There are truths in this cosmos that we do not want to know, terrible things the knowing of which will drive a person to the very brink of madness. Unnameable eldritch horrors, beings from the depths of deepest space, and vicious tormentors of the fragile human psyche surround us at all times. That’s where people like me come in.
Mike sometimes says we work for the Bureau of White Lies. It’s a fair description. We provide the polite fictions people need to keep going about their everyday lives. Of course, there are times when polite fictions fail us.
The Til-Destha incident started with a door, worn bare by long prairie dust storms. A man in his fifties answered, his wide eyes blinking up at us.
“Mr. Vince Hellerman?”
“I’m Agent Lee, this is Agent Brown. We’re with the Department of Energy’s Investigation Division. I understand something happened in your barn two nights ago.”
The man’s eyes grew wider, and a weird grin split his face. “Yer talkin’ ’bout the ghost!” he said. “An’ here I thought no one was goin’ ta take me seriously.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mike. “May we come in and talk with you?”
“Well, sure! I’ll have Nancy fix ya something,” said Hellerman. He ushered us in. The living room was sparse, containing two threadbare chairs and a dusty love seat. Faded magazines covered the coffee table. Hellerman muttered to himself as he pushed them into a denser pile at the center. He motioned both of us to the love seat, then turned away to shout further into the house. “Nance! Get yer butt in here! We got two g-men here to talk ’bout my ghost! And bring some of that iced tea! And clear off these damn magazines!”
“Coming, dear!” came the reply. Hellerman sat in one of the faded chairs, facing us. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and staring straight at Mike. When he spoke, he illustrated his words with broad gestures.
“It was two nights ago. I’d gone to the barn to work on the tractor – and to get away from the missus, which you’ll understand, Mr. Lee. Darn thing’s been acting up for weeks. Anyways, I was shoulder deep in the engine when this green lightning shot all round the place. Strangest thing you ever saw, jest this green light show shooting every which way.
“Well, I pulled my hands out of the engine right quick, as you might imagine.” He flicked a glance my way. “Y’see, Ms. Brown, electricity can be real dangerous around engines.” I resisted the urge to scoff. It’s important to be professional.
“Oh, you’ve just been working too hard,” said a tiny woman coming out of the cramped dining room. She carried a plate with four large glasses of ice and a full pitcher of iced tea.
“You calling me crazy?” asked Hellerman. He planted both hands on his knees and goggled at her. “Saying I’m seeing things?”
“Of course not, dear. I just think there has to be a rational explana-”
“Shut your face or I’ll shut it for you. Ghosts are rational!” he said. He waved a hand at us. “Why do you think the government sent these two? Just to hear a nut rave? They know the truth!”
“Actually, Mr. Hellerman,” I said, “we’re here because-”
“Now, after the lightning faded, there was this hazy green thing floating in the air. Didn’t look like much at first, but then-”
“Mr. Hellerman, I’m sorry, but you didn’t see a ghost,” said Mike. Hellerman shut up. Mike slid a thin file across the table. “The Department was conducting some tests on a new reactor, and what you saw was a spillover effect.”
Hellerman’s face fell, and his eyes started to water as Mike patiently walked him through the official story.
On the way back to the car, I popped a mint and a pick-me-up into my mouth. It had taken three hours to convince Hellerman, and I’d only taken one dose before we got there. A shiver seized my neck as the pill went down. I shook my head, playing it off as frustration.
“Well, that was something,” I said. Mike just nodded. We climbed into the car and I hit a small button on the back side of the steering wheel. The small screen flickered to life. Ms. Oldman’s face frowned at us.
“Status?” she said.
“He bought it,” I replied. “At least for now. We got the sheriff on the way into town, so everything should be quiet.”
“Good,” she said. “Anything else?” We both shook our heads, and the screen snapped off.
An hour and a half of flat highway later, we pulled into the crappy motel the sadists in Travel had booked for us.
“Dinner in half an hour?” I suggested. Mike nodded. He’d been unusually quiet during the ride, but I wrote that off as exhaustion with Hellerman.
As soon as I was in my room, I kicked off my shoes, tossed my jacket onto the tiny desk, and flopped onto the bed. I keyed my phone on and called my girlfriend. I grabbed a pick-me-up off my nightstand and knocked it back while the phone rang.
“Hello?” asked Liana’s tinny voice.
“Hey. It’s me.”
“Not much. Typical day. Totally classified.”
“What’s new with you?”
“We only had half a day with kids today so we could spend the afternoon getting quarter grades in.”
“Right, right. How are they looking?”
“I anticipate some angry parent calls, but no more than usual. People hate getting the hard truth sometimes.”
I snorted. As Hellerman proved, sometimes people hated getting the easy lie.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. It’s classified.”
“OK. Look, I think there’s something we need to talk about.”
“I don’t like that tone.”
“And I don’t like having to use it. Still, you should know-”
“Wait,” I said, sitting up. “Are we really going to have a tough talk over the phone?”
“It…might be easier. I was talking to Mike, and we both agree-”
“When did you talk to Mike?”
“Like a week ago.”
“…the pills, J.T.”
I jabbed my finger down hard to end the call. I grabbed another pick-me-up from the nightstand on my way to the door. I didn’t even put shoes on. Instead, I took the five steps to Mike’s door barefoot on the cold cement.
“Mike!” I shouted as I pounded on the door. “Mike! Open up, you treacherous bastard!”
The door jerked open a few inches, the chain still in place.
“What the hell?” he asked.
“You’ve been whining to Liana about me?”
“Oh, jeez. Come on, Jessica. We can talk about it when we’re back at headquarters.”
“No! We’ll talk about it now!”
“We need to eat and head back to the Hellermans to investigate…”
“Then you can explain yourself in the car. Come on!”
“…it would be nice to not have to worry about you blasting off right before we go into the field, that’s all. I don’t want you getting jumpy and blowing a hole in me!”
Mike had complained during the entire drive back to the Hellermans’ place. He’d dropped his voice to a whisper as we got out of the car and made our way into the barn, but he hadn’t stopped talking.
“I don’t know how many more ways I can say ‘I can handle it,’ OK, Mike? We haven’t had a problem yet.”
Our flashlights cast weird shadows up the walls as we scanned the inside of the barn. Scorch marks cobwebbed the rafters and support beams. I pulled out a tracer and spun in a slow circle.
“That way,” I said, pointing out one wall toward the fields. Mike walked next to me, looked at the tracer, then nodded. I snorted. “I can see just fine. Probably better than you, to be honest.”
“That’s what you thought in Denver,” he said. We left the barn and turned towards the fields. I was in the lead, tracer still in hand.
“That turned out just fine.”
“The hell it did!”
“Get off my back. After a couple more years of fieldwork, you’ll be doing the same.”
The sky above us held a patchwork of gray clouds, stars shimmering through the gaps. Near one spot on the horizon, however, the clouds appeared thicker and had taken on a greenish cast. The tracer confirmed greater activity in that direction.
“It’s not just about me. Liana’s worried, too. She said-”
“If she has a problem with me, she can bring it up in person. Not over the phone, and definitely not through you.”
Mike growled in frustration. “Why can’t you just see-”
“Oh, I see just fine. I see better than ever. I see that I have a turncoat partner and a liar of a girlfriend who would rather go behind my back than confront me face to face.”
We entered a sudden bare patch of field, the high stalks of wheat replaced by an ellipse of ash. Mike bent close to it, and I could make out glints of green in the scoop he picked up with his gloved hand.
I shone my flashlight around, spotting a cleared path out of the ellipse. It led toward the patch of land beneath the green clouds.
“Come on, traitor,” I said. “It’s time to get some work done.” I resisted the urge to pop another mint and pick-me-up. Mike sighed.
We walked in cold silence along the path for several minutes. Finally, we reached an unexpected grove. At first glance, it appeared to be populated with trees. Upon closer inspection, they revealed themselves to be large fungal growths. They bunched together in clusters surrounding a shallow, brackish pond.
“They didn’t say anything about this, right?” I asked Mike. He shook his head.
Each fungus glowed as we approached it and dimmed as we moved away. A low, shifting hum ran continuously through the air. I reached into a pocket for my mint container, but then I forced myself to pull my hand out again, empty.
Green sparks of light began to drift out from underneath the fungal blooms. They floated away from their origins, then upward, until the whole grove was filled with bright pinpricks of green. Broader swatches of light flickered between the points, eventually turning into rolling sheets of illumination. Mike and I shared a look. This was a new one for both of us.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think maybe it’s time to back up, then return with more equipment.”
I nodded and turned to leave. Something pulled at my right foot. I looked down, expecting a puddle of thick mud. Instead, I saw hundreds of tiny, cilia-like shoots gripping my boot.
“Mike…” I said.
“They’ve got me, too,” he replied. I looked over and saw his feet similarly trapped. The shoots shivered, and the ground beneath our feet rippled. Thicker growths forced their way out of the earth and wrapped themselves around our calves. I tried to pull one off, but a sudden ridge of thorns pierced out of it and stung my hand.
“Ow!” I said, yanking my hand back and shaking it. I heard Mike hiss in pain, then draw his gun. “Are you sure?” I asked. A gunshot followed.
The vine he shot wavered and fell to the ground, but two more burst from its base. Mike grimaced.
“I don’t think we’ve got enough ammo,” I said. He barked a quick laugh.
The plants twisted us around to face the noisome pond in the middle of the grove. Its surface roiled, then broke as three thick, trunk-like vines erupted at its center. They wound themselves around each other, forming a bizarre triple helix. Huge red and purple flowers blossomed along their lengths as green lightning skittered up from the pond.
Clouds of yellow pollen puffed from the flowers, joining the green pinpricks of light to form a bilious fog. That fog then wafted toward us. I took a deep breath before it reached me, and I heard Mike do the same. Of course, the human body has limits. Eventually we were forced to inhale the terrible mist. That’s when the dreaming began.
The world swam and blurred into a crazed swirl of colors. I felt a sharp tugging sensation, followed by a burst of wind. The colors twisted together before fading to a pale yellow. A high whistling sound replaced the grove’s low hum.
My vision cleared. I hovered above a vast golden beach bordering a crimson sea. Enormous blue and violet crustaceans marched in a disturbing parade, though I could see neither their point of origin nor their destination. A sharp wind blew in from the ocean, carrying with it strange odors reminiscent of cinnamon and turmeric tainted by sulfur. In the distance, silver clouds gathered, flashes of green lightning sparking between them.
Running through the whole scene was an odd sensation of unreality, as if all that I was seeing was merely a halfway-successful attempt to represent a truth my mind could not perceive.
“Welcome to my realm,” said a voice in the air to my left. I looked in its direction, but saw nothing except the bolts of green lightning in the distance.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“The closest rendering you will understand is Til-Destha,” said the voice. The utterance of the name was accompanied by a shiver of equal parts revulsion and excitement. “I am the First Visitor of my people.”
So this was a first contact situation. At least we were trained for that.
“I am J.T. Brown, an agent of one of my species’s governments.”
“I know this. I know every piece of you, Jessica Theresa Brown. I know of your purpose, your turmoils, your triumphs, your frailties.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too.”
“There is no pleasure in this meeting. Your mind is full of self-piercing sharpness, leaving no safe place for me to inhabit. All contact is pain.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You cannot. You are limited, and your brain is a riven place. How do you inhabit it?”
“It’s not always easy,” I said.
“I cannot converse with you like this. I will conduct my business with your partner alone.”
There was no answer. Instead, I felt a sudden rush, like one of my pick-me-ups but hundreds, thousands of times stronger. Pure euphoria, as if I had been turned into a beam of brilliant, pulsing energy. And then it all went bad.
I plummeted down to the beach, where the crustaceans paused in their marching. Dozens of huge eyestalks turned to face me as cold, painful shudders pounded through me. I writhed in the golden sand, which turned into molten, grasping hands seizing my arms and legs.
Claws dug into me, opened me up, pulled out my insides, and I screamed. An enormous pincer gripped my forehead, then ripped the top of my skull off. I felt a tugging at my brain, then everything went black.
I came back to myself hovering above the sand again, seemingly intact. Again, the rush of energy hit me, and again I fell. Again I was destroyed. Again, again, again…
I came to in the car’s passenger seat, Mike at the wheel. It was the first time in a long while that I woke up with my body feeling genuinely relaxed.
“What the hell…?” I muttered. Mike looked over at me.
“Oh, good. You had one heck of a night.”
Terrible memories flashed through my mind. Pain, phantasmagoric nightmares, and that horrible plummet over and over and over… I shook my head.
“What happened with you?” I asked him.
“First contact,” he said with a grin. “My first. Not that I think they’re going to be regular visitors. Still, it’ll make for one heck of a report.”
“Congratulations,” I said. I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my box of mints, rolled down the window, and watched the little pills tumble into the air.