Cold Bright Moon

by

Tony Richards

 

Lord, but I wanted to help the woman. Every instinct, every fibre in my body, strained to just go to her aid. I suppose everyone else who was watching -- and there were hundreds of us stood there watching -- felt the same. Maybe even some of them had lost someone that way.

But I didn't help ... because I knew it simply wasn't possible. I'd already tried a hundred times, without result.

And maybe it is that thing -- not personal helplessness, but the total inability to lend aid to another --- that makes us all feel so degraded by the Tthirh.

There were four of the aliens. All in flight, performing impossible loops and dives and break-offs. And all herding her.

This was indoors, in a shopping mall. An otherwise wholly ordinary Saturday afternoon, with families and couples come out for the afternoon, parcels being carried, cafes filling up, kids getting overexcited or complaining they were bored. Just the human race, happy and busy at minding its own business.

And there was no warning, never is. The Tthirh just popped up out of thin air, above a promotional stand for vacations in Paris. Hovered there a moment while they chose their newest victim.

Then the Cage started appearing.

And they began driving her in its direction.

Why did they choose that particular human being? There is never any discernible sense in who they decide to home in on. They've taken anyone from toddlers, the blind, and homeless drunks to the extremely elderly, senile, and almost dying. They took the Deputy Prime Minister of Finland last year.

This one was in her mid-forties, untidily dressed. Nothing special about her at all. Nothing to mark her out. But the Tthirh drove her towards that Cage as though their very lives depended on her capture.

And we all just watched it happen.

How many times had everyone seen this? At least once a week, a pattern repeated all across the world.

Apart from her piteous screams, the only sounds at all emerged from two very small children, near to me.

They were clinging to their mother's coat and whining, "It's the Fear, Mom. It's the Fear."

Most little kids call them that. And they are right to do so.

#

It was almost four years back now, to the day, when we first realised something odd was happening to our own Moon. And three months after that before we realised it had been colonised.

Not by any of us. I hasten to add. We had already given up on space exploration by the late Two-Tens, after the second Mars Disaster.

There were just curious electromagnetic disturbances showing up on charts, at first. Then shifting bands of colour began to appear across our satellite, in places there'd been merely shades of grey before. We still have no idea what they are. Highways? Dwelling places? It seems dubious that something like a Tthirh would need an actual dwelling.

The third Mars super-rocket was still standing on its launch pad, waiting to be scrapped. So we used that -- amongst much vitriolic protest in the press -- to go and take a closer look.

"I cannot believe," I can still remember Mandy almost yelling, "they're going up there again! After everything that's happened? After all those people dead?"

That awful, final screaming of MarsDome's inhabitants -- broadcast live on network tv -- continued to echo in our racial consciousness.

But we dutifully watched the take-off. "In just three days' time --" the anchorman told us.

No. In two days' time, we all got our first look at a Cage.

It was much larger by far than the one the woman was being driven into. Took the entire ship. Subsequent ones swallowed up the nuclear warheads that we fired, once we came to realise that we were under attack.

And the Tthirh? They just started appearing, the weekend after Coloniser 3 vanished. And began to snatch us away, one by one.

Mandy? She was one of the first to go.

#

The Cage takes some fifteen seconds to fully materialise. Hence the chase -- if it started to form actually around someone, they could simply step away from it.

It appears in the form of shimmering rings, some two dozen of them and usually some eight feet wide. They spin and criss-cross, but there's nothing neat or uniform about them. Like the bands of colour on the Moon, there's a randomness about them, a total lack of coherent pattern, which seems an attribute of Tthirh creations.

Although it has been suggested there are patterns we are just incapable of seeing.

And the beings themselves? Of what size? What shape? What substance?

Mist and light.

Light and mist.

Maybe something viscous deep within them -- they don't remain still long enough ever to be sure. Sometimes they might take the form of a single, undulating wing. Other times they're eel-like. Or round, or ovoid. They'll abruptly sprout stuff without any warning ... tendrils, appendages, stumps. One time, even something like a skinny, trembling claw.

They can perform near-impossible aerial manoeuvres. It would actually be astonishing, beautiful, if the point of them wasn't quite so deadly.

But the real issue as regards the Tthirh, is this. They can touch us. But we can't touch them.

A hand, a fist, simply passes through them. The same with a stick, a bullet, a grenade. Gas has been tried, and high-voltage shocks, and lasers. They don't even seem to notice. They behave as though -- asides from their freshly chosen victim -- we simply aren't there.

This time was no exception.

The Cage was wholly-formed by now. And the woman -- who'd been trying to clamber across an information desk -- was forced gently backwards by one of the airborne creatures. Found herself, now, within six feet of the whirling rings. Looked round at all of us, so desperate, so terrified, and ... maybe something else.

Affronted by the way we watched? Abandoned and betrayed? Oh lord, I'd seen that look before.

Then, she tried to move away. Tripped over her own heel. Let out a shriek.

The Cage rolled forwards and closed over her.

Contracted.

And was gone.

As were the beings themselves.

How many times had we seen all this being played out? But it still doesn't lessen the shock. A few people turned away, but that was just denial. An awful lot of others, by this time, were clutching at their mouths or crying. A young man across the way leaned into a wall and started hawking.

One face in the crowd caught my attention. A face like a flat, pale stone, above the only person moving. Edging -- painfully slow -- forwards, towards the last spot where the woman had been.

Eyes terribly wide, yet strangely blinded.

And I knew that look as well. This was her lover or her husband.

My own eyes filled with hot dampness, and I finally ducked my head and turned away.

The thing about the Tthirh is ... that they give us no choice at all but to behave like weakling cowards.

#

There's an electronic board hung in the centre of most towns, these days, which shows the number of abductions known so far, world-wide. It was up to 869,314, the last time that I passed by it.

Mandy? She was number three.

The front window of the home we used to share looks out across the park that we were hurrying through, that evening, when the aliens appeared. We had actually been discussing the first two snatches, by an awful irony.

Mandy's stride was far quicker than normal, and there was a tremble to her voice.

I can still hear the way that it turned into a piercing scream.

And yes, I tried to fight them, chasing, kicking, punching.

I even wound up yelling out 'Take me!' when I realised it was hopeless.

None of it did any good. It still burns when I look at that park.

But the worst view from my window isn't even that, these days.

It's at night, when the moon comes up.

As a race, we used to see it as romantic and poetic. Wrote sonnets about it. And especially songs. 'Blue --'. 'Shine on, harvest --'. 'By the light of --'. These days, no one wants to hear them any more. Two weeks into the attacks, some stupid DJ in New York played 'Bad Moon Rising', and got badly beaten up.

And I don't want to. Not ever. But I can't help looking out at it, especially when it's full. It seems so disdainful of my gaze, the cold bright moon.

And ... could Mandy be up there? Alive? And is she frightened? Hurting? What are the Tthirh doing to her, if they've got her there?

No one knows.

No one knows because we still know absolutely nothing about the aliens, save their name. We only have that because the commander of Coloniser 3 kept repeating it over and over -- trance-like -- before the Cage closed on him. Otherwise ...?

Our very best minds are to this day working flat-out. But with precisely no result at all. Every telescope of every kind is focussed on the lunar surface, of course, but can make out nothing save the coloured bands. They can't find the ship, the missiles, not even with Hubble.

Everyone is on some kind of trank these days. The churches are full. Nervous breakdowns, and suicides? What would you imagine?

And it feels like being dead, while still alive.

Some nights, I get drunk and stagger out into that park. Stand up as straight as I can and tip my head back. Stretch my arms towards the skies.

And yell out, as I did the first time, "Take me, you sons of bitches! Come on now! Take me!"

At least I might see Mandy again, that way, my be-fogged mind figures. But they never accept the offer. Never come.

All I'm ever left with is the Moon, silent, still, as though embarrassed by my antics.

Although that -- if the truth be told -- is to imbue it with our own emotions.

Every night, when it comes up, it is a symbol of our puniness and our defeat.

#

Then one day, after a little more than four years, it all simply stopped.

The meter in town just stopped moving, at 870,427. It clicked up one more notch a couple of times over the next twenty-four hours, late reports from far-flung countries finally trickling in. But the herding and the kidnapping had ceased, as abruptly as it had started.

A ripple passed through all of us, like a gust of wind across tall grass.

Something new was going to happen now. Quite what, we had no idea in the slightest.

Whole cities grew hushed. People could barely speak at all, they were so choked with apprehension. We did the only thing we could do ... remained by our television screens, waiting for news.

It was night again, and warm. I had all my lights off and the windows open. The glow from the tv screen was matched by the moon's lustre, spilling in across the floor.

And ... I'm still not sure what happened. I just realise -- by this stage -- that the same happened to everyone.

It was just past midnight. Had I become over-tired? Did my attention wane? My eyes slide shut a moment?

But, in that brief instant, the phosphordot pictures on the screen seemed to grow enormous in my mind's eye, then change. And I was looking at ...

People. Ten of thousands of them. Standing in rows that stretched off into the distance. One of them was Mandy. And she turned her head towards me, as though knowing I could see her.

Her whole manner was calm, and her expression peaceful. And she -- gently -- smiled.

She vanished. I jerked. Had I just dreamt that?

Then, after a moment of inertia, I realised that the room seemed to be rather darker.

That was when I went to my front window.

#

I know now that everyone who'd had someone abducted saw a different face, a loved one's features. Saw how calm that person was, and watched them as they smiled.

The Tthirh are gone, and that's something. Yet we have lost a whole lot more. Nearing a million people, for a start.

And tides. There are no more tides.

We did get one thing back, though. And it still provides the subject for the world's major debate. That same night, Coloniser 3 re-appeared on its launch pad, although not in its original state.

A massive rent had been torn in its side, as though by a meteorite. All its fuel was gone, its oxygen tanks were empty. All its electronics were burnt-out. The interior was charred with fire.

An act of vandalism by an alien race? That hardly seems likely.

And so, were they trying to tell us something?

There are various theories as to what. Myself, I can still remember Mandy's words when the ship first went up, and that helps form my own opinion.

"I cannot believe they're going up there again! After everything that's happened? All those people dead?"

It's about submarines, really. Wait. Just listen.

A submarine is a vessel that dives into an utterly hostile, cold environment, where people cannot live or breathe or possibly survive. And it was the same when we tried to explore space. A spaceship? Just a flying submarine. A tin can hurled into a freezing vacuum. And the MarsDome? Simply ... more of the same.

I still cannot imagine what other way there is to get beyond our planet. No one yet can. But there is one thing that I'm prepared to take a guess at.

The Tthirh did not simply spirit away all those human beings by themselves. The people they'd abducted had a purpose, an involvement.

They ... did something, themselves. Somehow reached inside. Found something that was in there all along.

And simply ... travelled.

That's the theory I subscribe to, anyhow.

I still take the occasional night-walk in the park, though not drunk any more. And I miss Mandy like all hellfire when I do that, but I don't feel quite so bad about her these days.

With no Moon up there, the sky looks so much clearer. Full of stars.

Seemingly, just a little brighter than they were before. Seemingly, just a little closer.

That is an illusion which still continues to mock us.

END

 
 
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Tony Richards writes: "I'm the author of two novels, Night Feast and The Harvest Bride, and have had stories appear in F&SF, Asimov's, Ad Astra, Pan Horror, Weird Tales, The 3rd Alternative, Dark Terrors and numerous anthologies. Widely-travelled, I often use the places I have been as settings for my work. I'm 46, and live in London with my wife."
 
 
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