only seen a few years of life.
The boy wanted to go forward and greet the visitor, but his friend held him back and warned him to be cautious. She was right, for as they watched, the shadowy creature leapt away from the vessel from which it had emerged and it touched a nearby oak. The oak tree grayed and wilted and turned to ash as if it had been burned, yet no flames were to be seen. As the tree crumbled to dust, the boy and girl heard the forest animals fleeing. The creature leapt and pounced on a fleeing deer, turning the deer into nothing but a pile of brittle bones and ash.
The creature leapt with awful speed and ferocity. More of its kind emerged from the vessel and they too began leaping about sucking the life from the world around them. And the boy and his friend fled back to the village to warn everyone that dark demons had invaded their land. But he was just a child, and while others had seen the bright object in the sky, none believed him when he said that he had found where it struck the ground. None believed the two children when they spoke of the horrors they had witnessed.
It did not take long for the boy’s village to fall victim to the creatures. And the creatures grew bigger and stronger as they sucked the life from everything around them. The entire continent became afflicted. There were grave sites filled with the bones of the great and terrible lizards that roamed and ruled the eastern jungles. Signs made of human skulls crossed with the long bones of the arms and legs were posted to warn people away from the lands already conquered—or rather devoured—by the invaders.
The creatures were no stronger than humans, but they were much faster. They had no trouble evading even the fastest human being. People tried to catch one so it could be studied for their weaknesses. And finally, someone succeeded. They locked the creature in a large glass box and watched it leap and run from side to side as they tried to drug it, hypnotize it, expose it to different sounds and smells.
At last, they found something that worked to slow the creature down. Lodestones. When they placed large lodestones around the glass box, the creature could not leap or run about as it normally would. It was slow, slow enough for even a human child to be able to run after it.
The people began to gather lodestones from all over the land and to build large structures and even small hand-sized stones to slow the creatures enough that they could be killed with sword and arrow and axe.
Even with the lodestones, the creatures were difficult to root out. But in time, they were all destroyed.
The people of the continent approached the vessel in which the creatures had arrived. The keyhole that the children who first discovered the vessel had described was gone. When they broke open the vessel and searched inside, they realized that the devouring creatures had not built it. They were parasites and scavengers. They had taken what another people had built and just used it. There were bones in the vessel, bones that looked like nothing any human had ever seen. But they were remains. The remains of the people whose ship had been taken and used to invade another world.
Fearful that more creatures might be hiding in the vessel, or might emerge somehow from somewhere in the vessel, the people filled it with lodestones and sank it into the ocean.
Dietrich paused. “These devouring demons, these small leaping creatures, the scholar combined the Greek words for ‘everything’ and ‘eater’ to make up a name for them, olatrogon. The eater of everything. They ate all—souls, blood, animals, trees, people and even non-living things like rocks, wood, cloth.”
Director Galingale stood and spoke. “That’s the summarized and simplified version. There are some details in the full story that give us confirmatory clues and clues about what really happened, especially after we compared notes with Epsilon-429. The ringed planet in the sky that the boy sees, that was likely Saturn. The keyhole might represent a dimensional rift or portal. The lodestones—or magnets—might refer to the entire planet’s magnetic field. We have a holding area full of a few creatures that we’re still working on identifying. One of those creatures might end up being one of these olatrogon.”
“These creatures have come to our world before,” Dietrich said. “They were brought here by accident by aliens that crash-landed here during an ancient period. Pre-ancient actually. I believe the continent in the story may be the land that would become Atlantis. The aliens were likely aiming to land there originally. And if anyone was going to defeat a foe so terrible, it would make sense for it to be a people who gave rise to a legend, one that we in this room know to be more than legend.”
There was a pause as heads bowed and brows furrowed in thought. Dietrich couldn’t feel anything from Hermes at a distance. But he saw a look of expectation on Ben’s face that he imagined was reflected in their alien friend’s face. They were in a room full of people who had the highest clearances in the world. He wondered if they had dealt with aliens before. Hermes couldn’t have been the first. Everyone seemed far too calm for him to have been their first contact with alien life.
The word of an alien and a medieval minstrel’s fairy story about life-sucking demons and the ancestors of the Atlanteans. It was the most far-fetched case Dietrich had ever been involved in. And the defeat of the olatrogon in the minstrel’s story seemed far, far too easy. There were so many pieces of the puzzle missing. He felt the need to say more. They needed these people’s approval to get the best resources and expertise in the world. To go beyond the Agency, perhaps even beyond their world, for help.
“Some friendly folks from beyond the stars tried and failed to warn us once,” he said. “Whether out of malice or just survival, these olatrogon are a bane to all life, all existence of any kind. Another alien friend has come to warn us. And this time, he has succeeded in his mission. It’s up to us now to figure out how to save ourselves from a danger that is far beyond our usual wheelhouse.”
A wizened old gentleman from the back of the room rose. He gave a single nod of his head. “Proceed.”
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.