Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Black Fire

Witness A (One)

 

I first see it as I’m driving back that night up the road—you can bet I pulled over. I thought it was a fucking plane coming down. Like a plunge of flames right through the sky, as if the sky was tearing open from the top to the bottom. The car slams to a halt and I jump out—and I’m below the top of the hill, so I run the rest of the way and just as I get there, this…thing, whatever it was, it lands in the woods. Well, our house is around there, me and hers. Only a mouse-house—what she said—mid-terrace in the last street winds out the village.

I stand on the hill sort of frozen, sort of turned to stone, and I hold my breath, the way like you do, not knowing you’re not breathing.

So while I watch, all this fire-thing just storms into and through the trees and down and it hits the ground, and I think something’s crazy then, because there should be a God-awful great bang, yeah? And great columns of fire and crap. But there ain’t a sound. Not a bloody whisper.

And then I remember and I take that missing breath. But it’s so quiet. I think that’s what struck me anyhow, even while I run up the hill. There’s always some kind of noise out here; I mean, we’re not that far from the town. And there’s animals, too, foxes and things snuffling and screeching. And cars.

Only there isn’t a single sound now.

I don’t never drink when I drive. Not no more. I got pulled over a couple years ago, random check, and I was just over the limit: half a glass—well, a pint—of beer. But I won’t take any chance now. So nobody can say I imagined what I seen. Go on, you can test me, if you like. No. I see it. And I see what come after too.

#

Witness E (One)

 

He was late. He’s always late.

That’s what they says about dead people, don’t they? Well then he must be dead.

Oh, he’s got some bint where he works. Says he hasn’t. He’s got some—

Anyhow. I was washing my hair, and this blinding like…light sort of—I thought it was coming straight in the bleeding window—

I thought it was a bomb. You know—a dirty bomb like they always go on about? Terrorists. Why does everyone hate everyone?

So I runs out in the garden and I look and this big light—it’s like the sky’s falling and it’s all on fire—only the fire is…it isn’t red or nothing. It’s—I can’t describe it really.

Right in the wood.

I started to cry. I was really scared. And he weren’t there, the bugger.

But there’s no crash. Nothing. Just—silence. You know that thing someone said—hear a pin drop. Like that.

And my hair’s so wet—but I shakes it back, and I thought: I can go next door, but the other three houses there, as we come like out of the village, no one lives in them now.

And then I sees him. This guy. He’s walking out bet­ween the trees, i’nt he. Just walking.

#

Witness A (One)

 

Fucking car wouldn’t start, would it, when I goes back to it.

So I beats it up the fucking hill again and belts down the other side toward the house. I mean, I’m thinking of her, aren’t I? Yeah?

I mean you do, don’t you?

#

Witness E (One)

 

It wasn’t just he was well fit. I mean he was fit. I can see that like. And like he’s really—he’s beautiful. And I’m stan­ding there in my old jeans and an old bra and no slap on and my hair full of shampoo. But he’s got a sort of like, he’s sort of shining.

It’s like—what’s that stuff? Phosbros—is it?

He gleams.

Only he’s dark too. I don’t mean he’s a black guy. His skin is just kind of like summer tan, sort of like he’s caught the sun but over here. Not a real tan. And his hair is black but it’s so long, all down his back, it’s like silk.

And he has this face.

I don’t think much of them movie celebs, do you? But this guy, he’s like in films my mum used to watch before she went mad and ended up in Loonyville—I can’t think who.

But he comes out the wood and up to the garden, where the dustbin is, and the broken gate, and he looks at me.

I say, “D’you see that flaming thing come down?”

And he smiles at me.

#

Witness A (Two)

 

Coming home on that train…it’s always late and no trolly service; I dread the damn thing. But when I finally got to the station what do you think? The shit Volvo won’t start, will it?

So I walked.

Perfect ending to a perfect day, etc.

That’s when I saw those fireworks all showering down on everything.

I admit I stopped and stared. I mean, I was recollect­ing that factory—God, where was it?—that place where all the fireworks blew up. The only difference was, and I eventually figured it out, these fireworks were all in a mass, just dropping in one single area. They merely fell out of the sky. Glittering. The rather peculiar thing was, there were no colors. It was quite a naturally well-lit night—aside from the inevitable street lamp light-pollution—a half moon, and stars. And this fountain of fireworks looked somehow much darker. They were—the nearest I can get is something like black sequins, those kind of gowns sexy women wore in the forties of the last century.

Anyway, I started to walk again because even when the fountain hit the bloody houses on my street, which I could see from up there on the far side of the park, there wasn’t any thudding noise, no detonations.

You get so anxious now. It’s how they want to make you, isn’t it? All these warnings. I’d been thinking, ever since the trouble years ago, I ought to relocate, just work from home.

But it’s difficult. My partner. She likes the high life, frankly, and her own job (she’s a sort of PA) simply doesn’t cover the rent.

It took me an hour to get back on foot. I steeled myself and didn’t stop off at the King’s Arms. I thought she might be worried. Sometimes I can be such a bloody fool.

By the time I reached the house the pyrotechnics were long gone. It was just this incredibly silent night. I noted that, you see. It struck me, how dead quiet it was.

When I unlocked the door, there seemed to be no one about. That was unusual. She’s usually around. Even if she’s asleep in front of the TV with an empty vodka bottle. I called out, I remember…I called her name—Honey I’m home sort of rubbish.

But no answer.

I felt fed up. I was tired out and hungry. I admit, I felt unloved. Childish, stupid, but I’m trying to tell you the truth.

Then I thought I heard a noise upstairs. Had she gone up to bed early? (No care for me, get my own fucking meal even though she’d been home all day.) Or was she ill? She gets migraines sometimes—or she says she…she said she did.

I went upstairs.

This I can’t really explain. I walked quietly. Maybe only because it really was so quiet. Not a sound. (Even when I’d passed the pub, now I come to think of it. Quiet as—well, is even a grave so quiet?)

Upstairs the dimmer was on, all the lights half doused.

Then I did hear something. Then I heard it again, through the bedroom door. Our bedroom. This cry.

You can’t mistake a cry like that.

Unless, of course, you never ever heard it before.

#

Witness A (One)

 

I runs the last bit. I’m getting really scared. Even though there’d been no bang nor nothing. I mean, the house lights were all out.

When I gets there I nearly has a heart attack because the front door is standing wide open.

No light—no, one in the lounge. I say lounge—size of a kitchen table—nowhere else though.

Upstairs, in the tiny little mouse room we called our bedroom, I hear a long wild wailing noise.

And I fucking know that noise.

It’s her, fetching off, like they say.

It’s sex.

I thought, hang on maybe she’s just fixed herself, me not being there.

Then I know.

Then I run upstairs fast as I could. Sounded like an elephant to myself, in all the quiet.

When I pushed the door open, there they are. Her and him.

There they are.

#

Witness E (Two)

 

He rang the door bell. I think that was it… He must have done.

So I opened the door. It wasn’t that late. Anyway, I was bored.

The utter rubbish on TV. I’d been going to check the washing-machine because suddenly it seemed so silent that pres­umably it’d packed up, with all my gear in it, oh, and his favorite three shirts—unforgiveable!

I thought I’d seen a kind of flash in the sky earlier. But I’m always seeing things in the sky. Altogether, in the past two years, I’ve seen six unidentified flying objects. Everyone laughs at me. But I did.

Anyway, standing outside the door is this entirely gorgeous man. There is no other way to describe him. He looks like—oh, God knows. Too good to be true. No, I don’t remember what he was wearing.

Yes, I’d been drinking. I always mean to cut down, never do it when I’m at work. But sometimes, well. But not that much. I mean, I could see.

He was so beautiful.

And he said, “Here you are,” and he smiled this wonder­ful smile.

No, not charismatic, nothing so clichéd. You look­ed at him and—

I fell in love with him. On sight. I fell in love with him.

Can I stop now?

I need some water, please.

#

Witness E (Three)

 

We’d been going to go up to the ridge. There was supposed to be a meteor shower. He said so. We’re both very interested in that sort of thing—space, you know. He has a wonderful coll­ection of meteor bits—dark fusion crust, really special.

We’d only been together a year. It was awful when he lost his job, but luckily I still have mine. Very luckily, as it turns out. I mean, it’s just boring office work, but I’ll still need a job, won’t I? Or not, for a bit, perhaps.

Anyway, we set off quite early, around sunset. It was lovely, the light sinking over the fields and the birds singing.  I know the songs are only territorial, their way of saying Keep Out! to other birds. I never knew that till he explained it to me. I just thought they sang because they could do it so well.

The ridge is the highest open place for miles.

We sat down and looked at the dark coming, and then all the lights coming on all round, the two towns, and the city to the north, and the little villages. You can never go far here without seeing people, or signs of them.

It got dark then. The moon was already quite far over to the west, though still high enough to make the upper sky that deep night blue. Lots of stars.

We didn’t see anything for a long time. Then this thing just erupted out of the zenith.

He jumped up. We both did.

“It’s a fireball—” he shouted. “My God—it’s col­ossal—”

It seemed to be falling straight on us, but somehow neither of us could move.

Then I remember being aware of turning, as if I were being turned, not doing it myself—and our shadows peeling out jet black behind us and then realizing the meteor was rush­ing down to the south, in front of us, not directly on to our heads.

He started to run. He was running after it. He didn’t wait for me, or even call to me. I suppose he just thought I’d do exactly what he did, I’d be so desperate to see. But I was scared. You know. I mean, it was so big and blazing bright—and yet so dark. I didn’t know you could have fire like that, black fire—it must be a phenomenon associated with certain types of extra-terrestrial objects.

So he’d sprinted off, and the fireball went down on the land. And then—no shock wave, no sound—it just went out. Like a blown candle. Like that.

My legs had gone to jelly. I had to sit down. I thought he’d be all right; after all nothing had exploded or was burning. What a coward I was, and he was so brave. He’d really tell me off. Perhaps I could get up and follow him in a minute, pretend I’d fallen over something as I ran—

Then I noticed how completely quiet everything was. Nothing is ever that quiet. I’ve been out with him enough nights to know. Animals move about, there is the distant hum of traff­ic from the motorway, or a plane. Even trees sort of settle.

And even the quietest flick of breeze moves the leaves. And I could see the leaves on trees moving a little. So the silence was just for me, somehow I’d been closed in some sort of bubble of soundlessness—

Then I stood up.

And then he spoke to me. I mean him, the man. The—I mean him.

He said, “Are you here?”

I said, “Who are you? Where did you come from?”

And he smiled.

He was so wonderful to look at…long black hair. He wore—I can’t remember. Just ordinary clothes I expect. Because in fact he couldn’t have been at all what he seemed. It was a sort of illusion he could create, just the way they do it in SF movies, CGI—in Dr. Who, for instance. Because he must be an alien, a species from beyond this world.

I was terrified. But then he touched me.

No, I’m all right.

This isn’t my blood.

#

Witness A (Four)

 

I slung the door open and I ran straight at them. They were by the wall. No need to guess what he’d been doing with her—

She just looked sad. That was all. She didn’t even protest.

And he—well, must have slipped out the side door while I was seeing to her, mustn’t he? Bastard. He never even tried to stop me.

Is she going to be—?

Okay.

No.

All right.

Yes.

#

Witness E (Seven)

 

Of course I never want him near me again after what he did. Sure, we’ve been married three years. So what? Yes, I’ll press charges. Look at me.

I don’t remember. Yes, there was another bloke. A stranger—so?          So what. I don’t remember. I must have done.

#

 

Dept. RUP/sub 3×6: ps

 

My profoundest apologies that the enc: document did not accomp­any the (coded) transcript of this report.

Here then, belatedly, it is.

(I have to add at this point that whether it will shed any light of logic on the recorded eyewitness reports already deciphered and in your hands, remains to be seen. Those of us here are frankly baffled.

I will refer to that again at the end of the enc: document.)

 

Docu 97/77/ Six. Six. Six.

 

On the night of the July 20 (see transcript) a number of emergency calls began to be relayed to this department. They involved urgent requests for all emergency services: police, paramedics and, in some cases, firefighters.

The peculiar feature of all these call-outs was the basic similarity of the claims of all the participants. Each seemed to involve an episode which, though variable, mentioned similar events and actions, and, significantly, one particular male person (as described in the transcripts): a youngish man, tall and slimly built, having very long dark hair and dark eyes. All the living victims—some were no longer alive, and even those who did not regard themselves as victimized—were in a range of states representing shock, paranoid rage, or extreme exhilaration. All reported a fundamentally similar scenario, despite other countless unlike details. However, the occurrences took place on the same evening, and across the length and breadth of England. While the times, too, varied (incidents began quite early in the evening, and continued to surface until midnight), it is evidentially impossible the same dark-haired man, the main “suspect”—we use this term for want of another—could have appeared in so many widely disseminated areas during so brief a time period.

I will add, so far, we have been entirely unable to trace him, in this country or elsewhere. This is partly due, no doubt, to the lack of any recoverable DNA, or other clue, left behind with the subjects of his…visits.

Also, although sightings of UFOs are not uncommon, on this particular night, no one, apart from the people directly involved, called in with any queries about a fiery falling object, whether thought to be a meteor, a spaceship, or a light aircraft. No unusual reports either of an electric storm or alarming fireworks display.

The enclosed transcript relays to you only a sample of the huge group of persons who were subsequently interviewed, initially by the police of the ambulance service, and later on by ourselves. It is a sample of the most typical reports. Of which, in total there are to date some six hundred and sixty-six.

This number may, of course, not arouse any disquiet in the mind of a modern atheist. Nevertheless I am afraid, in order to preserve for the victims, where feasible, a modicum of the anonymity the Law currently prescribes, we have (perhaps frivolously) labeled each and all of them not by an actual name, but by the letter A, in the case of males, and E, in the case of females. Plus a differentiating number—One, Two, etc.: You may soon be aware why the letters A and E alone have been selected. And we trust you will overlook any perceived levity on our part. A stands for the Biblical Adam, naturally. And E for Eve, his rib-created partner. As I have said, we have not, here, included every single eyewitness account, but rend­ered for your consideration the most predominantly recurrent statements; that is, those most representative from all the six hundred and sixty-six interviews we were able to garner. (Of those individuals resultantly dead, or in a condition likely to lead to death—both male and female—we do not yet have conclusive figures.) The ultimate consequences of this replic­ated event remain, so far, unpredictable.

We shall be very glad to receive your input on this matter. To accept it at apparent (religious?) face-value would seem, shall we say, grotesque. But to ignore so widespread a phenomenon likewise itself poses many problems.

Code seal and signature attached.

 

Appendage PSX:

My last thought is, I confess, is this really then what is meant by Science Fiction? Or, more disquietingly, was it always? I direct your attention to the final words of the final, included witness.

#

 

Witness A (Two)

 

I’m very sorry I did that to her. Yes, I know she won’t speak to me. I can’t see her. Yes. I’ve never done anything like that before.

I can’t describe it. Can’t you try to fucking under­stand? She was lying on the bed with him. She was naked. He was—he was inside her. She was holding him in her arms—

I couldn’t handle it. You didn’t see. And there was this light in the room. Like a sort of bloody gilding. The whole scene looked like a pornographic oil painting from the Italian Renaissance.

I don’t remember what he looked like. Just another man. Some kid, twenties maybe. God knows.

He just moved away from her. There was something then.

He was—what? what?—sinuous, something sinuous about how he moved. That I do remember. He moved like a trained dancer, an athlete—no, like an animal. Like a big cat. A panther. Or a snake.

I know I hit her.

I’m sorry.

I never did anything like that before with anyone.

No, it wasn’t really because she’d fucked him. It was what she said.

She said I can see inside you.

#

 

Witness E (Two)

 

Yes, I could, I could see all through him. Through everything. No, I can’t explain. I would if I could, wouldn’t I? I mean all this fucking talk, this interrogation, when I’m covered in bruises, and I’m still pretty articulate, aren’t I? Okay? If not very pretty. Ha. Ha.

I don’t know now what it was.

It was as if I knew everything there was to know, the heights, the depths, yesterday, tomorrow, the beginning, the end-oh—

Shit.

I need the plastic thing—the bowl—it’s your fault, all these questions—get the fucking sick bowl before I throw up all over—

#

 

Witness A (One)

 

She gets off of the bed and she says to me, I seen the stars.

That’s what she says.

She doesn’t mean—I don’t know what—I know what—

I don’t know what to do, do I? I turn to him like a fucking dope, but somehow he’s not there no more. But there’s something. I can feel it too.

There’s this ringing in my head, and this terrific smell, a good smell—no, not good; can’t be, can it? But it’s clean, sweet—only it’s drowning me.

I suppose she called you. Or someone. That’s all I remember, mate. The lot. But I won’t forget none of it. And I ain’t been drinking, I told you. Test me.

#

 

Witness E (Three)

 

It was like looking through glass. You know, a glass case, per­haps? You can see everything so clearly, but you can’t touch it. If you try, you trigger the alarm.

But I do remember there was a tree. It was very tall, dark but golden, both at once. We were lying high up in it. And there was this beautiful scent—no, more of a taste, really…

#

 

Witness E (Twenty-Four)

 

He said to me, “You are here.” And then we made love. It was never like that before. Won’t ever be again. I saw into this huge light. Only it was black, a black light. And for a moment, just after my climax, I knew that I was God. I know this sounds insane, but I don’t think I’m insane. It was only for a moment.

#

 

Witness A (One)

 

I’m afraid of her, now. Don’t want to see her again. Don’t want to see any of you, neither. I wish you’d all fuck off.

#

 

Witness E (Three)

 

When he came running back, the alien man—my lover—was gone. But I suppose it must have been obvious, to him. I mean, the man I lived with. I wasn’t in any tree at all, but lying there on the ridge, naked. I must have looked—well…I suppose it was obvious. It was to him. He began to shout and yell at me. He seemed to be speaking in another language. But I could see right through the universe, start to finish, even if it was behind glass. I’m such a coward normally; I’ve said, haven’t I? But when he ran at me his first blow never even touched me. I drove my knee into his stomach—no, let’s be truthful: into his genitals. And I ripped at his eyes. I am terribly sorry. I understand he may lose his right eye. But I knew he might have killed me otherwise, and frankly, I think you know that too, don’t you?

When I hurt him I felt nothing. Or rather, all I could feel was what I’d felt when the alien had sex with me. This incredible blissful opening to all things, in the most amazing way. And that lovely, delicious scent. I can still smell it. That taste of fresh cut apples.

#

 

With thanks to Steve Jones, for the “editorial” clue. – Tanith Lee

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Tanith Lee

Tanith LeeTanith Lee was born in 1947, didn’t learn to read till nearly 8, and started to write aged 9—and she hasn’t stopped since. In 1975, DAW Books published her epic fantasy The Birthgrave (soon due for re-release from Norilana) and so rescued Lee from lots of silly jobs at which she was extravagantly bad. Since then, she’s written more than 90 novels and collections plus almost 300 short stories. She lives on the S.E coast of England with her husband, writer/artist John Kaiine, in a house full of books and plants, under the firm claw of two cats.