"I do so regret, Doctor Dugan," Professor Randolph removed his glasses to polish them with a silk handkerchief, "that the authorities did not permit us to, ah, investigate the aliens more thoroughly in order to discern how they brought this plague."
Jenni Dugan looked up from the microscope through which she had been studying a tissue sample from yet another deceased victim of Alpha Mode Syndrome.
"Sir, there is no evidence to prove the aliens did bring the syndrome."
"Oh, come on!" Randolph spat, "We just haven't found the connection yet. But we might have had some answers by now if we had been allowed further--"
"We went as far as we could go! The next step would have been to cut one of them open!"
"There are hundreds of them!"
"They're not sheep, Professor, they are living creatures--"
"And each of them seems identical to the next - nobody would know if a few went missing."
Jenni shook her head, but did not reply.
Randolph's face turned stony. He replaced his glasses, and stalked off through the laboratory.
Jenni had sent data from the electronic microscope at the lab to her laptop, and sat curled up on her sofa at home to study the images when the phone rang. The noise sounded muffled, and she found the mobile in a side-table drawer. Andry did some strange things sometimes - strange to a human, anyway.Â
"Hey Jenni, it's Keith."
"Dugan? Long time no speak..." A movement out the corner of her eye: Andry. The alien had stopped dusting and watched her - its tiny black eyes so like holes in the flat, yellowish face. Many believed the creatures displayed classic characteristics of low intelligence, but how could you quantify something when you had not the means to measure it?
"Yeah, ah, sorry about that."Â
"I just wondered..."Â The last time she and Keith had spoken they had discussed who would have custody of the book-cases, "Well, it, it's kinda dark and cold out at the observatory and I just wanted a friendly chat."
"Ah, Dugan? I'm really busy right now.Â Our staff is more depleted every day and I haven't got time to just contemplate my navel or my gas giants like some people."Â
"Geez, I've spoken two words to you in months and already you sound pissed off with me!"
Her scalp prickled and she turned to see Andry still standing there, the duster clutched in its spidery hands. It seemed... expectant.Â
Jenni suppressed a shudder, "It, it's okay Andry, you can go, um, go and have a rest or something..."
Though the aliens had no vocal chords, they did understand human speech, and Andry waddled off towards its room.Â
"Y'know, I only rang you to see how you were getting along." Dugan sighed, "I do get it, Jen. You feel responsible for finding an antidote, vaccine - whatever..."
After a bit more of him telling her to chill, they said their goodbyes.
Jenni groaned and flopped sideways on the couch, feeling like a mean, grumpy old bag.
She could feel Randolph's breath on her ear, he had sidled so close to her, but she did not want to listen to anything he had to say. Besides being unethical, dissection seemed unlikely to further their search for a cure because an aliens' DNA, and their entire physiology, differed so much from that of humans.
"But don't you understand, Jenni? If they are carriers, then they must be immuned."
"If the aliens are the carriers." She eyed him; he appeared less dapper than usual, "And what does 'immuned' mean, when there seem to be no pathogens?" A lab assistant walked over to hand her a printed sheet. She thanked him, then scanned the report. "See? This patient's blood analysis shows normal protein, normal white cell, no immune response at all! This is exactly what we..." She looked up to see Randolph gazing off into the middle distance.
"I wonder..." He whispered, "I wonder what it would be like to go into an AMS trance - just sit there drooling and staring and paralysed, and then just stop breathing?"
And I wonder, Jenni thought, if maybe boss-man doesn't need some down time.
She really did feel his pain, though. The story in his laboratory was the same one played out in facilities over the world: GP's and surgeons, microbiologists, biochemists, epidemiologists, and pathologists examined, scanned, dissected, tested blood and brains, organs and bones; theorised, speculated, and disproved until they became blue in the face. Yet thousands of people died every hour from, apparently, nothing.
Randolph's expression sharpened again, "Anyway! We shall keep seeking, and trying, and guessing." He wandered back to his office, "Oh!"Â He shouted across the lab, "My minions! As of a few minutes ago the death-toll of the AMS had surpassed the total victims from all influenza outbreaks from the last century - combined!"
A groan went up around the room.Â Jenni went to fetch herself a big, muddy bucket of coffee.
OnÂ Sunday night Andry answered the front door to find Dugan standing there - a bottle of wine in his hand.Â
"Hey, come in..."Â Jenni got off the couch, surprised how delighted she felt to see him. Though it had been months, he looked pretty much the same: tall and bright-eyed, slightly scruffy.Â But she could see worry lines across his forehead she had never seen before.Â If someone as easy going as Dugan felt stressed, then things had become bad.Â
"You can go now, Andry."
It blinked, then waddle off. Dugan's eyes following the ungainly creature along the hallway.
Jenni whispered, "Even after a year, I'm still not, um, quite comfortable."
"When the lab finished with it, you could have said no."
"I felt sorry for it." She fetched a couple of glasses.
"Hey, this is the first time I've been in The Pad since we..."Â He trailed off, pouring the wine, "You've re-decorated. NotÂ bad, m'lady - not nearly as anally retentive as I would have expected."Â They smiled at each other, taking their drinks onto the balcony.Â
Gazing out into the night, Jenni realised that while she had been otherwise occupied, her home town had taken on the proportions of a city. But she noticed also, the absence of a lot of lights out there.
There must be so many empty houses now, so many lonely people...
And when she looked up at Dugan, it occurred to her that their paths had been separated by the slightest bumps in the road.
"Sorry for biting your head off the other day."
He winked at her, seemed thoughtful for a moment, then said, "You know, Jen, when we first detected the alien ship in the sky nearly sixteen months ago, it was the most exciting moment of my life: every astronomer's dream! Although," he frowned, "how such unprepossessing creatures built those machines, then 'flew' goodness knows how far with no means of navigation is anyone's guess."
"We just don't know what we don't know."
"Hmm, profound. But I'm more scared than excited these days. I don't care what you and your egghead friends say, I believe the aliens should have been quarantined indefinitely."
"They were passed clean, Dugan."
"Humph... they're still creepy..."
"Well, they did come from another planet."
Dugan swirled the wine in his glass, "What goes through their minds, you reckon? I wonder if they want to go back home?"
"They're free to leave the way they came."
"And why are they here? Surely not just to do our housework!"
She laughed and his eyes twinkled.
Then he shivered, "I've heard that if you come into contact with them, they make you feel nauseated."
"I admit I've avoided getting really close to Andry."
"Jen?" He touched her face, "I want you to be careful around around that creature." he looked right into her eyes, "And I pray that you remain 'immuned' to whatever this plague is."
She laid her hand over his, "And you, Dugan."
Â On her way to work the next morning, Jenni witnessed how the AMS had affected the town.Â Most of the schools had been shut down, as well entire office blocks; in the suburban areas, every second store seemed to be closed. On one street, at least three plate-glass shop windows in a row had been smashed.Â Within one of the stores, looters crawled about like their own species of infection.Â She called the local police station about it, but the phone rang out.Â
In the laboratory, when Randolph approached her yet again, she ground her face into the eyepiece of the microscope, willing him to go away.
Â "Several healthy members of our staff have failed to show today." He said, "Apparently, they have forsaken science and found God."
She would never have believed the day would arrive when she did not want to be here among the test tubes and petri dishes, the microscopes and formalin, but right now the idea of running off into the wilderness held a strong appeal.Â
"Can't say I blame them."
"Ah, come dear, you and I are two of a kind - never give in, never give up, science to the last."Â Randolph displayed a strange sort of jolliness - at odds with his appearance. His face seemed thinner, and a greyish pallor suffused the skin; his thinning hair - up until recently, so carefully combed across - wisped about his head like banners of defeat. Even his glasses looked smudged.Â She felt sorry for him - something else she would never have though possible.
"Ah, Jenni?" He smiled, but it came across as more like a baring of the teeth, "I, um, I would like you to bring Andry into the lab."
She nearly fell off her chair.Â
"Those, those creatures are responsible for this whole mess! I MUST KNOW HOW!!" He glared at Jenni, then let out a breath, "Doctor!" He hissed, "I need to procure one of those creatures, and in the name of science, you must help me!"
`Â Â Â Â Â ***
Andry's small black eyes flicked from Jenni to Randolph. It knew.Â It knew what they wanted to do. Â
Jenni strained to move - she must stop him - but it she felt trapped inside a Jenni statue looking out. Randolph's eyes looked red and maniacal, his hair stuck straight up, his teeth looked long and yellow like a wolf's.Â But she could only stand motionless while he grabbed Andry.
It fought like an alley cat, flailing, raking its sharp fingers down his face. But his laugh came out a triumphant cackle, as he hoisted the creature over his shoulder. Though it could not cry out, it continued to thrash in his arms as he carried it off.Â
Then, somehow, they were not in Jenni's apartment any longer, but at the laboratory. Still she felt frozen to the spot as she watched Randolph manhandle Andry into his office. He slammed shut the door. Jenni wanted to yell at him, but she could barely breathe.
A moment later, rivulets of thick brown blood began to flow from under Randolph's door and across the floor, running along between the lab benches, glistening like treacle...
Â NOOO!!!Â Jenni cried in her brain.Â I'm so sorry, Andry. I can't help you, I can't help me or Dugan, I can't save ANYONE!!
She sat up in bed.Â Her heart thundered.Â
A dream.Â Oh God, just a dream.
Rubbing her hands over her face, she slumped back onto the mattress.Â
I can't take this any more.Â What if I did give Andry to Randolph?Â Would it help? Does it matter?
But while her belief the aliens had brought this curse with them grew, Jenni also felt convinced their strange bodies harboured no secrets.Â Professor Randolph would never find his answers using a scalpel.
Â He had been missing from the lab for a couple of days, now he had returned.
"Jenni..."Â His voice at her shoulder. He smelled un-washed, and wore a stained lab coat. For a split second he had the ghastly face of the professor from her nightmare.
I really ought to call someone.
The few of her colleagues who had made it to work today, had taken a tea break.Â Jenni knew they would be discussing Randolph and she wished she had gone to the tea-room with them.
"Sir, I will not bring Andry here if that's what--"
"It does not matter now, my dear. Come, come.Â I have something to show you."
He reached for her hand, but she recoiled.
"Do come."Â He said again, and, worried that he may become violent, she obliged. He all but pulled her along the length of the lab to the door of his office: the door in her dream.
Brown blood, flowing like treacle...
He pushed open the door: a trolley near the wall, upon which he had laid out a neat array of surgical instruments (she saw two scalpels stained with brown).Â Near the trolly: a gurney, upon which lay an alien, dead, cut from throat to crotch.Â Jenni's eyes took in the brown liquid saturating the sheet, splattered on the wall, dripping onto the floor. Jenni gagged at the smell; swallowed, swallowed...
"I got it from..." His eyes darted for a second, "someone I know. You must see what they have inside; ultrasounds just don't do it justice." He chuckled.
In a daze, she stepped forward.Â As she approached, the air between her and the alien's body seemed to waver. She blinked, then realised that her vision hadn't become fuzzy, but something like a heat haze had developed.
Her heart started pounding. No, not a haze... it was... oh, God! Surely not! Could she see through the alien body?Â Â
Randolph began to whimper,Â "No..."
The body appeared to be fading!Â disappearing!
"Nooo..." His voice cracked, "what's happening?"Â
Trembling, Jenni brushed past a panting professor. She watched her arm raise itself toward the alien - closer... closer...
Her scalp contracted. Oh, dear God. Her hand moved right through the body!
The alien became a ghost, then a faint impression on the back of the eye...
"NOOO!!"Â Randolph unfroze.Â He threw himself at the gurney.
But the body had gone.
He roared, and snatched up a scalpel to stab at the empty space. Jenni heard the wet slap of his arms upon the blood-soaked sheet. A small spatter of the mess sprayed across her face and her stomach rolled.
Her legs like jelly, she backed toward the door, groping behind to grasp the doorhandle...
While Randolph screamed and bashed at the gurney.
The next evening Jenni and Andry were alone in the apartment - which is the way their lives had run for months now... so why, tonight, did Jenni feel especially uncomfortable? Perhaps seeing a solid alien body disappear before her eyes had affected her more than she thought?
She made a cup of hot-chocolate,Â and as she started to walk along the hallway toward her bedroom, the alien shuffled into her path.
"They are creepy though, Jen..."
Dugan was right. Jenni stopped, forcing a smile onto her face. Andry cocked its head, the tiny black eyes boring into hers... darker even than she had thought. She shivered, hoping not to convey her revulsion to the alien.
"Is, um, c-can I help you, Andry ?"
Its head wobbled, its toothless mouth grinned.Â Not knowing how to react to the encounter, Jenni stepped forward, intending to continue along the hallway.
But Andry did not move out of her way.Â It wore an expression Jenni read as... affection? Its skin appeared unusually radiant, but she felt that chill in the air... and she could feel a growing nausea which other humans had reported when in such close proximity to an alien.
Andry reached out its claw-like hand toward her. Jenni yelped and jumped back, spilling most of here drink, "What's the matter with you!"
Andry continued to 'smile'.
Jenni took a calming breath, "I-I'm sorry. It, um, y-you startled me, that's all."
The alien's skin glowed - its whole body appeared to shimmer with golden light in the dimness of the hallway.
Then, with uncharacteristic speed, it reached out again. Before Jenni could pull away, Andry laid its spidery hand across her forehead. A delicious,Â fizzing sensation spread from the alien's icy fingers through her head, then flowed like warm honey through her body... melting her muscles... filling up her bones...
No, Andry, nooo...
Yessss... it is your time, human...
Her mind floated away through sparkling sunlight, the night sky, the ether, then dark space... gravity released its hold, she had no weight; she felt neither hot nor cold, anxious or sad - only relaxed, content.
I always want to float in this mellow, beautiful delight...
Then, as if she had been supported by an electric current suddenly switched off, Jenni fell to the floor like a rag doll. As she lay there, her eyes tracked along the hallway. What had happened? She managed sit up against the wall. Why had she been lying on the carpet?
Her head cleared a little and she recalled she had been heading to her room with a cup of chocolate, and then...
She could not remember.
Staring into her empty mug, she wondering if she had somehow been slipped a mickey.Â
I really should cut back on the hours at the lab.Â
She went to bed.
Next day, Dugan rang her at work, although, officially mobile phones weren't allowed in the lab.
"Jen! I'm totally breaking protocol and all sorts of rules, but I've got to tell someone!"
"Geez, Dugan, sounds like you wet yourself."
"I think I may have! God, I can't believe this!"
Only two other scientist still worked in the lab at this hour - both head-down, typing reports. Jenni got off her stool and headed for the tea-room.
"Okay." She said when she had closed the door, "What is it?"
His voice trembled as he told her about the transmission.
"You're kidding!" She cried, "And observatories all over the world have received these messages?"
"Yup! We've pinpointed an area of the sky where we think they came from, but we don't know the exact source - could be from a ship or a planet or... we haven't figured it out yet. What we do know is that the origin is an alien intelligence."
"I can hardly believe it! What do they say?"
"The message is in a code, but we've had no problem deciphering it. Some of the meanings of are a little ambiguous in parts, but it's--"
"Dugan! Tell me what you've got, for goodness sake!"
"Okay, I'll read some of it. It's amazing!" He dropped his voice, "Okay... 'Beings of --?--- (earth) are the of --?--- haveÂ you will to know.Â When your planet reaches its halfway of darkness at...' - the location is not far from here actually, - 'of the planet revolution, will our purpose to your planet so you will information.' "
"Oh my God!" Jennie squeaked.
" 'Halfway hour' is midnight. So about ten past twelve, our time."
"B-but midnight when?"
"We think we've worked it out to be tomorrow."
"Please, let me bring you up a nice cooked breakfast."Â Dugan said next morning as he unfolded his lanky, half-naked frame from the bed; last night had been the first he had spent with Jenni since their separation.
"Andry usually puts the coffee on for me. I wonder where the heck it's got to? I haven't seen the creature since... since..." She closed her eyes; her head didn't feel right.
"Who knows, love? Aren't you kind of glad Andry's left? It was..." He frowned down at her,Â "You okay?Â You look a little pale. Let me at least bring you a cup of tea."
A shadow darkened the back of her mind - like a mental bruise.
The darkness spread through her brain. She looked up, but Dugan seemed very far away.
"Jen!" His voice went up an octave, "Jenni!" He dived onto the bed.
A moment later, the darkness dissolved.
"Jenni?" His voice calmer, but still intense, "Darling, are you all right?"
She stared at him.Â He had put on a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt.Â She looked at the bedside clock: twelve minutes past ten!
"Wh-what's going on?"
"You..."Â His voice caught, "Y-you passed out, or something.Â I almost called the doctor when--"
"What!"Â Â Â
He pulled her into a hug, "Dear God, Jenni, you gave me a fright."
"But... b-but I--"
"I'm staying here with you today."
She bit her lip, remembering about the alien blood that sprayed onto her face. Had she been infected? He took her in his arms again, but after some minutes she struggled free, "Dugan, I... I feel fine, really. I'm probably just really tired from stress... stuff."
He did not look convinced.
"Let me up now, Dugan. Please, I relly need to go to work."
"And you have to be at the observatory - ten past midnight tonight, remember?"
"Go! Really, I feel okay."
"Are you sure?"
No, I'm scared out of my wits...
"Yes!" She cried and he grabbed her again, squeezed her tight, "Dugan! You're going to cuddle me to death!"
"Well, you're sounding your usual bossy self again."
"Go, already!"Â Â Â Â Â Â
Judy sat on the couch staring at her phone. The clock told her midnight, and - though she felt a little silly to expect Dugan to ring yet - she could barely contain herself.
At one o'clock she checked her mobile for the twenty-fifth time. For the twenty-fifth time she noted the full signal, full battery...
She rang the observatory.Â No answer. Â
She had speculated everything imaginable regarding the alien transmission. The most obvious conclusion reached was that the message related to the aliens. Her thoughts went again to Andry: where had it gone? She had tried to report it missing, but had met with singular disinterest from what little remained of relevant authorities.
Jenni got a shiver up her back. What if the communication would convey a cure for the Alpha Mode sickness?
Oh God, please let this be the reason they want to talk to us.
She bit another of her nails to the quick. She would wait five more minutes, then--
She yelped, and hit the answer button, "Dugan?"
"They've talked to us again."
Sleep kept creeping up on her.Â By ten to two Jenni could barely keep her eyes open.Â
Just close em for a coupla minutesss...
Her head snapped up.Â Five past two.Â Dugan had said he might be a while; maybe she should just go to bed. Or maybe she should drive out to the observatory?Â
Nah, not enough petrol. Besides, dangerous getting behind the wheel when you're tired...
Her head snapped up again.Â Two thirty.Â Hurry up, Dugan.
Once again she played through her mind the second alien message Dugan had passed on to her earlier:
'To your beings which are minor physical of but one of They are docile beings, only to your species with our ---?--- in order that your species may know all of the . Now we have become that your species is not to our ---?---. We will these beings. We leave in peace...'
There had been more to the transmission, but it had not yet been deciphered. And while the entire meaning had been difficult understand, the 'docile beings' obviously referred to the aliens like Andry.
Once again, Jenni prayed the remainder of the message would include the cure for AMS.
She dozed again. She woke herself again. But this time she felt strange. Her whole body fizzed with pins and needles.
She shifted her position, finding her muscles stiff.
Should just go to bed...
Moments later, her fingers started to become numb. When she tried to shake some life back into them, she could not move her arms.
God.Â Am I having a stroke?Â
Her head! Now she couldn't move her head because her neck had turned into a column of stone.
Oh, dear God! What's wrong?
She would have called out, but her throat would not work.
Then the last of the pins and needles faded, and she became numb from head to toe.
Okay, Jenni, you just have to relax. You're just tired, that's all...
She could still breathe - that was a blessing - and her eyes and ears still worked. But otherwise she had been rendered immobile: as useless as a rag doll.
God, please, noooo...
But she knew the symptoms, she knew truth: She had been struck down with Alpha Mode Syndrome.
The clock on the wall shows three fifteen.Â Though she has two science degrees, it is her gut instinct that tells her Andry has 'infected' her.Â If she could get hold of that treacherous little troll right now, she would strangle it with her bare hands.Â She should have let Randolph take it and cut it up.
Where is Dugan?
I don't want to die! Surely this is not how I die--
The phone rings.
It it Dugan.Â She knows this because she can see right along those fibre-optic cables, hear her husband breathing.Â
She inhales, exhales. She sees the clock, but the numbers have no meaning. 'Time' is a fluid concept. It can be a river, or a coil, a boiling sphere of gas, a sheet of glass... nothing...
Her brain expands - flowing outside her skull. She must tell Dugan the Entity did not 'transmit' in the technical sense, but made it seem like a technology based communication.
She sighs and watches the molecules of air, and miniscule moisture droplets of her breath float away. Her heart is huge, bursting with with the delight of knowing and seeing all that is around her.
Then Dugan is here.Â She did not registered his arrival because she had become immersed in the physics and chemistry, biology and mathematics of the universe. Without even trying, she is absorbing into her brain, truths and facts upon which the universe pivots.
"Jesus!"Â Dugan's face in hers,"Jenni!Â Jenni!!"Â there are tears in his eyes, but she is crying because she is amazed and joyous.
She can see each and every one of the cells that go to make up the flesh and bones and blood and skin, and a fine brain, that is Keith Dugan.Â She can detect every molecule of his smell, the mix of desperation and despair and deodorant in the air between them.
"Dear God, Jenni!Â NOOO!!"Â He shouts, and she sees the sound-waves vibrate towards her, "Jenni!Â Wake UP!"
I don't want to. Oh, you would love this, Dugan.Â Not a disease or a curse, this is a BLESSING!Â It is...
Nothing in the room is solid, but consists of swarming, jiggling atoms. Colours are rainbows of light. And how stunningly simple it is: the way gravity fits into the complete law of the universe.
'Humans' are a mongrel mix of two different races of extra-terrestrial visitors. Randolph is a brilliant, fragile man who secretly adores her. Dugan's left-wing father is a closet Royalist.
At this last revelation, she silently laughs.Â
"I'm taking you to the hospital."Â Dugan sobs, and she knows without thinking, the exact chemical content of each tear that falls from eyes.Â
He picks her up in his arms and carries her through the apartment. Outside, the draining vestiges of her consciousness take in the heavens. There are many planets out there upon which grow intelligent life: galactic neighbors by the thousands.
If only we had known...
The huge knowledge of everything fills, fills, fills her up...
Â Dugan stands on the footpath with his wife in his arms. Her body - until now, semi-rigid with the "sickness' - suddenly sags. His heart lurches.
"No! Please God, NOOOO!!"
But he knows it is too late.
He looks down into her precious face.Â She is all that ever mattered.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â ***
For an instant before her mind is crushed, an intense warmth pulses through her: stronger, purer, more perfect and right than anything else she knows:
She wants the aliens' gift to cease. But the flow knowledge continues - pushes her consciousness away, grows, throbs, expands...
Pleeease! STO-O-O-P!! It hurts! I don't want to know any more. I don't want to die. I want to stay here, to be stupid and laugh; to bleed and feel pain; to sweat and run and eat and LOVE!
Her breath flows out, leaves her body. Her heart makes one last pump, falls still.
I want... I want to stay... with... him... with himmm....
Then she is gone: through the darkness, and into the pure white light.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â