by Ben Lees
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Rebekah had never really noticed how quiet Alex Wolfe was before. But then again, she found herself thinking, if he had been less quiet she would probably have noticed him more before now. And then there would have been no reason to think he was so quiet, because he wouldn’t be. There was probably a name for things which looped back around like that. She’d have to get online when she got home and look it up; it might make a subject for a future article for her blog.
Thinking about it now, she realised there was actually a lot she didn’t know about Alex in general. They had known each other for about three years, ever since she had started at the primary school after her family moved to the village. Apart from the usual school business, however, they had never had very much to do with each other, which was probably why he had looked so surprised when she had appeared at his front door asking him to help her with an article for her blog. But then, she told herself, he was a little more noticeable now after the last few days.
It had been over a week now since the meteorites had fallen. For some reason that no one could really explain they had fallen in large groups, almost all of them landing on major cities in Europe and North America. One of the exceptions was the smaller shower that had fallen several hours after the others on her small village in the north of Scotland.
The strike itself had been terrifying; the sky cracked with deafening explosions overhead which were then drowned out by more explosions on the ground as the rocks hit and shattered. It had been what she imagined an earthquake would be like. Rebekah’s house hadn’t been hit but plenty of others hadn’t been so lucky; a few buildings were damaged so badly they would probably have to be demolished. The meteorites had fallen at an angle that brought them in over the hill that sat on the edge of the village and luckily the side of the hill away from the village seemed to have taken some of the impacts or the damage would have been even worse.
And Alex had been right on top of the hill when the strike had come. There had been massive confusion immediately after the explosions had stopped but it eventually became clear that he was among the missing. Someone reported that they had seen him heading in the direction of the hill but, despite a search, nothing was seen or heard of him for most of the day until – to the massive relief of his parents – he turned up at his home by himself.
Alex claimed he didn’t remember much about what happened after the strike, just that he had decided to find somewhere to hide until he was absolutely sure it was safe again. Apart from that he hadn’t said much about what had happened.
And, quiet as he was, he still wasn’t saying much now as together they climbed to the top of the hill. Rebekah tried him again: “So what was it like up here when the strike happened?”
“Pretty scary. Like I say, I really don’t remember much about it. Everything kind of happened all at once.”
“Yeah, I was at home when it happened. I was petrified. I thought the whole house was going to come down.”
Alex didn’t reply. They carried on climbing, looking down frequently to avoid putting their feet into one of the numerous rabbit holes or stepping on any of the piles of droppings that littered the thick, clumpy grass.
The grass still had a slight reddish tinge to it from the rain that had fallen a couple of days after the meteorites. The forecast had been clear but there had been a sharp and heavy downpour which had surprised everyone – not least because the rain was the colour of blood. Apparently there had been similar showers in other areas where meteorites had fallen and some meteorologists had a theory that it was caused by the dust thrown off as they had burned their way through the atmosphere. Water droplets in the air collected around the red dust particles and fell to the ground as rain. When the water dried up the dust remained, coating everything. Still, Rebekah thought, knowing what caused it didn’t make the memory of watching the red streams flowing down the streets seem any less eerie.
They scrambled up the final stretch of steep slope that led to the more level ground towards the summit of the hill. Further up stood the short sections of wall and window that were the remains of the small medieval fort that had once looked over the surrounding landscape. Beyond it, Rebekah could see some black clouds approaching: it looked like it was going to rain.
“How long do you think this dust is going to stay around?” she said.
“Until it rains again, I suppose. Proper rain, I mean.”
“Looks like that might be soon.” She looked back at the ground. “You’d think there would be more meteorite rocks lying about, wouldn’t you?”
“Not necessarily. The ones that hit the ground weren’t really all that big, they were just going really fast and hit the ground hard. The pieces are difficult to see among all the other stuff on the ground anyway. You have to go to somewhere like the Arctic to find meteorites sometimes because they land on top of the snow.”
“Right. So they’re easier to see?”
“You seem to know a lot about it.”
“I looked it up.”
“So where do they come from?”
“Obviously,” she grinned at him, forcing him to continue.
“Yes, but there are groups of them floating around and when the Earth passes close to a group the gravity pulls a few of them towards it. This was just a group we didn’t know about.”
“Right.” Rebekah nodded, making a mental note to read up on meteorites.
They stood in silence for a while, looking over the village below them. Rebekah pondered what to say next; she wanted to get Alex to tell her more about what had happened during the meteorites but he seemed reluctant.
“So what do you usually blog about?” he asked her just as she was about to say something about the view.
“Oh, all kinds of things. Just what’s on my mind sometimes, or if I’ve been somewhere or done something interesting I’ll blog about it. And when I’m nosey about something I’ll try and find out about it and post something. I thought the meteorites might make a good story and you kind of had the closest look at them so I thought maybe you could tell what that was like.”
Alex nodded. “Like I say, I don’t really remember what happened. It’s all bit of a blur.”
“Where did you hide? Could you show me?”
“It wasn’t really in one particular place. I kept moving around. I think.”
Alex paused and looked around, thinking.
“I think I headed off to the side,” he said at last. “I’m really not sure.”
“You remember which way?”
Alex paused a second or two and then headed off to the right, leading her to the side of the ruins and down one of the less steep parts of the side slopes. As they picked their way down carefully the sunlight was abruptly replaced by shadow.
“Looks like it is going to rain,” Alex said, looking up at the clouds. “Maybe we should head home.”
“Not just yet.” Rebekah produced her phone. “I want to get a couple of pictures. Smile!”
Human beings have been recording information for thousands of years; from paintings and carvings on cave walls to digitised electronic records; from looking at the night skies and finding patterns in the stars to building and launching robotic probes into space.
Other species have been seeking and recording information for far, far longer. Their probes have travelled for much longer and reached much further than ours. And where humans have been seeking knowledge for thousands of years, others began looking even longer ago. So long ago that some of these inquisitive beings no longer exist, having evolved into an entirely different form or even become extinct.
But some of the probes they seeded live on. They drift through the vast spaces between the stars for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, hibernating until they reach the warmth of some alien sun. Then they wake, their artificial senses slowly tuning in to study their new surroundings, to look for something worth recording and transmitting back to the place they originated from.
One such probe was drawn towards a yellowish, main sequence star quite close to the edge of the galaxy, a star with planets orbiting it. Slowly it began to observe the objects it was close enough to begin to see: several large gas planets and what might be a few small, rocky worlds orbiting nearer to the star. And between the gas worlds and the rocky worlds was a large space containing a ring of smaller, rocky fragments, a ring the human race would one day name the Asteroid Belt.
The probe’s curiosity was engaged. Its artificial mind made a decision on what to investigate first, gently adjusting its direction of travel and heading slowly towards the rocky belt, shutting down most of its systems to save power and becoming dormant again until it reached its destination.
“Can I put it on my blog?” Rebekah asked, showing Alex the picture.
Alex paused for a moment. “Okay.”
“Great. Now if I can get a couple of pics of a crater or something that would look fantastic.”
Alex looked around. “How about over there?”
Collisions between small objects in space are rare but are still possible and do occur, especially in regions where small objects are more common. The probe did not become aware of the small rock fragment speeding towards it until it was too late to wake itself fully. The iron -nickel shard sliced across its side and passed on, deflected from its course and flying off and away towards empty space. The probe began a long and slow spin in the opposite direction, its main battery punctured. It was still too far from the star for its light to keep its reserve battery charged enough through its skin to keep it operating fully. Badly wounded and with only its reserve power left to wake it later, it became dormant again.
“That looks good,” said Rebekah, peering at the hole gouged in the hillside. “How fast do you think the meteorites were going when they hit?”
“I’m not sure,” said Alex. “Fast anyway. That’s why they all shattered when they hit the ground.”
“Not this one. Look.”
While violent collisions in space are relatively rare, objects drifting around the same area will, generally, begin to clump together. Even small objects have gravity and this is enough force – tiny though it is – to very gradually pull them towards each other. For the probe, the slow attraction of the asteroids it had been heading towards was enough to allow it complete its journey to join them.
With barely any power left, the probe drifted with its new companions, occasionally waking briefly to scan one of the rocks when it drifted close before becoming dormant again. For thousands of years it repeated the cycle, drifting and waking, drifting and waking, slowly drifting towards a larger clump of rocks that gravity would eventually bind into a loose asteroid.
Until something happened.
“What is that?” Rebekah asked.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look like a rock.”
The object was partly buried in the ground but looked like it was roughly the shape of an egg, about twenty centimetres high. Its surface was covered in blackened burn marks but seemed to be a dull silvery colour underneath.
“Maybe it’s a bit of a satellite or something,” Rebekah said. “Maybe a meteorite hit it and made it crash.”
“Maybe. Or maybe -”
“Look!” Rebekah exclaimed. “It moved!”
The sleeping probe was waking up fully now. There had been a major change in its environment. Empty space surrounding it had been replaced by a rich mix of mainly nitrogen and oxygen gases. The temperature had risen very substantially, as had the pull of gravity. There were significant traces of water. And – approaching fast – the probe detected a potential source of the energy it so badly needed. It was time to move.
“Rebekah, get back!” Alex shouted, grabbing her by the arm.
As he pulled her back two things happened almost simultaneously. Firstly, the object, which had been slowly tilting itself from side to side as if it was trying to free itself from the earth, flew upwards with a violent motion before coming to a sudden stop, hovering in front of them. Secondly, the rain, which had been threatening earlier, began falling heavily, hitting them with massive raindrops that almost knocked them over as they staggered away from the hovering object.
“What is that?” Rebekah yelled against the sudden noise of the downpour.
Alex shook his head and, still with his hand on her arm, moved them slowly back a step or two away from it. There was a sudden reddish flash from the object and the pair felt a brief wave of heat pass over them.
Then two more things happened, again almost simultaneously. Firstly, the object shot up into the sky – unbelievably fast from a standing start. Secondly, there was an almost simultaneous, deafening roll of thunder directly overhead accompanied by a massive flash of lightning.
Instinctively, Alex and Rebekah threw themselves flat on the ground in case the lightning came again and prayed the storm would just pass over them.
Several hundred metres above them, the probe reviewed its systems after absorbing power from the lightning’s contact with its outer skin. The main battery, although it would never be back to anywhere near its full capacity, was now partly charged, as was the reserve. With the light from the sun to provide more energy when needed, the probe now had more than enough to allow it to carry on its mission.
The data from the quick scan it had carried out once it had fully woken showed what might be two living beings below. This was the biggest discovery the probe had ever made. It had rules programmed into it in case of just such a discovery: stay hidden, gather information and transmit it home.
The probe glided away from the hill and downwards towards an empty area where it could hide and begin to properly plan its work. After so long travelling, it had a fresh purpose to its existence.
A few minutes later, and almost as suddenly as it had begun, the rain stopped as the cloud passed over. This time it was clear rain, not red. A moment later the sun came out again.
Alex spoke first: “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Rebekah raised her head, grinning nervously. “That was… intense?”
“It was.” Alex grinned back. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“What was that thing? You saw it too, right?”
He nodded. “Yes. But I don’t think anyone else’ll believe us. Maybe best to keep quiet about it.”
Rebekah paused. “Maybe. What do you think it was doing? Did it want something?”
“No, I think it was just looking at us. If it was going to do anything else I think it would have done it by now.”
Rebekah slowly raised herself up and got to her feet. She was covered in dirt and soaking from the rain.
“Look at me,” she said. “I’m filthy!”
Alex stood up beside her, wiping his hands on the legs of his jeans. “You got enough for your blog now?”
She nodded. “I’ve had enough for today, anyway. Let’s get home and cleaned up.”
They headed back down the hill in the direction of the village. As they walked and talked Rebekah found herself looking up at the sky more than usual. Whatever they had seen on the hillside and wherever it had come from, it seemed that it was just looking for information. Maybe it, or whoever had sent, it wasn’t so different from her. Somewhere, someone else was nosey too. Maybe somewhere – in some way, shape or form – they were even blogging.
Author’s note. Although this story takes place a few days after the events of my novel, A-Wolf, and also features the character of Alex Wolfe, I believe it can be read – and I hope enjoyed – on its own. You can find out a little more about Alex’s earlier adventures at: https://benlees.wordpress.com/a-wolf//a-wolf