• Published 12th Jan 2013
  • 27,830 Views, 1,460 Comments

Celestia Sleeps In - Admiral Biscuit

A dispute between Celestia and Luna leads to Celestia accidentally making contact with humans.

  • ...

Chapter 2: An Unexpected Surprise

Celestia Sleeps In
Chapter 2: An Unexpected Surprise
Admiral Biscuit

Dale grumbled as he folded his cot. The first day of vacation seemed the longest. He had arrived at the Leelanau State Park at four the prior afternoon, spent the entire evening setting up his campsite, and now he was taking most of it back down. The tent would stay, although it was empty inside, save for the spare tire from his car which would keep it in place if the groundstakes failed.

In his early sixties and comfortably retired, Dale spent as many weeks as he could in Northern Michigan. A career beginning as an apprentice in a machine shop had ended with him running a tool-and-die business, which he had fortuitously sold just before the economy went into a death spiral. He wasn’t exactly wealthy, but he had enough put aside to get along for many more years, and he had fairly simple tastes—his car was proof enough of that. Long past its prime, he had no desire to replace it with something newer.

His rusty white Honda wagon was backed up next to a tree, leaving the bulk of the campsite open, and the park permit was carefully tucked into the wooden post, the expiration date clearly visible from the road. Park rangers tended to mind their own business as long as the site stayed quiet, but they’d be looking if he stayed a day late. He figured that the empty roof rack on his car would provide enough of a clue that he’d left in a boat; if he hadn’t made it back by the end of the week, he’d be happy for the Coasties to come to his rescue. To narrow their search, he had written his itinerary on a sheet of paper, which he’d left on the driver’s seat.

Sitting next to the car, his former livery canoe sat on a set of ingenious detachable wheels. He was carefully loading his supplies in, checking and double checking to make sure that everything was watertight. Even if he didn’t capsize, he knew that everything in a canoe got a little wet on it, and although Dale enjoyed roughing it, he did not enjoy a soggy sleeping bag. A spare paddle was lashed to the thwarts, as past experience had taught him that when a canoe capsizes in a river, loose paddles will never be found again.

With the last cooler loaded, he dragged his canoe towards Lake Michigan, a task that was greatly eased by the wheels. Setting the bow of the canoe down on the sand, he leaned back and gazed out over the brilliant azure waters. Tiny wavelets splashed up on the sand, no more than one would see on a small lake. Even this early, dozens of sailboats could already be seen, little white triangles slowly moving across the placid surface.

He unhooked the wheels and tossed them into the bow of the canoe, slipped off his shoes and socks, and dragged the canoe down the sandy beach into the water. As soon as he began paddling, the worries of his cranky dryer and the leaking power steering hose on his beat-up Accord fell away. The weather forecast for this week had been nothing but sunny skies all day long.

As the canoe sliced through Lake Michigan, he thought back to one of his co-workers referring to it as an aluminum coffin. Watching the smooth blue water of the lake, and the freedom it offered, he smiled. So what if it was? He’d rather be out here on the lake than watching TV in his living room. It may have been a bit presumptive of him, but navigating across Lake Michigan using nothing but his arm strength and a compass reminded him of the great explorers of the past. The solitude didn’t bother him at all; he was a man who was very comfortable in his own mind. The only contact he had with the human race at this moment was his handheld marine radio, and he only intended to use that for emergencies.

The hours passed slowly. He kept up a rhythm of paddling for about twenty-five minutes, then resting for five. Out of habit, Dale turned often during the first couple of hours, as the shoreline of Michigan faded behind him. At first, he had seen lots of sailboats and powerboats, but as he went farther, fewer could be seen; like the shore, they were lost in the distance.

He rubbed his hand thoughtfully over his chin. He was, by his best estimate, about halfway—he could hardly see any features on land. A small backpack by his feet contained his essentials, and he reached inside and took out a sandwich. The bread was a little soggy, and the cheese had slightly melted from the heat, but it was still filling. He washed it down with a bottle of Gatorade, carefully stowing the rubbish. He might be in the middle of nowhere, but that was no reason to litter.

Dale looked over the side of the canoe. He wasn’t sure how deep the water was here, but wouldn’t be surprised to find it was a few hundred feet deep. It was hard to imagine what might be down there. There weren’t any big predatory fish that lived in the Great Lakes, as far as he knew, but he still felt a slight thrill of fear as he imagined slowly sinking to the bottom.

` With a last look around him, to make sure there were no freighters or pleasure boats headed in his direction, he picked his paddle back up, and fell back into his groove, constantly keeping an eye on the compass zip-tied to the aft thwart.

Eventually, South Fox Island came into view. It wasn’t much to see; a small hump of green with an iron light tower. Now that he had a good fix on his location, he altered his course northward. His paddle strokes were long and even; he was in a nearly hypnotic state. This was a familiar route for him. He had been going out to the island a couple of times a year since 2000, when it was sold back to the state. Even though he didn’t have permission to camp, he knew that no one was likely to know.

A few more hours of paddling, and he was finally nearing the shore of North Fox Island. He kept paddling until the canoe gently ran around on the sandy bottom of the southeast end of the island. He turned the stern until the boat was parallel to the shore and aground nearly its whole length, then stowed the paddle, rolled up his pantlegs, and carefully stepped out, wincing at the cold water. He tied the bowline of the canoe to his wrist and proceeded to fit the wheels back on the canoe, a much simpler process when it was still in the water.

In fairly short order, he had dragged the canoe onto the beach and towed it up into the treeline. He had been amazed when he’d found this spot—with the slight curve of the southern tip of the island, one couldn’t see South Fox Island over the trees. The shoreline of the mainland was too far away to make out anything more than a slight greenish rise in the water. The south end of Beaver Island was fairly unpopulated, and invisible until one was halfway down the beach. The water was too deep for any fishermen to make their way out here. In short, it was a day’s travel to the middle of nowhere.

His first order of business was setting up his campsite. It didn’t take him too long to find the spot he’d been using, a small clearing in the trees large enough for his tent and a small campfire. A few trips and he had all his camping supplies set up. It was wonderful how much camping technology had advanced in his lifetime. When he was a kid, a heavy canvas tent was a bear to pitch and always reeked of mildew, no matter how dry it was when folded, but his current Eureka tent practically set itself up.

He quickly filled the tent with the comforts of home, threw a line over a tree to hold most of his food supply—even though there weren’t any bears on the island, as far as he knew, old habits died hard—moved the scattered rocks around the campsite to form a firepit, and began chopping wood. It was kind of funny, he thought, how much work it was to get away from it all.

But in a few hours, it was worth it. He was set up for a few days of solitude. The fire was burning low, and he looked up at the stars—far more than could be seen in Grand Rapids—and listened to the soft pops and crackles of the fire and the gentle splash of tiny waves on the shore of his island.

He boiled a pot of water over the fire, pouring most of it in his thermos with a few spoonfuls of Maxwell House instant. Sufficiently prepared for the next morning, he poured the rest into a dirty enamel mug, tossed in a teabag, and leaned back in his chair, contemplating the heavens. As he sipped his tea, he identified the constellations he knew, smiling as a satellite moved slowly overhead. Hard to imagine that when he was born, there hadn’t been any up there. When he had finally finished his tea, he banked the fire, and crawled into his tent. In minutes, he was asleep.

He woke up a few hours later, momentarily confused and disoriented. The air was a little chilly, as it often got even on June nights, but it wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. He could hear nothing out of the ordinary, so he finally closed his eyes and tried to get back to sleep.

Dale tossed and turned in his sleeping bag. He was in that strange state of being half-awake and half-asleep, and part of his mind knew it, and it frustrated him. Even in a tent, he was normally a good sleeper, but he just couldn’t manage to drift off. Every position he sought turned against him, with rocks and roots under his Thermarest, or the zipper on his sleeping bag pressing against his side uncomfortably, or his pillow strangely eluding him.

What little sleep he got was filled with very strange dreams. He dreamed that a magician had stolen his hands and feet in some sort of odd magic trick, and forgotten to give them back, then, unaccountably, he was flying, perfectly whole again.

He soared above the lake, experiencing a strange disassociative vertigo as he passed over himself in his canoe. As he watched, a dark shadow appeared under the canoe. Dale tried to scream out a warning to himself, but tentacles wrapped around the boat and yanked it under, leaving only a bobbing orange cooler behind.

He struggled deeper into his sleeping bag, and soon found himself trapped in a giant pool of mud, his shouts unheard by all his friends, who were walking around aimlessly, ignoring him. Suddenly, his old foreman walked up to the edge, and, laughing, tossed in a bundle of dynamite, wired to a digital timer. He began struggling frantically as the digits crept towards zero, wincing when the clock began beeping. Any second now, the dynamite would explode, and he would die. He opened his cooler, which was floating next to him, recoiling as bees flew out.

Dale silenced the beeping of his travel alarm. For a moment, he was disoriented. The tent was illuminated by bright moonlight, but it seemed to have an unusual pulsing quality. It was five am, a time when no sane person would be up, especially when they were on vacation; yet, the one thing he most enjoyed on his vacations was watching the sun rise over the lake. When he had been working, he only saw sunrises in the rearview mirror of his car.

He pulled on his pants and his field jacket, patting the pockets to make sure he had his digital camera and binoculars. Out of habit, he grabbed his pistol and tucked it into his belt before he unzipped the tent flap and pushed it open.

As soon as he looked up, his jaw dropped. The sky was alive with shifting colors, red and green, blue and violet—the Aurora Borealis. It was rare to see it this far south, and he didn’t remember hearing anything about solar storms. Still, that wasn’t something that the weather channel mentioned, and he hadn’t been paying attention to the solar forecast.

The full moon was setting, and he decided that there was plenty of light to see without his flashlight, but he took it along, just the same. It was better to have it and not need it than the other way around.

On his way out of camp, he grabbed his tripod and a thermos full of coffee. Dale felt that if he were actively photographing the sunrise, it would take away his enjoyment of actually watching it; but the advent of digital cameras had been a boon, since he could set it to take a shot every few seconds, and hope he got that one perfect shot. If he didn’t, it wasn’t like he was wasting money in film and development costs.

He trudged down to the beach, finally coming over the small dune that trailed down to the water. He had kept his eyes towards the path as he ascended, since he had learned from experience that there were roots and loose rocks which seemed to be purposely placed to catch the unwary. Finally, at the crest, he cast his gaze towards the calm, moonlit lake, then over to the beach where a circle of armored creatures were surrounding a pure white unicorn and—


Dale froze, all his muscles temporarily paralyzed as his tired brain tried to sort out what it was seeing. He began to make a low moaning sound, although he was entirely unaware that he was doing so. Meanwhile, his brain had finally decided that he was hallucinating or still dreaming; regardless, if he were to close his eyes, everything would be back to normal when he opened them again. This was a very comforting thought. While he could get as excited as the next person watching a good movie with inexplicable happenings, it was certainly not something he had ever wanted to personally experience, and his sure and certain belief that this was simply some sort of waking dream, perhaps a carryover of his very vivid nightmares of the night before, seemed a perfectly rational explanation for what otherwise was a mystery worthy of the Twilight Zone.

Unfortunately, when he looked again, the scene had not changed. Half of his mind was suggesting, quite loudly, that running away might be a good idea. Screaming while doing so would probably be even better. He involuntarily dropped the tripod and thermos in preparation for flight. His heart began racing; if there had been so much as a gust of wind at that moment, he likely would have been gone fast enough to leave a cloud of sand behind him. As it was, his hindbrain still hadn’t figured out what to do, so it was just preparing to do something, eventually settling on wait and see what develops.

There were twelve small, but very serious looking creatures, wearing golden Romanesque armor, complete with brush helmets and spears somehow grasped in their forelimbs. They were all a brilliant white, with blue eyes, practically identical, except it appeared that six of them had an ivory horn mounted on the front of their helmet, while the other six had some kind of white feathers over their armor. Lying on its side in the center of the group was a brilliant, almost pearlescent unicorn. It was wearing a golden tiara with a purple gem set in the center, golden horseshoes which covered the entire hoof, ending on the front of the leg in golden fleur-de-lis, and an enormous breastplate which also sported a purple gem. Like some of the spear-holding creatures, it also appeared to have feathers along its sides. The entire get-up seemed a little bit ridiculous, much like the costumes his neighbor put on his yappy mopwater dog. What caught Dale’s eye, though, was that this creature’s mane seemed to be ethereal. Colored almost exactly like the aurora, it shifted and flowed in the nonexistent breeze. Unwittingly, he looked into the sky, watching it mirror the unicorn’s mane, before returning his gaze to the spectacle before him.

Dale noticed another creature he had somehow missed before, perhaps because it was the most normal of the lot. Shorter and more slender than the rest, it was a seafoam green unicorn, with a light blue mane and tail, each of which had a white stripe that he assumed was bleached or dyed—in fact, the entire creature appeared to be dyed. There was nothing in nature that he knew of that was those colors.

She was watching him with large golden eyes, which reminded him uncomfortably of an eagle’s eyes. Her ears and tail were twitching quickly,.in what was clearly irritation.

One part of his brain told him that he should get his camera, since if the tableaux before him showed up on the camera, than he wasn’t hallucinating. At the same time, Dale wondered if that was wise. A primitive instinct suggested to him that if he were to reach for his camera, something bad might happen. Besides, even if he did take pictures, no one would ever believe them.

Instead, he sat down, and began to watch them carefully.

The mint unicorn, he decided, was behaving much like a well-trained guard dog. After he had approached no closer, she had returned to scanning the area around her, but every time she turned in his direction, she fixed him with a steady gaze, reminding him that she was keeping track of his presence, and while she would tolerate him as long as he stayed out of her territory, she would not let him approach without facing consequences. Closer observation showed that she always kept one ear cocked in his direction, even when she looked away, and he noticed that the other creatures were often keeping their ears pointed at her. He idly wondered what they would do if he moved closer, but reminded himself that the soldiers were wearing armor and carrying weapons, so he supposed that they were probably capable of dealing with him.

Dale had gotten over his initial shock, and began to speculate on their origin. It was possible they were some kind of genetically altered pet, although who would have such a thing was beyond him, and why they would be here of all places was even more confusing. The fact that most of them were carrying weapons also bothered him—while it was true that some people dressed their pets, he’d never heard of giving them spears to hold, and he couldn’t imagine animals that would behave this way.

He wondered what they would do if he were to take out his gun. Would they throw their spears at him? Could they throw their spears at him, or were they just a strange decoration? If he hadn’t seen the green unicorn move, he might have thought that they were just animatronic creations, but he’d never heard of ones that could walk and look so natural doing it, or blink for that matter. He also observed that the soldiers shifted their weight every now and then, and he could see the rise and fall of the chest of the large unicorn.

As the sky lightened, he could see that the soldiers facing him were frequently holding his gaze for a few seconds before their eyes shifted, but they were clearly professional enough to maintain a watch for anything else that might be a threat.

When the sun broke the horizon, he finally shifted his focus to the lake. He might not have gotten his camera set up, but there would be other sunrises, he supposed. Silently thanking whoever had invented light-sensitive glasses, he watched as the sun slowly tracked above the lake. Even with the bizarre scene on the beach, watching the sunrise was an ingrained habit.

As it finally cleared the horizon, he glanced back over at the creatures. The soldiers seemed uncomfortable for some reason he couldn’t fathom, frequently looking at the sleeping unicorn. Nothing had changed but the light in the sky, as far as he could tell. Before, he had only heard a few short noises from them—the soft nickering that one often heard amongst horses—but now they were much more vocal.

At first, he thought that the soft melodic noises they were making were no more complex than birdcalls, but he soon realized that one would speak, then another, and so on. They were clearly conversing, and he supposed that if their culture was advanced enough to make armor, it stood to reason that they had some means of communication as well. That went on for a minute or so, when a sharp command from the aqua unicorn silenced them all.

He continued to watch them, noticing that the pearl unicorn was beginning to shift. She opened her eyes, and lifting her head off the sand, smiled. She looked at the sun, now well above the horizon, and rose with a regal grace. She glanced at the soldiers, who had begun to chatter excitedly among themselves, and then at the mint unicorn, who rather softly spoke for a minute or so. Dale noted to his fascination that larger unicorn was nodding every now and then.

Suddenly she looked in his direction, and flared her wings. If the effect was intended to intimidate, it worked perfectly: Dale would have stepped back if he had been on his feet. Unfortunately, he was sitting with his back to a rock, and couldn’t move. For one awful moment, he thought she was going to come at him—her posture seemed very aggressive—but then she lowered her wings, and gave him a more thoughtful look. For his part, Dale was confounded by the wings—up until now he had assumed that these creatures were some sort of mammal, but feathered wings argued strongly against that theory. She spoke with the mint unicorn, and her lilting voice was quite soothing. As strange as it seemed, he felt all the tension leaving his body just from hearing her speak.

The mint unicorn nodded, and looked up at the winged unicorn towering over her. Dale noted with surprise a glowing spark at the end of the white horn, with a color that he could only describe as reminiscent of a summer sunbeam. Then she tilted her head down and touched the horn of the mint unicorn, who was suddenly surrounded in a golden nimbus which faded and fell in glittering sparkles.

The mint unicorn stepped to the perimeter of soldiers, then two body lengths beyond, and paused for a moment, then stepped forward again, tentatively. There was a brief golden ripple in the air, and then the unicorn moved forward across the beach with more confidence, although in a slow, non-threatening manner. Dale could see sparkling golden hoofprints in the sand behind her.

She halved the distance between them, then stopped expectantly, looking at him carefully.

He looked at her thoughtfully, and looked over at the others. The soldiers were stoic as always, but the winged unicorn seemed to have an inviting look on its face. He sat, indecisive, a moment longer, then came to the conclusion that dying on this beach at the hooves or horn of a unicorn might not be all that bad a way to go after all, and stepped towards her.

He moved slowly, constantly shifting his focus between her and the rest. As he closed the distance, he noticed that she had gone from twitching her tail to tucking it between her legs, much like a frightened dog. One of her ears was flat against her skull, while the other was pointed backwards, as if she was expecting instructions from the others. He could see that she was breathing quickly, and she kept cocking her right foreleg, as if she wanted to paw at the sand. She seemed uncomfortable with their size difference, and it was not hard for him to imagine why. He tried to keep a neutral expression, and keep his hands away from his sides. Dale noticed, to his slight discomfort, that one of the guards, which he had now decided was also a unicorn, had widened its stance and lowered its head, so that its horn was pointed right at him.

He stopped just short of arm’s length away. He felt that it would be prudent to maintain that distance, so that neither of them would feel threatened. They both stood in place for a time, until she slowly turned in a circle to allow him a chance to get a good look at her. She stood maybe four feet tall to the tip of her horn—her eyes seemed to be centered about on his navel. Her body was thicker than a normal horse’s would have been, and her legs widened towards her hooves. Her head was rounder, and had a much shorter muzzle than an ordinary horse; in fact, the only horse-like attributes were the mane and tail; otherwise, she bore more resemblance to a St. Bernard. He supposed that he could consider the horn to be a horse-like attribute—he’d never heard of a unicorn dog—but that was really a stretch.

He looked back at the tall white winged unicorn. Aside from the shifting mane and wings, it looked much more equine, although it was still shorter than the horses he was familiar with. If he got on its back, his feet would just barely be off the ground.

Drawing his attention back to the figure in front of him, he noticed that it had a golden image on its hindquarters. It looked like a closed U with vertical lines drawn into it. Dale wondered if it was some kind of a brand, or an identifying mark. Given that the guards all looked identical—except some had horns and some apparently had wings—maybe this was how they could tell each other apart. Perhaps it was some kind of a tribal mark, although if that were the case, it was odd that it did not match what was clearly a sun on the flank of the white winged unicorn. It was difficult to speculate on how their culture might be arranged. Maybe they got these tattoos, or whatever they were, when they reached maturity.

Her fur seemed neatly groomed, and her mane and tail appeared to have been brushed. She was much cleaner than he would have expected an animal, but upon reflection, he decided that if their society could make armor, surely they had discovered basic hygene.

Of course, as useful as these up-close observations were, they still left the biggest question open—namely, how had they gotten here? Assuming he wasn’t hallucinating, which he still considered a very real possibility, they must have come from a spaceship, or something like that.

Dale was on the middle ground when it came to aliens. He believed that with the vastness of space, there must be some out there, somewhere, but he didn’t believe that they were visiting earth, nor that they would. Currently, that second belief was being thrown into question.

A short series of lyrical chirps brought him out of his reverie, and he looked down at the unicorn that was watching him intently. She made a tossing motion with her head, while he stared into her eyes dumbly. When she did it a second time, he suddenly understood, and slowly turned in a circle, feeling slightly ridiculous.

After they were both done, the winged unicorn spoke for a moment, and, never taking her eyes off him, the mint unicorn responded. She looked at him and said something in her language, which of course he didn’t understand.

She trotted over to the wet sand where the waves washed, and began to trace into the sand with her hoof. It looked like a series of lines, and after she’d worked at it a little bit, he realized it must be writing. She looked at him expectantly, but he shook his head and shrugged, holding his arms open.

She considered that for a time, then moved to a new spot, and began writing again, this time using a different series of characters. While the first had reminded him of runes, or maybe Cyrillic, this looked more like the alphabet he knew. Of course, he still couldn’t recognize it at all—there were a few symbols that looked familiar, but it was totally meaningless to him. She looked at him, and he made the same gesture.

Looking at the two messages—both of which he assumed were the same, and were probably something along the lines of can you read this—it was curious to see how the first message had been much shorter, and used fewer letters. The words—if that is what they were—seemed to be shorter, but there were marks between the characters. Dale had no doubt a linguist would find this fascinating, but his skills went more towards reading adventure novels and machine drawings. This might as well be Greek—for all he knew, this might be Greek.

Finally, picking another clear section of beach, the unicorn began tracing in the sand with her hoof again.

When she had finished, she stepped back from what she had drawn, to give him a chance to look at it. It was a fairly simple series of pictograms, showing the sun rising above the water. Next to it, she had drawn a sketch of a closed stylized U, which clearly matched the golden mark on her flank. Next to that, she had drawn twenty-eight marks in the sand, much like the hash marks he was familiar with, although they were grouped in sixes instead of fives. He interpreted this as meaning that she would be coming back at sunrise in twenty-eight days.

He thought about how he might communicate that he understood this to her, then he got a flash of inspiration. Until now, they had not heard him speak. Even though their language was different, he suspected that they had figured out that he, too, was an intelligent creature, and therefore would be expecting a response. He looked her in the eyes, and spoke.

“At sunrise,” he pantomimed the sun coming over the horizon, “in twenty-eight days,” he counted on his fingers, a process which she seemed fascinated by, “you,” he pointed at her, “will return here.” He motioned around the general area with his arms.

She smiled and nodded at him, repeating something back in her language, which he assumed was essentially what he had just said, making similar gestures with her hoof. Then she turned and walked back to the others. The air around them shimmered again as she crossed the invisible barrier between them, and then, without any fanfare, there was a bright golden flash, and they were all gone as if they were a dream.

He stood there, alone on the beach, for a very long time. He kept mentally replaying the scene. Finally, he got out his camera and took pictures of all the messages in the sand. That should prove I didn’t imagine it. Looking back at the previews on his camera, he satisfied himself that the pictures were indeed there.

He went back to where he had been standing, and began looking on the beach for clues. The soft sand left no clear impressions of hoofprints—a pity, since he had been curious whether the unicorn wore shoes or not. Admittedly, given all the questions that were pressing in his mind, that was mostly irrelevant, but it seemed like a clue that he could hang his hat on.

There was no question that something had been here. He could clearly follow the unicorn’s footprints to and from the area where they had all been gathered, and he could see the sand was churned up by the feet of something. He took a few more photographs, then got down on his hands and knees and began searching through the sand. He wanted to find something tangible, something he could show to someone else—or not—that would be an actual, physical reminder that this was not a hallucination.

He moved carefully and methodically. While it would have been nice to find a dropped spear, a loose piece of armor, one of the jewels from the large winged unicorn’s tiara, or a stellar map with directions to their home, he would settle for anything. He crawled in a spiral, moving a few inches and then scanning the area to either side of his hands.

He lost all track of time, but his knees and back were aching. He could feel sweat running down his arms and dripping off his nose, and guessed he probably was going to have quite a sunburn when this was done, but he dared not leave the scene to put on some sunblock. Not until he had determined that there was nothing to find.

He had almost given up all hope of finding anything. Whatever means they had used to get here had removed all evidence of their presence except their footprints, and he would have expected nothing less. But then, nestled down in the sand between two small craters, he found something. It nearly escaped his eye, it was so fine. He oh so gently reached out a finger, and hooked it, pulling it forth from its sandy prison a millimeter at a time, hardly daring to breath. It was the finest gossamer, shifting colors in front of his awed eyes. It was a single hair from the pearl winged unicorn.

Heart pounding, he stared at it. It felt almost like ordinary hair, both thicker and smoother than his own. But as he watched, its color shifted, from cerulean to turquoise to cobalt to heliotrope. Careful examination revealed that the colors slowly fell down the hair, through a process he could not even fathom. Every now and then, there would be a little spark. The first time, he nearly dropped it.

He finished his survey of the area, and got back to his feet, knees popping loudly. Dale stood stationary for a moment—he always got dizzy when he stood up quickly—and then began walking back to his campsite. He picked up his thermos, wincing at the hot metal, then his tripod. As he reached the shade of the trees, his neck began to throb, and he knew he was going to pay for spending so much time on the beach, but it was probably worth it. The pain might help him focus, and might help remind him that he hadn’t imagined the scene at sunrise.

Finally reaching his camp, he absently tossed the thermos and tripod on his folding picnic table, and sat down in his camp chair to resume examination of this magical hair.

As he watched it shift and change before his eyes, he came to the uncomfortable conclusion that he was likely verging on insanity. The rational part of his brain insisted that he had not seen anything real on the beach, and he was just prolonging the hallucination by staring at this hair which clearly couldn’t exist. Every law of nature that he had understood since he was a boy said it wasn’t real. Extraterrestial beings visiting earth were the creation of science fiction authors and wackos.

But what if it did exist? One of his guilty pleasures had been a good science fiction novel, and it was hard to argue that the worlds that Asimov, Niven and Wells had imagined hadn’t, in a large part, come to pass. While it was true that he didn’t have a jetpack or a flying car, he did have a smartphone and internet access at home. Mankind may not have colonized Mars, yet men had walked the surface of the moon and sent probes into the deepest reaches of the solar system, and even now were soaring over the earth in a space station.

Looking around the island, he thought it might be the perfect place for a group of aliens to observe humanity. What if there was a spaceship, somehow cloaked so that earthly technology couldn’t see it, and they’d sent an away team to a location that was both remote, yet near enough to civilization that they could monitor it? Maybe they had some kind of scanners that were measuring background radiation—maybe that was why they had put their eyes on earth. Maybe all these radio waves had attracted them.

It wasn’t that long ago, relatively speaking, that the electromagnetic spectrum had been largely silent. There were no TVs, no cell phones, no radios. It had hardly been a hundred years, and now civilization had advanced to the point that there were even satellites beaming down episodes of Jersey Shore to the masses. Truly, it boggled the mind just thinking about it. What if they had a spaceship, flying through the vast reaches of space, and they suddenly began to receive radio signals from an insignificant planet on a lonely branch of the Milky Way galaxy? Perhaps they had come to investigate.

Suddenly, he felt very small. All he had wanted was to spend a few days away from it all, and now he may very well have been the first human to make contact with an alien species. It wasn’t fair. He imagined the media circus that would ensue. Dozens of different celebrities, interviewing him.

Or would there be? Maybe the government would just disappear him. Until today, he hadn’t really though that was a possibility—it wasn’t something that the government would do. But maybe it was. Maybe he wasn’t the first one to make contact with aliens. Maybe all those people who he had assumed were nuts were on to something. Maybe they weren’t really nutty, after all.

He looked at the hair again. It moved in the slight breeze, just as a real hair would, but the shifting colors were so unnatural. For that matter, the fur color of the unicorn was unnatural. No mammal—if it even was a mammal—had fur that color. Or wings, or eyes that big.

Dale sighed. The only logical explanation was that he was out of his mind. That this whole thing was a strange mental fugue, maybe brought about by his exertion the day before. Wasn’t humankind supposed to be a social species? Maybe this is what happened when one turned his back on his own fellows.

Well, if that was the case, perhaps it was time to get some contact with humanity. He carefully put the hair into a Ziploc bag, which he placed in his cooler. It might not be what it deserved, but it was a safe enough place.

He walked back to his canoe, and unclipped the marine radio from its bracket. Flipping the switch on, the familiar robotic voice of the NOAA weather station crackled in his ears. While not actual human contact, it was the next best thing.

He listened to it for a few minutes—not really paying attention to what it was saying—and was suddenly surprised to find himself back in camp. Realizing he was in worse mental shape than he’d imagined, he sat down heavily in his camp chair.

He switched over to channel 16, hearing nothing but the soft hiss of static. He wanted to call out, but who would he call? What would he say? Dale was, by his own choice, on a remote, uninhabited island. Would he radio the Coast Guard? Would he tell them that he had just been visited by aliens? If he did, would they believe him?

Maybe he could just tell them that he was having a medical emergency. They’d fly a helicopter out from Traverse City and take him away. He frowned at the thought. Most likely, they’d take him to a rubber room, somewhere. If they believed his story—which was extremely unlikely—he’d probably get a visit from representatives of some governmental agency that he’d never heard of before.

Finally, he heard a bulk freighter transmitting on 16, calling for a different channel. Hands shaking, he switched his radio, and listened to one side of a conversation between the freighter and someone else. The conversation was irrelevant, loaded with static, and barely comprehensible, but it was another human, and by golly, that was good enough.

His stomach growled, and he realized he hadn’t eaten all day. He looked at the firepit, thought about cooking, and decided it was too much effort. Grabbing a can opener, he reached into his cooler for a can of anything.

He opened the can without really seeing it—his eyes were locked on the plastic bag that contained the shifting hair—and just tipped it up to his mouth, more to shut up his stomach than any real desire to eat. It seemed to be Spaghetti-O’s, judging by the artificial pasta and sauce taste.

He absently tossed the can aside, picking up the Ziploc. The hair still changed colors. Mesmerized, he was unable to tear his eyes away. He brought over to the table, continuing his careful examination.

Looking at the glowing LED on the silent radio, he switched it back to the weather channel. Maybe the continuous voice would help remind him that he was still real.

The radio gave off nothing but static.

He swore, tossing the radio at a tree. Technology, apparently, was against him. He was shocked when, mid-flight, the radio began talking again. Luckily for Dale, his aim was off, and the radio bounced harmlessly off the soft dirt, landing in a patch of ferns. He picked it back up and brought it back to the table. As soon as he got close, the radio stubbornly turned staticy again. Frowning, he moved away, and the NOAA-bot returned.

A little experimentation revealed that the hair was, somehow, messing up the radio signals. When it was within a few feet of the radio, the signal was inexplicably lost. The only reason he could come up with was that the hair gave off some sort of electromagnetic interference, although how it could do that was beyond him. Still, it seemed to shift his thoughts from the losing-his-mind category into the maybe-this-is-real area, as it was an awfully specific detail for a hallucination.

He set the radio up by his tent, its constant noise a companion in the solitude. Dale took a notebook out of his backpack, and began to write down everything he remembered from the morning. If it turned out that he had imagined the entire thing, it would be an interesting window into his madness. On the other hand, if it turned out to be real, the notebook would undoubtedly prove a priceless resource.

He began by writing down everything he could remember about their physical appearance, then their behavior. Dale assumed that they must have some sort of social structure. It appeared that the unicorn who had come out to meet him had been in command, at least until the white one woke up. He also assumed that since the white one was wearing a crown, she was some kind of an important leader, although he could not imagine why she had been asleep on the beach.

Although he couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t been on the island the day before, they weren’t on the beach, and their manner of departure implied that they could just beam themselves back and forth. He made a special note that there was no shimmering translucence as they vanished—unlike Star Trek’s transporters—they were just there one moment and gone the next. Furthermore, their departure had caused the sand to blow around, as if the atmosphere was rushing back into the space where they had been.

The problem with assuming that they were aliens, in Dale’s mind, was the fact that the guards were wearing what appeared to be medieval barding, and carrying spears. One would imagine that an advanced enough society to have spacecraft and some kind of matter transmission would have discovered better weapons than spears.

Upon reflection, he decided that the guards were ceremonial, a conclusion which fit with the assumption that the white winged unicorn was an important creature to them. It might also explain why they let her sleep on the beach, rather than carry her off to a more secure location. The guards had seemed very uncomfortable with the arrangement.

He also wondered if the horns that many of them were sporting were not actually some kind of mind-controlled weapon. He had seen a golden spark from the horn of the big one, which seemed to have been a way of protecting the smaller unicorn. There were already thought-controlled prosthetics, so there was no reason to believe that the technology couldn’t be pushed further. Perhaps the soldiers with horns could shoot rays out of them or something; that would explain why the one had pointed its horn at him.

He looked at the hair again, thoughtfully. What if it were some kind of nanotechnology? He’d heard of all sorts of things that could be done on a near-atomic level, so why not make a color-changing hair that sparkled occasionally? Perhaps, to these creatures, it was the latest thing in fashion. Maybe, as a space-faring race, they liked the look of magnetic storms. It could even be tuned to solar emissions, which would explain how the colors so closely mirrored the aurora he had seen in the morning. If it somehow gave off magnetic interference, it could have blocked his radio signals.

Dale sighed and closed his notebook. His hand hurt from all the writing. Once he got back home, he’d probably organize it more sensibly, and maybe he’d be able to come up with some more ideas. The light was fading, and he was starving. If he wanted hot food, he had better start a fire.

Sleep came to him quickly that night. He had expected to be up the whole night, but the stress he had been under all day long had tired him out. He had forgotten to set his alarm, yet he woke while it was still dark out.

Dale listened to the susurration of the wind caressing the trees, and suddenly felt very alone. The memories of the previous morning came rushing back, and he momentarily thought about not going down to the beach. What if there were more of those creatures?

No. If he understood what they had written, they were not going to come back for nearly a month. He sighed, and climbed out of his sleeping bag. He might as well go.

He opened the tent flap and peered out. The stars were gone, washed out by the increasing light. Dale absently stuffed his camera into his shirt pocket, pulled on a pair of pants and his hiking boots. He unconsciously grabbed his radio and flipped it on, just loud enough to hear the weather report.

As he came across the rise, he paused. What if they had meant he shouldn’t come back for twenty-eight days? Might they be there again? He shook his head. If they were, they were.

The beach was empty.

As he watched the sun break over the surface of the water, he felt the last of his tension fall away. There was something cathartic about a sunrise. Maybe it was a primitive instinct, a reminder that one had survived yet another day on the planet, or maybe it was just an irrational fear that the sun would fail to rise one day, but this day dawned perfectly ordinarily.

He looked around at the beach. For a dozen years, this had been one of his sanctuaries. It had seemed unchanging, and had offered no real surprises. Oh, sure, he’d seen a few unexpected things, and had more than a few memories of this trip or that, but now they were all eclipsed by his inexplicable encounter.

Dale looked over the lake. He imagined that in the heyday of the schooner, the island had been more of a hazard than anything—clearly if they had built two lighthouses on South Fox, it had been a menace—but perhaps there were a few shipwrecked sailors who had found their way to its shores. While it was hardly a tourist destination, his feet had not been the first to walk its shores, and they would not be the last. Was the island a haven of solitude, or a danger to humanity? Or, in the grand scheme of things, did the island even care? It was a neutral player.

He had meant to stay longer, but suddenly he craved human contact—any kind of human contact. He had never felt so small and alone, and the worst thing about the experience was that he doubted he could share it with anyone. He wanted to shout from the rooftops that we are not alone, but if he did, everyone would believe he was insane.

As he walked back to camp and began packing his gear, his mind began churning over a new problem. Assuming that he had not imagined the whole thing, how should he proceed? At some point, he owed it to humanity to share his discovery. If he acted without proof, he would be viewed as just another nutcase, but what would happen if he somehow captured one of the visitors?

Would they willingly come along? The mint unicorn seemed to be intimidated by him, but still approached first. Could he somehow tell her to come with him? Would she be willing to get in the canoe, and ride across the lake in it? If she did, what next? Drive to the nearest television studio, alien in tow? Might they view such an act with hostility? And how soon would the government get involved? If they did, what would they do?

He pushed the canoe into the water mechanically, and began to paddle. Why were they waiting twenty-eight days to return? Was there some sort of significance to the date? Or was it to buy them more time? If so, why? Did they need time to learn his language? To build a universal translator? Or to arrange a special cell to hold him for further study?

He shivered and stopped paddling. He looked around at the vast emptiness of the lake, his canoe the only manmade object within the range of his vision. If they wanted to take him, this was the perfect spot. No one would ever know what had happened.

Author's Note:

A big thanks to my parents, for pre-reading and doing a lot of research, and
Woonsocket Wrench, for pre-reading.

Check out my blog, HERE, for notes for this chapter!