Signs & Portents
And Lo! the Hunter of the East
Every bone and muscle in Morton's body began to wake up to its own separate agony. It was beyond his reeling consciousness to try to imagine how he had come to this strange snowy place, but disturbing memories from old movies about the dangers of falling asleep in snow prompted him to assail the torture of getting to his feet. With the desperate thought of finding warmth, somehow, some way, he began to plod resolutely toward the timber line visible to his blurred vision.
It was in a downhill direction, and the moving around at least took the edge off the pain of his throbbing body. At last, he broke into the trees and discovered a fairly large patch of earth where the snow had melted. He halted on this patch. This snow was melting, he realized dully, and became aware of his wet feet at the same instant. There was nothing particular inviting about the sodden earth on which he stood, but a primeval instinct asserted itself—fire. A fire, of course, that was what he needed. He began to fumble through his pockets and came up victorious, a packet of matches. He stared at them in awe. Somehow they had traveled with him through all he had been through and were there, a small ludicrous miracle. Perhaps from the last time he had lit the barbecue for visiting children? You never knew sometimes what you would stick in your pockets.
Morton was a weekend father as a result of an early unhappy marriage and at the thought of his children, something familiar and dear, tears began to flow down his chapped cheeks. He dashed them away before they could take him over and forced his attention back to the immediate task.
Blessedly, he next saw the brown edge of a fallen tree limb protruding from the snow, and almost immediately, another. Desperately, he shook them as free of snow as he could. With some bits of paper from his pockets, over some of these he also started to weep briefly, but ended by joyously mutilating his checkbook with small gasps of thanks to the gods who provided such things. With this, and a small hoard of carefully nourished dry twigs and brown needles, he achieved yet another miracle, that of fire. Frantically, he raided the nearby drifts of their treasures to build it higher, and smokily, but certainly, it mounted higher.
He gingerly settled himself as near as he could to it to soak up its wonderful life giving warmth. Only then did he spare a portion of his mind to consider the question of where he might be.
Snow, someplace in the East, he theorized, thinking as a Californian. But then he caught sight of a vision that shattered this consideration. It was the mountain, part of whose flank he had just descended. It stood quite alone, pristine and perfectly shaped like no mountain on earth. He looked dumbfounded at its utter perfection and isolation. In most terrestrial landscapes, mountains usually intruded their shapes against other mountains, but this one stood singular and alone, majestic and altogether too perfectly shaped. He fumbled to think of some place on earth that would match this scene. Switzerland, he thought with wild hope?
No, he realized, that would be too easy. Why should he suppose that they would return him to the planet Earth when they had a universe from which to choose? In the distance, he now heard the drone of a motor, a very strange sounding motor, its noise forcing his unwilling ears to attention. As he listened, it seemed to be coming much closer to his own location. Silently, he prayed that this was only his imagination.
He was nerving himself to flee if it came much closer when it became quiet. He settled back with relief, he hadn't wanted to leave his fire. But wary and alert now, his ears probed the quiet for more strange sounds. Inexorably, additional sounds came. Eerie and ominous, he made out the crunching sound of approaching footsteps. His mind oscillated rapidly between the idea of flight or simply standing his ground. Anxiety gripped him, but he chose the latter.
It was a strange figure that paused and peered at him across the fire, the turbulent smoke lending him an even more supernatural appearance. Directly in the center of his forehead, a strange scar like indentation stood out, but otherwise, it was the ordinary human face of a man past middle age. He was dressed in a uniform like apparel, vaguely suggestive of that of earthly police or military, but was not quite either. He watched Morton for long silent minutes and Morton clenched his hands in his pockets. He attempted to return the other's appraisal with what courage he could muster, but felt he was loosing the battle. The urge to flee reemerged in him, but the realization that he would probably have little chance of survival on his own in the wilds of this strange world held him back. He was also more bone tired than he could ever remember being in his entire life.
The stranger broke the silence finally in a rough gravelly voice that brooked no argument.
"There are no fires allowed here," he pronounced solemnly and distinctly.
Morton stared at him in confusion and finding his own vocal chords frozen, he began to weep rather than try to force out any words. The surrealistic figure ignored him at this, but stepped forward and began to kick the fire apart with booted feet. Morton remained squatting and watched in gloomy resignation as he also picked up snow and dumped it on the smoldering limbs. The strange man in the uniform was not content until every trace of the fire had been smothered in snow and stomped into the damp earth.
Obviously, some very strict rules obtained here, Morton reflected, no fires allowed in such a cold climate. Perhaps this was a prison planet? The thought rang true somehow, a sort of galactic dumping place for those, who like himself, had run afoul of the powers in the wider cosmos. He was too numb to contemplate the possible consequences of his transgression in breaking the no fire rule. He offered no resistance when the stranger took hold of his arms and began to guide him remorselessly further down the grade to an unknown destination.
The cause for the motor sound revealed itself to be a strange vehicle not unlike earthly cars, but appearing more like a cross between a truck and a passenger car. Morton submitted himself to being stuffed into it and was soon watching the trees flash by through the car window. His head slumped against that same window, bleakly grateful for the heat given off by the motor, as he was carried along to a fate he attempted not to think about.
He was beyond surprise when the destination turned out to be a strange square building with a broad expanse of glass bisecting it all around. He gave himself over to being led into it where he saw that little trouble had been taken with furnishings of any kind. A prison planet, he was now sure. When he was guided toward it, he meekly seated himself on the rough wooden bench against one of the walls. The strange man stared at him again solemnly, but said nothing. Morton assayed to return his stare, but the morbid indentation in the man's forehead irresistibly drew his eyes and they nervously shifted away. The mark was a round bullet shaped hole about a half an inch deep. It's function or meaning was imponderable.
The furnishings of the room in which he was seated were wood, with a rough handmade look, thoroughly spartan and primitive. However, as he had entered, he had caught sight of a strange metallic device in the next room that bespoke a higher technology, and of course, there was the vehicle itself. He concluded that the man was surely a guard. Living arrangements for prisoners like himself would probably be a great deal more primitive and rough than this, beyond that his mind refused to go. Still silent after his one announcement of the no fire rule, the stranger stalked from the room. But within minutes, Morton noticed him peering back through the doorway, obviously keeping an eye on Morton. The stranger returned as abruptly as he had departed and pushed a warm ceramic mug into Morton's cold stiff hands. He gave Morton a rather sour look and again left. Gratefully, Morton closed his hands around this container of sustenance as he caught a hauntingly familiar smell. Coffee! That was certainly a change from the exotic fruits and juices that had sustained him on the star ship.
Suddenly, he entertained the hope of fellowship. Perhaps this strange man was also from Earth?
Of course, he reasoned, this abduction process could have been going on for years. There were always strange disappearances, who could guess the scope of it? Why shouldn't there be other men from Earth here too? He looked up hopefully, but the other gave him an appraising unfriendly gaze from the hallway as he strode off for other parts of the house.
Soon he heard the rumble of a man's voice, apparently speaking to someone (or something?) but he could make out no words. He had the uneasy feeling that another language was being spoken.
The stranger kept his absence brief again, displaying a reluctance to leave his guest unguarded for very long. Thoughts of escape were very far from Morton's mind, however, but his spirits were somewhat restored by the sips of coffee, even if the temperature in the room was not as warm as he would have liked. He decided to try to make a beginning in communicating, his voice quavering a bit, "Where is this?" he asked.
The stranger did not respond.
"I mean I just got here myself. Those women on the flying saucer," Morton went valiantly on, "they, uh, dumped me here, I think."
The man lifted his eyebrows slightly, but still spoke no word. Oh God, thought Morton, not the language barrier now, but it would explain the silence after the stranger had spoken those few terse words in English. He began again more urgently, perhaps the man might be from Earth at least, if not an English speaker.
"I'm from the planet Earth, myself," he managed to force his numb lips into the rictus of a smile, "I thought maybe, well, uh, you know, ah the coffee?" words failed him until he found another topic.
The other continued silent.
"What planet is this? You see those saucer people, they just left me here. I don't know where I am."
The man studied him and his brows shifted under the disfiguring scar as if he, too, were struggling to manage words. An eternity seemed to go by while this was accomplished, but Morton eagerly waited for the reply. When the alien's voice came rumbling out of his chest, it carried an unsuspected kindness.
"Well, son," he declared, his voice redolent with a familiar earthly western twang, "this is the planet earth!" A rumbling but good natured chuckle evinced at this point.
"Right now," he plodded on, his tone now suggestive of the wisdom of one who has seen it all and adopted a slow paced relaxed attitude to life in answer to it, "you're the temporary guest of the Pacific States Forest Service. This is Shasta Forest, that sound familiar to you? You know, Mt. Shasta? But this is only temporary," he stressed. "Right now, I'm getting ready to take you down to the hospital. That's in Redding. Redding, California? That sound familiar to you?"
Morton found himself wordless again. He gawked at the morbid indentation in the man's forehead refusing to believe. Lies, he thought wildly, all lies. Whoever was in charge of this horrific misadventure was now trying to foist some new deception on him. The stranger's jovial gruffness moved in on the silence again.
"Well," he offered, "no need to worry about that just yet. You'll be just fine, you'll see." Now he noticed the direction of Morton's gaze and his hand reached up to his forehead.
"Oh, don't let that bother you, son. Got that little souvenir in the fire season last year. Looks gawd awful doesn't it? But that's because of the skin graft, you see. Doctors took it off my arm here," he rolled up a sleeve and displayed another patch of oddly shaped scar tissue.
"Won't always look that way," he explained. "They'll plump it out, and you'll hardly know its there. Got another procedure to do, you know."
Morton soon found himself afloat in a sea of homilies extolling the merits of the outdoor life, and some of its dangers and drawbacks. Trees again whizzed by his view from the vehicle window and he decided, half tearfully, that he really liked trees. They did remind him of his own dear familiar earth. His mind struggled to believe what his sense impressions were telling him, and the now garrulous stranger, and any other reassuring vision, sound or smell. But everything was awry some way, and he could not completely believe.
By the time the hospital was reached, Morton had even managed a weak smile at his companion. But faced with the bleak white light in the hospital corridor, his nerve abandoned him, and he seized his companion's arm and demanded in a shrill urgent tone, "Are you sure this is the planet Earth?"
The local papers picked up the story and ran it under the head: SCIENTIST TELLS OF SAUCER KIDNAP. The wire services picked it up and it ran in the Northern California Bay Area papers under various headings: MISSING LOCAL MAN FOUND; STRANGE TALE OF SAUCER ABDUCTION. BEINGS FROM PLANET HYADES SAYS SCIENTIST. DARING ESCAPE FROM SAUCER REPORTED BY MISSING MAN. A long feature article bore the title: UMINIANS DROPPED ME ON MT. SHASTA, CLAIMS SOLAR SCIENTIST.
Morton winced when a hospital orderly brought him copies of his home town papers. He vaguely considered trying to retrieve his reputation, but his life had changed somehow. At home, his colleagues were probably passing the articles around amongst themselves and laughing, as they remarked on what they had always suspected about old Wilson. But perhaps it didn't matter. Something in him questioned whether that was really the important thing. He little supposed, however, that the fun was only beginning.