Integrator: Sharon Miels
Recordings by Bob Horsmuth
Record everything. That's the mandate that went out after the jellies attacked. The last we heard from the government. It came through desktops, laptops, skulltops, dronetops, tablets, smart phones, fitness trackers. Any device you can imagine. "Record everything. It's vital to our defense." So we do. We record and upload. Record and upload. And hope it gets into the archive. Hope it does some good.
This is my story. Don't worry. It's not a long one. It started with the Jellies attacking.
I was five miles outside of town at the shooting range when the first jellie floated overhead. What saved me was being drunk and being a coward. I saw the jellie first of anyone out there. It came up over the rise and I told myself, "That's it. I quit drinking. Seeing things like that is just too much."
It was pale white and delicate blue floating against the cold, clear sky. And huge. Five stories high. It would have been beautiful if it were not so grotesque. It's billowing and bulbous main body (if that's the right word, I was none too good in biology - or any class for that matter) trailed tentacles down and behind it. It was transparent for the most part. Except where it glowed so bright that it blinded us. I couldn't tell whether the glow came from within the creature or was merely a bent reflection of the ambient light of the sky. I heard shots and saw the Keener brothers aiming at the thing. I thought, Hunting rifles ain't gonna save us. Then I ran.
Others said the thing shot out venom. Brain venom. Mind venom. I couldn't speak to that directly but I believe them. What I remember most was the tentacles. They hung like nooses searching for victims. They spat and fizzled like live wires. My skin crawled like it was trying to run away without me. My hair stood on end. The air was thick and acidic, hard to breath. I saw the end of one tentacle circle over the Keener brothers and Mo Halvorson as they bravely, foolishly fired up at the creature. The tentacle hovered above them then swung down and knocked them to the ground. All three screamed in pain and clawed at their skin as if they were on fire but I didn't see any flames. While one tentacle dealt with the human pests below the others extended out to the side in all directions. Its body/head/main part rippled and it seemed to me for all the world like the thing was lost and trying to figure out which way to go.
I made it to my truck, grabbed the keys from the visor and turned it over. The engine's roar was the most comforting sound I'd ever heard. I tore out of the dirt parking lot and headed south. I wasn't really thinking. I didn't have a plan. I didn't feel drunk anymore but I knew that was only partly true. I knew the adrenaline would wear off quick and I wasn't looking forward to that. I knew my urge to run would turn into a blinding panic once the initial rush faded. I had to find some place to hole up. I went to Whitfield Ranch. It was closed for the season. It'd be empty. That called to me. I didn't want to be around anyone else when the jellie found me. I didn't want anyone to see me die because I was sure it would be a shameful event. Turns out that instinct for isolation is what saved me.
I powered down the hard-packed dirt road that led to the main building of the ranch. I scanned the fields and didn't see any horses or livestock around. The animals must have hid themselves away. Smarter than humans are most the time. The fact the ranch sat in between a couple of finger ridges and was lower in elevation than the surrounding area helped. That and being stumbling drunk. The way the professor explained it is that the jellies messed with people's brains. As my nature at the time was to be drunk from the moment I woke to the moment I passed out my brain was too addled for the jellie's brain rays to effect me like they did most others. Also, again this is from the professor, the mountain ridges forced the jellie to float up higher and this extra distance weakened its effect on those that survived the first wave of panic. And the fact that the jellie didn't stay near town for long saved us, too. I said that I thought the jellie was lost and everybody laughed except for the professor. He said I might be on to something.
Reviewer: Base Commander Almundson
Estella "Tia" Ramirez
I was always very careful to walk slowly and quietly through the jungle behind the graveyard behind the church. So many spirits lived there. Spirits of all kinds.
When I was old enough, my mother sent me to Sunday School. I had to go inside the church not just behind it. Mother never came with me. I asked her why one time and she said something about the priest that I did not understand. Not the particulars. It was clear that she did not like the man. But she sent me anyway. Our chauffeur, Miguel, took me. Miguel would drop me off outside Saint Mary's of the Mountain and I would walk inside on my own. The first time - just after my seventh birthday - Miguel got out of the car and came around to walk me inside. I turned on him as I had seen my mother turn on so many of our servants. I told him I was a big girl and that since mama had not said specifically for him to walk me inside he did not have to. I knew he would be happier sitting inside the air conditioned car by himself than sitting inside the church basement with me and other seven-year olds and the pale, virginal young man who would be our teacher. Miguel looked and looked at me and I stood there giving him the stare and he said, "Okay, okay. I won't tell your mother if you won't."
I, of course, did not stay in the basement very long. The young man was easy to fool. You could see it in his face. He'd never been lied to in his life. At least, that's what he believed. And he never expected a seven-year old girl to be the first. So, I told him I was in the class down the hall and left. This worked for three months. During those three months instead of learning about Mary and the saints I learned about herbs and spirits and the elements. That is also when I met the Sky Men.
The woman who lived in the hut who cured me years before had told me how to listen to the trees and the flowers and the vines and all the things there are in the jungle. My weeks were so full of tutors of all kinds - music, school, politeness - that I did not have any time to go to the jungle even if mama let me which she wouldn't so I didn't even ask. Saturdays I spent with the family all of us together going to places where mama and papa could show us off. Or sometimes the world came to our house and I and my sisters were expected to be pretty and smile and not say anything ever. All day this would go on then Sunday morning it was off to Saint Mary's.
What? Yes. Of course. Sorry. I ramble on and on I know. My sisters always told me so. I will speak of the Sky Men now. That is what you want to know about, yes? Yes, of course it is. No one wants to hear about the jaguars anymore. Just the Sky Men. This confuses me I think because you look a little like the Sky Men. Your face on the screen. It is covered with rubber. The Sky Men's faces were covered in leather. Leather on their chest and face and thick cloth wrapped tight around their arms and legs. And high leather boots. They stomped so loudly through the jungle with those boots. They did not care who heard them. But I was the only one who did hear them and see them. This surprised them but it did not surprise me. One of them talked to me while the others stuck metal instruments into the ground and into the trunks of all the different types of trees. It looked like they were taking samples like a farmer takes samples when he studies the dirt before he decides what to plant in a field.
I hid behind a tree when I heard the Sky Men. I call them Sky Men because at the end they went up into the sky but when I first saw them I thought they were robbers or knights of old or pirates who'd got lost and stuck on land far away from their ships. I stood very carefully behind the tree making sure to not get any stains on my clothes or shoes when the Sky Men came through the glade. I often went to the glade. It had such pretty flowers and it was open to the sky and sometimes animals came through and it was fun to watch them from where I sat on the edge under the my favorite tree, the same one I hid behind when the Sky Men came.
I watched for what seemed like a long time but maybe it wasn't. You know how that is. Your mind speeds up and things that take a short time seem like they take forever. Six or seven or maybe more Sky Men spread out around the glade and took samples of all the plants and grasses and flowers and such. One of them knelt by the stream in the center of the glade and filled clear vials with water. None of them said a word until the one inspecting my tree came all the way around it and saw me. Even then he did not say anything and simply stepped around me as if I were nothing. This upset me and having watched mama so many times I knew that one should never be ignored by anyone. So I stepped in front of the Sky Man and pointed a finger up at him and said, "You stay out of my glade. You leave my tree alone." I heard the tree chuckle then and that calmed me. The tree only laughed when it was happy and if it was happy then the Sky Men were not a threat.
The Sky Man looked down on me. I could barely see his eyes through his thick goggles. The tree laughed again and he reached out a hand to pat it. Then the Sky Man spoke to me. He said, "So, you can see us. And you can hear the plants, too?" I nodded. He offered his gloved hand to me and after he said he would not hurt me and the tree said it was okay to trust him I took the Sky Man's hand and we walked out into the glade. The Sky Man asked, "How many of us do you see?" I counted the Sky Men then and told him. He nodded and pointed up into the sky. He asked, "What do you see up there?" I told him I saw the sky and that was all. He nodded then called out to the others in a language I did not understand. It was both sweet and harsh. The others looked at him and one said something and my Sky Man nodded and the others went back to taking samples. My Sky Man kneeled down next to me and said, "It is good that you aren't afraid of us. We are not here to scare people. We are here to help."
I asked him, "What are you doing?"
He nodded his head over his shoulder to the others and the glade and said, "We are like farmers. We are looking for a place to plant trees. Very special trees."
I was right. They were acting like farmers. Since I already knew that, I asked a question about something else. "I can see you. Can other people?"
My Sky Man shook his head. His voice was low and breathy as he had to speak through his mask. He said, "No. You are one of the few. The youngest I've ever met." I went on and asked him a dozen more questions all in a row. I did not give him a chance to answer one before I asked the next. He held up a hand to stop me and said, "There is only a little I can tell you. We are looking for places to plant some special trees. The special trees will help in the future with the jellyfish and the big cats. The world is going to change in the future. Everyone will need to play their part to make sure the world changes in a good way. This," he nodded again to the other Sky Men taking samples and testing water, "is what we do. It is what we have done, it is what we do and it is what we will do."
I sensed that he was not going to tell me any more details but I was not satisfied. There was still much he was not telling me and I wanted to know it all. I asked, "How long have you been doing this?"
My Sky Man said, "We have been here all along but we did not always look like this." He tapped his mask. "We learned long ago not to show our faces because our faces scare people. That is why we hide. We do not want to scare regular people and the ones who do see us - like you - we do not want to scare them either. Do I scare you? I don't think so. You are a brave girl."
"I am brave and I can see things that most others can't," I told my Sky Man. Then I asked, "What did you look like before?"
"Ah, it is hard to describe. We look like what all the people think we should look like. Our appearances - they shift depending upon who sees us and when and where they are and what they are thinking and what they are feeling. That is true of all things but it is more true of us than anything and anyone else in the world. Long ago, we had many arms. At other times we had cloaks made of feathers and coats of many colors." He gestured out with one hand behind him. "Now we travel in giant sea ships that float and fly through the sky like human ships go through the water. In the future, who knows? Maybe we will have many arms again. Or different ships. Or something else entirely." He could see I was confused and pointed to the knot in my shoelace. He said, "We are like that knot. You made the knot in the laces, yes?" I nodded. "But the laces were there before you made the knot and will be there after you undo the knot." I stared at my shoes trying to understand the sky man's point. He went on, "We are like the laces. We were here before all you humans tied us into knots whether those knots gave us many arms or feathered cloaks or ships or whatever form. And we will be here in the future when people tie us into different knots. Indeed, we are already a little bit in the future and that is how we know we need to plant the trees. We are like shoelaces that extend from the past into the future and each knot in the lace places us in a certain moment so we can interact with it. That is what you see today here and now. That is why I look this way."
I don't know how long it took us to get to the city. I remember watching the forest pass by underneath us. At first it felt like we were traveling in a boat above an ocean of trees. The glowing areas below were like fluorescent algae blooms. But then it stopped feeling like anything I'd felt before and the journey became self-contained - a prolonged, unique moment. Unlike anything I've ever done or will ever do. So different from anything else that to compare it to something normal would only serve to lessen the experience.
I floated. I breathed light. The earth passed underneath us. I stood in silence and awe. I knew without knowing how I knew that all was well. I was translated body and mind and soul into a different being who was an exact copy of my previous self with all the scars removed. Translated, transformed and transported, I arrived at the city.
That's where I met Alvheim. He stood about eight feet tall and shone from within. His smile was like a star and never left his face. His eyes gleamed like blue glaciers roaming the northern sea. His hair was a white nimbus around his head. His beard was a shock of lightning coming off his chin.
I asked him who he was and he said, "We are the mirror-people, the hidden reflections of your kind." I had no idea what that meant but it felt important as he said it. I repeated it several times in my head telling myself that I would understand its significance later. I could worry about and figure out everything that was going on later. Then and there in the moment, all I wanted to do was listen to Alvheim and walk around the city.
Bob started to wander off but Alvheim stopped him with a tilt of his head. He said something like, "You must follow me or you will get lost in the city and once you are lost you can never be found and we need you for just a little while longer. Come, follow me." I think that's what he said. His words sounded so sweet and caressed my ears so delicately I lost track of them. I reveled in the sound of his voice and the gleam of his eyes and the beauty of his smile as his words dropped like sweet rain down upon me. He said whatever he said then he swung his arm to the side and the city opened up before us.
"City" doesn't do the experience justice but I can think of no other word that comes closer to describing what we saw. Gleaming spires. Curving boulevards. Beautiful lakes. Intense groves of trees. Yes, intense. There was a solidity of intention that emanated from the trees sprinkled around and within the city that reminded me of something I'd once heard as I child. Or maybe I dreamt it. Something both esoteric and mundane. Hidden and obvious. So hidden I couldn't remember it and so obvious it is not worth mentioning.
If I were an engineer or an architect I might try a more detail-oriented description of the city. Something like "fully integrated, self-sustaining, bio-organic, eco-tending, immersive, protective, nurturing, scale invariant dynamic habitat." But I'm not an engineer and even if I were I'd realize that words were incapable of capturing the essence of the city. Words can at most hint at its reality. The city is wild that way. Untamed. Not like a slavering beast or the deep, dark forest. Or a slavering beast in the deep, dark forest. No. Untamed like a shining unicorn high on a mountaintop at sunrise. Wild and free and full of a certainty and playfulness and foundation shattering honesty which you end up being grateful for because, even though it has changed your world, you understand finally what it was that you were missing all your life. Wild in that sense.
We followed Alvheim along broad causeways that chimed with each step we took. He pointed to constructs that were more tribes that buildings - gatherings of like-minded and like-willed sentient creatures - and said, "Your professor was wise to warn you of group mind fields. You, all of you, have not yet learned how to harness them. Your seed has not sprouted yet. Its husk is still too tough. But when your seeds do open you will be able to make constructs such as these. Living buildings that are holographic movements of shared minds that both reflect and distill, refract and concretize the unitary mind that links us all." We walked on.
I was content to follow Alvheim wherever he led us. But Bob needed something else from him. Bob asked, "Is Jodi here? Please tell me Jodi is here."
Alvheim turned back to us. We had been following in his glowing, singing footsteps and I had been staring at his back as it was a steady beacon in the distracting surroundings of the city. The buildings and boulevards around us didn't shift or change so much as give off the impression that they could shift or change shape at any second and they might or might not have been asking me permission to do so or perhaps granting me permission to change my own form. This confused me so I kept my eye on Alvheim's broad, white and shining back. When Bob asked his question, Alvheim turned back to us and when I saw his dancing, azure eyes and his star-gleam of a smile, I gasped. I felt for a moment that he was going to take us away from this place and that was the last thing I ever wanted.
Alvheim reached a hand out to Bob and touched him on the forehead. His fingers passed through Bob's skull and rested atop it at the same time. When he lifted his hand off, Alvheim turned away from us and swept his arms up slowly over his head. He said something like, "Before you go, I will show you those who are here."