Author: Stephen Dougherty

The smoke rose from a fire that wasn’t a fire. Dr Alvin shifted his old bones in his favorite seat while his young visitor poured him a drink at his request.

“How did you end up on the rock in the first place?” The boy sat in the only other seat in the room.

“The rock is called Cinder Three.” He grimaced as he started to recall. “I asked for the job. You see, I had no ties here, no family, no friends to speak of. I knew how far away it was and that I would not see home for nearly two years.” He furrowed his ancient and bothered brow. “They needed a botanist with off-world experience. As you can imagine, I didn’t expect anything other than microbial plant life.”

“My mother remembers hearing about your visitor.”

Alvin grunted. “Well, I was supposed to go outside the dome to bring in samples of vegetation and test it for use in the fight against the Xeno Alpha disease.”

“We learned in school that the crew of the De-, Dem– “

“Demeter” mumbled Alvin.

“Yes, the Demeter brought back the disease with them after the first survey mission to Cinder Three.” The boy waited for the old man.

“Yes. They weren’t to know their equipment was infected. They did everything they should have.”

“Why don’t you have it? The disease?”

“I don’t know.” The great silence outside seeped into the tiny silence inside.

“When did you first see the thing? Asked the boy quietly.

Dr Alvin raised an eyebrow and stared at the fast-blinking eyes. “Well. I was standing, looking out of the dome into the blackness. From behind an outcrop of rock, the shape of a bipedal creature slowly moved and turned towards me. It had two narrow eyes which looked directly into mine. It was about three feet high with a large round head and its skin was cratered and wrinkled. He lifted its big claw hands out from its sides.” The old man spoke as if he had said the exact words many times. “The hands started to glow yellow, slowly pulsing. He looked right at me.”

The boy’s features froze.

“I reported it and asked to be brought home early. A day later I saw it again. There was a carcass; the remains of another creature that had been ripped to shreds, apparently not for food. In the distance it appeared again, lit by the light of the dome. It looked at me again. This time its hands pulsed red.”

The boy stood up. Phantom flames reflected in the window and crackled and spat.

“Was he trying to frighten you?”

“Yes. Yes, he was. He wanted me to know I was next.”

There was a long silence and the boy gulped. “How long did it take for the rescue party to arrive?”

“Five months, five days.” Came the quick, quiet response.

“Did it get into the dome?”

The boy thought he saw the old man grow even older at the question. Thoughts and memories crawled through his mind and bled through his half-closed eyes.

“It’s time you were leaving,” the weary doctor said.

The boy knew he could ask no more questions. “Thank you, doctor.”

“Wait. Who are you? I forgot why you are here.”

“For a school report, sir. My grandfather was in the rescue party. He died of the Xeno One when I was four.

The old man nodded. As the boy was closing the door, he looked one last time at Alvin who was staring into the fake fire, his hands pulsing faintly red.