By Sean Monaghan
Night came quickly out this way. Always did.
It felt like the sun blasted the desert clean all day, as if some spectacular furnace was set on high and aimed right at this one spot before dropping off the side of the world.
I’d been here sixteen years now, at altitude, watching the sun pass overhead each day. When I arrived they called me Mr. Harding, but now I’m just Fex. I guess I can fix your stuff up better than most. Take a look at whatever’s ailing and tweak here and there and you’re good to go. Tractors, well-pumps, shoes, bearings, metal detectors, phones, watches, flashlights, kids’ toys, medical equipment, televisions, refrigerators. Practically anything that can break down, I can get going again. Kind of a useful skill three hundred miles from anywhere.
Tonight I was scratching my head looking at the thing that’s planted itself right in the middle of young Tessa’s solar collector. Really not sure if I’d be able to fix this one.
“Maybe you gotta come back in the morning?” Tessa said to me. “Can’t collect any solar energy this time of day anyhow.” She nodded at the quickly vanishing scrapes of red on the horizon, clouds, and contrails. Tessa was twenty-three, but she ran the little farm like an old hand. She had a thousand acres clean and eighty-seven head of buffalo-sheep. Moved them around, and kept the pasture fresh.
Couldn’t say I knew the first thing about ranching, but I did know some people who had land in better shape than hers but couldn’t manage more than one head every twenty five acres. Some of the real old timers muttered about when you could run one to one, animal to acre, but those were different times.
Things are quieter these days. Fewer people around, less stuff to break down. I might have to shift down to Mexico or Florida, into the heat and ocean to see if I can’t make a better living. Can’t make the break though, just can’t let go. So I stick around here, trying to keep things ticking over. Shoot a few deer from time to time, not for sport, but to fill the freezer. I wouldn’t have done that five years ago, but now? Well, a man’s got to eat.
Walking around the solar collector, I tried to get other angles on the thing in the middle. It looked like it’d fallen from a height with the way it had bashed a hole in the middle of the unit. My flashlight picked up bits of machinery and rock and, oddly, something that looked like fur. It was as if a meteorite hit a UAV on the way down and then landed on a skunk.
“I think I’ll work on it tonight, anyway,” I told Tessa. “You’ll want the collector up and running first thing.” Cattle prices were low again, and she’d already sent some off to slaughter at a loss. She was going to need power to keep drawing moisture from the ground and air to keep her herd hydrated.
“I’ll put on the coffee,” she said. “You want something to eat?”
Tessa’s cooking was on the average side — I could cook better myself — but I hadn’t eaten since breakfast “Won’t say no.”
Tessa smiled her wide toothy smile. “I’ll nuke something.” She turned and went into her big adobe place. I remembered that some of the house’s corners had cracks and could do with patching. She’d asked about it a couple of months back and I hadn’t gotten onto it. In a way she wouldn’t have wanted me to. Deferred maintenance. Putting off the non-essential stuff until she could get things squared away. I would have done the work free, on account of our friendship, but she wouldn’t have allowed that.
I turned back to the solar collector and reached over to try to pull out the thing. My hand slipped on something rubbery and I pulled back. Something in the middle of the collector assembly squeaked. The sound was just audible.
Stepping back, I crouched and shone the flashlight beam around under the collector, in between the support poles and cabling. The thing had burst through the bottom, but only just. Fragments of fuzz dangled. I stretched out, reaching to grab it and jerked back, rewarded with an electric shock for my efforts.
I heard crackling.
It hadn’t been a big shock — maybe twenty or so volts — but I was sure it wasn’t from the collector. I was a long way from the capacitors and the battery and the unit had effectively shut down for the night. I glanced at the sky, seeing the stars and glints from the usual collection of scudding habitats.
Standing, I backed away from the collector and looked the thing over again. In a way I thought Tessa might be right: It would be easier in the light of day.
Darned if I was going to let the thing beat me.
I got my ladder from the truck and propped it up. Before I got up on it I used my voltage meter to check if there was any current in the ladder or any of the exposed metal or the solar collector. Dead as a fencepost.
Tessa called over to ask if I wanted white in my coffee and I called back, asking if that was any way to treat a perfectly good cup of coffee.
She laughed. “Black then.”
“You got it.”
When it came, it was bitter and strong and I still hadn’t made any progress with the collector. I had gotten myself a couple more shocks.
“Something fell off an airplane, you think?” Tessa said, sipping on her own cup.
“Strangest thing I’ve ever seen fall off of a plane.”
“Really, what kinds of things you seen then? Falling from planes.” Her grin about split her face.
“Some suitcases, bathroom supplies, you know. Livestock, usually. Pigs mostly, since they’re the worst fliers.”
“Oh, I hear you.”
I could see a kind of depression in the side of the thing, in a part that was less stone- or fur-like and was clearly machine. The hollow looked almost like a handle, as if I could reach right in with my fingertips and pull a part of it open.
“Shouldn’t you ought to wear gloves, maybe?” Tessa said. She’d heard me yelping when I’d received the shocks.
“Got some in the truck.”
“Wait right there.” Tessa set her cup on the stony ground and trotted over to the truck. I yelled at her to look in the glove compartment or under the passenger seat.
“Why wouldn’t they be in the glove compartment?” she called back.
With the gloves on I reached again and pulled. A section of the thing’s side shifted out and twisted around.
“Well, look at that,” Tessa said.
On the far side something else was going on. I could hear a ratcheting sound, like a loose bearing in a chainsaw. Shining my light around, I saw panels and rods sliding out from the back of the thing. Right in front of me a part of it lighted up with a string of green beads.
“Huh, Christmas,” Tessa said.
I barely heard the bang that came with the next shock. The jolt threw me off the ladder.
When I came to, Tessa was standing over me and I could feel a big chunk of rock digging into my back.
“Fex? You all right?”
Groggy, I sat up. “Sure.” My feet still stung from the shock. “I guess I was going about that all wrong.”
She helped me to my feet. The skin on her hands was surprisingly soft for someone who works fencing and wrangling steers. I held on for a moment.
Tessa gave me a sly smile and pulled her hands away. “I’m going to need a new collector.” She shone my flashlight around and I saw the wreckage.
The panel had split in two. Each half lay canted on its support frame. Liquid kuqurnout bled, dripping from the jagged tips of the break. The liquid pooled in the irregular depressions in the sand.
Nothing I could do now, clever as I was.
It reminded me of the time a young Ellis Crenshaw had drained his own collector, planning to filter the fluid and pour it back in. No one had ever told him that the solar collectors were set up to drain by forcing in fresh kuqurnout at the top nipple. Sure it’s possible to filter and reuse the stuff, but the coils have to be kept fresh. You can’t let them dry out. Poor kid, got the thing empty and couldn’t do anything but listen as the internals popped and crackled under the force of the naked sun. Set his family back two months, and eventually they just moved on. Tokyo, I’d heard, but stories have a way of magnifying. They may never have even gotten past Denver.
This was as bad. Maybe worse.
I looked at Tessa and saw in her eyes that she knew right away. She gave me a half-hearted smile. “I guess there ain’t nothing even you can do about something as busted as that.”
I simply nodded.
The thing that had made the collector split in half had fallen over, back through the gap between the busted pieces. It was bigger. When I’d touched it, something had … I don’t know … activated it? The thing was at least twice the girth and twice the height. The individual sections — the patches of fur, exposed machine and other textures — hadn’t grown themselves, but there were more of them. It made a chirping-clicking sound like a locust or cicada.
“Like a cell getting ready to divide,” Tessa said.
I wondered what made her say that. Like anyone, I’d done basic biology in school, so I knew what she meant in general terms. The process wasn’t something I understood in any detail, but I hoped what she said wasn’t true. That would be like some kind of infestation: this thing dividing into two, then four, eight and so on up to the sixty-fourth square on the chessboard, which was more than all the rice in China, if I remembered the legend correctly.
My mother had read to me from an old paper and card book, tattered and yellowed. It had stories from around the world.
The king of China — or maybe it was Japan — refused to pay an artist in gold for many months of work, so the artist suggested payment in rice to fill a chess board. One grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and so on, doubling with each square. The king agreed, thinking the artist a fool, but quickly learned that doubling grows numbers very quickly.
At least that’s how I remember it, fifty-something years later.
“We’d better kill it,” Tessa said.
I had my double-barreled .303 in the truck.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I think that’s worth a try.” I still hadn’t figured out how we were going to take care of her solar collector. It would take a month to get something shipped up from Minneapolis or Kansas City.
I went closer to the thing. It smelled milky, a little sour, maybe with a tinge of vanilla. An odd, sickly smell that was kind of pleasant. Weird.
“Careful,” Tessa said. “Don’t get too close again.”
“I’m going to get my gun.”
I load my own ammunition. Trader Bill has contacts in Newtown who import manufactured ammunition out of Europe via New York, but I trust my own loading.
I got the gun, checked it over, loaded a round into the chamber and shot the thing. As I pulled the trigger it occurred to me that this might cause some exponential division.
There had been mutations and problems all over. Various governments blamed the experiments of other governments. The conspiracy people blamed space programs for bringing back hybrid life forms from the stars. Lots of places spent lots of money cleaning up the messes.
Out here, though, we always seemed at a far enough remove from those real-world problems. Mostly what we dealt with were regular things, like getting enough water and things breaking down.
The furry, stony, mechanical thing jerked when the buckshot hit it.
“Don’t think you killed it,” Tessa said.
The thing sprouted legs.
“Uh-oh,” Tessa said.
I was already running for the truck. I grabbed the tarp from the bed of the truck and headed back, thinking that the best thing to do might be to just get in the truck and hightail it.
The thing had managed to get itself upright on four legs. They were spindly, roddy legs, like the arms on one of those industrial robots.
“Space probe,” Tessa said. “Probably Russian.”
The thing tottered like a newborn calf just getting used to its legs. It made whining, ratcheting sounds as it moved. Some lights rippled up the side of it, blue and orange and white.
“Better shoot it again?” I was worried it was going to run off into the dark and that would be the last we’d see of it. Until we started finding slaughtered animals from Tessa’s herd.
“Maybe not.” I threw the tarp over top of the thing.
It stopped moving around, but the tarp shivered like a curtain drawn too fast. I smelled something like cooked goose. It was a long time since I’d eaten goose, but that was a distinct odor.
A hole appeared in the tarp. About the size of my palm. I wasn’t sure if the hole was burned or cut. Light beamed out, blue and misty. There was no dust or vapor in the air, but the beam itself was visible.
“Better not let that touch you,” Tessa said. “Look what it did to the tarp.”
I thought that we probably ought to call someone. Maybe we should have done that the moment we’d first seen the thing.
I didn’t rightly know who, anyway. Old Ted Andrews, the local sheriff I supposed. Closest thing to authority around here.
The thing had gone still, though the beam still lanced out from the side. I stuck the barrel of the gun in the light and right away saw the metal surface begin to blister. “Some light,” I said.
“We should get out of here,” Tessa said. I could hear the resignation in her voice. Like she was ready to give up the place, let this invader take over. I could remember when her father had died, out on the range. That had been only a year or two after I’d arrived. Tessa would have been maybe eleven or twelve. Too young to lose a father, but things had worked out for her. She’d grown up quick, worked hard. In the first year or two she’d used her father’s good name to keep things going. The ranch hands who would never have taken an order from a pre-teen girl had bowed to her wishes. I’d seen it on occasion. Not quite manipulation, but certainly she knew how to emotionally twist things. They didn’t quite feel sorry for her, but she used her youthful vulnerability to move things along.
Before anyone knew it, she was sixteen and doing most of the work herself.
Out at all hours of the night, repairing fences, birthing breach calves, chasing off coyotes. She knew when to stick around and when to gracefully withdraw.
This felt like a moment to flee.
“Get in the truck,” I said.
“I…” Tessa ducked as the blue beam swung around. It lit on my pickup and right away the steel tailgate began bubbling and cracking.
I took a step toward it.
“It heard you,” Tessa said.
“Where’s your truck?”
The beam swept down at the rear wheel. The tire exploded with a bang. Further along the bodywork blistered and caught alight.
“I’m not going to answer that.” Tessa backed away.
Another tire blew out.
The beam shut off.
Tessa turned and ran. She headed right for the machine shed where the tractors and trailers were. I think she even had a backhoe in there.
“Stop,” I shouted after her. If the thing could understand what we were talking about, maybe it could understand intentions.
Tessa took a few more steps and slowed. But it was too late.
The thing tottered around and shucked off the tarp. The beam reached out, speeding right by Tessa’s shoulder and tearing a wide hole in the side of the wooden shed. Something inside there caught fire and exploded, sending a gout of flame back out the new hole. Tessa stumbled, fell to the ground.
While the space machine was distracted, I stepped back toward my truck. Both rear tires were blown, and the paintwork half-burned away, but the singed paint had stopped burning. I opened the driver’s door as quietly as I could. The clunk sounded like gunfire to me.
The machine still kept moving around, though the beam had shut off again. It was moving toward Tessa. She was still kneeling on the ground.
“Are you all right?” I shouted, worried I was going to attract too much attention.
“No,” she said. She turned to face me. In the dim half-light from the burning shed she looked bereft and in pain.
I got into the driver’s seat.
The key turned, but the motor didn’t catch.
Tessa yelled something incoherent. I didn’t have time to look around.
I threw the truck into reverse and turned the key again. The starter motor whined and the whole vehicle lurched backwards, carried by the electric charge. I thumped the clutch down and kept the key turned. With the truck still jerking on the tire stubs, the engine started.
“Watch out!” Tessa shouted.
In the rearview mirror I saw the machine. It had a string of lights around, like it had been wrapped in a spiral of Christmas lights and was trying to disguise itself as a tree. I could see the blue beam. It turned, almost reaching out for me.
I released the clutch and jammed my foot down on the accelerator. The wheels spun in the loose earth. I kept my foot down. The back window shattered. Blue light played across the dash.
I swung the wheel, pulling back and forth. The truck was still moving, but I seemed to have no traction at all. The center console started to soften and drip, melting away.
If it hadn’t burned away my back tires, I would have been able to run the thing down with the truck. But right now I was running out of time and losing headway.
I heard another sound, and looked up in time to see a sudden flare of headlights. Right in front of my hood.
The other vehicle rammed me, driving me back.
I practically went over the wheel and through the windshield.
Tessa. Driving her truck.
I kept the gas on in mine.
I felt heat on my neck, like when you step out from shade into the full blast of the summer sun. The beam must have shifted.
Tessa kept her foot down, shunting my truck backwards. My hood burst up. It flipped against the windshield and slammed back down, breaking the hood mounts. Knowing what she was doing I kept my boot on the gas.
My tailgate struck the machine, knocking it down. If shooting it had made it more active what would this do?
I felt like we had no choice.
The truck lurched up as it knocked the thing over. The chassis crunched and scraped as I rode up across.
There was a cracking sound and the trucks jerked to a stop. My radiator hissed, vapor rising up in the light from the one working headlight on Tessa’s truck.
“You think we got it?” she shouted.
“Sure we did.”
“I mean did we kill it?” Her door opened and she stepped out onto the dusty soil.
“Stay in the—”
The beam swung around, striking her knees. Tessa collapsed.
I jumped out my own door. Reaching over the side of the truck I grabbed the tire iron. I lay down on my side in the dust. The ground smelled scorched. I could just make out the silhouette of the machine wedged under my truck.
I swung the length of steel at the thing. The impact came as a dull metallic clunk. The machine shuddered. It tried to roll around, lifting the weight of the truck. I swung again. The thing kept coming. My truck tipped up on two wheels. If it came much further it was going to flip over on its side. With me underneath.
I jammed the sharp end of the tire iron into one of the holes in the machine.
I got a jolt of electricity right through the iron. My arm went numb.
“Got it, got it,” Tessa yelled.
I rolled, grabbed the iron with my left arm and jabbed at the thing again.
This time I must have hit it just right. The iron jinked a little and went clear through the machine. Something sighed and the truck fell back onto the remains of its wheels.
Rolling over, I sat up. My right arm was still numb. It hung uselessly against my side. I staggered around the truck and found Tessa. She lay where she’d fallen. For a moment I was worried that she’d been killed, but as I approached, she lifted her head.
“You killed it?” she said.
“Maybe.” I looked at my truck. There was no light coming from underneath it. The smell of burning herbs drifted around, as if someone was making a steak roast and had left it running too long.
“Maybe we should get out of here?” she said. “We should take my truck. It’s in better shape.”
“Good idea.” I didn’t know who was going to drive: My arm was only now starting to regain sensation and I doubted it would come right soon, and her legs were obviously hurt.
“A fine pair we make,” she said as I helped her up.
“You work the gears,” I said. “I’ll steer.”
Tessa managed the briefest of laughs. “Okay then.”
We got in the truck and awkwardly headed for town. The truck rattled and groaned. I figured we’d drive straight to the sheriff and let him come out here and sort it all out. He’d know what kind of rocketry gizmo it was, or would at least know whom to call.
“I guess I won’t be going back,” Tessa said.
“Not for a while, at least.”
“Not ever. I’ve been wondering anyhow, for a while now. It’s getting harder to make a go of it out here. Been thinking of moving south.”
“South?” I said.
“Sure. Maybe Oaxaca or just Mexico City. Maybe the drowned glades.”
The truck rumbled over the rough ground of her access road. I pictured her off in a boat, chasing alligators or manatees. It had its appeal.
“Maybe,” she said, “you’d like to come along.”
I glanced at her, saw her looking back at me, face half-silhouetted in the backwash from the single headlight.
I gave her a smile. “Maybe I would.”
Sean Monaghan lives in a small rural New Zealand city, with a lush (some would say overgrown) garden. His science fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Perihelion and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. He was awarded the Grand Prize in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. Web: seanmonaghan.com