(Copyright) 1997 - 2006
March 14, 1997 Version 3.0
Revision Date: 05/21/2006
It was a quarter after two in the morning and Dr. Ripley was so sleepy he almost missed the rutted dirt road. He stomped on the brakes, jerking the steering wheel about, as his Suburban fishtailed on a patch of black ice, the frost-rhymed boxes behind him shifted dangerously. As instructed, he turned off the headlights and slowly groped his way through the icy ruts, squinting to see by the parking lights' feeble orange glow. It took almost fifteen minutes to crawl the three kilometers to the turn-out at the big fir stump looming on his left. Old, ice filled tire tracks marked the spot.
As he turned off the engine, and then the parking lights, Andrew was enveloped in almost total darkness. The waning moon had long since set behind the mountains, leaving only a ghostly glow to limn their white summits.
Dark... Silence... Nothing to do but wait.
Andrew must have nodded off for a few minutes, because he was jolted awake by the sound of a hand on the driver's-side door, the sticky button making a sharp *click* as it was depressed. As the door open, the dome light came on, nearly blinding him. Instinctively, Andrew turned his head to the left, as much to avoid the light as to see who was opening the door.
As his vision cleared, Dr. Ripley could see a powerful arm, terminating in a very hairy hand covered in camouflage cloth, pulling at the door handle. Long claws made individual clicking sounds as they wrapped about the handle. His first thought was that he'd never seen anyone with that much hair on their arm. Even the fingers were hairy!
Then Andrew's attention centered on the claws; about two centimeters long and curved, blunt at the tips. The Human maintained his composure until the owner of the arm spoke. His voice a low, breathy growl, the accent heavy, strange, with a slight pause between syllables.
"You are the sire of Howard."
This was more of a statement than a question. Andrew gave an affirmative nod. By this time, the door was fully open and automatically, he started to swing his left leg down to the frosted ground.
"This is 'yes'?" the question caught Andrew a bit unprepared.
The hairy hand released the door handle to make a gesture, palm up with the clawed fingers curled.
For the last few moments, his body seemed to have been on auto-pilot, but then the implications of the unhuman arm, and voice to match, penetrated Andrew's half-asleep brain. - Fear! - He was frozen. Dr. Ripley thought he was prepared for this, but faced with the reality of the moment, Andrew couldn't make his leg lift back into the car! The hand held it's position
It finally sank into the Human's shocked brain that he'd been asked a question. After several attempts, which mostly yielded inarticulate sounds, he managed a weak 'yes'. As if speaking had broken a spell, he found he could move and allowed his eyes to slowly follow the curve of the arm upward toward its owner. As his gaze passed the massive shoulder, at well over two and a half meters, Andrew could see what looked for all the world like a bear's muzzle poking out from under a camouflage hood. By the feeble illumination of the dome-light, he could see the gleam of two large eyes, set far back in the hood.
Howard's communication had said to be prepared for surprises, and quantum physicists are prepared to believe just about anything, but this was too much! An anthropomorphic bear in a camouflage jacket was speaking to him!
About a minute had past from the time the door opened. The Ursine was still waiting, his arm still out, dark, leathery palm up.
"I am Aarrl," The name was pronounce as a deep growl that sounded like boulders shifting in a mountain stream. "Come. Time is passing. Howard is near."
At the sound of his son's name, Andrew snapped out of his funk and slowly swung his other foot to the ground. As he stood, he allowed his eyes to follow the form of the creature in front of him, from head to foot. He, Andrew assumed the creature to be male, was wearing loose fitting pants that matched the jacket.
Aarrl took a half step toward the Human, reaching as if to touch his arm. Instinctively, Andrew turned toward his left, his back to the car.
Again the Voice. "Peace. I will not harm…you."
Again the palm-up gesture.
Reluctantly, Andrew reached behind. Palms to cold metal, he pushed himself into motion, putting his right hand out to close the car door. As he started to swing the door shut, the Ursine held up his hand, arm downward at forty-five degrees, palm down, knuckles folded.
"Hold," Not loudly, but very commanding.
The Human froze.
Aarrl reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a pair of ski goggles.
"For the dark," he rumbled, as he extended his right arm, the goggles depending from the claw of what on a human would be his index finger. As Andrew took them, Aarrl reached into another pocket with his left hand and removed a similar but much larger pair.
Dr. Ripley stood, looking at the goggles, which were never meant to fit a human face. The notch for the nose was way too wide, the lenses too far apart. As he watch, the Ursine reached up with his left hand and swept the hood of his jacket back. Once again Andrew was fighting a REALLY strong urge to get back in the car. Illuminated by the car's dome light was a scene out of nightmare. Ursus horribilis! The classic form of a grizzly bear's head stared down at him! . Even with the memory of Howard's Feline Teacher fresh in his mind, the sight of the huge Ursine was an almost unbelievable shock.
The Human must have made some small noise, because Aarrl stopped, goggles half way to his face. the Gashka stood unmoving for a moment, head cocked slightly to the side. After a few seconds he lowered the goggles to a point where Andrew could see one clawed finger as it manipulated a small switch set over the right lens. A dim glow emanated from the goggles as he raised them to his eyes. For an instant, the light from within reflected from huge brown irises before Aarrl fitted the goggles above his muzzle.
For a second some shrill, hysterical, part of Dr. Ripley's shocked mind wanted to laugh at the sight of a large bear wearing ski goggles, but wisely, he overcame the urge and turned his attention to his goggles. Little did he know, only a month before his son had shared those same thoughts.
After some fumbling, he found the switch and activated his own goggles. When the Human raised the device to his face, the nose bride was so big only the elastic strap was keeping them in place.
Immediately, he could see the area around him in clear detail, the hood of the Suburban cast an illumination of its own in infra-red. Andrew reached back and pushed the car door shut. The loss of the dome-light's illumination went unnoticed.
Without further word, Aarrl turned and proceeded down a faint path toward the edge of the woods about forty meters away, the Human followed. They had gone most of the way toward the trees when Andrew looked off to the left of the path, where it entered the woods.
As his eyes followed the trail toward the trees, Dr. Ripley could see the shape of another creature standing by the trail, leaning against a tree. Its hood was thrown back and two wolfish ears pointed up from a canine head, giving it the appearance of something from an Egyptian tomb painting! Andrew must have made another strangled sound, because the Ursine came abreast of him, leaning down to speak into his ear.
"A Watcher. There are many here tonight."
The Watcher had a rifle slung over its right shoulder and a short sword or long dagger at its left hip. Its long, white-tipped tail was wrapped around its knees, the end twitching slightly. As they approached, it took something from its belt and spoke into it, its voice low pitched and guttural. As they passed the Dirhal, Aarrl stopped to whisper something into its upraised ear.
After a few moments of walking silently beside his Ursine guide, Andrew paused briefly to look back the way they'd come. The trail-mouth was still visible in the amplified starlight, but the Watcher had melted into the trees.
Dr. Ripley stood a few seconds, contemplating his situation. 'Alone in the woods with an alien Werewolf and a Big Talking Bear! Oh Shit!' he thought.
After considering for a few more second, Andrew remembered those last few words of Howard's conversation:
…You will meet some strange people. Try not to fear them. Trust them. You won't meet a more honorable group of people on this or any other planet. Remember, trust Aarrl!
If Howard knew and trusted these people, Andrew knew he could do no less.
During Andrew's moments of reflection, Aarrl hadn't immediately stopped walking and now turned back toward him.
"I know this is frightful for you," he rumbled, "but S'Challh requires you."
Andrew thought about his words for a moment and remembered more from Howard's unusual communication. He'd said tonight would be the most important of his life. It meant everything to him that he be there for him. Judging by the strange company his son kept, Dr. Ripley considered 'important' to be one of the great understatements of all time!
"Requires?" Andrew replied, hoping to gain some understanding of the last few minutes. Howard had said he dearly wanted him present, but said nothing about a requirement.
"You are his witness. Tradition requires this. Your son wants you to witness his Soul's Victory." The last two words were spoken with what Dr. Ripley took to be almost religious fervor.
"What do you mean?" he asked, the cryptic phrase echoing in his mind.
"All will be made clear, in time. Please come. Alignment approaches."
With those words, Aarrl raised his left arm to peer at the display of a small piece of equipment on his wrist. Andrew thought the symbols displayed were like Sanskrit, changing rapidly, like numbers on a stopwatch. After studying it for a few seconds the Ursine again turned to the trail, walking at a brisk pace, so that Andrew had to scramble to keep up, despite Aarrl's Ursine-proportionally short legs. He still knew very little, but it was obvious that Aarrl was through talking for a while.
They walked on at a rapid pace for what seemed to the Human an hour, but was, in reality, no more than twenty minutes. The ground ascended steeply with the occasional depressions of a few small, frozen stream beds. Ahead Andrew could see bright lights at the far end of the trail. At this point, the Ursine brought out a communicator and growled a few words. As they approached the trail-end Andrew could see the form of another Watcher, standing in the middle of the trail, weapon cradled in the crook of its arm.
A few more paces brought them abreast of the Watcher. Dr. Ripley stopped close enough that he could reach out and touch the creature if he'd wanted. The light coming from the clearing at the end of the trail was much brighter than starlight and Andrew removed his goggles. This gave him a much better view of the Lupine Watcher. Its hood was thrown back and despite the cold, its jacket was open to about mid-chest, revealing a dense coat of steel gray fur, shading to white in the center of its chest. The Dirhal stood almost absolutely still, its only movement was a slightly twitch of its left ear, causing its three rings to jingle and flash in the dim illumination.
Allowing his eyes to follow down the creature's chest, Andrew looked at the end of the muzzle-break of the rifle cradled in its arms. Superficially, it bore some resemblance to a Colt M-16A, though the bore appeared to be big enough for the Human to have stuck his thumb in it. On closer inspection, it became clear that the blade at the creature's side also served as a bayonet, as the locking lugs were now clearly visible on the side of the rifle's muzzle. A chill oozed down Andrew's spine at the thought of a platoon of these creatures charging, bayonets fixed, their howls filling the forest!
Andrew was recalled from his morbid reverie by his guide's gentle grasping at his right elbow. Dr. Ripley felt a small measure of victory in that he didn't flinch at the touch. This did not go unnoticed by Aarrl.
"It is good, you are calm. Please follow." Aarrl's voice was very low, in what passed for him as a whisper.
Still maintaining his slight hold on the Human's arm, Aarrl led him out of the woods. As they left the trees, it became evident that what he'd assumed was a clearing in the forest was actually a large clear-cut area on the mountainside, the trail terminating at the berm of a skid-road which wound about the side of the mountain. On the far side of the skid road, the ground pitching sharply downward toward the Methow Valley below. Snow-whitened mountains loomed above, across the valley, the last back-lighting of the setting moon just fading. Aarrl led Andrew to the left, around a sharp turn in the road formed by a large mound of logging debris. Bright light streamed from around the bend.
As they rounded the mound, Andrew stopped dead in his tracks. Lining both sides of the road were dual ranks of Dirhal, perhaps twenty to either side. Every fifth Watcher held a three meter long pole or standard, from the tip of which emendated a piercing white light, bathing the scene in adamantine brilliance. What riveted his attention though, was the sight of his son standing in the cold brilliance, naked, save for a scarlet band of cloth about the biceps of his left arm. Howard was facing away from them, head raised to stare up into the night sky, arms half raised, his palms facing down. To either side of him, both in front and back, spaced about five meters apart, were tall metal rods about six meters high which had been driven into the frozen earth.
After a moment's hesitation, Andrew tore his arm from Aarrl's loose grasp and started toward Howard. He hadn't advanced two paces before the Ursine caught up with him, reestablishing a firm grip on his right biceps. Aarrl's hand and claws completely encircled the Human's arm, his grip absolute.
"Hold!" he growled, "You must not approach or you will lure his mind from the scent of his destiny."
Andrew struggled momentarily before allowing himself to be pulled back, stifling a cry of rage.
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