This week’s (two-days-late-because-of-Christmas) Saturday special from the vaults is an unpublished short story that won an award in the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild’s short fiction competition sometime in the 1990s…I think. If I’m remembering right. It never found a publisher, but I used to read it at school and library readings from time to time, though I haven’t for quite a well: I have newer, better stuff. Still, it’s not a bad little story. (I sound like Linus looking at Charlie Brown’s pathetic little Christmas tree…must be the influence of the season.) I hope you enjoy it.
Kareen Aldona added a white highlight to the orange flank of a boulder, considered a moment, enlarged it a bit, then set her brush aside with a sigh. She had hoped to finish the painting that day, but shadows were lengthening in the canyon, and it would take her most of the two remaining hours of daylight to get back to the colony.
She stood, stretching, then moved back from the easel to compare her creation to the real thing. Not bad, she thought, but the light still isn’t quite right…. She shook her head. The sun, slightly more orange than Earth’s, had a subtle effect very difficult to capture. “Next time,” she promised herself. She cleaned her brushes, then packed them, her palette and her paints into her metal art case, which she stuffed into her backpack.
She stored the painting and easel inside the nearby cave she had discovered on her first visit to the canyon, then filled her canteen at the gurgling spring further inside. When she returned to the cave’s mouth she saw the alien for the first time.
Though slim and no taller than she, its thick, black fur made it look much larger. Eyes of brilliant, liquid yellow gleamed from its long-muzzled face as it picked its way on broad, clawed feet through the rocks. It wore only a thin gray belt, from which hung a knife and a leather pouch. A slender rod of crystal glittered on a silver chain around its neck.
Kareen’s breath froze in her throat, and at the same instant the creature looked up and saw her, and stopped. Even across the fifty meters separating them, she heard its low, menacing growl.
It can’t be real! her mind kept insisting, despite the evidence of her eyes. There’s no intelligent life on this planet. Dad’s the colony biologist, he should know, right? The survey showed nothing. No cities, no villages, not even cave dwellings!
But the impossibility of the alien’s presence didn’t make it go away. It stood its ground, staring at her, the growl rising to a cat-like moan that made the hair on the back of her neck rise up.
Kareen wanted to turn and run, but had nowhere to go. The only way into or out of the canyon was the slippery, rock-strewn slope above above the cave, and the thought of attempting it with the alien behind her was too terrifying to contemplate.
Never taking its eyes from her, the creature slowly sank crosslegged to the ground. It drew its knife and thrust it into the ground close by its side.
Kareen tried to swallow with a throat suddenly as dry as the canyon floor. The alien’s message seemed obvious; “I’m armed. Come no closer.”
Why doesn’t it just attack? she wondered sickly. I couldn’t fight it. I don’t even have a club.
She sat down on a large rock before her trembling knees collapsed, wrapped her arms around her legs and bleakly met the steady glare of the alien. But it doesn’t know that, she thought suddenly. It doesn’t know what kind of weapons I’ve got. It doesn’t realize I’m helpless…
She tensed as the creature reached into its pouch and took out a transparent, glassy cylinder. Still staring intently at Kareen, it took the crystal rod from around its neck and touched it to the cylinder.
Light flashed and Kareen jumped to her feet. Now what? A gun? A grenade? I have to convince it I’m dangerous, too!
She struggled out of the straps of her backpack, and opened it to take out the art case. The alien hissed softly when it saw the silver box. “Same to you,” Kareen whispered.
Holding the case on her lap, she took out a sketch pad and a pencil, carefully keeping the lid of the case between her and the alien, so it couldn’t see exactly what she was doing. “This ought to puzzle it,” she muttered. And at least she could leave a record of what killed her for the rest of the colonists…
…for her parents…
Blinking back sudden tears, she rummaged in the pack again and pulled out her binoculars, hoping to make out what the alien was doing with the cylinder and rod. She had the satisfaction of seeing the alien snatch up its knife as she pointed the binoculars in its direction, but even through them the cylinder was only a meaningless, light-filled tube.
The creature watched her a moment, then thrust the knife into the ground again–a little closer, this time. Good, she thought. Let it worry for a while.
Taking an occasional look through the glasses to get the details right, she began to sketch, while the alien continued to work on the glowing cylinder Kareen was convinced was a weapon. She only hoped the alien believed her imaginary weapons were as real as its own.
When the alien became hard to see, slowly disappearing into the gathering purple haze of twilight, Kareen put her sketchpad away. After the first few minutes when her hand had been inclined to shake, she had drawn well, better than usual, capturing a good likeness of the alien, even forgetting her fear for minutes at a time…but somehow her artistic success didn’t seem nearly as important as it usually did.
She had decided what to do. Though for all she knew the alien could see in the dark, she had to try to sneak out of the canyon in the night. She couldn’t just sit there, fighting sleep, picturing the alien creeping closer and closer…
She put the sketchbook in an outside pocket of the backpack and took out her canteen, taking a much-needed drink of water. Her stomach growled, reminding her of her missed supper. Her parents would be beginning to worry. Within an hour or two they would be organizing a search party.
Too long, she thought, waiting for dusk to become full night, watching the constant flickering glow that marked the alien’s location.
Abruptly the light vanished. Kareen gasped, then scrambled up, listening.
She heard nothing but the faint whisper of wind across the stones.
Now, she thought. Wiping sweaty palms on the front of her shirt, she began picking her way over the stone-strewn canyon floor toward the slope behind her.
Her progress was agonizingly slow. Every few seconds she froze, listening for the clicking of claws on the rocks or soft, hissing breathing. But hearing nothing did not calm her fears. When she couldn’t hear the alien, it could be anywhere.
When at last she reached the canyon wall, the first part of the ascent proved no problem. The gentle slope at the bottom base was no harder to traverse by darkness than by daylight.
But halfway up the slope steepened. Flat, slippery rocks shifted treacherously beneath her feet, and as they crashed down behind her, Kareen realized all hope of slipping out of the canyon unnoticed was gone.
Heart pounding with fear and exertion, she reached the last stretch of the climb, four meters of nearly vertical rock. She had climbed two meters when, as she reached for a new handhold, she heard rocks she had not dislodged crashing down into the canyon.
She jerked her head around to look, though there was nothing to see, and her feet slipped. For a moment she hung desperately by the fingers of one hand, scrabbling with the other, and then the rock gave way and she fell.
Agony stabbed her ankle as she hit the slate-strewn slope and rolled, gaining momentum, in a growing avalanche of rocks, down to the very bottom of the wall she had so torturously climbed.
As she lay dazed, bruised and bleeding, the rocks gradually stopped shifting and silence returned…or near-silence. Then the sliding of the rocks resumed. Someone–or some thing–was coming down the slope.
Kareen rolled over and sat up, but when she touched her ankle pain lanced through it, and she knew she couldn’t run, couldn’t even stand. Dust ground between her teeth, and she felt for her canteen, but the backpack that contained it had vanished, torn off somewhere during her headlong plunge.
Now she heard what she had only imagined before, the click of claws on rocks. The sound stopped. Light flickered up the slope as the alien bent over something wedged between two boulders…her backpack. She watched it paw through her belongings, sniffing the brushes and paints, paging through her sketchbook. It bent down and picked up the pack and the light went out again.
By the time it reached Kareen the pounding of her heart in her ears was as loud as its claws on the rocks. Finally it loomed above her, a blacker lump in the darkness. It tossed something at her and she almost screamed, but it was only her sketchpad. Light suddenly glowed from the crystal rod around the alien’s neck, and Kareen saw the sketchpad was open to her drawing of the alien.
From its pouch the alien drew out the glassy cylinder that had so frightened her, and, kneeling beside her, touched it with the crystal rod. A soft glow suffused it, and Kareen gasped.
Her own figure appeared in three dimensions inside the cylinder’s walls, rendered in perfect detail and color, sitting on a rock with her art case open and a pencil in her hands.
The alien made a sound like a soft purr and set the cylinder on the ground beside the sketchpad. Then it took Kareen’s canteen from the backpack and, supporting her head with its warm hand, trickled cold water between her lips.