(Copyright) 1998 - 2006 G. Dallman
March 12, 1997 Version 3.0
Revision Date: 05/20/2006

GravityMusic
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Don't Go Into the Woods Today

The Dream again.

In the residuum of his mind's eye, Howard Ripley could still see the ornate formal garden, lush and green. In the background, perhaps thirty meters distant, stood an odd obelisk, of smooth black stone, the graven image of a bear's head, as seen in semi-profile, adorned its facing side.

Years ago, Howard thought it was an artifact of his imagination insisting The Dream was recurring, making his nights an endless loop, one the same as the last. As the years past, the depression that inevitably followed The Dream took its toll, as his family became ever more distant and friends fewer. The Dream became his friend... perhaps his only friend. The Dream become so prevalent that Howard could no longer remember a night without it. Sometimes he'd wake crying, longing for something… A hope, perhaps a promise of filling even a tiny corner of the dread emptiness that ruled his soul, turning his life into mere meaningless existence.

As the emulsion-like mélange of serenity and acute longing that was the soul of The Dream faded, it was replaced by dark depression, infusing cold and viscous through the fabric his soul.

Howard scrunched his eyes shut with a weary sigh, willing himself back to that idyllic scene. Failing in that endeavor, he rolled over, facing away from the window, shielding his eyes from the winter light streaming, like a beacon, through the faded curtains, proclaiming another wretched day. After a few more minutes, Ripley rolled once again onto his back, groaning as his bladder joined the conspiracy to get him out of bed.

Normally, he would be up by five, and ready for work by a quarter to six… Normally… But nothing was 'normal' any longer. Not since he was fired seven weeks before. Something to do with not coming to work quite often enough, his boss said. Twelve years working for his dad at QuanDev, propelled down the crapper by a nighttime miasma imbedded into the very fabric of his soul. Since then he'd tried, albeit feebly, to find another job, but he may as well have been handing out business cards that read:

Howard F. ripley:

- Loser -

From the Ripley perspective, nothing seemed to matter anymore. The only constant in his life was The Dream. And that was only a dream!

At a quarter after nine, following a bit more wallowing in his private puddle of self-pity, Howard finally assumed a near-vertical position, shuffling to the bathroom along a dust-laden floor. The face that stared back at him from the greasy mirror was that of a thirty-something guy, gone paunchy in the gut and probably first in line to be the Poster Child for the Male Pattern Baldness Association. Never, could he imagine that it was also the face of the one being, who represented the culminating purpose of the entire Human Race.

Completing his mission, Howard turned his back on the growling-gargling ululation his toilet always made and started down the hall toward the kitchen. On an unexpected impulse he stopped at the closet he grandiosely called his 'computer room' and logged onto his E-mail account. 'God, I hate that cheery-assed voice,' Ripley thought. 'You've Got Mail!' he mentally mimicked. "There'd better be a special place in Hell for that guy!" he muttered.

Scanning his in-box, Howard found two messages waiting: The first was from his yuppish cousin, Doreen, in Portland, wanting to know when he was going to pay her back the five hundred she loaned him for rent money the month before. Gleefully, Howard dragged the demanding missive's icon onto the Trash-can, smiling wickedly as the cute little red animated flames licked up from under its lid.

The second message was strange. The sender was identified as:

Aarrl@SoulRipper.gov

The message was short, just a single line:

'Must meet with you. Please reply. Attached graphic will elucidate.'

Curiosity alight, Howard clicked on the graphic's icon, and after a few seconds the file resolved. Ripley's optic nerves metaphorically strangled his visual cortex! The Room spun! On his monitor was the EXACT view he'd seen three thousand times before... in The Dream! The same formal garden, the same stone obelisk with the graven portrait of a bear's head!

As Howard's blood pressure soared through the peaks and valleys of its roller-coaster ride between stroke and blackout, he collapsed into the rickety chair in front of his computer. Cold sweat made the arm-pits of his tee-shirt clammy. Ripley didn't know how long he'd sat, mouth agape, but when he finally came to his senses there was a small trail of drool running down his unshaven chin . His excitement-palsied hand shook as he moved the cursor up to the 'Reply' icon.

All he could think of was one word: "Where?"

Nervously, Howard sent his one word epistle, thinking it would be hours before a response would come. Less than a minute later, as he was pushing himself out of his chair, the reply arrived in the form of another graphic image.

With a trembling hand he clicked to open the file. It was a map made from a satellite image, with an Internet-generated road map overlaid. The area on the map was north of Winthrop Washington, in the North Cascades. At the bottom, included in the graphic, were three groups of numbers.

0300-12/11 48 33' 14" N" 120 14'28" W

After several seconds, it finally occurred to Ripley that the first group represented a time and date: 3:00 A.M. on the 11th of December; in less than 16 hours! The second and third groupings were obviously longitude and latitude coordinates. For the first time in ages, Howard felt he had something to look forward to. Something to Hope for.

Howard's mind spun in tight little circles as he rummaged though his memories, charting a trip he'd last made fifteen years ago on his last hunting trip with his dad. That trip had coincidentally been to almost the same area shown on the map.

Most years, by December, the North Cascade Highway, which runs from the Puget Sound basin across the Cascade range and into the mountainous region of Eastern Washington, is closed until spring. Uncharacteristically, there had been very little snow, and according to the Highway Webpage, the highway was bare and dry. A good thing too, Ripley thought, because the drive around from the south, over Stevens Pass was not much fun during the winter. Being able to take the northern route would save him hours.

The first thing Howard did after getting dressed, was to empty his closet, searching for warm clothing. His second project was to max-out his already bloated Visa account. Not a hard thing to do with his precarious finances.

Maxing-out consisted of two activities: First Howard went to the El-Cheapo car rental outfit down the street and plunked down credit on a beat-up Nixon-era Jeep Wagoneer, renting the venerable vehicle for a week. About all that could be said for the salmon-puke colored beast was that it started when he turned the key, and the tires were reasonably good. Someone had even left a tape in the stereo, " Anna Bollic and the Steroids". Real 'head-banging' music!

Next Ripley expended the remainder of his credit-line on the cheapest GPS receiver he could find at Fong's Marine Supply. The salesman assured him the gizmo would determine his location anywhere in the world to within a ten meters. After his wild spending spree, all Howard had left was forty dollars in his pockets, and he'd need that for gas. By the time he fixed sandwiches and coffee and got everything rounded up and into the rented car, it was well after two in the afternoon.

The trip from Seattle to Winthrop passed on leaden wings. It's a nice trip in the spring when the tulips are in bloom, but during the winter, it seemed as though there was nothing but miles of dead, brown plants laying in rows like legions of deceased cephalopods. 'Ok,' Howard thought, equivocating, 'I suppose the mountains are nice', but all he wanted was to just get there, and in the dark it would be icy, white-knuckle driving all the way. To Howard's dismay, the rental rust-bucket guzzled nearly two tanks of gas along the way, slurping up almost all the cash he had left.

* * * *

Gas-guzzling aside, Howard felt he hadn't done badly, as it was only a bit after seven in the evening when he arrived in Winthrop. It was just short of seven hours until rendezvous time, and he didn't have money to spare for a motel room. Darkness was falling and it had become bitterly cold as Ripley drove to a small park at the north-western edge of town, wedged between a truck stop and a barn converted to a dance-hall, where he stopped and ate his last sandwich, washed down with a cup of tepid coffee.

Howard tried to nap but was too keyed up. The miraculous photo of a scene, only he should know, haunted him. Instead, he got out his map and the GPS gizmo. The next hour was spent reading and then re-reading the thin instruction book, printed in quaint, mutant Tiwanglish. Being an engineer, Ripley paid particular attention to the disappointingly short chapter entitled 'Theories at Operation'. It took him several minutes just trying to figure out how to get the flimsy plastic cover off the battery compartment. 'Mash Here' can mean any number of things, some of them seriously counter-productive!

With mounting anticipation, Howard switched the machine on and waited while it booted up and began looked for satellites. The instructions said this would take a 'small time'. Either most of the GPS satellites had de-orbited or something was wrong. The gizmo complained that it could not acquire sufficient satellites to determine its position.

Howard finally remembered a short sentence on an inserted addendum to the manual that alluded to the vague possibility that the receiver may not work inside a vehicle without an optional (as in extra cost) external antenna. A sigh of frustration gusted past Ripley's lips, condensing to frozen vapor, as he climbed out of the jeep and turned the device on again. The display swizzled about for a while and he was finally rewarded with his first position fix:

482 28.660' N 120 11.403' W

According to Ripley's map, the road he was on looped around to the south a bit before intersecting an unnamed Forest Service road. he should follow that road for about a two kilometers before it crossed another service road. If he were to turn north on that road, it would take him as close as he was going to get to the coordinates given by his mysterious correspondent.

After finishing with the GPS there was nothing to do but wait. Not wanting to show up too early, Ripley pulled out his dog-eared copy of Gordon Dickson's " Spatial Delivery". For as long as he could remember, Howard harbored a special fondness for science fiction with bear-like aliens. By the time he was half-way through, he was on his second set of flashlight batteries and it was almost 2:10 A.M.

Stowing the book and thermos while once again getting out the GPS receiver and map, Ripley shoved the key in the ignition and turned. His stomach did flip-flops as the starter zinged and grumbled for a perilously long time before the tired six cylinder engine finally fired, seeming to suck the last few ergs of power from the aged battery. It took another ten minutes for the under-achieving de-fogger to eliminate the thin rind of frost that had formed on the inside of the windshield during his long wait.

At last, Howard started down the road toward his final destination. The first turn indicated on the map was about two kilometers from where he'd parked. Almost exactly three klicks after that, Howard found the second intersection, marked by a sign, and turned north onto a rutted, unpaved road. Suddenly, chills shot up and down his spine as the road-sign was illuminated by his headlights. "Rendezvous Road" shined back at him from the reflective sign! As he turned, he made a mental note that it was about a hundred meters from a weathered and bullet-riddled 'No Shoulders' sign. He was a bit amazed that the trip to that point, had been so easy. Even in the higher elevations, while frozen solid, there was very little snow on the road.

As he approached what he felt was the half-way point on the final leg, Howard stopped and got out of the car to check his position. He figured he would drive another two kilometers up the road and check again. It took him about five minutes to drive the next two km, where he stopped and performed another position fix. Comparing the latter reading with the earlier, he calculated he should be able to drive another seven km before checking again.

After another ritual check, Howard determined that he had better not go more than another kilometer before his next position fix. He drove slowly, squinting into the headlights' reflected glare, looking for a possible turn-out on his left. There was none, and at his last stop he spotted a tall, lightning-blasted stump looming out of the darkness about a hundred meters ahead. Slowly, Howard drove the last few meters, still searching for a road that might cut off to the west. He reached the stump without finding anything wider than a game trail. As he parked in front of the ancient tree trunk, Ripley glanced down at the dash to look at the clock. It was ten minutes to three. His stomach tightened with anticipation.

Howard didn't think he was actually asleep, but he could see the tranquil scene of The Dream in his mind's eye. The expected sense of serenity filled him. This time however, it was tinged with a tingling expectation. His eyes snapped open as he looked at his watch. It was almost Time!

Ripley waited as the seconds crept by like paraplegic slugs. Without warning, to his left, a bright light flashed at the edge of the woods, about thirty meters away. With considerable trepidation, Howard picked up his flashlight and slowly got out of the car, the promise of The Dream still resonating in his sleep-fogged mind. The heavy flashlight gave him some comfort as he closed the car door. Instantly, Ripley was enveloped in cold blackness. Even as his eyes did their best to accommodate to the darkness, he could see nothing. Feeling like a fool, he remembered the flashlight still gripped tightly in his right hand. Switching it on, Howard swept its beam along the edge of the woods. A bit to his right he could see a faint trail leading off through the winter-dry grass toward a gap in the scrub pine, near the spot where he saw the light earlier . Securing his grip on both the flashlight and his courage, Ripley proceeded toward the dark wall of the forest's edge.

When he was about half-way to the woods, Howard saw another brief flash that appeared to have originated a short distance within the trees. Fixing his flashlight's beam on that point, he hurried on toward his rendezvous, fear and hope fighting for dominance.

As he passed into the woods, Howard knew he should slow down, but too late, he tripped on an unseen protuberance, landing with a jarring impact on hands and knees, his flashlight continued on a twirling trajectory into the snow-covered bushes. Ripley groped about in the dark for a few moments, in hope of finding his wayward flashlight, but it seemed to have crawled off and succumbed to the stresses of being alone in the dark.

From the darkness on  the right side of the trail a heavily accented voice came. "You are HowardRipley."

The accent was like nothing he'd heard before. The voice itself was low and rumbled like falling stone. The single phrase was delivered as a statement, each syllable pronounced separately, with deliberate care.

Still on hands and knees, Howard didn't say anything as he palpated throbbing joints, finally determining that nothing important was broken. Slowly he picked himself up and plopped his butt down on a fallen log that he remembered being next to the trail.

Ripley was obviously too long in answering, because in the next instant he was assaulted by the brightest light he'd ever experienced. Reflexively, Howard's hands shot up to cover his smarting eyes.

The rumbling voice returned. "You are HowardRipley?" This time as a definite question.

"Yes!" he shouted, "Please…Turn the light off!"

"Why do you come?" growled the strange voice from behind the wall of brightness.

Howard was starting to become frightened. Maybe this was a BIG mistake!

"You sent me that picture from… my dreams. You sent me the map!" he shouted, a bit of a whine in his voice. "You said you wanted to meet me."

"Yes…You have the image?" The voice now held an edge of eagerness.

Keeping one unsteady hand over his abused eyes, Howard lowered the other to unzip his jacket a few inches. Cold air rushed in as he reached into a shirt pocket, removing the picture. His hand trembled as he silently held it out in front of him. A second later the folded paper was pulled from Ripley's grasp. Following the sound of flexing paper, there were two sharp intakes of breath and the light was mercifully aimed lower, pointing at his feet. In the light's wake, a swarm of purple after-spots pulsed in time to the beat of his pounding heart.

The voice now growled something in an unknown language, Howard presumed, to some unseen accomplice. A slightly different voice answered in what seemed the same tongue.

Ripley could hear movement, feet crunching in the snowy pine needles, as someone walked around behind him. He jumped nervously as powerful hands gripped his shoulders, pinning him to the frozen log. Whoever was behind him, he thought, had one hell of a set of fingernails! He could feel them stabbing through his jacket . A moment later, a sharp finger poked his chest.

"Look upon me," commanded the growling voice in front of him.

Hesitantly, Howard opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn't! Standing over him was a two and a half meter tall, anthropomorphic grizzly bear, wearing camouflage fatigues and ski goggles! Under normal circumstances, and at a safe distance, this might be considered quite humorous. But not Now! It was all Ripley could do to control his rebellious sphincters.

"I am Aarrl," the bear rumbled, pronouncing his name like a deep growl. "We have come for you."

To Howard's mind those last words sounded darkly ominous. A life of science-fiction reading imparted its own sinister spin to the phrase.

"What… what do you want?" he stammered, his nerves stretched well past their breaking point.

"We have been sent to aid you in doing what must be done. We know of your loneliness and the compulsion of your dreams. Would you be free of your pain?"

"What do you know about that?" Howard shouted, becoming increasingly fearful at the knowledge that this strange being was familiar with his innermost longings.

"You are S'Challh, The One, as foretold in H'Settu's Ninth Prophecy. You are he who is called by the one we serve," growled Aarrl. "Do you not feel the Call? Even now you are both held prisoner by your bond."

While comprehending none of what the Ursine told him, Howard thought of the yearning and loneliness that accompanied The Dream. 'What do they have to do with The Dream?' 'What bond?' 'Is this a dream now?' A maelstrom of questions churned his mind and he had no answers.

"Come with us, we will help you. All will be explained. There is much for you to know and time is short."

'Us?' Then Howard remembered the hands on his shoulders and looked down. They were large, totally covered with course gray fur, the powerful fingers ending in long, blunt claws.

Shuddering, Ripley weighed his options, realizing that he could go with a talking Grizzly and someone with Really hairy hands, or return to his existence of quiet desperation, as The Dream slowly robbed him of what remained of his sanity. He refused to consider that alternative. This seemed to be the end of the road. After the surge of hope generated by his impossible correspondence, he knew there would be no turning back. Whoever these creatures were, Howard knew, deep in his soul, they were inexplicably linked to The Dream.

The creature behind Ripley removed its hands from his shoulders as the bear held out one huge paw, palm up, fingers curled.

"Come," Aarrl commanded.

Despite his continuing fear, Howard stiffly got up form the log, irrationally gratified that his pants hadn't frozen to its icy bark. As Ripley struggled to his feet, the Ursine's accomplice stepped around from behind and into the reflected light.

Once again, several orifices almost decided to call it quits! The big hairy hands belonged to an anthropomorphic wolf-like being, about two meters tall. The creature's right ear, where it protruded from the side of its form-fitted helmet, was adorned with five gold rings. Its dark tail curled around its knees. It also, was dressed in the same sort of camo fatigues as the bear, except that it wore a webbed harness festooned with a variety of weapons and equipment: 'Definitely a military type,' thought Howard.

It took several dizzying moments for this latest assault on Howard's nerves to fade, and its effect must have been obvious to the bear, as he took a half-step back, motioning to the wolf to do the same.

"Come," growled Aarrl. "We will not harm… you."

To Howard, the bear-creature's emphasis on 'you' seemed to indicate, to Howard, that he'd been granted some sort of special dispensation.

As he openly stared at the wolf-creature, the apparition that called itself 'Aarrl', approached him again, one long claw lightly touching his right arm. Howard jumped, failing to stifle a panicked squeak.

The Ursine ignored his reaction. "This one we call a 'Dirhal', in your language, Watcher," he said indicating the wolf-thing. "I am of the species Gashka".

Watcher indeed, Howard thought. The one standing next to him was watching him as intently as if he'd tried to steal its wallet!

Howard wasn't sure of the reaction he'd get, but swallowing several times to regain use of his parchment-dry throat, he told Aarrl, "Please excuse my nervousness, but you two resemble species of animals native to this region. Both are, uh… very dangerous."

Rather than being offended by the comparison, Aarrl seemed to relax and sighed, a far-off look in his eyes

"Yes. Those are the Progenitors," he growled. The last word seemed to hold special meaning for the Gashka.

The Ursine turned to his companion and spoke a few words, nodding in the Human's direction. Howard got the impression that the bear was relaying his comments. The Watcher shivered for a moment, the same distant look in its eyes. It was only much later that Howard understood the powerful effect of his comment.

Aarrl seemed to sense before Howard did himself, that the Human had made up his mind, because the Ursine turned to the Watcher and spoke a few words in their common tongue. The Dirhal in turn, reached into one of the pouches on its belt and took out another pair of goggles. It manipulated them for a moment before giving them to Howard, miming that he should put them on. The nose-piece was designed for a face far different than his, as it was fashioned to sit atop a large wolven muzzle, but after a bit of fiddling with the straps Howard got it situated, his nose actually inside the goggles, like a scuba mask.

Night turned to day. Using his engineer's knowledge, Howard theorized that the goggles used a combination of light amplification and infra-red technologies. Meaningless coma-and-dash squiggles scrolled across the top of his field of view, indicating other functions than simply vision enhancement. Howard saw that with the goggles on, the powerful light in Aarrl's clawed hand, while still quite bright, was obviously being attenuated by the goggles' internal workings. Seeing that he no longer needed it, Aarrl switched the light off.

The Gashka looked at an instrument at his wrist, and sniffed the air. "Dawn comes. We must depart."

Without looking back, the huge Ursine turned and headed down the faint trail, deeper into the forest. Howard followed, with the Watcher falling in behind him. They hiked for about forty minutes, mostly uphill, and in his couch-potato condition, Howard was puffing fiercely by the time they reached a small, moonlit clearing on the far side of a hilly ridgeline.

Once again surprise twanged on Howard's optic nerves. Sitting in the middle of the clearing was a white, wedge-fronted vehicle, about fifteen meters long by five wide. Its massive aft endgate was open to lay flat against the frozen ground. Stationed near the craft were two more Dirhal, both dressed in camouflage and armed with assault rifle-like weapons.

As they neared, the two Watchers on guard bristled at Howard's approach, though neither showed any other hostility. With a sweeping gesture of his huge arm, Aarrl indicated that they should enter the vehicle immediately. Second thoughts gnawed at the back of Howard's mind, but he felt that if he hesitated, he would be the guest of honor at his own Alien Abduction.

The inside of the craft was quite Spartan, and shouted 'troop transport', with room to seat thirty creatures the Watcher's size in military discomfort. As soon as they boarded, the Dirhal who had been Aarrl's accomplice passed forward to assume the pilot's seat. Howard jumped as the whine of motors heralded the closing of the rear portal. With a growling exclamation, one of the guards pointed to a shiny black plastic seat to his left. Howard sat as the Wolven creature glared down at him with bright topaz-golden eyes. The contour of the formed plastic seat wasn't designed for Human nether regions, as there was a large cutout at the base of his spine that Howard found most uncomfortable. Shortly, the two other Dirhal took their places directly in front the Human, their long, bushy tails hanging down through the cutouts in the back of their seats. Howard had to pay particular attention to avoid stepping on the depending appendages that puddled about his feet.

Takeoff was smooth and utterly quiet, with only a barely perceptible sensation of movement. Because of the lack of an exterior view in the passenger area, Howard couldn't see how fast they were going or in what direction. It wasn't until several minutes into the flight that Aarrl got up from his seat and indicated that the Human should come forward to stand behind the Dirhal piloting the craft.

With his hands firmly gripping the high back of the pilot's seat, Howard stared transfixed out the sloping front window. In that instant, any doubt or hesitation concerning the wisdom of his actions evaporated in the glorious light of the sun rising above the limn of the earth, illuminating the tops of the clouds several hundred kilometers below. Never had Howard dared even dream he would see this sight! The Human wasn't sure how long he stood, basking in that marvelous scene, but after a while the Earth and then a thin crescent of moon began to fall away behind them, as the small vessel accelerated into the Outer Dark.

* * * *

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