U S Highway 101 reaches into the rain-drenched Olympic Peninsula then turns back on itself like a magician’s chalk circle intended to keep the magic from leaking out. There is a gap.
Fortunately, there is no such thing as magic.
Aliens, on the other hand….
NASA had landed the Darwin rover on Mars and the machine had spent months creeping toward one of the seasonal brine seeps in search of live microbes. It would take samples to be cultured on nutrient media within the rover itself.
In spite of the spidery machine never being able to come back to Earth, the media-consuming public was worried about contamination of their own planet’s ecosystem by whatever alien biology might be discovered.
On the night side of Earth, in the Hoh Rain Forest, the only alien that Jeb Anderson was worried about was an unpredictable Australian tourist.
Anderson was the incident commander for a search party and he didn’t need another hiker disappearing into the wilderness.
He stood alone on the trail in the wet darkness. All around was a cacophony of tree frogs. The noise was barely softened by the layers of moss that invisibly carpeted the ground and climbed halfway up every tree. The cold rain dripped from dark foliage overhead, making soft ticks as it landed on his parka’s hood and shoulders. It would take a few minutes for his eyes to adjust – which would not help if there was nothing to see. He turned in place, slowly, but nothing was visible. He stopped and waited. Another minute passed… still nothing. There was the faint scent of wet lichen.
Then — impossible to estimate the distance — there was a soft fleck of blue-green luminescence.
In another direction, there was another of the faint lights. Then another, but nearly adequate to show the path he stood on, nor the tangle of ferns that was the understory in the rainforest around him.
It had been a great year for the “ghost lights.” Anderson figured that they were just glowing fungi — luminous mushrooms. But the unusual number of sightings had set off a minor tourist rush. Night hiking for greenhorns is always a bad idea. That was why Anderson was coordinating the volunteer search and rescue team out of Forks. This was the third time in a month they had been called into the rainforest to rescue lost parties of hikers. This time there were two lost groups out there. Separated from one another. And apparently also separated from good judgment.
Alone in the rain-soaked darkness, Anderson was beginning to suspect himself of his own bad judgment. The repeated searches had used up his team of volunteers, so he had been ready to take almost anybody who showed up. Then the Australian arrived. He had introduced himself as Denis Taylor, and had claimed some familiarity with the jungle, in Queensland. But that was a tropical jungle, not cool rainforest.
Anderson had just come out of the Visitors’ Center, kept open as a command headquarters for the search and rescue operation. He had been headed back toward the rescue vehicle, a garish red and yellow truck under the light in the parking lot. From a distance, he had spotted somebody going up the Hall of Mosses trail. Alone. The person had been silhouetted by the backsplash from the light he had been carrying. Since everybody under his command should be somewhere that Anderson knew about — it was clear who this had to be.
He shouted at the lone figure just before it disappeared around the bend. The frog chatter was too loud. He took off running after the lone hiker. He was not going to lose another damn overconfident tourist….
Over the weeks, some of the night hikers did find their way back. Some didn’t. They were the ones who had to be rescued. They usually had cell phones but the single available cell tower was useless for triangulating any locations. Worse than that, there were numerous dead spots around the park where mobile phones had no signal.
Anderson had caught up to the place where he had last seen the errant Australian. Nobody there. He toggled off his hand light and stood listening and staring into the night, looking ahead for another light. That was the moment he was alone in the dripping, frog-loud blackness.
The three glows were no help at all. In fact, Anderson thought, they were a downright hindrance – because they were the cause of this whole mess.
There were voices. Or rather one voice coming from close ahead. The man he had been trying to catch up to was talking, in the dark. It was even possible to make out Aussie dialect but not individual words. Moving by sound, Anderson stepped carefully forward. If he deviated from the trail wet ferns would touch his legs. Not a problem, though he was startled when hanging lichen stroked his face. It was either old man’s beard or witch’s hair; he was on a first name basis with most of the local vegetation. But not with glowing mushrooms. For all the gawking tourists, nobody had brought back a sample. That was understandable because all of the national parks had very strict rules.
Who the hell could he be talking to? Closer in, it was sounding like one side of a conversation. It could not be through mobile phone. Because of these incidents, happening far too often, Anderson knew exactly where the local dead zones were. This was one of them.
“G’day, Mate,” the Aussie pronounced it “Mite.”
The greeting had been directed at Anderson from about five meters ahead. Just exactly as though the two men were not separated by complete darkness.
“…No torch!” Which was Aussie speak for: “Don’t turn on your flashlight.”
“Why not?” Suddenly Anderson was annoyed again, “And what’re you doing out here?”
There was light leaking in at the edge of vision. Now Anderson could make out the outline of the other man, a shadow against deeper shadows.
“You don’t want to scare them away…” the dark figure answered, “…you can see well enough.”
“No, I can’t!” Anderson snapped. But at the moment that was not quite true. There were at least a dozen of the soft lights, visible in dwindling distances among the branches and down into the level of moss-furred fallen trunks.
Anderson stepped closer to the odd tourist. But not too close.
“What’re you doing…” he started to repeat his question but the situation was getting clearer. And brighter. Now there were at least thirty of the strange lights glowing, from high among the trees to below the fern level.
“…what ‘re they doing?” he finished.
“Bit of a convo in the dark…I mean, we’re talking.”
There were more of them blinking into existence. Their lights blurred by a thin curtain of rain. Anderson had thrown back the parka hood to give him a wider range of vision. Drops of chill touched his scalp.
“How did you… call them?” These were decidedly not luminous fungi. For one thing, they were moving. Getting closer.
“I didn’t call them. They called me.”
“From Seattle. I was visiting friends.”
The total illumination was increasing. Taylor’s face was visible in the faint green light. He didn’t look crazy.
The trail was dimly visible ahead and behind. Anderson suddenly realized that the ghost lights were detached from any obvious surfaces. Drifting toward where the two men stood.
“Why are they here?” He was struggling to focus because a structured haze of light had just moved past him toward Taylor. It was a faint glowing mist, shaped almost like a jellyfish. There seemed to be a ring of eyes just above where the tentacles joined the body
“Why?” That was all he could get out.
“Why Seattle? Because I couldn’t get to my friends’ wedding. Which is actually relevant….
“These… creatures,” he gestured to the now hovering crowd of lights suspended in the air around them. They shared a jellyfish’s disregard for gravity because tentacles of light were trailing up, down and sideways… “These creatures did get to the wedding. It was in the woods. And they loved it. So they came back.”
“Still not clear…,” Anderson said. Also not clear was why they were becoming surrounded by a globular cloud of things apparently constructed of live fog.
“What are they?”
“It’s more a ‘him,’ than a ‘they.’ They’re one large communal organism, the parts are connected by flickers of light, too fast for us to catch. They use light instead of nerve impulses to stay connected.”
“And?….” It was hard for Anderson to stay focused. The wall of lighted creatures around them had begun melting downward but not vanishing. They were flowing into a carpet of light on the trail underfoot. It was a patterned carpet because the jellyfish shapes were still distinguishable but now almost two dimensional. They were like animated puzzle pieces.
Taylor’s face was lighted from below.
The light pool around them was getting bigger, flowing out in both directions on the trail.
“Well, they’re tourists….” Taylor said.
“If they’re lost too,” Anderson said, “they’re pretty far from home.”
“That’s not at all clear. But they’re volunteering to help. They’re working on the problem: The other tourists. This will take a few minutes.
“I suppose I’d better explain….”
“I suppose you’d better try….” Anderson was focusing on the man. Trying to ignore the strange dance of lights and shadows twisting under their boots.
“My Seattle friends had one of those destination weddings, the kind that’s held in some exotic location and all the guests travel to get there. Well, the exotic destination was here, that is; Earth. In the woods. The guests were from all over… that is, not from Earth. They attended, in a sort of virtual presence. They’re technologically projected hallucinations and….”
Disturbing outlines were being defined by the gaps among lights embedded in the trail. And the shapes were connecting, overlapping, writhing.
Taylor was ignoring the monochromatically greenish ground lighting, it was speckled and shifting: “Not many people can see them,” he continued. “Not unless there’s a bunch of them in one place, then they exceed some sort of threshold. Then everybody notices.”
“What are they doing?” Anderson asked. Some pattern was emerging in the path’s shadow show that continued to enlarge by the inflow of more lights in from the nearby forest. The mist shapes moved inward and downward to join the organic-looking pavement below them.
“They’re looking for the lost hikers. They feel responsible. This is partly their fault. Too many of them and they’re visible. Because of that they attracted human tourists.
“They’re really sorry about that.”
Anderson decided it was easier to ask than to argue: “What are they doing about it?”
At that moment the lights and darks carpeting the path were flowing in mottled configurations. It was almost like a normal forest floor, the way it would look with shifting moonlight shining through breeze-stirred leaves. Except that the color was wrong. And there was no moon. And there was no breeze. And it was raining steadily.
The sound of the frogs hadn’t paused.
“I think they just did it.” The Australian said.
“Can’t say yet.” Taylor was studying the shadow play that had just frozen into some sort of end state below the soles of their boots.
Nothing else changed, for long minutes.
“You were telling me about a wedding,” Anderson suggested, forcing himself to look up at Taylor, groping for some semblance of normality.
“When they got here they decided it was like the wilderness their ancestors came from. There’s apparently not much of that left anymore, so they came back here…. Same reason people come here. They’d never visited before. It was something of a revelation for them….”
Suddenly a flash of recognition drove everything else out of Anderson’s awareness:
“I can see it!” He said looking down, “It’s a map.”
“Good on ya… map of what?”
“Here. But north should be that way…”
Then the entire display rotated a quarter turn clockwise. Both men staggered because it gave the impression of being on a moving turntable. But only the pattern had shifted.
“That’s the river,” Anderson said, pointing into the adjusted outline. “There’s the highway…. We’re standing on top of the Visitors’ Center.”
All the larger details were outlined in a jigsaw of improbable jellyfish shapes. Even the trails were there but the live map was having trouble holding them in focus, the thin, dark curves kept appearing and vanishing again. But the locations recurred in consistent positions. Just up the trail from the Visitors’ Center, there was a double spot that flickered whenever that part came out of the background.
“That would be us,” Taylor said, pointing.
Anderson had the sensation of having stepped off the edge of reality.
Then he said: “We know where we are. What about everybody else?”
The map flowed under them. Its image moved away from the designated trails and up along the river. There were multiple dots flickering. The search parties and….
“No wonder we can’t find them!” He kept his private assessment of tourist intelligence to himself. “But now we know where to go….”
“Maybe not,” Taylor said. “Lemme ask m’ friends.”
“They speak English?” Anderson realized he had actually managed to accept the idea of glowing, two-dimensional jellyfish wandering around the forest in the rain.
“No, of course, they don’t. They speak light. But they do have translation software.”
That did not help the believability of the situation.
The Australian rattled off a series of instructions and the map began to come apart at the edges. Disintegrating faster and faster toward the center, until the two men were again standing alone in dripping frog-loud darkness.
Anderson decided to update the search parties from where he stood. He had seen their locations on the glowing map. He opened the front of the parka to expose the mike that was anchored to the upper left of his jacket.
He made contact:
“Now we know where they are,” he explained to the distant hearers, “But they don’t have any idea where the search parties are.”
“We see lights,” the distant voice returned, “but it’s not the hikers. It’s more of the ghost lights…. A bunch of them.”
“What are they doing?” Anderson asked.
“Lining up. What’s going on?”
“Um… 187 degrees. Give or take. They detour around obstacles.”
“The hikers should be at the other end of that path. If they have any sense they will start following it toward you. But don’t count on it.”
“We’re on the move,” the distant voice said. “So tell me….”
“We have a volunteer who understands the lights.”
The two men on the dark trail answered simultaneously:
“Yes.” From the Australian.
“No.” From the American.
Anderson cut the connection: “What?”
“No worries, mate. I am a native. From here: Earth.”
“And they’re not?’ Anderson gestured, uselessly in the dark, indicating the rainforest around them.
“I thought that was clear. They’re just visitors…. They’re tourists who made a mess. And now they’re trying to help clean it up.”
The two men walked back to the Center, this time they used the flashlights. The living lights had deserted them completely.
Taylor was answering questions to the best of his ability.
“They get here without the clunky hardware.”
“Spaceships. That’s something they don’t need. It’d have to be a space-time ship anyway. We couldn’t even point it in their direction, or era. We don’t know when or where these connections are coming from.”
“Who is “’ we’?”
“A bunch of fairly normal humans who hallucinate easily but don’t scare easily. We can look a bug-eyed alien straight in his bug eyes and say: ‘Hi’ya mate. What d’ya need?’ “
“You get used to it. They’re mostly good people… using ‘people’ in the widest possible sense.”
“What are the ghost lights actually called?”
“Winkies. But that’s just a name I came up with. Undignified, yeah. But Aussies are not impressed with dignity.”
54.6 million kilometers away, the Darwin rover had dipped its sampler into a streak of brine leaking out of a Martian slope. Results would take hours.
Back in the rainforest, the night was almost over, the frogs had gone quiet.
The lost hikers had been gathered in. Two of them had to be sent on to the Forks hospital, but not in a red light run. The remaining search crew was packing up the second emergency van.
Anderson and Taylor were ending the night together at a table in the Visitors’ Center. Their drinks were hot. Outside the broad window and somewhere beyond the cloud cover daylight had started to seep in, bringing all the myriad shades of green back into the rainforest.
“Where do they come from?” Anderson asked, adding a touch of pseudo cream to his coffee.
“No telling. Some planet that has wilderness like this. Or it used to have.”
Taylor had managed to find some hot water, he carried a couple of plastic-wrapped teabags in his wallet, useful for travels on the tea-deprived North American continent.
The Australian had had more conversations with the creatures while Anderson was busy winding up the rescue operation.
“They’re really sorry for the problems they caused.”
“So you said. Are they leaving?”
“No, they’re not willing to give it up. What they will do is haunt the trailsides. For our benefit. For the local tourists, now we have to make it clear that the best viewing is from existing pathways. Because it will be. The Winkies don’t want people stomping around off trail any more than we do.”
Anderson laid the spoon on the saucer. “After this, I’m going to be more careful about taking on Australian volunteers.”
“Good call,” Taylor said, grinning, “Confidentially, some of them are not as normal as me.”
Data from the Darwin rover were arriving at NASA headquarters. There were indeed microbes living in the brine seeps of Mars.
Humanity had discovered alien life forms.
“In the Forest of the Night” is a chapter in the second book of the “Nightmare Brethren” series. The first book is currently under revision on its way to becoming a second edition.
The working title of the projected book is “Against the Sea of Stars.”
The first book chronicles the raw beginnings of of the Bureau of Alien Interactions. In the second book things go from strange to even stranger.