The incessant droning from the helicopters was getting old. It had passed the point of background noise, lapped itself, gone all the way back to irritating. She could feel the rhythmic thrumming in her jaw muscles. There must have been another explosion at the plant north of the park. Idiots! They kept saying that they had the breech under control and yet, almost every day, another seal broken, another mini-eruption. People were getting nervous that something might leak into the river. What, exactly, wasn’t clear. The plant didn’t process chemicals, didn’t manufacture rat poison. Mostly, it seemed to exist to collect research funding and annoy the local citizenry. It did keep the local emergency response teams on their toes though. And what ultimately paid for those noisy gas hogs? Her tax dollars, of course. Well, except for the news choppers, she conceded that. But she didn’t loathe them any less for it.
This was supposed to be the best time for a walk. Birds that wouldn’t utter a peep or move a muscle during the worst hours of heat should be stirring now, heading to their night roosts, giving away their location by telling each other about their day. But the mechanical birds above her changed all that. Her binoculars, hanging limply from her neck, felt heavy in the oppressive humidity.
She considered circling through the stand of willow trees near the parking lot, away from the noise and confusion by the river, but the magnetic tug of the crowd gathered on the footbridge drew her. Their murmured exclamations floated above the sounds of rushing water and rotator blades as she got closer.
Almost to a person they were pointing at something in the water near the bank opposite an idled rescue crew. She shaded her eyes from the river’s sun-sparkle and tried to make sense of the dark tangle caught in the shadow of the bridge. It was big, this what-ever-it-was, bigger than a human. And it was very dead, she was sure of that. She raised the twin lenses of the binoculars and focused.
The first clue was a fleshy, finned tail, broken and looped almost into a knot. Having deciphered that much she worked her way up the gigantic body, noting the diamond-shaped scales and the torpedo-like body. Ah-ha! An alligator gar. She wasn’t a fish expert by any means but after two years of volunteering as a weekend naturalist at the park she had at least a passing knowledge of the flora and fauna there, and that included the memorable-but-seldom-seen. But where was its head? Hidden beneath the bridge? She leaned over the railing, forcing her mind to make sense of what her eyes were seeing. There was white bone there, and a pulpy reddish purple mass in approximately the right position, but none of it looked particularly fish-like. In fact, some of it seemed to belong to a turtle.
She pushed her way to a better vantage point and looked again. Yes, a fair-sized snapping turtle was somehow in the mix. There was a section of ridged shell in the shallows, but the rest of it looked like it had exploded. Nothing fit together, and she still couldn’t make sense of the gar.
A shout from the rescue workers on the opposite bank drew her attention. She dropped the binoculars back to their resting place against her chest and moved with the crowd to watch the men work.
What they brought up from the riverbed didn’t seem to be alive though. She caught just a glimpse as it was hoisted onto a stretcher and swiftly covered. There was a recognizable human arm, and a wet mass of pink where the head should be, but the torso seemed to have been turned inside out. Jagged ribs, exposed to the air, enclosed nothing but spongy red flesh.
Suddenly the gar made sense, and she returned to the railing. Yes, the entire animal was there, just… Unmade. The jaws bent back, the inside of its abdomen outside. She began to feel light-headed. But she couldn’t look away.
And then she saw it, the thing that was wrong, even more wrong than the bodies in the river. There was a little shining sphere caught in the mud beneath the bridge. Its surface was perfectly reflective, its contours slickly solid, like oily water made ice. The thing seemed unnatural. It gave off an aura of cold in the sub-tropical heat. She wondered how she had missed it before.
She raised her binoculars and watched as it oscillated twice and gave off an almost imperceptible pulse of soft light. As it did, what was left of the gar convulsed and became much less gar-like. Gone were the fishy contours, replaced by soggy gristle and bone shards.
She gave a little cry and stepped back. Others were looking now, trying to ascertain what they were seeing. She put her hand over her mouth and stumbled further back along the bridge. The sphere was bigger now, and easy to see from the railing. She turned and ran.
But she didn’t run fast enough. The next pulse of light took in everyone on the bridge. She heard the soft patter of blood hitting the water but didn’t turn to confirm the carnage. The one after that took her, the emergency crew, and all of the nearby birds.
Once more, and the park was left lifeless with the exception of one small solemn bird sitting on a willow branch near the parking lot. That bird took flight, no longer worried by the mechanical beasts hovering above it.
© Corinna Sara Beckho
Corinna Sara Bechko, originally trained as a zoologist, now writes prose and comics. Her fiction has appeared in Reflections Edge and All Hallows, among other publications, and she was recently short-listed for the Aeon Award for her short story Sooterkin. She is also the author of the graphic novelHeathentown, published by Image/Shadowline Comics. Look for more of her work from Marvel Comics, Bizarre New World, and Image Comics in 2011.
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