A burst of muffled laughter erupted from the back of Izzy Brice’s 8th period biology class. A small cluster of boys led by Lino Forde had been choking on stifled giggles for the past few minutes. Perhaps it was just the end of the day, but Izzy had no patience left. She wanted very badly for Mrs. Kettering to send them to the office. Their outbursts had begun right from the start of the lesson. The whir of the projector with the lights off seemed to give young males a bravery in class that they rarely possessed in full sight. On the screen was a diagram of two wavy blobs with text by their various cellular parts.
“Do you have something to share with the rest of the class, Mr. Forde?”
Izzy looked back over her shoulder with the rest of the class. She knew what they were laughing at, even if no one else did.
“No, ma’am,” Lino said with his cronies’ eyes on him, wide and trembling with threatened laughter.
“Then may we continue with the lesson?”
“Sure,” he said with amicable cheer. Mackenzie Edmond snorted on his left and immediately buried his head in his arms to hide it. Behind him, Lee Baliczek was jabbing him with an elbow below the desk surface. Before she turned to face the front, her eyes met Lino’s. She was usually able to ignore the prepubescent immaturity that surrounded her. Her scowl must have been frigid enough to douse the burning in his cheeks because he immediately looked away, smile extinguished.
“Isabelle, can you please briefly explain the process of phagocytosis to the class?”
Izzy replied with her brow lightly furrowed as she tried to ignore the muffled cackling behind her at the pronunciation of the term. She didn’t understand why some words had a soft “g” and others a hard one. A simple decision of the scientist that made up the word would prevent such stupid responses from boys.
“It’s basically when a cell eats another cell.”
“That is correct. Now can you give an example of when phagocytosis occurs?”
The boys around Lino exchanged glances with stretched grins at the apparent comedy of the discussion. She aimed her sharp gaze at his friends that often infected him with their immaturity. They were like germs. Then the answer hit her.
“Bacteria. When an amoeba encounters bacteria, it wraps its cell membrane around it and then digests it.”
“Exactly, Isabelle. It is a major function of an organ’s immune system to remove pathogens and cell debris. If we move to the next slide, you’ll see the cell walls begin to consume the–” The audible clack of the slide switching was immediately followed by the dying whine of the slide projector as it lost power.
The next few awkward moments were of Mrs. Kettering fiddling with the contraption in a dumbfounded stupor that only older adults could manage when dealing with anything technical. While she checked the power cable and flicked switches on the wall, Izzy and others had noticed that the lights in the outside hallway had also gone out.
“I think the faggitosis made a fuse blow,” Lee Baliczek said to a small eruption of laughter. But while some were distracted by his immaturity, Izzy and others had their attention out the class windows. There was a gathering of vehicles and people out in the street beyond the school courtyard. There appeared to be an accident. Or maybe multiple accidents, Izzy thought as she noticed that all the cars in both directions had stopped. Some drivers seemed to be arguing with one another. Others were running from their cars in various directions.
“The power issue seems to go beyond our classroom,” Mrs. Kettering said with almost laughable oblivion to the obvious. While Lee and Mackenzie continued their snickering, Both Izzy and Lino stared out the window at an increasing melee. A large muffled boom was heard somewhere far away.
“Did you hear that? I think it was an explosion! We’re being attacked!” Mackenzie said with melodramatic incredulity.
“It’s thunder, moron,” Lee said, shoving his friend lightly on the shoulder.
“That’s not thunder,” Lino said, staring almost vacuously out the window, his eyes fixed and beginning to bulge. A twinkling in his eye reminded Izzy of why she thought he was cute. But his expression of fear dispelled that notion. “What the hell is that?” he asked, pointing in the direction of all the commotion. The red in his hair had suddenly spread to his skin and then to his clothes as the light pouring in from the outside painted everything a strange darkening pink.
Izzy’s eyes followed Lino’s finger as it pointed to the skyline above the crowds of stranded motorists on Grove Street and the houses beyond. A rippling tide of electrified red clouds was rolling towards them from the horizon. Flashes of lightning exploded within the bulbous waves that looked like a huge red canopy being pulled across the sky. The sky roared from above them as they all saw red.
“That’s not a storm,” Izzy said with authority. Her mom was not just an astronaut, but had her master’s degree in meteorology. She’d taught her about every manner of storm from atmospheric to solar. This was something else.
“It’s a tornado!” someone yelled. The majority of the class rushed to the windows for a better view.
“Let’s stay calm,” Mrs. Kettering said, trying with futility to use the phone on her desk. “There’s no reason to panic – we’ve just had an outage.”
“Look! Funnel clouds!”
Outside and high above in the red depths of the skies, there descended long tentacle-like formations, miles apart from one another. At first, they looked look huge ropes of taffy being pulled from the enormous red ceiling that was covering the world. But as they weaved and spun furiously, it became evident that they were indeed not tornados. They stretched down from above like stalactites from the roof of a cave.
Mrs. Kettering had taught them about the cave formations in an earlier lesson that year. Yet no one, least of all the teacher, felt compelled to point out this connection in these moments. Everyone just stared blankly. Several students abruptly left the classroom upon seeing other neighboring classes disperse into the halls.
“Please stay seated,” Kettering said with attempted authority, her voice wavering. “You are not excused. If this is a storm situation, we will wait for the emergency tornado sirens before acting.”
“There’s no sirens because there’s no power!” someone shouted.
“What is that, Izzy?” Lino had wiped the tear that would’ve fallen from his eyes. “I mean, you know about this stuff from your mom, right?”
“Yeah, but I’ve never heard of anything like this.” Their blank expressions quickly melted into fearful panic as the first funnel landed in the middle of the soccer field outside, plowing into the soft earth and penetrating the ground with a tremor that shook the classroom violently. It took up nearly the entire expanse of the field and extended impossibly up into the swirling bloody skies above. It was a solid structure, not a spinning funnel of debris.
“Mrs. Kettering, shouldn’t we leave now?” someone asked. Her gulp was almost audible over the din both inside her classroom and out in the halls. She nodded her head back and forth, slowly backpedaling until she hit the filing cabinet on the other end of the room. Lino was on the window ledge almost pressing his face against the glass and craning his head up to follow the immense thing up into the angry skies. Lizzy stepped next to him and unthinkingly grabbed his hand to tug him down.
Jack and the Beanstalk bubbled up unexpectedly in her mind. But instead of the playful cartoon version she knew, her mind sketched a version that had never been conceived. One that took place in Hell with the vibrant green beanstalk being replaced with a grotesquely translucent crimson structure. Up near airplane altitude, the tower seemed to be moving.
“Something is happening up there. Look!” Lee said peering upwards. More kids were scattering and joining the ranks of those pouring into the halls. Izzy looked back and saw that Kettering had fled.
“What’s it doing? You think it’ll collapse?” Mackenzie asked. Far up above, there was a downward movement on the surface; a ripple in the texture. “What if the whole thing just comes down on us?”
Closer to the ground, the same thing was occurring. The entire structure appeared to pulse and gyrate. The four kids huddled at the window and saw the strange tower was not indeed crumbling, but erupting. Like so many sores on a giant appendage, the living wall was breaking open in wet expulsions. A torrential flow of liquid mass gushed from seemingly every pore on the thing. The ripple high above was a wave of the fluid rushing down the inside of the structure like a waterfall.
The Niagara Falls of viscous material that hit the ground immediately began eating into the earth. The effect was like water poured onto cotton candy. Instant disintegration. Izzy watched the flood rush at a tree and mow it down. Within the pinkish red translucence, she saw the tree get dismantled. The leaves crumpled and then melted. The branches curled inwards as the trunk contorted. The ground beneath sank down and began to collapse as the strange intergalactic lava ate through it. It reminded her of how she imagined food to be broken down in the stomach. Her gaze went up to the crimson skies where many more anomalies reached down to do the same.
“It’s like … digestion.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Lino finally broke his gaze and looked at her.
“We have to go. We have to get out of here. Right now.” The stream of alien acid reached the streets where people had stood dumbfounded by their useless vehicles. Those that weren’t running had immediately begun to do so. With the ease of a wave hitting a shoreline, it began to swallow the panicking masses in a steady onslaught outward. Izzy pulled Lino down from the ledge. Mackenzie and Lee followed them into the hall where they joined the river of students in exodus.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or was it distance that made the heart grow fonder? Regina Brice’s thoughts were clouds of black ink in clear water. Mental clarity was not typically lacking in zero gravity. Then again, her presence of mind was significant in these moments as she rushed back toward earth’s atmosphere. Yet instead of attempting to regain control of her craft, she only tried desperately to remember how the saying went. It was imperative.
Her superiors on the ground would disagree. By NASA’s definitions, the imperative would have been to restore power to the system. If not to affect trajectory of descent, at the very least she was to reestablish radio contact. Yet even if her panel controls were lit right now, a question would be sent to the ground faster than she was falling.
“Houston, is it absence or distance that makes the heart grow fonder?”
The hull was making some sort of shuddering sound as she was sucked into whatever catastrophic event was unfolding before her eyes. Her orbit would have been undisturbed if not for the violent sight that appeared only minutes before. She had no words to describe it even when she still had radio contact. Even now as the cockpit rattled and shook at terminal velocity, coherence itself seemed to accelerate out of her mind. It was as if rationality had hit its own eject button.
Whether logic had somehow been pressurized out of her skull, the majority of the Commander Pilot’s faculties were still with her as she stared out of her cockpit window at the thing swallowing the world. The image of the earth being consumed by some gigantic amorphous phenomenon was so blatantly ridiculous that she didn’t even attempt to explain it.
“Planet eater,” she had thought. That’s the only way to describe the storm entity that was engulfing the circumference of the place that contained every single thing and person she’d ever known in her life. When she first radioed down about the anomaly, it looked the way the sun did as it rose past the circumference of the globe. But instead of bright yellow shafts of light beaming over the crescent curvature of the horizon, it was a rolling storm of red. The lightning that came with it had extinguished all the power in her craft in large pulsing waves.
In her previous five flights, including a stay on the ISS, Regina had seen every celestial event there was to see from this vantage point. There was no doubt she was worthy of manning the Maverick shuttle herself. Finally, like she dreamed of as a child, she could pilot a shuttle to space and then back. It was a historic occasion professionally and personally for Regina.
Yet none of this glory meant a thing in these moments as she was falling (or was pulled) towards the earth from her shallow orbit. It was when she saw the shape materialize into a cloud spanning the height of the globe that she threw all her experience and knowledge out the window. All expertise was expunged from her being and left to dangle in the vast emptiness of her previous orbit.
It was the restoration of power moments later, once she was in the storm, that muted the swelling hopelessness in her mind. A small and tinny crackle emanated from her discarded headset. She put it on and immediately tested throttle response. There was, of course, no reply from Ground Control. Then as she engaged thrusters, the power blinked out and then back in as a reminder of instability.
“Houston, I don’t know if you copy. But power has been temporarily restored to the Maverick. I’m going to attempt an emergency descent correction.”
The energy field enforced a resistance that seemed to weigh on the vessel like an anchor dragging a sinking ship down to the seafloor. But if she had power, then she had a chance. In that crimson moment, she had a sudden renewed hope at seeing her daughter again. An enormous funnel spanning the width of a skyscraper had erupted from the skies near her. From her vantage point, it looked to be at least 2 miles east of her position. It spiraled downward, a red tornado racing her craft to the ground. More of them appeared all around her, hideously stretching down past her shuttle.
Her eyes became glassy as she seemed to lose the ability to blink. Her grip on the controls loosened. Her shuttle was now underneath the cloudy red barrier that had formed around the planet. It had solidified into some self-perpetuated galactic eggshell. The spinning debris began solidifying as well. They were like the roots of a tree trunk from Hell, spiraling down to the ground from the heavens rather than up from the depths below. As the appendages touched the green blob below that was North America, the texture of the land immediately changed. The contact was acidic, eating into the sculpted surface of the earth.
“Oh … my … God,” she whispered. The lightning Regina had seen erupting from all sides of her had coalesced with the increase in g-force as she continued downward. She blinked hard and fought the faintness that rushed through her.
There was no more static in her headset and she whipped it from her head. She looked out of her window at the dozens upon dozens of funnels that reached towards the ground. These strange mammoth vines seemed to pulse with something like life within their translucent casing. She thought of the way veins were freakishly visible through skin under certain light.
A wave of uncontrollable disgust washed over when she looked down at the mass of land on the northern hemisphere that had been her landing target for so many missions. This intergalactic parasite had encased the planet in some kind of alien cocoon. That alone was terrifying prospect considering what it could do to the earth isolated within its walls. But down there somewhere was her daughter, isolated from her as she rocketed towards whatever catastrophe was taking place. This was the most terrifying idea of all.
“This is it,” she said out loud. “I’m sorry Izzy. Baby, I’m sorry.”
She leaned back in her seat and let go of the controls. Even if she made it back, the chances of safe entry and touchdown were slim at this point. The luck of an electrical surge at this altitude had given back power, but still left her powerless. An image of the earth seen from far away flowered in her mind, a planet that looked something like the core of an eaten apple.
“This is not the way it’s supposed to happen,” she thought. The concept of extraterrestrial life was a gray one to Regina. It wasn’t the idea of little gray men that most believed would come. It was the uncertain gray of how they would regard us. They might have reached out to us. They might have attacked. But no one could have imagined this. We don’t even stand a chance. No negotiation. No musical lights. No green pods. Just consumption.
With everything that she’d ever known down below on the large spinning mass beneath her, Izzy was the only one that mattered at this moment. A tear oozed lazily from the corner of one eye. She was still high enough that once the small droplet separated from her skin, it wobbled in front of her. The quivering little globule separated into two and floated away from her. In the strange light now shining into the cockpit, they looked like drops of blood.
“I miss you, baby. I’m sorry. I wish I was still there. I wish there was something I could do.”
Hundreds of miles directly below Regina, her daughter and several boys were running for their lives through packs of children. Grove street had been completely demolished and had turned into far reaching branches of ever-widening chasms as the thing continued to eat.
“Head towards Kirchoff Road!” Lee screamed, his voice straining as he ran. “I don’t see any over there yet.” They were headed that way already. The rest of the school populace had scattered in every direction, merging with people running from their houses into the streets.
“Where are we supposed to go? These things are everywhere!” Mackenzie panted with hands on his knees. The group had stopped to turn and look at the red alien skyscraper behind them while others were touching down in surrounding areas. There was one over the downtown area. And another near an area of sprawling suburban subdivisions. Mackenzie’s head had turned this way and his eyes immediately became wet. “My mom. My sister. They’re home. I should be there,” he muttered through quivering lips.
“Is this it? Are we going to be disintegrated by aliens?” Lino spat. He turned to Izzy who had been studying the skies nearly the entire time. “Izzy, why won’t you say anything?”
She did not respond, but instead raised a hand to point at the red sky. The image was like some nightmare of looking up at the surface from the depths of a pool filled with blood. Dark cloudy shapes rushed across the sky, like angry living clouds rushing in every direction. It was a strange parody of what schools of fish looked like rushing under the ocean surface. Only instead of from above blue waters, they saw this all from below imprisoning red skies. The amorphous things rushed to the “stems” and seemed to fill them, like dirty water to an open drain. She turned to the three boys. “I don’t think acid is the only thing coming down.”
Random objects began to fall from the sky, a car tire, a bolder—a green street sign that read “Inwood Indiana” fell at Izzy’s feet. There seemed to be endless ways to die.
“What? What are you even talking about? We need to RUN?” Lee spat.
“Phagocytosis. We’re being eaten.” The boys looked at her, pain and incredulous expressions on their red tinted faces. “This stuff coming out of these towers is like stomach acid or something. When we saw the red cover the sky, it was just like we saw with the cells. Some huge organism is going to absorb us and then …”
“And digest us? Do you understand how crazy you sound?” Lee turned away attempting anger, but achieving fear instead. “Your space mom has been feeding you way too much crap about aliens.”
“She’s up there right now, you jerk!” she stepped forward towards Lee, green eyes blazing. “Wherever she is, she probably sees a lot more than what we see. And it’s probably much worse than we know.” Mackenzie suddenly turned and sprinted down the street in the direction of his home. Lino shouted after him.
“Mack, where are you going? We have to get to clear land. THIS WAY!” He pointed in the direction they were headed, where there were, as of yet, no red towers.
“He’s going after his mom. Let him go if wants to die. Some strategy he has for having an army dad. Rush right towards the enemy? Idiot.”
“Wait,” Lino said turning to Lee. “His army dad is a prepper, isn’t he? Don’t they have like a bunker or something?” Lee looked from Lino to Izzy. Mack had disappeared down the block and they followed. The strange alien high-rises began to darken with whatever was filling them. The black clouds inside the hollow tubes began to simultaneously rush down them and break through the surface in places, spilling a waterfall of objects and matter. Lee pointed up as he ran.
“What the hell is happening now? See it is collapsing!”
“I don’t think so,” Izzy said, keeping up with the boys’ speed. “Remember how the cell picks up debris and other organisms? We’re probably not this thing’s first meal. And some stuff it ate probably hasn’t been digested yet.” The boys said nothing to this. The trio just ran faster, towards the blistering alien edifice in Mack’s neighborhood. As they watched the planetary backwash gush down like a black waterfall, they realized that indeed not everything in the universe could be digested by this thing. And most of these things were still alive.
She put a hand on the cockpit window, at first to steady the violent tremor of her ship as it rocketed toward the earth like a huge robot fish. She left it there, watching a small outline of condensation form around the shape of her fingers. Beyond that cold surface, earth was being encased in some sort of galactic cocoon. She removed her hand and looked at the fading imprint thinking of Isabelle. Her little Izzy Brice, was somewhere down there where the color of the sky had darkened to red as this alien canopy was pulled over. Now 12, she was more of a woman than a little girl. Yet the version of her that would be stamped in her mind when she hit the ground would be the pigtailed dreamer that she once was.
Her eyes went back to the window. The handprint had almost evaporated as had her fear of the inevitable. When Izzy was a little girl, it was difficult to explain the permanence of risk in her job. The small green-eyed wonder never seemed to express fear at the certainty of danger in her mommy’s work. Rather, she exuded a kind of philosophic wonder well beyond her years.
“Why do you have to go so far away to learn when you can do that here?” Izzy’s eyes sparkled as if she were truly inquiring in something more philosophical than literal. She had her little digits pressed firmly on the bedroom window as they sat watching rain fall outside.
“There’s so much that we haven’t seen. Up there is just the beginning. The world looks really different from far away.” Regina could not judge if her answer was a little too figurative as she examined the blank expression on the child’s face. She broke the awkward moment. “And besides, it’s so much fun to come back home to my little munchkin!” She reached over and tickled her daughter. The 5-year-old squealed in delight and pulled her hands off the window. Moist shapes of her fingers remained on the cold window pane. Cold blue wetness fell on the other side. Her little girl pointed as she laughed.
“Look! It’s like I’m still there!”
As Regina looked out her window at the strange alien formations connecting the sky to the ground, she saw dark shapes and matter rushing down within the hollow tubes. Some areas of the “walls” had burst open, spilling out a visceral fluid that brought with it debris and moving shapes that her mind had no concept to describe with words. Her mind’s grasp on the idea of a “life form” splintered into millions of tiny shards of fear as she watched entities fall towards the earth as she did the same. She grabbed her controls and knew what she had to do.
Blocks later, the trio looked across a cavernous expanse that separated Mack’s house from where they stood. Rivers of alien acid had carved their way through yards and down streets leading away from the school, turning posh suburban areas into scorched crevices resembling canyons in the desert. They strained their necks painfully up at the red monolithic organism that had turned a dark crimson as it filled with all kinds of “debris”, most of which were alive.
“Do you think he made it across?” Lee asked peering across the way at the house.
“I don’t know. But we have to try too,” Izzy said, looking down into the fissure that was once Mack’s street. They heard sounds deep within the dark cracks that sounded alive, but nothing near human. The guttural cacophony that rose from the depths was being added to as every life form that failed to digest in this organism’s buffet across the galaxy now poured down into the earth. “Whatever is coming out of that thing is going to crawl up here. We need to get to the shelter.”
As if in response, the gnashing roars bellowed up from beneath them as strange appendages grappled and clawed their way up. The kids looked left and right as the terrain in every direction was shifting and depressing. The intense sound of the very fabric of the earth being ripped apart was drowned out only by the cries of people everywhere. Those who weren’t eaten by the rivers of acid were being eaten by the things that came out of it.
Then suddenly, a cool white flash bloomed up high that contrasted the pervasive and sick redness of the air. The three looked up just in time to see some kind of aircraft plow into the tower just above Mack’s subdivision. For a moment, it stuck against the tower like a flaming insect crashing into a sappy tree. The concussion of the crash injected the burning vessel into the edifice.
“Look! A plane just crashed into it!”
“That’s not a plane,” Izzy said, a shaking hand coming up to her mouth. She could recognize the black nose and belly of the shuttle, even in that split second.
There was an enormous eruption of fire as the fuel tank exploded from within the structure. Thousands of gallons of liquid oxygen and nitrogen illuminated the inside the red tube and sliced outwards like a giant laser welder. The incision spread swiftly as the flaming concoction inside decapitated the red skyscraper, creating two flaming infernos at the stumps.
Lee tackled Lino and Izzy to the ground as a flaming ball of acidic debris hit the base of a large oak in front of Olly’s house, causing it to fall across the fissure like an enormous bushy drawbridge. Mack was out on his porch waving his arms.
‘C’mon we have to get across!” Lino yelled, getting up first and pulling his companions up on each arm. The stream of acid and monsters coming down from the sky had been severed, but the ones below them were making their way up the scorched cracks in the earth with ferocious vigor. The three kids crawled along the trunk of the fallen tree towards the other side of the street, trying not to look down at the cavern of acid and aliens rising beneath them.
While the boys fixated on the emptiness below them, Izzy’s eyes remained up towards the sky at the shriveling alien tower that had been set ablaze. Inside, the flaming shape of a space shuttle flowed down the tube, leaving a trail of fire behind it. The entry point at the top of the stump had a vague and familiar shape, like a hand smearing its print on a wet window. They reached the other side and were greeted by Mack.
“C’mon! We still have room in the bunker! Get in here!” Lino pulled Izzy forward, his grip tight on her hand. Lee followed. She glanced up one last time at the shape moving down the tower away from its flaming imprint.
“It’s like she’s still there,” she muttered absently as Mack closed the door behind them. And it was true. As monstrous alien cries filled the burning air, the fluttering shape of a parachute careened over Mackenzie’s subdivision.