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One Foul Step from the Abyss

A short sci-fi horror by international best-selling author Stuart Thaman.

Edgar Lopez, a rotund man about to crest the final hill that separated middle age from senility, scratched his chin in amazement. “Thirty years I’ve worked here…” he muttered to himself and the glazed donut sitting on a cheap paper napkin in front of him.

“What’s that, Ed?” Gabriella, one of the college interns, called from her desk a few feet away. In the astronomy world, Edgar was something of a legend. He had worked at the Apollo Observatory and Space Research Facility longer than the handful of interns had been alive. He had a well-earned reputation and a list of awards and achievements that would make any scientist blush.

Despite his history, he didn’t feel like a legend. He felt like a failure. A stack of field reports sat on Edgar’s desk and stared at him. It was his last day, and Edgar had resolved himself to let his paperwork rot.

“Ed?” Gabriella asked again, this time with a hint of concern lacing her otherwise beautiful Spanish accent.

“Oh, nothing,” he told her politely, “just wandering off. You know how it gets.” Gabriella nodded and returned to her computer screen. “Oh, Gabriella?” He peeked his head over his monitor with the flash of an idea running through his head.

“Yes?” the eager intern replied. Edgar wasn’t sure, but he vaguely remembered that Gabriella was only a sophomore at the university and a foreign transfer at that. She would blindly follow him anywhere… and she wouldn’t be missed.

Edgar rose from his desk with the lumbering speed of a limp sloth. A lifetime of watching the stars through a telescope had added more weight to his belly than glazed donuts and coffee ever could. “Come with me,” he told her. “I’ve got something to show you.”

Gabriella verily leapt to her feet and grabbed a field report clipboard from a peg on the wall. “Yes, sir!” she chirped at his heels. While everyone called him Ed when he was at his desk, the moment he stood up changed the rules. Since the observatory was located on the grounds of an active military base, proper protocol had to be followed everywhere outside the offices.

Edgar made his way down a long hallway surrounded by computer monitors and busy interns. He smiled to himself and basked in the realization that he would never have to return to the observatory again. In just a few short hours, his time would be up.

Edgar and Gabriella arrived a few moments later at a large black door two floors beneath the office area. Large red letters across the top of the door told them where they were: the Deep Space Tele Relay.

“I don’t think I’m allowed to go in there, sir,” Gabriella said apprehensively. “Professor Moun-”

“Never mind your professors,” Edgar interrupted. With a heavy hand he unlocked the door and flipped on a light switch. A long hallway with several glass doors presented itself.

“What is this place?” Gabriella asked as she followed Edgar into the hallway.

“The Deep Space Tele Relay was built in 1978 after the Wow! Signal was picked up by the Big Ear Radio Telescope at Ohio State. It took a while to get it calibrated, lot of tinkering and the like, but we had it operational by the eighties.” Edgar stopped in front of a sliding glass door and pointed to the banks of computers and technicians working inside. In front of the four rows of computers was a giant screen with dozens of technical readouts and constantly changing charts and graphs.

“What does it do?” she whispered, peering through the glass like a little girl at a puppy store.

“After the Wow! Signal, we knew we weren’t alone. The public knew it too, but for whatever reason, they didn’t seem to care as much as us nerds here. We built the relay to send messages to the exact location where the Wow! Signal originated.” Edgar kept walking down the long hallway to another heavy black door.

The intern stopped in her tracks, and her voice caught in her throat. “I-I was taught that we never heard anything after the Wow! Signal. None of the radio arrays ever picked up anything like it again. That’s what we were all taught.” Gabriella shook her head, and a creeping sensation in her stomach told her to turn back. None of it made sense. The black door at the end of the hall lurked like a huge monster from her nightmares ready to devour her.

“Don’t believe everything your professors teach you, Gabriella,” Edgar said with a casual laugh. He punched in a long sequence of numbers on a metallic keypad next to the door. A series of clicking sounds emanated from the mechanism, and for the first time that day, Edgar smiled. “A few years after the Wow! Signal was recorded, the deep space tele relay located the origin. It was moving at an incredible speed, so it was hard to track at first.”

Gabriella’s eyes grew wide. “What source? A pulsar? A quasar? Those don’t move, do they?” Everything she had learned in all her advanced astrophysics and astronomy classes was rapidly dissolving into useless dribble inside her brain.

Edgar chuckled and turned to face her with a hand on the doorknob. “Everyone expected the source of the signal to be a quasar. You’re right… quasars don’t move. No, what the tele relay discovered was a vehicle traveling at near the speed of light.”

“My god…” Gabriella gasped. She muttered something inaudible under her breath in Spanish. “Why hasn’t the world been told? Why are you keeping it a secret?” For a brief moment, she thought of fleeing the observatory and running straight to the press.

Edgar laughed and pushed open the door. A world of strange sounds and flashing lights spilled into the otherwise dark hallway. Gabriella’s senses were completely overwhelmed. “Come with me,” Edgar commanded with just enough authority in his voice to ensure that Gabriella obeyed. All thoughts of running vanished the moment she took a step.

“The world isn’t ready to know, Gabriella,” Edgar explained as he walked into the laboratory. Dozens of scientists in white lab coats worked at stations with computers, beakers, slides of organic material, and all other sorts of equipment. Despite the door rarely being opened, none of the scientists seemed to notice the new arrivals.

“How long has this been down here?” Gabriella wondered aloud. She stepped out of the way of a scurrying scientist and noticed a smell she certainly knew but had trouble identifying. The scientist bowled past her to a large metal box with a series of complex locks. Once he opened the door, the man placed what looked like a tissue sample inside and locked the container once more.

“Watch. I think you’ll enjoy this part.” Edgar pointed to the box and took a step closer. After a moment, the device began to hum and vibrate with energy.

“That smell…” Gabriella remarked, still struggling to place it in her mind.

Edgar gave the woman a fatherly pat on the back. “We were surprised too,” he said. “The material they use to coat their communications smells like cedar mixed with dark chocolate. Altogether quite pleasant, if you ask me. We call it Gwycin Gel.”

“Wait…” Despite her advanced intellect and years of training, her mind couldn’t grasp the realities of what she was learning. “A substance to coat communications?” She shook her head. Then her eyes went wide and she gasped. “Who is they!” she practically screamed. “Who are they?”

Several of the scientists at nearby stations turned for a moment to regard her outburst, but none of them were bothered enough to speak. Edgar turned the intern to face a large poster hanging inside a protective glass case. “Have you heard of the Greys?”

Gabriella’s eyes devoured the information on the poster faster than her mind could process it, turning the images and captions into a blurred mess of science fiction delirium. “You can’t mean…” she sputtered.

“Oh yes,” Edgar reassured her. “The Greys are very real. When we finally locked onto their ship’s signal back in the early eighties, we couldn’t believe it either.”

“Roswell?” Gabriella asked with eyes wider than flying saucers.

Edgar shook his head. “Just another CIA hoax,” he explained. “The Greys had never been to Earth before 1986—or so they tell us. Honestly, we don’t know. All the evidence leads us to believe that none of the UFO stories you’ve ever heard are true, but in the end, we have to take them at their word.”

Gabriella looked back to the poster and the half-sized drawings of little grey aliens that fit the international stereotype so perfectly. A million questions whirled through her head at once. “Where did they land?” seemed like the most pertinent inquiry to rise above the maelstrom of her thoughts.

“Not far from here, just an hour or so south of the base.” Edgar motioned for the intern to follow him deeper into the complex, and the wide-eyed girl readily obeyed. “Ever heard of Hanger 18?” he asked.

Gabriella followed the man down a long hallway. “Only on the History Channel when they talk about…” she had a hard time saying it, despite knowing it was all true. “Aliens…” The word left a sour—yet intoxicating—taste in her mouth.

“That’s where they docked their ship,” Edgar explained as though he was stating something as banal and mundane as the color of the carpet.

“What ship?” Gabriella shouted, unable to contain her curiosity any longer.

“Shhh.” Edgar placed a hand somewhat forcefully on her shoulder and stared into her brown eyes. “You know…” he began slowly, drawing the intern’s intense gaze into his own. “Would you like… to meet one of them?”

Gabriella couldn’t speak. She tried to scream, to shout, to whisper, but her throat refused to operate. After a long moment of choking silence, she managed to force a grunt past her lips and nodded furiously.

“I thought so,” Edgar replied. “Ladies first.” He opened another black door and held it ajar. The room beyond the hall was enormous. The sheer height of the ceiling was overwhelming and flooded Gabriella with a wave of dizziness. Had she been descending the entire time and not realized it? She had gone several floors down, but not hundreds of feet. A gentle nudge at her back prodded her into the room, and she pushed her spatial confusion to the end of a long list of questions she was forming.

“Seven of them came in the first ship,” Edgar said as he guided the girl through the vast laboratory. “They’ve been living down here ever since they landed, kept in isolation for scientific purposes, of course.” Edgar produced a strange card from one of his pockets and flashed it to an armed guard before pulling back an opaque curtain and continuing into a cordoned section of the room.

“How many are left?” Gabriella wondered aloud. Her eyes focused on everything in the room except her immediate pathway, and she clumsily bumped into a metal support. The pole rocked back and forth, nearly toppling a makeshift plastic barrier before settling back to its original position.

“Six,” Edgar replied. “One of them tried to escape, but it seems our bullets are just as lethal to the Greys as they are to humans. Funny thing, when you think about it.”

Gabriella hurried to match pace with the overweight scientist. Despite his bulk, Edgar moved through the complex system of hallways and passages like a man possessed. When they finally arrived at what appeared to be a bank vault door, Edgar stopped and held his hand out to a uniformed soldier carrying a rifle. The guard produced a scanner from a nearby drawer and ran a blue laser over Edgar’s palm. After a second, the device beeped and the guard nodded.

“She’s with me,” Edgar stated, waving the intern along behind him. The guard stared at her as she passed and shook his head.

“Another one, Ed?” the guard said with a long sigh.

“Another what?” Gabriella barely managed to ask past the terror building in her throat.

Edgar didn’t respond. The vault door squealed on its hinges, the room beyond unnaturally dark. Edgar strode through the doorway and reached a hand behind his back which Gabriella eagerly took. He led her several feet into the darkness before the vault door slammed behind her and made the young woman shriek.

“What’s going on…?” Gabriella whispered with a shaking voice full of fear.

Edgar flipped a heavy switch on an unseen wall that brought the industrial florescent lights to life.

Gabriella was not prepared. Standing in a circle around her, six grey aliens stared her down with intense, black eyes. The girl screamed and tried to run, but Edgar’s grip on her hand turned to steel. The Greys, slender figures with stereotypically large heads and tiny mouths, poked and prodded the intern with spidery fingers far too long for their bodies.

“Kneel,” Edgar whispered through Gabriella’s silky hair. Despite her overt terror, the girl obeyed and sank to her knees with her hands covering her tears. Her fear wouldn’t let her do anything else.

“Moi hyvӓ ei kestӓ iltaa,” Edgar addressed one of the creatures. The alien language sounded oddly poetic coming from such a large man, but it only made Gabriella’s fear grow. Edgar placed a hand on the girl’s back and urged her forward.

“Hyvӓ pӓivӓnjatkoa,” one of the Greys responded, never taking its black eyes from the girl.

With a sigh, Edgar bent over at the waist to whisper into Gabriella’s ear once more. “I’m sorry,” he slowly said. “They have to eat…”

Gabriella’s violent sobs exploded into uncontrolled horror. She scraped at the floor with her hands, trying desperately to put distance between her and the six aliens, but the slick concrete underneath offered little purchase. One of the creatures wrapped its spindly arms around her, forcing more incoherent screams from her lungs, and it started to drag her deeper into the room.

Focusing her terror into something closer to rage, Gabriella fought back. She clawed and swung her arms wildly, hitting the Greys and momentarily scattering them. Though brave, her effort was futile. The six aliens rushed in at her and easily overwhelmed their prey. Small grey fists pounded into her back and neck, forcing her to the ground. Despite their size, the aliens were impossibly strong.

“Nahdӓӓn pian,” Edgar spoke to one of the creatures. Turning to Gabriella, he watched a Grey produce a razor blade from a fold in its skin. The alien moved quickly and used the razor to slice the back of the woman’s ankle. Blood seeped from the wound and splattered the cold concrete, inciting the aliens to quicken their strikes.

With a bit more regret lacing his voice than he ever intended, Edgar whispered an unheard apology to the intern and turned back the way he had come. He reached the vault door and quickly keyed in a code that unlocked it with a loud click.

The aliens, all but one of them clutching small razors, slashed at Gabriella’s skin and tore the muscle from her legs. They held her quivering body to the cold ground and cut the shirt from her torso. Careful not to slice too deeply and sever any nerves, the aliens set to work peeling the flesh from Gabriella’s back in long, tender strips.

Edgar took one last look at the carnage before he closed the vault door behind him. The guard outside the vault saluted, and Edgar returned the gesture with little enthusiasm.

Back at his desk, Edgar untucked his shirt and took a bite of glazed donut. The sugary treat had gone stiff and stale. He typed one last email to his superiors and signed out of the government software that had run his life for thirty years. Six hours from his scheduled retirement party, Edgar grabbed his windbreaker from a peg and headed toward the door.

He reached the exit unhindered and stopped a moment before making the final approach to his pale green SUV and driving off into the solitude of unmarried retirement.

What did he have to look forward to next Monday? Sitting on the couch eating microwave dinners and guessing jeopardy clues to pass the time didn’t seem worth it. He wasn’t much for drinking, but he did own a well-aged bottle of Kentucky bourbon he had received as a gift. Maybe he would spend Monday morning fighting off a hangover like he did when he was in college. Edgar knew that wouldn’t last. He slowly released his grasp on the door and let it swing shut. His green SUV stared at him from a handicapped spot only twenty feet away. He was so close, but in his mind he was a million miles away.

Was it the girl? Did he feel… remorse? Sadness? Whatever it was, he had never felt it before. “She was a sacrifice for the greater good,” Edgar repeated to himself as he had done a hundred times before. “The research is worth more than one life. Worth more than a hundred lives.”

How long could he console himself with a few words before the faces of all the interns he had killed became too much for him to bear? At his age and weight, Edgar reasoned that he didn’t have more than a decade or so left. ‘Just find a hobby’ is what his officemates always advised. But what? He was too fat for golf, too poor for gambling, and too tired for books.

Defeated, Edgar turned from the door and his green SUV and navigated the office hallways back to his desk. He sat down with a muffled thump and brought his computer back to life.

Edgar logged back into the government software, and an idea crept up through the cobwebs of his mind. A hint of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. He clicked through several on-screen menus before finding the documentation that he needed. After a moment of filling in blanks on a PDF, he pressed print, grabbed the remainder of his weak donut, and headed toward the copier room.

Documents in hand, Edgar strode through the bowels of the building back to the Deep Space Tele Relay and into the secret laboratory. Catching a hurrying scientist by the arm as he passed, Edgar handed the man the freshly printed papers. “I have a requisition for seven gallons of Gwycin Gel,” he ordered.

The man scanned the documents and looked up at Edgar with a puzzled expression. “For what?” he asked.

“Classified,” Edgar barked. He had never really pulled rank before, and the authority felt strange to him. Nevertheless, it sort of worked.

The scientist pointed to his badge and furrowed his brow. “I have top-secret tier one clearance,” he responded. “I’m authorized to know.”

Edgar pushed past the man with a grunt. “Not for this you aren’t,” he said. “Ask the brass about it tomorrow if you must. Just don’t keep them waiting today.”

The scientist thought for a long moment with his eyes glued to the documents. Finally, he relaxed and nodded.

“Bring it to the large transfer room, please,” Edgar added. The man nodded again and headed for a storage room. Edgar, trying hard to hide his grin, strode through a set of opaque double doors and into a room containing a metal box ten feet by ten feet. A set of controls blinked to life with the touch of a button, and the room produced a gentle hum not unlike the tinnitus that typically kept him up well past midnight.

A moment later, the scientist returned with a plastic drum containing the sweet-smelling gel and set it on the floor. “What’s this all about?” the man asked, looking around the room with obvious discontent.

“Classified,” Edgar said, “like everything important in this shit hole.” He hoped that taking the man’s side against the bureaucracy would get him to stop asking questions. Thankfully, it worked better than pulling rank.

“Tell me about it,” the man replied sarcastically before leaving the room.

Edgar subtly flipped the lock behind the scientist and set about his work. He punched in a series of memorized coordinates for a specific location in space and set a black dial to four minutes. Once he had undressed, he scooped the sticky Gwycin Gel out of the container and began liberally applying it to his skin. The alien substance was soft and cold, but also brought a measure of comfort to his unsettled mind.

When he was fully coated in gel, Edgar opened the door to the metal box and tossed the remainder of the substance on the floor to give him a safe place to stand. He checked the black dial and saw that he had little less than thirty seconds to make up his mind.

Edgar drew a deep breath into his lungs and held it for a count of ten before letting it go—a technique taught to him by a therapist over a decade ago. His mind clear, he stepped into the box and pulled the door shut. He took another deep breath and held it as he smeared a layer of gel across his nostrils to ensure the coating had no gaps. There was no way to securely latch the door from the inside, so he grabbed it with the tips of his fingers at the only place he could and held it tight.

The room shook with energy, and the lights overhead flickered. When the dial hit zero, everything inside the box and fully encapsulated by Gwycin Gel disappeared.

Edgar Lopez materialized with a flash of light inside a similar box several billion miles away. The gravity of the alien planet was brutally strong, crushing him to his knees in an instant. It took every ounce of his strength to keep his head from being pulled into the floor. He scraped the Gwycin Gel from his eyes and mouth and gasped, pulling in a lungful of alien atmosphere.

Edgar knew that the air, if it could be so called, was almost exclusively composed of gaseous aluminum. It burned his throat and didn’t oxygenate his lungs at all, but the action of breathing brought him a measure of comfort. That’s when he noticed the heat… the unbearable heat.

As one of the head researchers concerning the Grey’s and their home planet, Edgar knew he wouldn’t have a chance of surviving the harsh conditions. Back on earth, the scientists had estimated the surface temperature of the alien planet to be more than five thousand degrees. But survival had never been his plan.

Edgar gazed around the strange planet and drank in the sights and sounds. As the Gwycin Gel began to melt and expose his flesh to the full power of the harsh conditions, he relished the idea that he was the only human being to ever set foot inside an alien civilization. When his toes caught fire and flames began to scorch his torso, Edgar smiled. He would never have to take that last dreaded step into the parking lot. He would never have to drive his green SUV to pick up fast food for one and eat it in sorrow on his crumby couch.

Yes, Edgar thought pleasantly, death is better than retirement.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Sci Fi

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