Part 4 of “Alien Sky”, crossposted to An_Alien_Sky and Fanfic100. Here is the big table of all the parts to date. Hours & Days are probably going to be pulled shortly & lengthened to match & expand on what’s now happening
Steve had been standing, uncertain, shaken, surrounded by dust and stage gear and amps. Now he lay sprawled, belly-down, in rich earth and dead leaves, gripping bare roots in his hands until he was certain, certain that the world wasn’t going to move like that again. His vision was clouded, white-greyed over, and he closed his eyes, panting in the smell of earth and leaves.
There was soft rustling to his right. Dizzy, confused, he turned his head and, through the filmy haze, saw the chick kneeling in the leaves and earth, leaning heavily against that staff, her eyes closed.
“That,” she whispered, “was not fun.” She raised her head, staring up the hillside.
Steve pushed himself up to his elbows, halted when his stomach threatened to rebel. No. He would not get sick. Not here. Not now. Not in front of…that…
He swallowed, hard, blinked around. They were surrounded by thick, tangled trees and earth, old underbrush, tangled vines. It was a deep, twisty, long-running ravine, and they were at the bottom, the base of a sharp, steep slope, and it looked like a long, long crawl to the crest. He could hear wind, and bird-chatter, far up in the trees. Somewhere.
“Here?” he managed, and his chest spasmed into racking coughs.
She cocked her head back towards him.
He forced air to wheeze back into his lungs, gasped the words out around the choking. “Why? If you could…could to that…that…I don’t know, bibbity-bobbity-boo shit…why not…”
“Most folks,” she said quietly, “would be lighting firebrands right now.”
He said nothing. He was scared shitless, but damned if he was going to…to…
“Your face ain’t green,” Steve said instead, between heavy, weighted breaths that made the world sway and tilt. “And you don’t have warts.”
“I’m in disguise.” She stared back up the hillside. “Come on. Up.”
He didn’t move. The earth held him too lightly, and if he moved, it would all tumble away again. He knew it.
“Come on,” she said again. “It’ll get better if you move.”
He looked up at her. She hadn’t moved, either.
Her mouth quirked. “Yeah. I know. But we don’t have a choice.”
The word finally made it out. “How?”
She didn’t move, studying him for a long moment. Finally, slowly, she turned her left hand palm-up, uncurled her fingers, and Steve felt his breath suck in, sharp, cold.
A handful of dirt, mud, soaked in grayish ooze.
“That,” she said, her voice low, quiet. “And you. Like you said, back there. A link.” She braced herself to her feet, stood swaying for a moment, took a halting step. “I didn’t bring us in closer. I didn’t dare. They already know I’m after them. I didn’t need to –”
The other words made it out. “What the fuck are you?”
There was a moment, an instant; he saw it cross her face. Then her foot snapped out, caught him hard on the shoulder, sprawling him into the mud and leaves again.
“Fine,” she snapped, her voice still low, furious. “Go ahead and freak out now. Stay here. Get caught. Idiot. I don’t have time.” She turned, using her staff as balance to start up the long, steep climb.
Steve swallowed again, anger coiled around his fear, and forced himself up, to stagger after her. “Wait.”
She halted, balanced against a tree, braced with the staff, and glared down at him as he made his way slowly up to her, slipping on the uncertain, treacherous footing.
“I should,” she said, in a low, calm voice. “Knock you out, leave you here. Bait. Decoy. Give them an explanation for all the noise. Then they’ll drag you in, toss you with your friends, and I can leave the lot of you and get on with my job.”
“You invited yourself along,” she said. “You can’t take that, you can’t face the consequences, shut up and leave.”
The anger reared suddenly. “Bitch,” he spat.
Another instant. Her face closed. “Yeah,” she said. “I am. And that’s the least of what you’re calling me inside you, Staedhan Raí Piorra.”
It was his name, that odd whispering inflection that twisted it inside out, sharpened it, hurled it, and it sliced deep, jagged, a cold knifing slap. Steve couldn’t move, couldn’t twist away from it, as it pulled everything from him, fistfuls of bleeding, hurting fear and anger and self, threw it up into his face, a raw and bleeding mirror that he stared full into, cold, biting, hard-edged user of a —
He squeezed his eyes shut, collapsed against a slender, gnarled tree, forked and bent, its leaves trembling from his weight against its trunk. Real, normal…
He looked back. She was about halfway up the slope, keeping herself low to the ground as she stretched from hand-hold to foot-hold, bracing herself with the staff over one treacherous patch, stopping to catch a breath before stretching up to the next outcrop.
Something twisted inside him, hard and cold, and Steve found himself looking back at the last few minutes. Looking back, and squirming.
The insults started with you, asshole.
It was almost enough, almost, to send him running, running all the way back to the stadium, the stage, what remained of the band…
Not like he knew which way to run, for that matter. Steve swallowed again, turned, resolutely started up the hill after her. She had to have heard him; when he looked up at one point, she’d stopped again, settled against a mossy rock, watching him silently with that intense, blue glare.
“You know,” she said fiercely, after several long minutes, as he got within soft ear-shot, “I knock you down from here, and you won’t be getting up again.”
Steve paused, hands and knees pressed into the earth. He ached, the stretching and slipping from root to rock to stump, mud and earth and weed embedded under his fingernails and into his skin. Too tired for anger, too scared. He pulled himself up, reaching the rock, all but fell against it, gulping air. “You never told me your name.”
“No,” she said, getting up and pulling herself to the top of the rock. “I didn’t.”
He found himself watching her, studying her. He’d thought she was mid-twenties. Now, he wasn’t sure, not from this angle. For a moment, she looked younger, much younger, but her face was so hard, so angry…
“Look,” he said quietly. “I don’t know what to call you. You don’t tell me, and all I can call you is ‘it’. Those things were ‘its’. You don’t — I mean, you’re not…” He stopped, tried again. “You didn’t deserve that.”
“Much, you mean,” she said, her gaze on the slope.
Steve looked away.
Silence for a moment. “Names have power,” she said finally. “Who you are, what you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going. I don’t give that out.”
“I told you mine.”
“Yeah,” she said. “You did.”
No. He wouldn’t get angry. He was too exhausted, too sore. He just looked at her, trying to catch his breath, trying not to think of the rest of the climb still to go. But then he saw her gaze tilt past him, widen. He twisted, saw it, just as she slid down from her vantage point to land beside him, and pulled him around the rock, into its scant cover.
Below, on the ravine floor, walking it, searching, looking, were two of the things.
He couldn’t breathe, his heart thumping painfully. They were out in the open, surrounded only by trees and mud and vines. One of them knelt, staring intently at the ground. The other was watching the underbrush, its head moving in a slow circle. All those things had to do was look up, and…and…
“Brown,” she said softly, right in his ear, pressing him into the moss of the rock. “Think brown. Think it hard.” Steve opened his mouth, but she cut him off. “Don’t argue. Just do it.”
Brown. How the hell was he supposed to think about brown right now? Those things were…were…
He heard soft whispering, felt her pressing against him from behind, pressing him into the rock, one arm braced in front of him, covering, shielding. But he couldn’t stop staring down at the things, the things that had now stopped, flat, featureless faces looking up the hillside…
One whispered word cut through the panic. “Staedhan.”
He dropped his gaze to the ground. Brown. Earth. Mud. What surrounded him, what was smeared over his skin and clothes and embedded under his fingernails. He breathed out, staring hard at the ground, forced his eyes to relax. The whispering flowed around him, breathed against his shoulder and neck, flowing into the brown, around him, through him…
A heartbeat, or several. The things’ gazes moved over the hillside, over him, moved on. Slowly, too slowly, they moved on, pacing the earth and leaves with no noise, no trace, and the whispering stilled.
“Come on,” she said softly, as the things vanished around the twist of the ravine bed. “We got to move. Now.”
Steve wasn’t going to argue. She was already starting the climb, slow, patient, turning to give him hands up, tapping on footholds, handholds. He thought he’d been aching and dirty before, but now…
His breathing was still short, hard, his heart still pounding, his head light and dizzy. His world narrowed, rock, earth, mud, roots, stones, stretching from one to the other, hanging on, praying it wouldn’t let go until he’d settled firmly onto the toehold. Finally, though, Steve was scrambling up the last stretch, under a dead log and over a rock, crawling to collapse beside her under an overhang of bush and vine at the crest of the ridge. He didn’t want to speak, couldn’t, could only lie there, gulping air.
“Hawk,” she said quietly.
He didn’t understand that, and looked at her. He didn’t have the breath to voice his confusion.
She wouldn’t look at him. “I’ll answer to ‘Hawk’.”
Great. A chick with fantasy Indian delusions. But Steve couldn’t muster the strength for any sarcasm.
She’d stretched up to look over the edge of the crest, stared, biting her lip. Somehow, Steve managed to pull himself up, just enough to peer over the edge. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe again, the enormity of what he’d gotten himself into finally sinking in.
The ridge dropped away again, below them, a gentler slope down to a wider ravine, cleared and leveled. In the center of it was a low, grey dome — like a dinner plate turned upside down and hovering slightly above the table, but building-large. No bricks, no mortar. He couldn’t tell what it was made of. It huddled squat and solitary in the ravine, ominous and stupid-looking both, as bad as any Z-grade sci-fi movie he’d ever seen on the late show. There were no fences, no barriers, not that he could see.
They…don’t need them.
“Second thoughts?” the chick said quietly.
Steve said nothing.
“You picked that up quick, back there.” Her gaze was still on the dome.
It took him a moment to remember what she was talking about. “I’m not like you.”
That gaze re-focused on him, intense, blue. “No,” she said. “You’re not.”
Down below, a thing had approached the squat dome, bending to vanish under it. Steve watched it, trying to focus on his breathing, to stay calm. It had been so long already. Neal and Aynsley could be dead by now. But Steve couldn’t go back. Those things were out there, they were hunting him. But going forward…
“Come on,” she said. “And keep thinking brown.”
“Why?” Steve said.
She glanced back. “It blends you in. Mentally.”
That made as much sense as anything else in the last half-hour or so. Steve watched as she slowly, carefully got to her knees, crawling over the edge of the ridge and keeping well within the underbrush. She was barely making any noise, pacing slowly from tree to brush to undergrowth. At one point, she halted, looked back at him, and he wavered. Now, with that ominous dinner-plate dome right there…
You invited yourself along, idiot.
Steve swallowed, followed after, trying to match her moves. He wasn’t so graceful; his feet wouldn’t cooperate on the loose dirt and stone. She watched him for only a moment, then turned and made her way down the rest of the slope, halting again behind a grouping of trees and brush-tangle. Then, only then, did she turn to watch him again with that intense stare. He ignored it, concentrating on his feet and the footholds, bracing himself against rock and trunk, trying to move with the gravity to get from point to point.
It worked okay, until the last few yards. His feet tangled; he landed hard on his side and slid down the rest of the way. He stayed as that for a moment, panting, as dirt and loose rock and mangled weeds trickled on top of him in a thin slurry. He blinked up. She wasn’t watching, had turned back to staring at the dome, her face closed.
Steve pushed himself up, pulled himself over to sit beside her and study that dome himself. Quiet. That was the first thing that struck him. Too quiet. He’d made enough noise with that fall for everything in the woods to hear; even the birds had gone silent. But there was no movement from the dome, from anything surrounding it. Nothing.
“It’s a trap,” he murmured, without thinking.
Now she was looking at him again, her gaze intent, curious. “Yeah,” she said. She turned back to study the dome again, biting her lip.
“They’re waiting on us,” Steve said, wondering at how small his voice sounded.
“No,” she said. “They’re waiting on me.” She slanted a glance at him. “They don’t have any way of knowing you’d have come with me. They know I’m after them. You can stay out here.”
“You –” Steve caught himself, lowered his voice, fought against his sudden relief. “You’re still going in? But –”
“It’s a trap,” she said quietly. “And I’m going to trigger it.” Then a corner of her mouth quirked. “They don’t know we know that.”
“They’d have to be stupid not to!”
The quirk spread into a grim smile. “Then they don’t know that we know they know.”
Steve looked at her for a long moment. “Hawk,” he said finally, softly, “what are you?”
He’d asked that before. But this time, he was answered with only silence. Her gaze had turned back to the dome, and then, as if some decision had been made, she made a move, as if to get up.
“I’m still in,” Steve said.
She looked down at him, then back at the dome. He could almost see her thoughts; he was expecting an argument, or at least pointed sarcasm. “Okay,” she said instead.
He started to get up. She stopped him.
“The brown thing,” she said. “We’re going to change it.”
“What,” Steve said. “So I don’t blend in anymore?”
“No,” she said. “So they don’t get in.”
He shuddered, remembering that odd blankness, the elongated fingers stroking the side of his face. She knelt back down in front of him.
“The quick and dirty way,” she said. “I saw packing cases around that stage of yours. Those big metal things. You know what I’m talking about?”
Steve nodded. He thought he could see where this was leading.
“Think of yourself sitting in one of those. All that metal.” That gaze focused on him. “Think it real hard.”
Despite everything, Steve grinned. Gregg and Ross had done that to him last month, as a joke, just to see if the scrawny runt of a lead singer would fit. It wasn’t hard to imagine. But she watched him, and waited, then, suddenly…
…it was a push, hard, painful, but oddly blunted. He blinked, stared at her…
She hadn’t moved, her hands resting loosely in her lap.
“That’ll work,” she said. “Let’s go.”
He’d thought she’d be stealthy, or at least try not to be seen. But she only got up and walked straight across the cleared space, towards the dome, openly. Steve scrambled to his feet, caught up, his heart pounding again as they both ducked under the edge of it.
She stopped so suddenly that he ran into her. Under the dome, in the shadows, something flickered blue, humming with electricity, a faint glowing field that ran the circumference as far as he could see. No openings, no way in, nothing.
“Shit,” Steve whispered.
But out of the corner of his eye —
He twisted, backed into her. Those things. Four of them just appeared, apparently out of nowhere, encircling him and her in an half-circle, closing in.
“Bingo,” Hawk said softly.
Steve went cold. She’d expected this?
It was a trap. You knew it. She’d even said she was going to trigger it.
He swallowed, watching as the things closed in, one of them reaching with a graceful, elongated finger.
The finger was stroking the side of his face, the large watery grey eyes staring into his. Steve heard Hawk breathe in, sharp, even as he focused hard, remembering the feel of the packing case, the metal sides, the enclosed quietness. He stared up into the thing’s face, defiant, even as he trembled.
He felt another pair of long hands on his shoulders, pushing, gently pushing, guiding, and he resisted, until he heard a noise, twisted in time to see Hawk collapse. Shock held him still, as two of the things hauled her up, limp, dead weight, and dragged her towards the barrier, part of which had vanished, holding only darkness, darkness that would take them, swallow them…
He couldn’t think; panic, shock, fear, all of it shook him. He couldn’t think, couldn’t remember. Suddenly the long hands on him gripped hard, pushing, pulling, and the long fingers gripped his throat, just under his chin, forcing his chin up so that the watery eyes stared down into his. Metal, Steve thought, trying to hold onto the feel of the packing case, but the image cracked, the lid of the case slivering open to let a crack of light in, long fingers running along the edge of the opening…
Panicked, Steve jerked back, brought his arms up and through the thing’s hold, breaking it before it could react. The other one was still there, blocking him, and without thought, Steve turned and ran into the opening, where they’d dragged Hawk, pulled up short at the sight of her, hung between two of the things as so much dead meat.
He stopped, frozen — and then she moved. She collapsed further, her hands braced against the ground, her legs sweeping around hard to take the legs out from under one of them, ending somehow on her own feet to grab the second by its neck and twist.
It dropped. Hawk was down by the first before it could recover, her knee landing on its exposed neck even as her hands grabbed its head and twisted it as she had the others. There was a sickening crack, leathery and crunching.
Through it, Steve stood there. She scrambled to her feet, as the remaining two came in the opening, and she grabbed Steve by the arm, yanked hard. He stumbled into a run, and they fled further into the depths of whatever this was, down a turn, then another, and another, apparently random. Nothing mattered, nothing, except to get away.
Suddenly Hawk turned again, backtracked several paces, then pulled Steve around another corner, into a small cubbyhole, pushing him back into its shadows.
“Metal,” she said. “Metal. As hard as you can.”
He swallowed hard, closed his eyes. The image, the feel were just there, strong, immediate, as he heard the soft whispering again, whispering that circled around him, echoing slightly from the close walls. The feeling of being closed in doubled, and he heard noises just outside the wall, noises that moved closer, then went past. Another noise hummed in the distance, not heard, but felt, thrumming through his bones and nerves until he wanted to scream.
The whispering faded. Steve opened his eyes, staring past Hawk to what he could see of the corridor. Nothing moved. Nothing he could see, anyway.
“Okay,” Hawk murmured. “Fast lesson number three. Think of your friends.”
He stared at her, unsure he’d heard that right.
“Your friends,” she said gently. “The ones you said got grabbed. Think of them. See them. As if they were standing right here, right next to you.”
He was still panicked and rattled enough that he didn’t question, didn’t think. He’d just been with Neal, before all hell had broken loose, and Steve could still see the young guitarist, those white pants, the blue satin shirt, that ridiculous afro, standing next to him, holding out the toke…
“Which way?” Hawk said softly.
Steve opened his eyes, found himself staring into that intense blue again. He lifted his right hand, reached out, was so shocked to touch the wall, not Neal’s shoulder, that he turned to look, unable to believe that the wall really was there.
“Okay,” Hawk said. She leaned back, leaned cautiously around the edge of the opening to stare into the corridor. “Let’s go.”
She looked at him. “There’s a lot more to be scared of right now, Stephen,” she said quietly. “Not that. Never that.”
It came out as a whisper. “And you?”
Her mouth quirked again. “Well, I am the person that just dragged you in here…”