Chapter Fifteen: The Waypoint
Free at last, Gil tripped as he eagerly ran through the hatch and then clumsily rolled down the edge of the flying saucer. As he reached the edge and fell into the long grass, he heard the door loudly slide back on its rollers, followed by a desperate shriek from Korben. But the door did not close. On his back, Gil caught the spear as it rolled down. I must have accidentally kicked it with my foot. He pointed the spear upwards and readied himself to surprise Korben when the alien would inevitably come over the edge. He was breathing hard, hands shaking, and pissing all over himself.
Korben was loud. It angrily shouted and banged around the top of the ship, but Gil couldn’t see it. The edge of the spacecraft extended several feet beyond the walls of its eight rooms, tapering off and ending with a waist-high vertical drop. It was here that Gil waited, grew impatient, and then finally got up to see why Korben refused to come after him.
Gil sighed with relief when he got to his feet and saw the alien. The shattered plates resulted in many pockmarks on Korben’s skin—some shards remained embedded and stuck out like tiny spikes, while others had fallen out and left behind oozing holes. It had lunged through the door just as Gil inadvertently kicked his makeshift lever out of place, causing the heavy door to slam shut on Korben. The door dug into the small of Korben’s back, pinning its waist and sandwiching its left wrist in the opening. Although Korben was certainly strong enough to open the door with ease—it would likely remain open if pushed all the way—the alien was pinched at such an awkward angle that the haggard alien simply couldn’t push the door hard enough with its right hand. Instead, it moaned and vainly reached for Gil like a zombie.
“Well, you’re in a pickle, aren’t you?” Gil asked, panting and resting the spear over his shoulder. “I see you’re not having a whole lotta good luck with that left arm.” He could feel the warm sun on his back, and the earthy scent of grass and mud was everywhere. The droning sound of the ship’s spinning disc had been replaced with the drone of birds and crickets throughout the meadow, and he savored the feeling of the cool breeze and soft earth under his feet. He’d gotten a second wind, an energy he hadn’t possessed before that emboldened him. “Look, I’m going to get out of here, okay? I’m sure you’ll figure something out—you’ll get out of this jam eventually, and then you can just fly away. Then you can stick yourself with one of those things you have in there and wake up back at home with a brand-new body.” He punctuated the last sentenced with a wry smile.
Korben’s attempts became more violent. It raged against the door, trying to wriggle it open, but failed. After a moment, Gil shook his head with a mix of pity and disgust.
“What do you have against me, huh? What do—what do you—hey!” Gil shouted at the alien, who continued to try and push the door open. The hard edges had begun to cut shallowly into Korben’s thick skin, and its efforts were growing feebler by the second. Gil picked up a small stone and threw it as hard as he could at Korben’s head. “I’m talking to you!”
The stone startled Korben, who gradually ceased struggling and turned its attention to Gil. It breathed hard through its nose and stared at the human more intensely than ever before. Gil waited for a moment, and then continued.
“None of your other buddies wanted to kill me. I think you’re all a bunch of monsters, but they were downright pleasant compared to you.”
Korben continued to stare at Gil.
“So what’s your deal?”
Korben continued to stare at Gil, who whacked the spear against the hull of the ship.
“Stop staring at me! I know you’re not deaf. You pretend like you are, but I’ve caught you by surprise a couple times and startled you. You can hear me. I think sometimes you even know what I’m saying. Maybe not exactly, but you got the drift.”
Korben continued to stare at Gil.
“Okay, you’re just gonna stare, huh? Is that all you want to do? Fine.” Gil leaned over the hard edge of the ship and mockingly stared back at Korben, still unnerved by the detail but not as afraid as before. Korben leaned closer once the two of them made eye contact, as if participating in some sort of staring contest. Gil jumped slightly a moment later, when Korben slammed its free fist in apparent frustration against the hull of the ship. “What are—I… I don’t know what you’re trying to do.”
Korben slammed its fist down again and stretched its neck out, getting as close to Gil as possible. Gil apprehensively stared back at the alien with confusion. He couldn’t put it into words at the time, but he would later reflect that the alien looked to be constipated. Korben’s head began to shake, and Gil saw its jaw muscles bulge—a clear indication that it was fiercely clenching its teeth. And before long, Gil could hear a strained, high-pitched growl escaping its thin lips. Whatever it was trying to do, it was giving it everything it had.
Gil’s expression grew into sheer bewilderment. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he asked, then dropped his spear, fell to his knees, and closed his eyes.
Dark clouds hung over a rocky landscape, obscuring a strange planet’s star and washing the surface in a dim light. A shallow creek flowed between two halves of a large settlement consisting of dome-shaped buildings of various sizes. Their material was black and shiny, like polished hematite, and bright artificial light spilled out of all their many openings.
Hundreds of Greys wearing black cloaks filed across a small bridge over the creek to a large dome building where many others were congregating. It was an important day. Nearly a thousand years prior, three experimental, unmanned crafts were launched into space in different directions. Though capable of impressive speeds by almost any other standards, they moved at a crawl through the vast emptiness of space. Further, the crafts weren’t designed to support life for extended periods of time, and so traveled through space as lifeless hunks of material.
They were meant as waypoints—probes into the far reaches of space to search for signs of interstellar life which spacefarers could later travel to. At the time, only one method of light-speed travel had been theorized and, while highly controversial, was the only method the spacecraft could realistically be outfitted with.
Using principals of mammalian reproduction, an individual’s consciousness could be scanned, digitized, paired with a young embryo within an artificial membrane, and finally injected into a large mammal for gestation. This method had proved viable hundreds of years before, when it was banned on moral grounds. Countless Greys had been paired with the embryos of non-Grey species, resulting in irreversible abominations that led to the condemnation of the technology. Its development came to be thought of as a dark period of the Greys’ history.
The three spacecrafts, each powered by a highly unstable element, were only the first step in what was once considered a promising program. The dominant thought of the time was that the technology of the ships would be outpaced in a manner of decades—that before the ships ever had a chance to reach anything, the Greys would devise better ships that allowed near light-speed travel with inhabitants on board. If nothing else, the hope for the three crafts was that future generations would continue to develop a viable means of light-speed travel to visit it in a more practical manner. But this was not the case. After hundreds of years with no findings from any of the three crafts, interest in the program died. Dozens of generations came and went before Earth was discovered—young and old alike were only taught about the spacecrafts for their historical context.
When a craft finally did send a transmission, the excitement belonged to a new era—an era with little interest in space travel. With the exploration program long since abandoned, the process of analyzing the data was akin to finding an ancient civilization buried under the rubble of time. For many years, the task of understanding the antique ships, the data the ships sent back, and the barbaric method of reaching a ship fell on Grey archaeologists. It was only natural, then, that many of the first travelers to Earth were not students of science, but history.
Images and data returned from the craft revealed a more colorful world with beings similar in many ways to themselves. The planet was closer to its star and thus warmer. Its bipedal inhabitants varied greatly in appearance. It was determined that contact would be beneficial for both civilizations, but without any practical means to reach the ship, the ancient and long-unused technology of consciousness transference had to be revisited. The process of understanding this long-forgotten tech took many years, and was initially met with disgust. If the ships had been launched just a couple hundred years later, they could have held lifelike robots which could be remotely controlled from home. Instead, a roundtrip for just one individual required the creation and destruction of two physical bodies.
Research concluded that an individual would have the spiked end of a stout device shoved through the skull, which would initiate a brain scan and record genetic information. The body would die in the process. The corpse would be discarded, and the digital information from the device could then be sent light years away and injected into a sack paired with a rare and precious Grey embryo—the revelation that nearly a hundred frozen embryos sat aboard each of the three ships was met with further disgust at the wastefulness of past generations.
Finally, the sack could be implanted into any large mammal, which would eventually gestate into the same Grey that had originally taken the device’s sharp spike. The first member of a group to be received by the ship would trigger a primitive autopilot, which would fly to Earth to seek out any mammal large enough to accommodate their bodies. The first mammal selected ended up being the default option for all future missions—the creature was small enough to fit through the bottom hatch of the ship, but large enough to accommodate even the tallest individuals. Further, the abundant meat not consumed during gestation would provide adequate sustenance for the crew during the trip.
Those who had gone through with the procedure claimed the transition was sudden and instantaneous. They would feel the intense and traumatic pain of the spike penetrating their skulls before flailing wildly in the dark tangle of flesh and blood that separated them from the outside world. They would claw and bite their way out. The umbilical cords would be removed, and due to the nature of their restorative physiology, the hole in the belly of the new body would heal and leave nothing behind.
Using high-powered transmitters and receivers, the consciousness of a being would be sent wirelessly to the ship at faster-than-light speeds. Thus, what seemed like the blink of an eye to the traveler was actually a period of four years. After a community of hopeful travelers had risen up, the waypoint was used as a timeshare, as trips were staggered by a period of months; four months after the first group departed, another group would queue up and depart. Four months later, another group would depart, and so on.
On this important day, a little over eight years later, the first travelers to Earth’s waypoint were back at home and due to emerge from the sleeping giants that grew them. A week prior, the travelers were received and downloaded, and then the entire settlement was scanned for anyone willing to donate an embryo. The scientists returned to the large dome with ten embryos—any remaining would be frozen for later use. Hundreds gathered around to inquire about the strange new world.
A large, three-legged animal covered with dense brown fur lay comatose, and then began to shake. Several individuals rushed to it with sharp blades, ready to help the returning traveler through the thick wall of flesh and bone. Once emerged, the traveler gasped for air and ripped the umbilical cord from its abdomen, then lay panting on the ground. After washing the blood from its skin and donning a robe, the traveler told of its experience.
The old spacecraft was even more archaic than expected. After emerging from the strange mammal and spilling out into the ancient ship, the traveler had clumsily guided it back to the new world and painstakingly acquired three additional animals of similar description for its digital companions. And a week later, they were all in the flesh, ready for their reconnaissance. They found no garments aboard the craft, and thus remained naked.
Initial findings were promising. The atmosphere was breathable, the water drinkable, and the beasts edible. And unlike the Greys’ world, Earth spun on an axis as it rotated its star. This made most of its surface area habitable—as opposed to their own planet with its locked orbit—and as a result, the population size was astronomical. With one side of the Grey home world shrouded in permanent darkness and freezing cold, and the other scorched by the constant heat of the star, the Greys straddled the two environments along the permanent dusk of the prime meridian.
The Greys’ counterpart, Earthlings, proved troublesome. They could not speak—that is, their voice could not leave the confines of their minds. Instead, their voices were audible, communicated via their vocal folds in bits and pieces using a defined series of noises. Though facial expressions seemed to be universal, since they were usually consistent with their actions, nearly all of their communication was based on sound alone. Cursory tests confirmed the suspicion that their physiology would never allow them to speak in another manner, and their capacity to accept speech from the Greys was so limited that speaking to them directly was both exhausting and potentially dangerous. So the group had to endure endless, audible babbling from the multiple Earthlings they’d brought aboard the ship. The Earthlings proved to be aggressive and hostile, but also quite weak and easy to subdue. Their anatomy was remarkably similar on the outside, but unexpectedly different on the inside. Further, like so many other animals, their species consisted of two types.
The traveler went on to explain that, though three of them had embarked on the interstellar journey, four souls had come back—in the interest of achieving some form of communication, one of the Earthlings brought aboard the ship had its consciousness digitized for the purpose of mixing the two species. The file had been embedded into a Grey embryo, in the hopes that the hybrid would be endowed with the ability to speak. With the consciousness drained from the body, a thorough autopsy had been performed, and it was discovered that the creatures were mammals. Their bodies were like plump citrus fruits, full of liquids and nearly as fragile. The travelers were commended for their efforts.
When the Earthling finally emerged from the animal and immediately set to screaming, the traveler assured everyone it was normal—all of the Earthlings had responded the same way, barking like animals and flailing about for most of the various encounters. The Earthling bellowed and writhed on the ground in its bloody mess. It was beige. Its eyes were large and colorful, and thin hairs clung to its wet body—this mix of both Grey and Earthling hardly resembled either species. When approached, it scurried to the corner like some wild thing and continued to scream itself hoarse. The Greys found the hybrid could in fact speak now, but not in any discernible way. Being close to the hybrid filled one’s mind with random and broken imagery—akin to being near a rabid animal, scared and confused, trapped in a cage. Those in attendance initially looked on in confusion and wonder, but this quickly turned to annoyance, and then disdain. By the time the other travelers emerged, the hybrid had to be taken outside and kept separate from the populace.
As time went on, more groups returned with new findings. Each departing group would fill the waypoint with notes, which grew into a sizable compendium of Earthling knowledge. Various experiments were carried out. Casualties occurred only once, but the incident resulted in the loss of a physical body and, likely, the discovery of their presence. On several occasions, travelers would pair themselves with Earthling embryos to emerge as creatures somewhere in between. They would lose the ability to speak in the process, but could still engage in written communication. These new hybrids gained a cursory understanding of communication through sound. Understanding was simple enough, but moving one’s mouth to form words proved difficult and time consuming. The first word many of them learned was based on its context and the frequency in which Earthlings would scream it at them: “No.”
Periodically, returning crews would bring back their own hybrids, but this practice quickly became tiring—after the fourth crew returned with yet another hybrid, the practice was banned. However, due to the nature of their staggered trips, over a dozen groups would still return with hybrids without ever getting the message. This resulted in the practice of examining the consciousness files before embedding. If an Earthling consciousness could be identified, it would simply be deleted. If not, it would be birthed and then quickly sent to the outskirts with the other Earthling hybrids.
The growing hybrid colony, which had long since ceased its mindless barrage of broken imagery, was contained at the edge of the settlement—no one had any idea what to do with them. The area was avoided. Those who ventured too close often fell unconscious, their heads filled with the overwhelming but indiscernible voice of the group. It was described as the voice one hears around young children—those too young to control their voices, sending them out in every direction imaginable. They were useless, and attempts at meaningful communication were fruitless.
Returning Greys who’d spliced themselves with Earthlings were assembled into a small team and tasked with observing the hybrid Earthlings, which returned limited results. Through decades of observation and interaction, all the Greys could establish was that the hybrids wanted to rid themselves of their altered bodies and return home. They were messy, picky eaters, withdrawn and suicidal.
It was eventually decided that the hybrids must be returned home—the Greys had to make their presence known, but things would have to be made right before official contact could be established on Earth. A return trip was made with the original hybrid in tow. Through several transference attempts using freshly-extracted Earthling embryos, the visitor returned to something near normalcy before mysteriously dying. And when the crew returned, dejected and defeated, they found their appearance had somehow changed: they were bright white. This lone symptom led to fever, followed by incurable dehydration and eventual death.
The sickness spread throughout the settlement, infecting most in a matter of days. In a matter of weeks, death within the colony was a daily occurrence. Mass graves were prepared, and before long, huge swaths of the deceased were pushed towards and dropped into it. Almost all of the hybrids caught the infection, and a small number of them succumbed, but most suffered only a short fever and then fully recovered. The fact that Earthlings were able to fight the infection led to the discovery that the infection originated on Earth. And this discovery led to the conclusion that Earth had attacked—attacked in retaliation to the Greys’ failed experiments, and out of fear of the unknown.
The exploration program was immediately abandoned. Four years’ worth of expeditions were still due to return; however, the returns ceased after just one year, and those who did return would find themselves infected. The existing hybrids, regardless of where they originated, were summarily executed and added to one of the mass graves. Meanwhile, the Greys continued to die out, and a powerful hatred for Earth developed. Those who had opposed the program from the beginning continued to condemn it even on their deathbeds. The Earthlings were cowards, all of them—these creatures who chose to viciously attack the Greys from the shadows, and all over a misunderstanding.
Experimentation revealed that consciousness digitization could allow an individual to have the infection manually written out of its genetic code; however, without the infrastructure in place for mass-digitization and rebirth, new bodies would gestate fully recovered, only to be re-infected shortly after birth. Those who were lucky enough to form their own embryo would use it at the last possible moment for a chance at life. Others would do the same, often acquiring an embryo after violently stealing it from someone else.
Entirely too late, many began to wonder how most of the hybrids managed to fight the infection. While medical treatment administered to the Greys proved entirely unsuccessful, all but a few hybrids beat the infection without any intervention at all. Eventually, and without a single hybrid left in the colony, it was determined that the cure lay within the Earthlings’ own flesh and blood.
With tens of thousands of Greys dead and buried, and with the scientific community dwindling to almost nothing, four volunteers were sought to visit Earth one last time to devise a cure. Afterwards, the ship would be set on a slow course back home, and Earth would never be visited again. In the most remote area of the settlement, four young, uninfected individuals stepped up to take the journey. The team consisted of two students of Earth anatomy, one student of history, and a first-year member of the military.
Nearly all of the remaining infected population chose to undergo long-term digitization, and then discarded their physical bodies. They would be reborn after the last travelers returned with a cure. The few Greys not already infected spread out farther and settled in neighboring areas. It was agreed that, if any embryos were to form, they would be frozen and set aside for the eventual return of the population. The team was infected before even having a chance to leave.
When the first of them awoke on the ship, it acquired four more animals from Earth’s surface as quickly as possible to start the gestation process. Until the process had completed, it would spend its days cleaning out the various dead bodies that littered the ship. And when its travel companions emerged, they made themselves familiar with the technology, and then departed for the Earth.
Gil gripped the sides of his head and groaned in agony. So much information—too many concepts, too much imagery—had raced through his mind like a bullet from a gun. The blast caused him to curl over and bear down so his mind could process it all. When it finally sunk in, he allowed himself to fall over. There had been several instances over the course of Gil’s abduction where, in hindsight, they must have been attempting to communicate with him. But Gil never felt anything more than anxiety. This time, though, a connection had been established and Gil saw everything in those black eyes. And judging by how taxing it seemed to have been for the exhausted alien, communicating with Gil had been no small feat. But it was essential—with the tables turned, and Korben stuck between a door and a hard place with its life in the human’s hands, it had to explain itself. They both lay there panting for several minutes, Korben’s thick veins pulsating heavily in its face and gradually subsiding. Then Gil finally sat up, got to his feet, and addressed the alien.
“I knew it,” he proclaimed. “I got the—I had you pegged, man.” He rested the spear over his shoulder again and pointed his filthy finger at the alien, turning his lips inward and shaking his head. “Look around you, man. Do you see anybody else?”
Korben followed his finger for only a moment as it darted to either direction, then stared back at Gil.
“You’re just an urban legend… but you—you stole people? You turned them into some kind of freaks and then—and then killed them? You’re just… you’re monsters. I’m sorry about what happened to you… to your people, but you’re crazy if you thought for even a second that I’d take pity on you. You gotta understand that any number of things your people were doing could have caused you to get sick. You could’ve caught the common cold from any of the hundreds of abductees. You could’ve caught some virus passed by all that cattle. Hell, if I understand all this correctly, you could’ve caught something from one of the pregnancies your people stole. We’ll just never know, but no one knew about you guys. Not for sure anyways.”
Korben continued to stare at Gil, who finally threw up his hands and asked, “You really don’t have any idea what I’m saying, do you? All those missions, all those studies back at home, and still just nothing?” He didn’t wait to see if Korben’s stare would persist; instead, he knelt down to pick up his drinking glasses, then turned around and walked away. Once he had about ten yards of distance between them, he spun around again to look at Korben. Sticking out of the side of the ship like Korben did, Gil thought it all looked like an oversized novelty antenna ball.
Gil had the advantage. He could easily kill Korben now, drag its corpse into public view, and let the entire world see the monster. Then people could come and look at this ship, and make a big spectacle of it… but maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. The most memorable moment of that forced scene was their decision to leave Earth and never come back. After all, their trips to Earth had resulted in the death of the majority of their species. They were done here. But if Gil prevented Korben from leaving—if he kept their ship from heading back home, would they send reinforcements?
Best not to risk it, Gil thought. He situated the spear so that he was holding the tail end of it in his right hand. Then, after curling his arm around himself, he flung the spear like a Frisbee towards the flying saucer. It landed somewhere in front of Korben, causing a racket as it made contact with the ship’s gleaming surface, and then began rolling down towards the edge. The alien, whose reaction must have been delayed with disbelief, lurched forward and grabbed it at the last possible moment. Gil cupped his hands over his mouth and took a deep breath.
“Go home, Korben,” he shouted. “Just go home.”
Korben held the spear in its right hand and stared at the tool for a moment as if it’d never seen it before. Then, hesitantly, it used the tool to pry the door back and quietly slip inside. The door shut with a loud bang, and after a few moments, the ship whirred to life and hovered into the air. As it rose up into the sky and disappeared out of sight, Gil was amazed to see that the bottom of the craft was invisible—on the ships underside, all he saw were blue skies.
“Good riddance,” he muttered. Finally alone, Gil looked around and almost instantly recognized where he was. It was a nature reserve—in relatively close proximity to his home—which he remembered being notable for not having any particularly interesting nature to observe. He’d hiked a rough trail through it during the one week out of each year they open the gates, and was a little disappointed to find only common birds and small rodents. Now, though, he was grateful for every small creature he laid his eyes on.
Scanning the horizon around him, he spotted a highway overpass and walked towards it. After a short while, he cracked a smile, which grew into a giggle, and then a laugh. Before long, he was on his hands and knees, and then finally on his back, laughing hard with tears of joy streaming down his face.