The Stars Beyond the Mesa

 

In the desert of Northern Arizona, five kids are caught up in a mystery. Miles from anything, there’s an observatory that never opens its doors. Something happened there, leaving a scar on the white dome. Now there are strange lights in the night sky and people sleepwalking like zombies while a hunter from another world preys on them.

 

 

1

            The sky was bright with stars shinning down on an empty desert. Katy starred up at them, thinking about the art supplies in her bag, wondering if she’d ever be able to capture a night like this, the way the Milky Way formed like a river of light. She wasn’t much of a painter, she tried but she was better with pencils. She’d have to use shades of grey and white, she thought as she composed in her head. Of course there wasn’t time now.

She took another careful step, going down the hillside. Something moved, leaving a trail of dust across the rocky soil.  A rabbit darting away. It reminded her that this place wasn’t really empty, and that she didn’t trust it. The stars may be pretty but they made shadows on the barbed bushes, and sand-blasted stones, dark places where venomous creatures could hide, rattlesnakes and scorpions and other terrible things, waiting in ambush.

Katy looked back at the pale dome sticking out from the side of the high bluff behind her. It looked like a swollen sore on the top of the mesa. The observatory didn’t seem all that different from the one at Kitt’s Peak, six hours to the south, but it was.

There was a dark scar on its white surface where there’d been an explosion a few nights before. Katy didn’t know much about telescopes, but she was pretty sure they didn’t usually explode or shake the ground the way this one did. And occasionally, they were supposed to open and actually look at the stars. This one never had.

Katy was too far down the hill to see the fences, buildings, and trailers that’d been her home for the last few weeks. She wasn’t going to miss any of it.

She looked down, watching her footing.  It’d be a shame to turn back now because of a twisted ankle. Not far away, a dirt road cut up the side of the mountain. It bent and turned, following the incline.  That’s where Katy was heading. She was supposed to meet Troy, her sort-of boyfriend.

Troy tried hard enough, but she refused to formally call them a couple.  Tonight was a prime example. He’d driven hours out from San Diego to help her escape. He was older than her, he’d graduated this June, but that didn’t matter. According to her dad, Katy was too young to date. Good thing the professor was hardly ever around.

For two years her dad had been out here in the desert, building this place while she and her brother, Ben stayed with family. Ben had proven to be too much to handle for their aunt. He’d probably be too much for an entire marine detachment to handle. Katy’s little brother had issues, but he had his uses too. He was the one that found the hole in the fence that made her escape possible.

Katy looked down, seeing the headlights of Troy’s truck, parked off to the side of the road. What am I doing, played in her head like a broken record? True, she no longer wanted to be marooned in the desert, and true she liked Troy, but was she really running off with him?  She shook her head, no. That’s not what this is.  She thought of her aunt, knowing she could convince her to let her stay. Honestly, she was certain the only reason her dad wanted her out here, was to take care of Ben. She was a babysitter for a fifteen year old because her dad had no idea how to deal with his son.

Katy sat on her butt. Gravel tumbled under her as she slid down the last stretch of the hill.  She got to her feet on the dirt road that was better suited for horses. She dusted herself off as she walked.

It was such a quite night. She could hear was gravel slipping behind her. It was the only sound. She approached the truck wondering why Troy hadn’t gotten out yet. Maybe he was asleep, she thought.   His pick-up was small and old. 4X4 was blazoned across the tailgate.

Katy squeezed between the hill and the side of the truck. When she got to the cab she looked inside and found it empty. The window was down and the faint scent of an air fresher came out, along with a wif of body spray. Honestly, she didn’t understand why guys wore that stuff.

She looked around, wondering if Troy d gone to take a leak our something, then she touched the hood, feeling the heat from the still warm engine. “Troy, are you out here?” she called.

There was no place for him to hide if this was some sort of joke. Katy reached in shutting off the lights, not wanting the battery to die. She noticed the keys weren’t in the ignition.

It was easier to see without the headlights on, though she had to wait, getting used to the dark and the starlight again.

She noticed another light in the distance. It was feint, a shimmering glow hovering low over the ground. It was further around, and up the hill from her. It was odd. The thing was moving, diving and ducking around the boulders and gullies on the rockier side of the slope. For a moment she thought it might be a drone, but who’d be dumb enough to fly one of those in the dark so close to the ground. The light didn’t travel far, but it was intense, a small point like the afterglow of a torch, it felt like a fading spark in her eye.

She watched it for a moment, mesmerized by the way it seemed to dance over the sandy soil. Then she noticed someone going towards it. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought it was Troy. She watched him struggle up the hill, tripping and falling on the rougher terrain.

She called again. Louder this time.

He didn’t turn his head, didn’t make any motion to show that he’d heard her. He kept moving towards the light as it traveled up the hill, back toward the facility.

Katy was going to yell again, this time louder, but something told her not to. For some reason she didn’t want her voice to carry. Maybe it was the glowing thing. It was beautiful and bizarre. It had the distinct feeling of something that didn’t belong here.

She was nervous, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She had the distinct feeling she was being watched and that there was more out here than Troy and whatever the glowing thing was.

Katy thought of her father and of the observatory dome, the way it hummed, and the way it never opened.  The way he didn’t talk about his work and how he’d made excuses after the night of the explosion.  Taking a deep breath, she started back up the hill, bending over and using her hands to guide her.

She had to be careful, taking her time as she climbed across the slope, going into the rockier area. She was still moving faster than Troy. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to his footing.  He was stumbling and falling, then getting up again and lumbering ahead.

It wasn’t long before Katy was close behind him. She noticed his hoodie from their high school track team, though he wasn’t moving like any sort of athlete. His steps were slow and deliberate, like someone walking for the first time.

Up ahead the ground glowed with shades of pink, blue and green, sometimes turning white. There was a sound too, a low fluttering.  The glowing thing darted about quickly, staying too low to the ground for her to see what it was.

“Troy,” she called almost in a whisper, coming up behind him.

There was still no reaction, so she tried louder, “Troy- Troy, I’m right here.”

Katy put her hand on his shoulder while he kept walking. She tried grabbing his sweatshirt. He jerked his arm forward, pulling it away.

“Hey,” Katy said, grabbing again, this time pulling, trying to twist him towards her.  He finally looked back. Katy gasped in shock. There was something wrong with him. Something so incredibly strange.

Where she expected to see his deep brown eyes, there was a faint glow, a white light seeping out from under his eyelids. His face was slack. It showed no emotion. Those glowing eyes opened wider and looked at her hand still on his shoulder. He took it harshly and pulled it away. Then he shoved her.

Katy fell on her butt, grabbing the ground to keep from sliding down the hill.  She was more shocked by what she’d seen than from the push.

She looked up at Troy and saw him start climbing again, moving a little quicker, as if trying to make up for lost time.  He stumbled again and again reaching a steeper part of the slope, staying on his hands as he climbed forward.

The glow was just over the rise, coming close to the facilities security fence. Katy watched Troy get further away, not sure what to do, certain that she was in some sort of dream. The buzzing faded into the distance. She could hear was the sound of Troy’s struggling steps over her labored breathing.

Then there was another sound. A thump followed by footsteps moving quickly, crunching in the soil. Something else was moving in the dark, something large and frightening.  Katy’s eyes searched, trying to find it. Then her attention fell on a dark spot. It was blacker than the night, on the rise just before the fence, moving quickly towards Troy. It was like a shadow come to life. She felt frozen watching it, hearing its steps sweeping through the sand.

The dark thing stalked Troy. It took the last few steps with a speed that seemed impossible for its size. Then it sprang off the ledge and fell on him.

Katy held her breath watching Troy go down. I should do something, she thought. She started to her feet, trying to control her panic, still not knowing what was happening. She took a single step forward as the shadow raised up a long appendage, a curved claw at the end of a sinuous arm. It was a dark silhouette against the stars. That’s the only reason she could see it, because it blocked the light.  The attacker brought the arm down on Troy, pinning him to the ground.

The young man struggled, kicking his legs and fighting helplessly. Katy was frozen as she saw the creature’s head rear up. It was wide and as black as the rest of it. Like the arm, she could only see its edges against the stars.  The head came down again and something shot from its mouth. Troy screamed. It was brief, filled with terror. Then the night went silent again.

Katy started backing away. The hill was a terrible place to run but she tried anyway.  She fell and started rolling, eventually getting to a crawl right before slamming into Troy’s truck.

She got to her feet, looking back. Trying to find the shadow thing, hoping it wasn’t following her. She leaned against the truck. Her eyes found the glowing thing. It was flying away, dancing in front of the stars.  In the distance she saw the black spot. It was moving fast along the hill, keeping pace with the thing in sky.

Katy took a deep breath, then she started back up the slope towards Troy. She found him face down. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing and when she touched his skin, it was cold. She wanted to call for help, to yell out, hoping someone up the hill would hear her.  She didn’t though. She was afraid there were other things out here listening.