Well, ladies and gentlemen, as anticipated, Steve, and Michael, have delivered a pair of short stories that will surely impress and entertain you. Congratulations, and best of luck, to both authors.
Please read the following pair of stories then cast a vote for your favorite. The stories are shown without writer attribution to keep things as fair and unbiased as possible. The poll will be open until 6 PM on Wednesday, November 2nd. At that time, a winner will be announced. The winner will be interviewed on this blog on Sunday, November 6th.
I’ve included the prompt below, with the stories to follow. The poll is located at the end of the second story. Thank you in advance for reading and voting for your favorite.
Mankind has been forever fascinated with the aurora borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights. Scientists explain the phenomenon as a “light show” in the earth’s atmosphere, created when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen, 20 to 200 miles above the earth’s surface.
The aurora, generally occurring near the Arctic Circle, sometimes moves farther south during increased frequency of sunspots. On the evening of December 5th, 2013, enthusiastic observers occupying mid-coast Maine had the distinct pleasure of enjoying such an event.
As a handful of hearty individuals braved both single digit hours and temperatures along the rugged shore, the mezmerizing light in the sky began to change. Inexplicably, the once multi-colored display changed to brilliant blue, rapidly decreasing in scope until it formed a concentrated vortex.
Onlookers familiar with coastal Maine were of the opinion that the dense shaft of light seemed to be focused on Monhegan, a small, rocky island ten miles from the nearest mainland, and barely a square mile in area.
They were correct in their assumption.
As the captain of a small ferry that frequented the island approached Monhegan at dawn, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief. There were no buildings. There were no boats in the harbor. Not a trace of vegetation, wildlife, nor a single individual that comprised the 65 full-time inhabitants was visible. All that remained was a rugged outcropping of stone.
Scientists, it seems, had gotten it wrong.
They say it’s the first thing that goes when you get old. Or was it the second thing?
I rubbed my eyes for what must have been the tenth time this morning. I stared out of the wheelhouse window towards Monhegan Island and hoped my vision wasn’t going for good, like the flight doc said it was.
I couldn’t get rid of the odd blur that surrounded the island. It was like that glow around a streetlight when you’re driving home late at night, maybe after one too many beers. Only this was…larger. And it looked like…a rainbow? Hell, maybe I should have left Tito’s a little earlier last night. But the tacos, and the mezcal, and the ladies. They wouldn’t let me. And here I was, driving my ferry (and that’s how I thought of the Janet Reno; she was old and ugly, but all mine) at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, wondering if the strange glow from the island was a hangover, or decaying retinas. Damn I was old.
Tito’s Bar & Grill had a broad party deck that overlooked the Gulf of Maine, and last night the aurora borealis was one of the brightest I had seen in years. Winter was coming and the deck’s heaters barely kept up with the chill, but the drinks and food were excellent. The intense light show and the fine female company capped it off. But now I was wondering if perhaps I should have gone to bed a bit earlier.
“Hey boss,” a voice said from behind me. “Tell me again why a former pilot hates flying.” The voice was accompanied by a mewling. I turned around to find Brad, the punk kid first mate I had hired a few weeks back, poking his hand into the travel cage that held the kittens for the Ferrelli family. The floor of the wheelhouse was littered with personal items I was delivering on this run; the box full of cats was just one of many. But apparently they were fascinating enough to entertain Brad. Which made me happy, not having to deal with the kid much on this run.
I turned back to the wheel as the ferry approached the dock. “I hate flying because I can’t fly anymore. I don’t want anyone else flying me anywhere. Now zip it, stop playing with your pussies, and get out on the bow to toss the lines.”
Brad walked out of the wheelhouse door, muttering under his breath. The island was close now, but I still couldn’t get rid of the glowing haze. That’s it, I’m done with mezcal. I checked the depth finder and radar: right on target for the approach.
Brad startled me by rapping on the glass in front of me.
“Hey boss, I don’t see the dock!”
“See? Told you.”
I left the ferry engines in idle and had nudged the bow up against the shore, then joined Brad on the bow. What the hell? I looked left and right. This was most definitely where the dock should have been. A few yards up on shore was the walking path that led to the boathouse, and past that to the general shop. The dock was gone.
I rubbed my eyes again. The boathouse was gone as well. And there was a low-pitched hum in the background, like a vacuum cleaner being run in another room while you’re trying to watch television.
“Stay here,” I said to Brad, and jumped off the bow. My feet splashed into the shallow water, and the cold instantly chilled me to the bone. I stepped up onto the shore and walked up the path.
I reached the spot where the boathouse should have been and was met with a patch of dead matted grass, exactly the size and shape of the small boathouse. A storm? I didn’t remember any storm at all, let alone one powerful enough to wipe out a dock and a boathouse. Then again, it was a lot of mezcal.
Just beyond the missing boathouse, the glow I had seen from the water was intense. Almost like…a curtain of light. I turned back to the ferry to see Brad sitting on the bow, picking his nose. He’d be no help, that’s for sure. I’m too old for this shit.
I walked up the path towards the light. I suppose it was curiosity, or perhaps just stupidity, that made me keep walking instead of getting back on my ferry and calling the Coast Guard. Probably stupidity.
The light was exactly like a curtain, a very distinct vertical wall reaching skyward beyond my sight. And I knew now it wasn’t my eyes that were the problem. I took a deep breath and stepped into the light…
…and promptly found myself on all fours, looking down on a pile of my own vomit. I coughed and more bits and pieces of last night’s tacos came up. My head was pounding and I was dizzy. Yep, stupidity.
I stood up and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. The smell of bile was overwhelming, and I knew right then and there I’d never touch mezcal again.
I walked a few dozen yards further along the path, hoping to find Carl, the unofficial mayor of Monhegan Island, to find out what the hell was going on here. As I crested the small hill at the end of the path, I dropped to my knees in shock. The general store, the boat rental shack, the camping store, the two bed and breakfasts…were gone. Nothing remained of the little town. Nothing but a large rock formation, right where the old ship anchor stood marking the center of the island. A rock formation that most certainly wasn’t there before today.
No storm could have done this. I felt the panic start to rise and started to turn back when I saw someone walk out from behind the rock. I squinted, cursing my failing eyesight again. It looked like a little girl. Mary Ferrelli!
I hopped up and broke into a jog, as fast as my old, paunchy body would allow. Mary had stopped walking and just stood a few yards from the rock, staring back. I hated to put this all on an eight year old girl, but I had to find out what happened.
I slowed to a stop in front of her, wheezing. She simply stood, emotionless, continuing to stare at me.
“Mary, are you okay?” I asked. “Where is everyone?”
“Everyone is safe, Robert Toren,” she said. At least I think she said. I didn’t see her mouth move. And her voice was…off. It was a girl’s voice, but not Mary’s. More like…my hearing-impaired nephew, a monotone sound, missing the hard edge of consonants. And it was in his head.
“Wha…what’s going on?” My fuzzy brain was having a lot of trouble processing this whole situation. This was far more than too much mezcal. “What do you mean, safe?”
Mary didn’t move a muscle, yet her voice sounded in my head again. “They are safe. They have been…relocated.”
Anger overcame my panic as a memory of my grandfather telling me of the relocation camps in Poland during World War Two flashed through my mind. And Mary…this wasn’t Mary.
“Who are you? Where…what…is Mary?”
The Mary thing stood still and the voice sounded again. “We used this body as we thought it would be comfortable for you to speak to, Robert Toren. We are one. We are all. In your language, we would be called the Collective.”
Comfortable? Is she…it…kidding?
The hum grew louder, like the vacuum was heading into this room to bother people watching a Patriots game. I looked around, then back at the Mary thing.
“Does this have something to do with the lights last night? Was that…the Collective?”
“Yes,” the voice said. “It was what we call the Awakening. All of the Collective units are awake now, all four hundred and twelve of them. It won’t be long now, Robert Toren.”
My head was spinning. This Mary thing was talking in riddles, and my anger returned.
“Listen,” I said, and reached out to grab her arm. And found myself on all fours again, dry heaving.
“Shit,” I said, spitting.
“Do not touch us, Robert Toren,” the voice said.
Yeah, not the first time I’ve heard that. Probably why I’m still single after all these years.
I stood up slowly and looked at the Mary thing. Something she/it said clicked.
“All units? And what won’t be long?”
“There are many of these units on your planet. We have been expecting the Awakening for many thousands of your solar orbits. We have been called and it is time for us to go.”
“Go where?” I realized I was speaking in questions only, like some party game, but I didn’t know what else to say.
The Mary thing finally moved. It raised one hand and pointed at the sky.
“You have a…ship on the island?” I struggled to remember my youth spent reading science fiction. Do aliens have ships? Do they teleport? Do they just jump really high? I’m talking to an alien. Awesome. I may have to cut out more than just mezcal. Maybe tacos too.
“This is not an island, Robert Toren. This is a Collective unit. This is how we travel.”
The ground beneath my feet rumbled, and the low background hum grew to a high-pitched whine.
The ground shook like the island was moving. Not an island, the Mary thing said. Oh hell.
“We must go now, Robert Toren. But you must join us. We cannot return you to outside the veil. And you would not recognize your world now anyway. Time moves…differently inside the veil. Everything you know is now gone. It has been several hundred solar orbits since you arrived.”
The ground was shaking violently now, and I had trouble standing. Even my well-trained sea legs were starting to give out. “Why? Why are you doing this?”
“It is a long story, Robert Toren. It is time for us to move on. We are finished watching your planet. Its time has come to an end, and we have other duties elsewhere.” The Mary thing turned around, and a light appeared in the side of the rock formation, like a door was opening. “Come, Robert Toren. There’s not much time now. Join us for a new beginning.”
I fell to my knees as the shaking grew unbearable. I looked past the Mary thing and saw the sun was changing position in the sky very rapidly. Not an island, it said.
The ground pressed up against him like the feeling he got many years ago, when his F/A18 Hornet was launched from a catapult back on the Reagan. And it all clicked. They were accelerating. Upwards. On an island.
Oh hell. I hate flying.
THE MONHEGAN EVENT
“Oh, my God.” Carol laughed, her breath fogging her glasses. “It’s fantastic!”
“Wow.” Lynne shook her head at the sight of the colors swirling and fading, a tapestry of light, the likes of which she’d never seen before.
“See, I told you guys this would be worth it.” Leading the others, Mack made his way carefully to the edge of the rocks that lay beyond Pemaquid Lighthouse Park at the southern tip of Maine’s Pemaquid Peninsula. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean crashed beneath them, the foam of the waves glowing in the light of the waxing moon.
The trip had been Mack’s idea. It was December 5th, 2013, and the forecast had predicted a vibrant aurora borealis based on recent solar activity. The four of them were sophomores at the University of Maine at Augusta, and Mack was always coming up with ideas for crazy things to do. Most of his schemes, however, didn’t involve going to stand by the ocean in the middle of a freezing Maine night.
“Yeah, you told us about five thousand times that it was going to be cool as hell,” Sean told him with a grin. “I only agreed to come to shut you up.”
“Smartass.” Mack punched Sean in the shoulder, and the two young men laughed.
Lynne stood close to Mack and wrapped her arm around his waist. “You outdid yourself this time.” She stood up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “This is awesome.”
Carol stood silently, holding Sean’s hand, staring at the shimmering sky. She knew what an aurora borealis was, but had never seen one before. “Hey…Mack?”
“Look at that.” She pointed to the northern edge of the aurora, which had taken on a decidedly blue tint. Instead of shimmering with many colors, it stayed blue, varying only in its intensity. “Is that supposed to happen?”
Mack opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it shut as the aurora took on a vivid blue, nearly cyan, hue with startling speed. As it changed color, it also began to shrink away from the horizon to form a swirling funnel of light, like a water spout.
“Isn’t that out where Monhegan is?” Lynne asked. Even though she was freezing, she felt the prickle of sweat breaking out along her spine as she watched the aurora contract to a shaft of blazing light that rose from the ocean, maybe ten miles away, rising into the sky as far as she could see.
“Yeah,” Sean said, mesmerized by the sight, but not believing it. “It’s hard to judge how far away it is, but I think you’re right.”
“This is impossible” Carol was shivering, but not from the cold. “Isn’t it?”
As if hearing her whispered words, the light suddenly vanished.
“We saw it, Dad.” Lynne, his daughter, stood next to him in the pilothouse. “We’re not making this up.”
“I know, hon,” he said over the thrum of the boat’s twin diesels. “If I didn’t believe you saw something, we wouldn’t be out here.” The sun just peeked over the horizon to the east. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was just before 7 o’clock. “You’re also lucky it’s winter. If it was spring we’d have to wait for a load of puffin-watching tourists.”
Lynne smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Off the bow was Monhegan Island, silhouetted by the rising sun, and she felt a sick unease in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t know why, but somehow the shadow of the island against the brightening sky made it look sinister.
Sean, Mack, and Carol were up on the bow, peering intently at the island as the boat drew closer.
Mack turned around and gestured to them, pointing at the island.
“Dad…” Lynne said as she realized why the island’s outline was giving her the creeps.
The houses and other buildings along the shoreline were gone. Even the Island Inn, which was right off the wharf where the ferry would normally dock. But they couldn’t dock there this morning, because the wharf was gone. There was no wreckage or debris, no smoke or evidence of fire. There was just smooth, glittering rock. Everywhere.
Her father didn’t answer. He had no words for what his eyes were showing him.
Altering course to take the boat through what had once been Monhegan harbor, he saw that there were no longer any boats there. They were just gone, as if they’d been erased from existence. There was no debris, nothing floating on the surface. Even the mooring buoys were gone as if they’d never existed.
As they sailed through the harbor, heading south, Mack came back to the pilothouse, a frightened look on his face. “You’re seeing this, right?”
“That there’s nothing here?” Eric finally found his voice as he tightened his grip on the wheel. “Yeah, we’re seeing it. Everybody’s been wiped out.”
“It’s worse than that.” Mac pointed to the rocky shore. “There aren’t even any trees up there. It’s like everything on the island’s been vaporized. And did you see the shore? The rocks are shiny, like glass. What could do that?”
Shaking his head, Eric told him, “I don’t know. I’m calling the Coast Guard.”
As Eric picked up the microphone and began to call for assistance, Mack and Lynne went up to the bow to join Sean and Carol.
“What do you think happened?” Carol asked as she watched the dead shoreline pass by. Even the water seemed lifeless. There was no algae, no seaweed. Nothing. Only glittering rock. “This is creeping me out.”
Turning to the sound of her father’s voice, she saw him gesture for them all to come to the pilothouse.
“There’s no response on the radio,” Eric told them, his face creased with worry.
“The Coast Guard didn’t answer?” Sean looked at the others. His father was an officer at the Coast Guard station at Boothbay Harbor, about twelve miles to the northwest.
“No one answered. And I checked the radio. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“There must be,” Sean insisted. “If it was working, someone would have answered. And we can’t be the only ones who saw that light last night, and others must have come to check out the island.”
“Have you seen any boats?” Eric swept his arm around the horizon as he slowly piloted the boat back toward where the dock was. Or used to be. “I haven’t seen a single one since we left.”
“I haven’t seen any planes, either.” Everyone turned to Carol, who stood close to Sean. Her normally tan complexion, maintained by frequent visits to a tanning salon during the winter, looked pale in the early morning light. She made no attempt to pretend she wasn’t frightened. “Have you?”
The others shook their heads, as they reflexively looked up at the sky.
“I haven’t seen any navigation lights, no contrails, nothing.”
“It’s still pretty early,” Mack ventured.
“So what do we do?” Lynne looked at her father.
“I guess the first thing is to see if there are any survivors.” Eric reversed the props for a moment, bringing the boat to a stop near where the boat dock had been, but where he knew the water should be a safe depth. The last thing he wanted to do was run aground on the unforgiving rocks. “We can only see what’s right along the shore here. There could be survivors farther inland.”
Mack frowned. Inland for Monhegan was a relative term, since the island was only about a mile long and maybe a third of a mile across.
After shutting down the engines, Eric went forward to the bow and released the anchor, which splashed into the water below. The anchor’s tines bit into the bottom a few moments later, and he secured the rope. The water was calm this morning, for which he was thankful, but it also bothered him. It was already too quiet here, and he had a bad feeling about what they might find.
“We don’t have a dinghy,” he gestured for Mack and Sean to follow him, “so I’m going to put in one of the emergency rafts, then we can paddle to shore and take a look around.”
The two young men helped him lift one of the raft containers, and on Eric’s command tossed it overboard, holding onto the lead rope as he activated the inflation system.
In a few moments, the bright orange raft had fully inflated, and bumped gently against the boat’s hull.
“Anybody want to stay aboard?” Eric asked.
All but Carol immediately shook their heads. After a moment, fear plain on her face, she shook hers, too. “I don’t want to go, but I sure don’t want to stay here by myself.”
Sean climbed in first, then Lynne and Carol. Mack followed, and he and Sean held onto a safety rope Eric had secured to the boat and tossed down to them. That let them hold the raft next to the boat as Eric climbed down.
“Let’s go,” Eric said.
Taking the four collapsible paddles, the three men and Lynne guided the raft to the shore where the boat dock had been.
Sean hopped out just as the raft touched the rocks, intending to hold the raft steady so the others could get out, but his feet slid out from under him
“Shit!” He fell flat on his back in the shallow water, cracking the back of his head.
“Sean!” Carol cried, reaching forward to help him. Taking his hand, he sat up as the raft pushed up against him, shoving him farther up the rock.
“Be careful,” he warned, rubbing the back of his head with his free hand. “The rocks are slick as ice!”
He got to his feet more carefully, and hauled the raft up onto the dry rock, which was slightly less slippery.
The others got out, and they pulled the raft farther up the shore, well clear of the water.
“Come on,” Eric said quietly, leading them up to where the Island Inn had once stood, a couple hundred feet away.
“Jesus,” Mack whispered as they reached the site of the Inn. There was no sign it had ever existed. As far as they could see, there was nothing but glittering rock. No trees, no plants, no birds. Not even the asphalt and gravel for the roads. There was nothing but smooth, glittering rock.
With a groan, Sean suddenly sank to his knees and vomited.
“Sean!” Carol knelt next to him, and saw that he was bleeding from his scalp. Only it wasn’t blood. It looked like the glittering rock beneath their feet. “Oh, my God…”
“What is it?” Eric bent down to take a look, then stepped back in horror as Sean collapsed on the ground, wracked with convulsions. The young man’s hair and the skin of his neck and face were consumed, transformed into the same glittering substance as the rock.
But he wasn’t just transforming. He was…disintegrating.
Carol screamed as Sean’s body, his convulsions finally ended, began to crumble away, being absorbed into the surface of the island.
In less than two minutes, there was no trace of Sean’s body. None at all.
Then Lynne pointed at Mack’s shoes. “Mack…”
He looked down, and saw the horrid glitter working its way up the soles. The others checked their shoes: they were all the same.
They ran for the raft, but it was already gone. It wouldn’t have mattered: the boat was listing, glitter spreading along the hull.
“I hope it doesn’t hurt,” Lynne whispered.