Another willowy branch slapped Megan in the face, leaving stinging sensations across her cheek and bitter leaves in her mouth.
“Slow down!” Megan shrieked, holding her hands up defensively.
Her friend, Victoria, was running behind her, pushing the pace. The trees whizzed by and the sky lurched every time her wheelchair hit a root or rock.
“Sorry,” Victoria said, “sorry.” She slowed to a trot and then to a fast walk.
“What the hell?” Megan demanded, combing her fingers through her hair, trying to get the debris out of the now tangled mess.
“I’m just excited, alright?” Victoria said dismissively. “And I wanted to see what your new wheels could do.”
Victoria was referring to the wheelchair that she herself had bought, at great expense, just for this stupid outing. It was an obnoxious, over-the-top, off-road model that was not far from being classified as an ATV. And it was camouflage—of all possible themes to get.
“Well, this stupid thing doesn’t magically make mountainous trails into a smooth ride, I can tell you that.” Megan grumbled. A jarring jolt as they hit a pothole punctuated her point.
“Yeah, I know. We’re almost there, though. It’s going to be great, you’ll see.”
“Maybe,” she groused. “You owe me, you know.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You may just thank me in a few days. I’m telling you, this is exactly what we need. Good old-school camping. Under the stars, moon and—”
“—and an amazing meteor show. You’re a broken record,” Megan interrupted. She sighed. “But, you might be right, I guess. I could use some fresh air and some solitude, far away from my mom. And Brandon.”
Getting away from smothering friends and family for a while was the only perk of this camping trip from what she could tell. Victoria had been nagging her for over a year to do this, but she always made excuses. She was too busy feeling sorry for herself, after all.
It was nearly two years ago when she was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor on her brain stem. First there was tingling and numbness in her toes, but over a few weeks, it spread up her legs until she was paralyzed from the waist down. Being such an active, outdoorsy person had made the transition grueling.
But Victoria had finally gotten so pushy and demanding about “camping under an amazing meteor”, and “just the two of us”, and “you’re going to feel like new”. Megan caved at last when her friend had spent five-thousand dollars on a ridiculous wheelchair. It had officially gotten weird, and so she agreed to the trip, mostly to prevent more weirdness.
Several hours later, under a dark sky streaked with falling stars, Megan’s various objections to camping were long forgotten. The two of them lay on their blankets with a soft bed of grass underneath. The fire crackled quietly nearby and a slight cool breeze brought the occasional sweet smell of surrounding trees and flowers. A couple of empty beer bottles on the cooler glittered in the flickering light. The two young women gazed at the night sky in complete silence for a long time.
“The moon should be up soon,” Victoria commented.
“I don’t know if I can stay up much longer. I may fall asleep right here and you’ll have to drag me into the tent.”
“Uh, no. I’m not dragging any —”
A blinding beam of light swept over them, so powerful that it hurt. Even as she shielded her eyes, Megan’s imagination immediately provided “helicopter spotlight” as the likely source of the painful light. But it was already gone and there had been no sound. Impossible.
“What the actual hell?” she blurted. She lurched upright, searching the sky. “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” Victoria said. There was no hint of concern in her voice. “Probably a meteor or something.”
“A meteor? What kind of meteor—“
“I don’t know, okay? They explode in the atmosphere and stuff, right? There’s tons of videos online. But, it was pretty cool, right?”
“Scared the hell out of me,” Megan said under breath as she continued to peer about. A few streaks of light confirmed the meteor show was still under way.
She cocked her head to the side. There was a new sound that had not been there before. A deep low thrum began to build around them. It was coming from the ground at first, but then it seemed to be in the air. It amplified rapidly until Megan could not even hear herself as she yelled for Victoria.
Looking at her friend, she was baffled to see her sitting, calmly on her blanket, with her hands over her ears and staring up at the sky.
Megan followed her gaze and noticed that stars were missing. At least in a large circular area of the sky, they were missing. It was just blackness above them and, within, only the thinnest of pale blue lines shimmering in various geometric designs. She stared in wonder and disbelief, unable to think or act. The crushing sound ceased without warning, leaving a soft ringing in her ears.
“Holy shit,” she whispered, unable to stop staring. “What is that?”
Hearing no response from Victoria, she risked looking away from the expansive inky light show for a split second. Victoria was gone. Her blanket was still there, though.
Megan looked around frantically, her heart skipping. The campfire was crackling again. Tent, beer bottles, wheelchair. No Victoria.
Looking back up, the laser-etched blackness was gone too. It was just a normal night sky, full of stars.
Megan yelled until she was hoarse. She had dragged herself to the wheelchair and climbed in with practiced skill, trying to gain some mobility in case she needed to move fast. Digging through her backpack, she had located her flashlight and began exploring the full extent of their camp clearing, never daring to let the campfire leave her sight.
Her phone had no signal and she was clueless about which trail to take to get back to the parking area, even if she thought she could roll her wheelchair five miles in the dark on uneven ground.
She cursed continuously under her breath, sporadically yelling for Victoria, to no avail. The memory of what she had seen was already fuzzy. What had she seen? A storm cloud? Some lightning maybe? It had been an unnatural darkness and definitely geometric shapes, though. Right? Or was she making more out of it than it was?
There was no response. She shined her light into the trees and continued muttering.
“Where the hell did you go? You better not be messing with me. I am going to kick your ass, I swear. I bet you put something in my beer. Didn’t you? So not funny.”
She stopped and narrowed her eyes. She waved her flashlight back and forth over an area in the forest. There was a patch of darkness that the light did not penetrate. Like there was an actual physical nothing there. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. And the longer she stared, the more she could make out the same faint razor-thin lines of pale blue, forming shapes, angular and round.
Her breath came quick and shallow. She made no move, only watched and waited. When she was convinced it was not reacting to her light, she called out quietly.
“Victoria? Hello? Who’s there?”
She laid the flashlight in her lap, pointing forward as she began inching into the trees, closer to the now roiling blackness. She looked back at the fire one last time before she rolled further into the treeline and lost sight of it.
She approached to within a dozen feet of the anomaly and now imagined that she could almost see through what seemed like a solid outer wall of a structure. Victoria was inside, hanging in mid-air like she was draped over unseen furniture, with her head back and eyes closed.
A mellow chirp snapped her out of her trance. She looked around for the source. The black wall before her opened, parting like curtains until sterile blue light poured out and over her. It was a calming sensation and it took the chill from the night air.
Megan swallowed and gently called out to Victoria again. Her friend was behind a glass wall, maybe. The interior of the structure was partitioned at many angles with glass or crystal walls and surfaces. It was confusing to even look at directly and she had to blink when waves of dizziness washed over her. She averted her gaze and tried to focus on the smooth lighted floor instead.
She licked her lips and rolled her chair forward. Maybe she could save Victoria, her mind suggested from somewhere in the most absurd depths. The wheelchair moved easier, almost like she was rolling down a gentle slope, even if she was not. She stopped pushing the wheels and the chair picked up speed on its own.
She was drawn inside and could not look anywhere that an unnatural angle did not cause her mind to rebel. The urge to vomit welled up and darkness closed in around her.
Megan groaned, waking herself with the sound. It was a struggle to force her eyes open. The blue light was still there, but a blurry shape was now blocking her view. She blinked and squinted until she was able to focus.
A bulbous gray head with large, black almond shapes eyes shifted back and forth quizzically.
Her eyes now opened wide, adrenaline surging through her. She tried to scream but nothing happened. There was no sound or movement that she could muster. She had absolutely no control or sensation, other than her own terror.
The thought was a whisper that reverberated in her head. The creature had a tiny mouth that had not moved, but she had definitely heard its voice.
/How do you feel/
Without waiting for a response, a spindly finger slowly reached toward her face and tapped something. Calming energy spread through her mind, and physical sensations returned slowly.
“P-please let me go,” she stammered through heavy lips.
The being tilted its head slightly.
Megan licked her lips, her mouth dry. More sensation was returning to her body, but it did not feel familiar. Her body was not her own. A memory flashed unbidden. It was a fragment from a dream. She had dreamed after entering the structure. The alien structure, she thought. What else would she call it when there were obviously aliens here? Another memory surfaced. She had a different body in her dream and lived in a different place.
“Where am I?”
The being did not respond, either by moving or talking.
“What did you do to me? I- I had a dream… so real,” she said as more of the dream came back to her.
“Yeah, and it was crazy. I was on another world, and I had so many friends, followers, maybe? Yeah, followers. And I was their god. For thousands of years,” she droned on as it all flooded back to her. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she submitted to the sensations and images.
/No dream/ New universe/ Serum/ It became god/
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Hey, Megan,” came Victoria’s voice from another direction. “You okay?”
Megan turned her head slowly to see Victoria standing nearby with a dreamlike expression on her face, staring at her and through her simultaneously.
Megan frowned. “Victoria? Are you —you high right now? Is that what this is? Did you drug me? Are we tripping right now?”
“Oh, I’m tripping alright,” Victoria said slowly with amusement, her stare unchanged. “I am sorry, you know. About tricking you. I knew you would never understand unless you went too.”
“New universe? What does even mean?”
“It means that it wasn’t a dream, Megan. The yrthraal are masters of such wondrous serums that the human brain can synthesize using it’s quantum mechanical nature and literally spawn pocket universes where you are an actual god of your very own species. Your own species! What were yours like? Mine are like little kittens that can stand-”
“What? Hold up, wait. You’re tripping on alien drugs and then you drugged me too?!”
“Yeah, wasn’t it just amazing?”
Megan paused, stunned by the casual uncaring comment. Then she reflected on the question. It had been amazing. It was the most incredible experience that no one could ever imagine. She already missed her people terribly. She missed the overwhelming and unwavering devotion. The immense power and freedom.
“Why? How?” she stammered at last. She had so many questions and did not know where to start.
“Yeah,” Victoria started hesitantly, “you know that tumor on your brain stem? The surgeon here kinda caused that. Well, the growth that is, not the paralysis. That part wasn’t supposed to happen. Anyway, he did his surgical magic so you can now walk again.”
Megan stared stupidly at her, uncomprehending.
“Remember when we came camping here a couple of years ago? I arranged that operation, too. You were never supposed to find out, but something went wrong. They were supposed to harvest it eventually without you ever knowing. That brain stem growth is the primary ingredient for their serum. It’s a deal that my dad worked out. They have to work through us. We bring them viable humans as grow houses, and we get a cut of the end product.”
“I’ve been in a wheelchair for two years, because you wanted to get high?”
“No, you dummy. Come on, you experienced it yourself. It’s not just a high. You get to be an actual god, in your own actual universe, and do anything and everything you can imagine. Remember? And you only got a tiny dose,” she said, winking. “Imagine a full dose.”
Megan stared in silence. She was imagining a full dose. It sounded glorious. The seething desire and monumental need to experience that had gripped her soul and would not let go.
“There’s a, uh, bigger dose? What’s that like?”
“He means, if you bring him a viable specimen then you’ll get a full cut.”
Megan bit her lip. She wanted to shout at them. It was insane. She knew that. She should be thinking about justice or vengeance. She had been crippled for years, her life ruined. She had been deceived and used. Drugged against her will. It was monstrous.
And yet, she craved to be with her followers again. They adored her and needed her.
She pursed her lips and looked at the alien. It stood like a statue, without expression or emotion, and stared patiently.
“Where do I get a specimen?”
For the first time, the alien smiled.
It was a wide thin smile, revealing that it was pleased with the question.