Arcturus Syndrome Ch. 01-1

Author’s Note: This begins a new series that is not set in the “Goddess” universe of Alexander or other planned works. It is, at this point a standalone series of unknown length. All characters are over the age of 18 (in this case, over 30!), and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Jane took the off-ramp at speed, only slowing down as they found the state road to be in substantial need of repair. Rural Pennsylvania apparently wasn’t getting the funding it needed.

Still she took the hills and curves quite a bit faster than Al liked.

“Good lord, Jane, there’s no rush!”

“Pussy,” she needled him.

He winced and gripped the door handle. The panel van rattled and clattered, a multitude of equipment swinging and jostling in back as they bumped along the uneven asphalt and dodged potholes.

“What’s this?” she said, easing on the brake. The bright blue flash of police lights lit up a thick stand of trees.

Al checked his tabet. “This isn’t it, we’re at least half a klick further down.”

“That’s only 500 meters. We’d better see what they’ve found.”

Al sighed. He didn’t like rural Pennsylvania, and he didn’t think the police were going to like a butch lesbian or an educated black man, especially if she let on they were feds.

She pulled over. Two police cars had pulled off the road. There was a third car about twenty feet down a dirt road. The officers were clustered around it. Hearing the van pull into the gravel, one of the cops began to walk back to the main road.

Jane hopped out of the van.

“What’s going on, officer?”

“No business of yours,” he called out. “Move along, please.”

Al sighed as she said it: “We’re up from Virginia, officer. Federal business. Just want to make sure it’s unrelated.”

Al prepared for the worst. The gimlet-eyed officer had that look of someone who had never left his hometown, and didn’t welcome a challenge to his local rule.

But the man scratched at his bald head.

“How’d you get here so fast? This just got called in thirty minutes back.”

“Like I said, might be unrelated. We’re here for the meteorite.”

“Meteorite? That shooting star last night? Was a big one. You don’t usually hear ’em. How the hell could that be related?” His face took on a worried look.

“Well, what happened here, and maybe I can tell you!”

“To be honest, I don’t know what happened here yet, we’re going to need the coroner for that, and he’s on his way up from County. But I guarantee you it didn’t happen last night.”

Jane looked disappointed.

Al appreciated how she always looked on the the bright side of their drudgery, hoping against hope for something unusual to turn up. Something more than magnesium, silicates, and iron, anyway.

The policeman went on, “Anyway, it’s no fit sight for a lady. Couple of kids using the back seat of their car, is all, but they been out here a while, got some kind of fungus growing. Pretty nasty. Like I said, we’re just waiting for the coroner now, probably be another forty minutes, if he’s sober.”

Jane waved Al out.

“Fungus?”

“Looks like lichen, actually. Never seen anything like it. Oh, hey there.”

Al was relieved, and a little surprised, to see the policeman giving him an open, friendly welcome. Always nice to be pleasantly surprised.

“Mind if we take a look?” Jane asked.

“Well, like I said, it aint really a pretty sight and, like I mentioned, they were…”

“I’m Dr. Fitzpatrick, this is Dr. Young.”

“Captain Samuels. Nice to meet you. I was thinking maybe you were FBI or something…”

“No, we hadn’t heard about your situation. But it certainly sounds like a scientific mystery you have on your hands.”

He shrugged, and led them back to the car. “Just don’t disturb anything, you know the coroner will bust up if anyone disturbs the scene.”

“Of course.”

The car looked clean on the outside, a Ford hybrid. But Al saw that the inside was, indeed, grown over. It took him a minute to parse what he was seeing. The other police were standing well back, and looking on with a kind of communal smirk.

Jane stepped right up to the car. The windows were down. She peered in carefully, shining a flashlight to brighten the gloomy interior. The monstrous growth in the back seat resolved itself in Al’s mind, and he saw a woman, frozen in place, clearly straddling a man. As his brain made sense of what he was seeing, he observed they didn’t have any clothes, but were completely grown over with a hard, crystalline substance. It could look like lichen for a moment, but it had a patterned geometry.

“Well, fuck me,” Jane said. The smirks grew more intense.

Someone muttered something, and someone else chuckled.

Captain Samuels snapped his fingers. “Hey now, let’s be professionals here, boys.”

As far as Al could see, the two had completely frozen, mid-coitus. The woman seemed to be riding hard, one arm up on the back of the driver’s seat, her head thrown back, her mouth open. The man looked frozen in the midst of arching his back and thrusting up.

“This wouldn’t happen naturally,” Jane said to Al.

“Well, you wouldn’t think so,” he said. “But not impossible. Assume they collapsed, and then as rigor mortis set in, muscles pulled them back into this position where this… fungus… hardened them in place. I can’t say I have ever heard of anything like it, but clearly, it’s possible. Because we are looking at it.”

Jane stepped back from the car. “I admit I’m tempted to take a sample of this stuff, but it’s not our assignment, and I don’t want to disturb your coroner. But could I get his name? We might have some follow-up questions for him. We’ll need to get our own job done before dark.”

“Appreciate it, Ma’am. Coroner’s name is Gilkey, not sure I ever knew his first name, everyone just calls him Gilk.” And to Al, “You think that’s what happened here? Some kind of unusual rigor mortis?”

Al nodded his head slowly, “I expect your coroner will get to the bottom of it for sure, but that’s the only explanation I can come up with. And it looks like some kind of crystallization to me, are there any environmental factors that might be relevant? Salt deposits nearby? Unusual water table? Chemical plants?”

“Ah well, not that I know of, Definitely no chemical factories or anything like that around here. Not any mining operations either. Mostly grow corn, is all.”

Al shook his head. “Well, appreciate your time, and your professional courtesy, Captain.”

Captain Samuels acknowledged the moment, and they shook hands. Samuels leaned in, and said: “A man of your tribe saved my life in Iraq, Doc, and I vowed to make my town a better place for it. You head on down the road anytime and you’ll find it’s so. Won’t say we’re a liberal hotbed, but good people can do the right thing in the end.”

* * *

“Well that was weird,” Al said once they pulled back out onto the road.

“The fact that the cop wasn’t racist?”

“Yeah, a little, but no. The car!”

“Yup, that was weird. And I’m not so sure it’s not connected. I did scrape a sample when they weren’t looking, by the way.” She tossed him a baggie. “Looks like salt crystal. I think you nailed it there at the end.”

“How would salt crystals grow like that?”

“Fucked if I know. So, this must be the general area, right?”

Jane pulled off onto the shoulder.

It was late afternoon, but early summer, so they had a good three or four hours of decent light remaining.

“Yes, ground zero is probably about fifty meters off the road to the left here, and we are in the 80% zone for moderate fragmentation. I’ll grab the gear.”

A few minutes later they were sweeping the hilside, each bearing double-ring hand-held “sniffer.”

The scanning units had been state of the art twenty years ago, but with cutbacks, meteorite retrieval was not on anyone’s budget priority. Still, they were able to detect over three hundred different mineral compounds using a combination of magnetic, sonic, UV, IR, and chemical detection methods. Far too much data for the human eye to comprehend, so they also included multi-core dedicated processing to filter for interesting anomalies.

Just like old-school metal detectors, beer-cans still sent them into a frenzy.

That was Jane’s first find of the afternoon.

They did not, however, find anything at the predicted impact point. They began to spiral out from there, staying close, with Jane taking the inner spiral, and Al moving along behind and to the right. After about eight circuits outward, Jane called a pause.

“Looks like it must have burnt up or completely fragmented. We may come up empty this time.”

“Shouldn’t have burned up though,” Al said. “Trackers showed it to be significant in size. Enough to make a dent.”

“Could have been a bunch of pebbles held together with ice.”

“The local mentioned a sonic boom. That’s not consistent with burning up on entry.”

Jane sighed. “Well, I guess we keep looking then.”

They continued the spiral until sunset. Aside from a few more man-made metallics, the detectors came up with nothing.

“Local motel?” Jane asked. “I don’t feel like trying to get back to Virginia tonight. This wore me the fuck out.”

“Hang on, let’s plug in the base units. Want to run a deeper anomaly detection across the recorded data. If we get back into signal range we can uplink that and by morning, if there are any inconsistent trace element patterns, we should be able to make a second look.”

“All work,” Jane snorted.

“But yeah, let’s get back to town. I’m tired too.”

As they were driving, Jane said: “Here’s a thought. What if the meteorite was a salt crystal.”

Al started to laugh, but held it back. “You’re thinking about the couple in the car.”

“I’m thinking about them, and I’m thinking about a late-burn object that the scanners might not pick up.”

“And I’m thinking about something infectious. We’d better call in.”

Jane pulled into the parking lot of an ancient motel that looked like it had been made out of cardboard sometime around 1950, but had been well maintained ever since. They were relieved to find a cell signal.

“I need a line to the director,” Jane said into her phone.

“I am sure she is, but I don’t have her personal number, and we have a potential situation here.”

“Who’s the on-duty then?”

“Yeah, that’s me. I am the on-duty, and I’m in the field, and I need to talk to the director. And I need a raise, too, while I’m thinking about it.”

A few minutes later.

“Director McKinnon, it’s Jane. Al and I are in Pennsylvania on a salvage and… well… we have a remote possibility of… hazardous organic contact.”

Jane succinctly recounted their findings. Al admired the way Jane could get the heart of a point across in concise language. It was a skill he had never developed.

She signed off: “Will do.”

“What will we do?” Al asked.

“Sit tight, basically. But she took it seriously, I think. She didn’t laugh anyway.”

“Well, let’s get this data analyzed.”

“Plus, don’t forget I have a sample.”

Al eyed the glove box. “I am not forgetting. I’m also a little concerned.”

“C’mon, I’ll get us a room. Why don’t you pack us up a mobile lab. I think we should get that baggy under a microscope.”

“Just one room?”

“If they have rooms with two beds, yeah. You wouldn’t believe what we need to go through on the expense reports.”

* * *

Al felt his energy levels dropping. He felt both a bit weak, and also sleepy. But he put together a couple of hard-shells with enough equipment to undertake a basic organic chem analysis.

Jane held up a metal key. “Check this out. An actual key. How long has it been since you’ve seen one of these at a motel?”

Al shrugged. He had to admit, Jane was looking a lot better than he felt. She seemed to have a glow about her.

“Hey Jane, how are you feeling?” he asked. “I know you said you were tired earlier, but you are looking pretty lively.”

“Yeah, that’s true. Got my second wind,” she said.

“Lucky you! I have the run the upload, so we have a cloud-job running analysis across the detector units. Here’s the lab, take one case please. Thank God there’s no second floor to this place.”

“Yeah, cause we would probably fall through it. Can’t believe this plywood shithole is still standing.”

The room was threadbare, but clean. Al put his case down just inside the door, and stretched out on one of the twin beds. “I need a nap or something, you go ahead and get started.”

Jane had pulled the two bedside tables together, and was already unpacking equipment.

“Whatever,” she said.

* * *

Al wasn’t sure how long he had been out for, but he woke up to an overheated room. He was sticky with sweat in his rumpled clothes. He was somewhat embarrassed to realize he had a raging erection, although he didn’t remember any racy dreams.

Jane was in her underwear, peering into a microscope. There were beakers set out on the small dresser.

“Why is it so hot in here?” Al asked, still coming out of his woozy sleep-state.

“Don’t fucking know.”

Al had to blink a few times; he had never seen Jane in anything other than loose jeans and utilitarian shirts. She was a lot curvier than he had expected. In particular, she was overflowing her bra.

“Maybe we could open some windows… and you could put some clothes on,” he suggested.

“I don’t want to contaminate anything,” Jane said.

“This is hardly a sterile lab. Honestly, we should have made the drive back.”

“Maybe, but forget about all that. We have organics!”

“Hang on.” Al went to the bathroom to try to regain his composure. More flasks and beakers covered the bathroom counter. “What are you doing in here?” he asked.

“Trying to isolate the ionic compounds. It’s a whole complex of different salt crystals. And there are organics!”

Fortunately, the toilet and shower were separated from the sink and all Jane’s experiments. Al went to urinate. He found that his cock was strangely large. His erection was considerably larger than anything he could recall. And uncomfortable. Despite feeling pressure from his bladder, he simply couldn’t get his body to cooperate. He put everything away and went to check out the so-called organics.

“So what do we have?”

“Amino acids for sure, and probably complex protein chains. I don’t have the equipment to be sure.”

“Why is this so exciting? You’re not thinking these are from the meteorite, I hope?”

Jane looked up, and Al was uncomfortably aware of Jane’s startling cleavage.

“You called it yourself, Al. An audible meteorite strike, visible from the tracking satellites, but with no impact zone. Probably a fairly massive salt crystal that broke up close to earth; small crystals then deflected by the dense lower atmosphere. Something landed on the corpses of that couple, and in the right conditions began to grow. One in a billion chance. One in a trillion maybe. But we might have just hit the jackpot!”

“Or it could be perfectly ordinary terrestrial phenomenon, and a complete coincidence, and if we go telling people anything else we are going to look like fools.”

“I’m not calling a press conference, Al. Of course we do the research.”

“It’s hot as blazes in here. I’m opening a window, and may I cordially ask you to put some clothes on? In fact, I’m going out to the van, I’ll check on the analysis.”

He could have checked it from his laptop, but he felt like he needed the walk to clear his mind.

The night was dark, and the air refreshingly cool. There were a few other windows open in the motel, so presumably their room was not unique in it’s temperature problem. From at least two different rooms, Al could hear the sounds of couples making love. Just great, he thought. We picked that kind of motel. The moaning was not doing his erection any favors either.

The data was in and inconclusive. There was nothing strikingly anomalous, but there were some abnormalities.

Al made the trek back to the room, pondering the high levels of exotic acids, and trying to ignore the overheated sounds of passion from the other side of the motel.

Entering the room, he said: “There’s something a bit weird, but nothing concluuus– what are you doing?”

Jane had lain back on her bed, and had her hand down her underwear.

She leisurely pulled her hand out and sat back up.

“Oh, sorry. It’s just the heat.”

Al felt uncomfortable. “This is highly unprofessional, even for you.”

“Oh grow up. Or are you going to submit an HR violation?”

“Look, just… well here’s the data. Nothing we would expect from a meteorite, but a variety of unusual acids were detected in the soil. Nothing that would cause damage, very low levels. But unexpected.”

Jane was excited. “That just confirms it. Acids are part of the bonding pairs that form salts. If we had some soil samples, I bet we would find some micro-crystalline structures present.”

Seeing Jane sprawled out on the bed, her massive breasts straining at a bra clearly several sizes too small, Al had to force himself to look away. The pressure in his trousers was increasingly distracting.

“So… let’s pack everything up right now and hit the road,” Al said.

“Sure,” Jane said.

“Hey, you don’t think there’s anything dangerous do you? Should we be worried about quarantine or anything? I mean, you did call the director, and here we are playing with this stuff in a totally amateur way…”

Jane had closed her eyes and was rubbing herself through her panties again.

“Jesus, Jane.”

She stopped and reluctantly opened her eyes.

“I guess now I’m the tired one. Are you good to drive do you think?”

“Yeah, plenty good. But what about contamination risk?”

“Chill, it’s just a bunch of salts and proteins. There’s no possible risk.”

“How can there be no risk? It could be anything. Any catalytic protein, some kind of prion, even a primitive virus, I’m not sure…”

“Ok egghead, tell you what. Let’s pack it up for tonight, stay here, and check in with HQ in the morning. She told us to sit tight, and let’s follow instructions for once.”

“I think I may get another room. I’ll deal with the expense report myself.”

“Whatever. Just turn out the light.”

“No, you turn out the light, after you pack everything up.”

Walking to the office, he had to pass a couple of the open windows where obvious sexual activity was taking place. One even left the curtains open, and Al caught a glimpse of an overweight couple going at it doggie style. Not at all what he wanted to see. He averted his gaze and went to the motel office, which was closed and locked.

He took the long way back through the parking lot, checked to make sure the van was locked up. He considered sleeping on the floor of the van, but it would be hellaciously uncomfortable.

Reluctantly, he made his way back to the room and quietly let himself in.

A nightlight was on, and revealed a half-hearted attempt to clean up. Jane was curled up on her bed, with her back to him. She was naked now. Al couldn’t figure out what had gotten into her. Jane was crude, vulgar, and delighted in making shocking, offputting statements… but she was never even slightly sexually suggestive. It just wasn’t her style.

Al stretched himself out on his bed, closed his eyes, and felt that strange heavy flesh hard and thick sprouting from his loins. He hated to be so aware of himself, and almost sympathized with Jane’s lapse for a moment.

Still, he turned his attention to calculating the fibonacci sequence and tried to find that sleepiness that had overtaken him earlier.

He found himself so uncomfortable that he needed to unbutton his pants, just to release the constriction. And he still wasn’t getting to sleep. Now with the window open, he occasionally heard moans of ecstasy from another room, and that didn’t help him with his problem. He wondered at how much stamina this couple was showing.

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