by Jeremy Warach
Smoke and unearthly fumes rose from the hole in the ground which hadn't been there moments before. The man stood, mouth agape, eyes wide and unblinking. He took tiny, halting steps closer to the new crater in his backyard. The smell of brimstone assaulted his nose and made his eyes burn and tear.
The August meteor shower, the Perseids, occurred every year, as it has for many centuries. This night he stayed awake to watch it. A fun diversion, an accomplishment to add to his list; he would never climb Mt. Everest or swim across the English Channel, but he could watch the Perseids. A lawn chair, a bottle of fine whiskey, and some Charlie Parker on the headphones kept him company while he awaited the show.
And when it came, it was spectacular. He knew not to expect more than one or two fleeting streaks of light across the sky per minute, but this year saw a heavy rain of space rocks. At its peak, one would appear every few seconds, originating from a spot in the northeastern sky and flashing in a random direction, a thin white line like someone slicing the sky open with a scalpel and, for just a moment, letting through the radiance from outside the universe, before the wound in the heavens healed itself, again showing only its black, star-jeweled skin.
The last one, or at least the last one that he saw, was more than just the briefest of flashes. It careened across the sky like the others, and then kept on coming. The air whistled high and loud, louder, deafening. He pressed his hands against his ears, and there was an explosion. The ground under his feet heaved and a shock wave passed through his body, rattling deep inside his chest and gut.
When he could open his eyes again, a significant fraction of the backyard was caved in, a wound carved into the carefully tended landscaping. He couldn't see how deep it went — the smoke was too thick.
He pushed himself closer. A voice inside his head told him to get away, quickly, call someone, alert the authorities. But no, not just yet, first to look down and see this bit of space junk which had caused such damage to the lawn he had spent his time and effort on.
The first few tenative steps turned into more purposeful strides and then finally jogging the last few feet to the edge of the hole in the ground. He peered down, and then realizing he had been holding his breath, he breathed out and inhaled slowly and deeply. A mistake, he realized almost immediately. His head began spinning and his vision swam. The ground fell out from underneath him, and he had to exert a strong effort to fall backwards rather than forward into the pit.
He landed on his ass and his back; his head bounced against the springy grass, and his arms splayed out to his sides. He turned over onto his front and pushed himself up into a crawling position, then crept away like a dog who'd been beaten by his owner.
The ringing in his ears faded and his hearing returned slowly, but muffled. He sat on the grass with his arms on his knees and watched. Smoke continued to rise, but it thinned, and there was a hissing sound like steam venting from a locomotive's engine.
The show of sights and sounds quieted bit by bit. He sat paralyzed, unable to either pull himself away or draw nearer. Stillness returned to the night, and oddly, none of his neighbors seemed to have taken notice. No house lights had been turned on, no confused voices were heard or groups of concerned bathrobe clad suburbanites converging on his house.
His mind cleared more slowly than his other senses, and he knew that he had to figure out who to call, but first, a few pictures. He pushed himself up to go retrieve his camera from inside the house. A sound stopped him. A soft metallic clanging and the whirring of gears. He turned back to the hole, and a muted white-green light emanated from under the surface of the earth, illuminating the dense vapors hanging in the air above the pit. He forgot about the camera and stepped closer to the pit like a sleepwalker, unwary of any danger. More clanging sounded, metal striking against metal, then grinding and squealing like a tin can being torn in half by a carnival strongman.
He stepped to the edge of the pit and stared down. Five or six feet below the ground lay a round, featureless, glowing orb. It quivered from side to side, and a dark spot appeared on its surface. The spot elongated into a jagged, zigzag line which stretched out and around the circumference of the sphere. The line widened into a crack in the sphere's surface; steam or smoke or vapor leaked out of the crack. Despite the reaction he had from inhaling the vapors a few moments ago, he breathed freely.
The crack completely circled the sphere and the two halves slowly fell apart. The glowing surface slowly faded, and from inside a bright red, narrow beam of light stabbed out. It moved randomly, like a searcher with a flashlight scanning a dark wooded area. He breathed deeply; the smoke entered deep into his nose and lungs. The searching beam of light found its mark when it touched his face. His eyes and mouth widened. He could feel where the smoke had permeated into his body through his lungs, and it moved through his flesh like a living thing, toward the light shining on his face. The vapor suffusing his body touched the laser-red light, and he felt and heard a cacophony of senses: incoherent flashes and swirls and washes of bright lights of every color he could see and many he couldn't, crashes of violent music and symphonies of toneless noise, the smell of everything wonderful and terrible he had ever smelled and had never smelled. All his senses were assaulted in a jumble which had some kind of meaning but none he could understand. There was a message being conveyed, but it was not intended for him.
It all quickly became too much. It overwhelmed his mind and his body, and he felt his heart giving way, giving up.
His legs went wobbly, and he fell to his knees. His head bowed to his chest, his eyes closed, and his breathing stopped, but he did not fall. A few seconds passed, and he gasped, loudly drawing breath into his sore lungs, then coughing loudly and violently. He blinked, shook his head, pressed his hands against his eyes, then turned and threw up on the lawn.
He looked down into the hole and saw what looked like a large, pock-marked rock, nothing more. Standing up shakily, he felt confused and frightened. The past few moments were unclear to him. He remembered the meteor shower and the amazing, unlikely crash of a meteorite in his backyard. More than that was fuzzy. Nothing more had happened, had it? The camera, that's right, he wanted the camera.
He turned and walked slowly to his house on shaky legs. A twinge in his chest made him grab the front of his shirt. At the same moment, there was a jabbing sensation behind his eyes. He must be coming down with a sinus infection of some sort, he reasoned. What a shame.
He opened the back door to his house to get his camera, but he couldn't shake the nagging sensation that there was something he needed to do. It would come to him in time.