“We’re almost at the snowline, Diann. We made it.” Randolph Withers adjusted his backpack and his rifle’s sling, took his young companion by the hand, and then they both strode toward their goal with renewed hope.
“Do you think the outpost will still be there?” She glanced up at the man who stood barely half a head taller than her, though he was over six feet in height.
“It’s our only chance. It will provide basic shelter, and we’ve seen signs of abundant game as we approached the mountains, so we’ll have food. Now if I can get the radio equipment working again, we’ll be in business.”
“What about the Seltin Beasts? You said you thought it was your radio experiments that brought them down on your people…our people from their lair in the high peaks.”
“It’s a chance we’ll have to take.” He patted the Colt .45 resting in its holster for reassurance.
“But they killed all of the others in your party, almost killed you.”
“We got a few of them before we went down, I think I even wounded one, though I had to escape and couldn’t search for it. And what about you, my love? One of our stray shots must have wounded you.” He looked at her glistening and smudged face with affection, nearly snow-white locks scattered haphazardly across her forehead and cheeks. “I still don’t understand why you were hiking the foothills alone below our lab, and what happened to your clothes? You should never have been in such dangerous country. Not a human habitat for fifty miles.”
“Now further than that thanks to the Mukrimeto Effect.”
Randolph paused, concern written on his middle-aged features. He stopped walking for a moment, took off his hat and wiped his brow, then replaced it. “I never thought Carruthers would have taken my radio experiments in that direction and to such an extreme.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Diann placed both palms upon his chest and felt the wool shirt moist with his sweat. “You tried to warn him.”
“The waves.” He looked back in the direction they had come from. “The devastation was enormous, even more profound than I could have predicted.”
“I know. Over ninety percent of all plant life, animals, even water, all gone thanks to the Effect’s piezothermatic waves.”
“For all we know, the Seltin Mountains are the only safe haven left on this continent, maybe in the world.”
“I’m sure there are other places, but we can’t stay here. It will be sundown in a few hours.”
“Yes. Let’s get to the outpost. We might yet be able to contact other survivors.”
“You’re sure that’s the right thing to do. The radio waves. What about the Beasts?”
“So little is known about them. I wish our expedition had been afforded the opportunity to study them. Such fierce creatures. We believe they live in the high peaks, but there’s no clear evidence. There have been rumors about them for centuries.”
“Yes, I looked them up at the library. It’s said they can see in the dark, are stronger than bears, and their white fur makes them practically invisible in the snow.”
“More like masters of disguise. One legend even says they’re shapeshifters, and that they periodically visit the human world undetected. Ridiculous, of course.”
“But what if…” She stopped talking as he tightened his grip on her hand.
“There! The Outpost. It’s still standing.” They slowed as they approached what was left of the low, single-story science outpost. One side was burned, the living quarters, but the lab seemed to be intact. All of the windows were broken and the door hung by a single hinge. Randolph chuckled at seeing the weather vane and the other meteorological equipment on the roof still intact and functioning.
They both stepped inside and Randolph was suddenly awash with memories, both pleasant and terrifying. “Bowen, Thompson, McDaniels, Welch, they’re all gone. The Beasts must have carried off their corpses, fed on their flesh.” Tears streaked his face at the thought of his dearest friends and comrades coming to such a horrific end.
“Or maybe your companions were given a descent burial. After all, you said yourself that so little is known about them.”
Randolph quietly turned toward Diann, the mysterious woman he had rescued five years ago, who he found nude with a bullet wound to her shoulder. He’d fallen in love with her, though she was without a past or even a last name. She looked calmly at his face and then down at the pistol he had pointed at her chest.
“How long have you known?” She shook her head and it was as if her hair became as white as the snow and marginally longer.
“I’ve suspected for quite sometime, ever since the Mukrimeto Event. The waves made about half the human population sick, but you were the only one who nearly died.”
“Could you shoot me now? We’ve been lovers for nearly five years.”
“Don’t remind me,” Randolph spat out the words taut lips. “To think that I…with you…an inhuman…only one of us is leaving here alive.”
“I think not, my love. Look at the open door, the windows.”
Their approach had been as silent as a jungle cat’s. More than a dozen Seltin Beasts, each at least eight feet tall, covered in thick fur, as white as ice, eyes the color of sapphire, fangs that would intimidate the greatest predator, but hands that, for their huge size, were surprisingly human.
“Your rifle is still on your shoulder and you’ll never kill us all with your handgun. Believe me, we wish you no harm.”
“No harm?” His voice quavered with terror and rage. “You murdered four of the finest people I have ever known, slaughtered them like helpless sheep.
“You reasoned out the cause yourself. Your radio experiments were extremely painful to us, even at a distance. We were driven mad by days of exposure, a berserker rage that overcame our rationality. I am truly sorry for the loss of the others, but you were tortuously killing us. If we could have talked to you before, but our minds were gone until we smashed your equipment.”
“And what of you, then? I was only kidding when I suggested that these Beasts could be shapeshifters.”
“We are many things including that.” Her body was thickening and a soft, tallow-colored fur was rapidly growing all over her exposed skin. “Excuse me, but these clothes will no longer fit. I must remove them. Oh, please put your pistol and rifle on the floor. As I observed before, with the others this close, you’d never get a chance to use them.”
A strange sort of modesty took Randolph as he turned to face the nearest Beast who towered over him just three feet away. He complied and placed his firearms at the feet of the monster. When he turned back, the Diann he had known for almost half a decade was gone, replaced by one of them.
“We will leave you now. Yes, I was the “beast” you wounded. Separated from my people, the only chance of survival I had was to become one of you, make you think I was human so you could take me, care for me.” As alien as was her shape, the voice was still Diann’s.
“Why did you stay with me? Once your wounds were healed…”
“I would have left eventually. You recall that so many humans became ill because of Mukrimeto. We do visit your world and frequently. We take jobs, attend your universities, study your people. Some of us even marry and have children, but eventually, the high mountains call to us, compel us to return home.
“The people who became ill…”
“Had one Asyt, what we call ourselves, for a parent.” What passed for a smile on her fanged orifice showed through the fur. Her revelation made him nauseous nearly to the point of gagging.
“Apparently we were not entirely compatible, otherwise I would have bore you a son or daughter by now.”
He was trembling, the urge to run almost overwhelming him, but surrounded as he was, he wouldn’t have gotten two feet before they tore him apart.
“We are not beasts or monsters in spite of our appearance. We are thoughtful, compassionate beings. We live apart from you because of the obvious fear we inspire. Our civilization is small. We live in harmony with our environment. We are also curious. But just because we sometimes live among you and study your ways does not mean we will ever adopt them. I know your experiments were intended to be benign. But there are too many men in your world like Carruthers, possessed by greed and ambition, careless with power and a danger to life. We will never risk destroying our world as you have yours.”
Then Diann, or whatever she had changed into, slowly approached Randolph, backing him into one of the equipment counters. She turned to her right and extended a single claw from what looked like a large woman’s finger. Then she scratched a series of notes into the wooden laboratory tabletop.
“I learned a few things in five years. Use this frequency to attempt to contact humans in other corners of the world. It can be picked up by similar radio devices, even if they are tuned more narrowly. They will not harm our kind either here or on the other continents.” She looked up from her work and into Randolph’s brown eyes, and he noticed that her eyes were exactly the same color as when she was human. “We’ll be leaving you now. I would give you one last kiss, but as you can see my mouth no longer is capable. Besides, I doubt…”
He shuddered but kept looking at her. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say nothing, my love. Savor this first contact between your kind and ours as we really are. Perhaps, in time, you and some of the other humans may come to understand us.” She raised a great, hairy hand as if to caress his cheek but they both pulled back, her out of compassion, and he out of revulsion.
She lowered her hand but he could see deep emotion in her eyes. “Thank you for bringing me home and for taking care of me all those years. I really do love you.”
As the party of Aysts climbed upward toward the peaks, Dr. Randolph Withers watched them as the last rays of the sun dipped below the western horizon, the memory of his Diann burning like a rival flame in his mind and in his heart.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt: Turning #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use one of Sue’s original photos as a prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
I can’t tell you exactly why the photo took me in this direction. As I was getting ready for work, I started writing the story in my imagination. The tale began with a man and woman seeking safe haven from some sort of ecological disaster, but that haven had dangers of its own. Then I considered the idea of one of them not being human, and in the end, once the secret was revealed, they would try to kill each other.
But that trope has been used too many times, so I tried something different.
Oh, I set this piece somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s to give at that old school grade B SciFi movie feel.
By the way, there’s no such thing as “piezothermatic waves.” I made that part up.