When I approached Ghyll Research Station that first time the sun was setting beneath the mountains, across the valley from where I'd stopped, and already the hollow below me was shrouded in shadows. With my bike turned off I could hear the roar of the Ghyll itself in the distance: the crystal waters of the mountain stream thundering downwards to where, over the length of the valley, it would join with other smaller streams, widen and slow out, until it left the valley and meandered its way to the sea. From my vantage point I could look down and just see the river, stained deep red by the last rays of the sun and partially hidden by the canopy of trees, whose leaves had the light hue of springtime. I'd not expected it to be so beautiful. Beautiful and cold.
I shivered in my light parka and pulled the hood up: it'd been a bright day and the sunshine, though weak, had taken the edge off the cold. Now it was gone and I hurried back to my bike and down towards the station. My reception there was, for the most part, warm: I'd already sent a message from the base station, 300 klicks away, when I'd arrived there on the interstellar, and Ben, Alice and Eloise were waiting for me, smiling; Jose was there, scowling; Dom wasn't there, but there again, I'd hardly expected him to be.
Ben filled me in over supper. I would have been there from the start, but for a flunked zoology exam and the odious resits - I'm a much better field xenobiologist than some of my exam performances would suggest - and I was dying to hear all the news. In its way it was disappointing: so far, the team hadn't managed to confirm any evidence of sentient life at all, but Dom had fallen in love with the trees of the valley and, so Eloise told us, he swore they spoke to him, so it was no great disaster. All the team had spent the last couple of months carefully detailing all the flora, fauna and mineral resources in the valley and had recorded the changes day by day, week by week, of the climate. When I mentioned how cold it'd become at sunset, the others laughed: the weather was warming, the snows thawing, the sun shining; they'd had to work in a bitter snowscape and here was I complaining about a little chill. It appeared I'd arrived at the right time: Spring.
We sat around for the rest of the evening: the others had finished their work for the day, and I wouldn't start till the following morning, so we had time to sit and natter. I passed on all the gossip from Avrameas and from the base station and they fired questions at me. I wouldn't have noticed Dom coming in if it hadn't been for the chill draught of the door. I turned and looked up. He hadn't changed.
Dom is one of the sweet people who seem to drift through life: he was sensitive, beautiful, talented, and yet, in his own way, staggeringly self-centred. I'd loved him once - perhaps I still did - but his own obsessions, ignoring my needs, had driven me to despair and it had all fallen down in pieces. I'd cried for days when I'd told him it was over. And Dom had just shrugged and gone back to his work. Now, he nodded in my direction, smiling, and made as if to go towards the sleeping quarters, but, obviously thinking better of it, came over to me and kissed me gently on my forehead. His lips were very cold.
I started work the following morning, helping Eloise with the cataloguing of the fauna. Eloise was excited, for, as the days grew warmer at a surprising rate, new animals appeared almost daily - where once there had been minimal fauna there was a rich mix of species - and it was difficult not to share her enthusiasm. I'd helped out on survey duties before, grown to expect whole new creatures, but the Ghyll valley was different: there was something in the air - anticipation, magic - I don't know what and I think all the team felt it. Eloise explained that many of the animals must have hibernated or found a similar way to survive the cold because Winter, their bitter, cruel winter, lasted over five standard years and by the end of the season there was little vegetation left suitable to eat: there were no leaves or other foliage and many of the roots were poisonous.
Despite the winter and the poisonous plants, though, I allowed myself hope for the first time in ages. Within days, following the lead of the others, I'd cast of my filter mask and was breathing in fresh air. Clean, fresh air, not recycled or clogged up with filth. I took to washing my hair in one of the streams and Alice and I would often swim, naked, in the icy pool where the Ghyll collected in a dip in the land. It was exhilarating and I wanted it to last forever.
As Spring flowered and our work progressed I grew to love the Ghyll valley: it was remarkably peaceful and I soon learned which plants were dangerous and which animals and birds to avoid, learned to distinguish between different bird song and where to find the prettiest flowers. While scanning for mineral reserves Jose had found a cave system and so he, Ben and I spent much of our time exploring them, getting a little deeper each time. The rest of my time was taken up with work, swimming or rambling or spent in the glade.
The glade was Dom's place, but he'd let me join him if I was quiet. I usually was: the glade was a grassy space set in a part of the forest on the south facing slope of the valley. The trees surrounding it were different compared to the other trees of the valley. They looked younger: silver bark on tall, slender trunks; slim, elegant silver green leaves; delicate white flowers and they didn't occur anywhere but immediately surrounding the glade; there were about one hundred in total. They sung to Dom. I could see why Dom was transfixed by the glade and the trees: as the breeze drifted through the leaves they seemed to whisper to us, sitting there in the grass. But to Dom the whisper of the wind meant more.
One day, a couple of months after I'd arrived, the weather was glorious, and Dom and I were sitting sunning ourselves in the glade. I was dozy. I'd slept fitfully the previous night and was tired, and the sun was lulling me to sleep when Dom suddenly sat upright. I raised myself up on my elbows and looked at him: I was shocked, for he looked terrible: copper gold hair awry, blue eyes wide and brimming with tears, he turned to me as a sob rose in his throat,
"They're singing to me, Kari, singing and stealing my thoughts..." I moved to comfort him, not knowing what to think: sometimes the loneliness of the job gets to people, especially when they work alone like Dom; but I couldn't see it, couldn't believe that Dom could crack up. He turned round to look at me,
"They steal my thoughts, my memories, my dreams, Kali..." I interrupted,
"Who's 'they' Dom? Who're you talking about?" But Dom just looked at me, his eyes wide,
"Don't you hear them, Kari, the trees, the children. I love them, I think... but I'm afraid" Dom grabbed me and nestled his head against my chest, "I don't know what to do...". I didn't know what to do either, so we sat awhile, his head against me, me stroking his hair, saying nothing.
Dom killed himself that night. We hadn't expected him back for dinner and so when he failed to turn up, we weren't concerned. When he wasn't at breakfast we began to worry though Jose grumbled, but we got on with things anyway and, after breakfast, went about our work. It was Alice who found him. Eloise and I were working a little way from the camp when we heard a faint, strangled cry from the glade: we dashed there and found Alice, slumped on her knees in the grass, cradling Dom in her arms, her eyes streaming with tears. Dom was very pale, his eyes closed, his mouth a little open, as if he were surprised; the remains of a purple mottled tuber was on the floor near his outstretched right hand. I found I couldn't move: the four of us, captured in a terrible tableau until Eloise broke the spell and went to comfort Alice, to pull her away from the body. I tried to help and Dom's body brushed against me as I reached for Alice: I flinched - it was cold and already going stiff - he had obviously died in the night, alone.
The days following Dom's death were like a blur: everyone was subdued and depressed, especially Alice. I think, secretly, we all cried a lot, even Jose, whom I caught out by the caves, equipment by his feet, staring up to the heavens, face wet with tears. When he saw me, he grabbed up his gear and hurried into the caves without saying a word. I didn't mention it to anyone, especially not Jose. Dom's body was sent back to the base station for the autopsy: we were told three days later that he'd died of a massive overdose of a hallucinongenic poison. As soon as he'd bitten into that tuber, he was a dead man.
After the immediate shock had diffused, we threw ourselves into our work, and even when we weren't working we'd keep busy. Jose, Ben and I set to work mapping the caves: they spread far farther than we'd initially expected and it was a considerable challenge. Ben and I usually worked together and Jose would work alone, as he preferred it, collecting samples and making copious notes. At first the caves were quite scary: dark and cool, with long, rough passages and tight squeezes I was terrified of the prospect of water flooding the place and trapping us, but after Dom's death, it didn't seem to matter quite so much.
It was in the caves that Ben and I first met the alien life that Dom had spent all his life looking hopelessly for. It was about ten days after Dom's death and Ben and I were charting a section of the caves neither Jose, Ben or I had been in before. At first, all seemed normal. It was cool and slightly damp and the rough walls were of the same rock as all the other sections of the cave system but as we delved deeper it grew gradually warmer, against our instincts, and drier, so that we began to feel stifled in our thick body warmers and parkas. It was Ben that noticed the walls: somewhere in the dark, they had changed: from the rough, sandstone-like rock, to a smooth, faintly translucent material and they glowed: imperceptibly at first but after a while we could switch off our flashlights and move along in the glow. Ben thought it was fascinating and was busy making notes on the maps, but I felt chilled, despite the warm. It was me who first saw them, though looking back on it, I guess I felt them first.
After we'd gone on in the queer glow for some ten or fifteen minutes, my head started to ache and I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. I whispered to Ben but he was too excited to notice anything and was whispering manically into his recorder, not even looking up as we moved around the corner.
They were sitting there, in the glow, doing nothing, saying nothing, seeing nothing.
I stood up with a start and banged my head on the low ceiling: the yelp of surprise I made was enough to alert Ben and when I looked up and stopped rubbing my head, Ben's attention was fully on the four aliens sitting in front of us. They were definitely alien: though vaguely humanoid, they were much smaller, more the size of children, and their skin was sickly white and flaccid, in the glow. They had the beginnings of arms and legs, though they did not look fully functional, and their skinny bodies were completely devoid of hair, and eyes. Where human eyes would have been, where their eyes should have been, there were two smudges of shadow: sockets covered over with skin.
I started and began to edge backwards: they must have sensed the motion because one of them turned towards me, his spindly arms outstretched like a supplicant. Ben, stood silently beside me and I noticed, for the first time, a faint humming sound, coming from the four white figures.
And then there was a flash: white light, searing my eyes; my head filling with white noise. Then nothing.
I woke up next to Ben, lying on the grass in a clearing near the entrance to the caves. My head was thumping and so I just lay there until I heard the sounds of Ben coming round: moans and groans, the soft phump as he fell back down again as the dizziness hit, more groans as he got up again. I felt him turn over and kneel a little while and remained silent while he was sick into some bushes. I felt nauseous. I felt afraid.
After a little while, Ben came over to check I was OK and I pretended to have just come round. He was pale and looked worried but I assured him I was fine as he helped me get up. I'd begun to feel better, but the shock still affected me, and the realisation dawned that the aliens might mean an end to the project: that we might just be packed off home to Avrameas. Even then, even after what had happened, I still wanted to stay: anything but go back to the overcrowded stench of too many people, too little space. From the look on Ben's face, he was thinking the same: he turned to me and whispered:
'We tell nobody...' his face was grim, 'Nothing happened this afternoon...'
The next few days were difficult ones: everyone was still miserable and tense after Dom's death and Ben and I were having to live with our secret. I began to have nightmares: I dreamt of the white aliens floating about in my head, putting my memories and dreams into little satchels, like those that school kids used; if I tried to stop them they would look at me with their eyeless faces and I would wake, sweat covering my forehead and dampening my back; my head thumping. Other times I would be helpless, floating there inside myself as they floated about humming tuneless little ditties and waving their useless little limbs about. I couldn't help think of Dom and Dom's painful words the afternoon he died,
"They're singing to me, Kari, singing and stealing my thoughts...". They'd sung to Dom and Dom had killed himself. And now they were singing to me.
But I couldn't talk to anyone: they were all becoming wrapped in on themselves: our cosy evenings of chat had drifted to a halt, as if not talking about Dom, not talking to each other, would let us all forget him. I stopped going to the caves but I would often go to the glade to sit alone on the grass in the moonlight, or I would go to the pool and sit on a rock and gaze upwards to the stars. For the first time in my life, I felt alone. And then I met Tore.
I'd had another nightmare and, rather than try and go back to sleep and risk another one, I'd decided to go for a swim: it was a little time to go before dawn, but the moon was still out and the air was quite warm. I slipped out of the station and jogged down to the pool and quickly stripped off and plunged into the water: the air might have been warm but I knew that the water would be icy and jumping straight in was the only way to do it. The water hit and I gasped with the cold but started swimming lengths to warm myself up. I must have swum for a good ten minutes and I was starting to ease up and feel better when I looked up to welcome the dawn. There was a figure blocking the light.
I started but couldn't get away: the sides to the pool were quite steep and the only way out was a shelf just beneath the figure. I had no alternative to stay so I took a good look. I couldn't see much at first, as the light of the dawn sun was directly behind the figure, but it - he - moved a little and the sun lit up the side of his face. He was alien, like the four white people of the caves, but not the same. Suddenly, he leaped into the air, off the rim of the pool and splashed down into the water, less than a metre away from me. I began to move away, to get away from it, but he turned around, looking at me with big amber eyes, set in a round, golden face, and spoke,
"Hello," he smiled as I gaped, "My name is Tore."
Tore was like nothing I'd ever known before. He was alien, similar to the white cave ones but more developed: the size of a humanoid child, his limbs were fully functional and he delighted in running and swimming and climbing about in the trees; he had a full head of hair, golden and silky, running down his back and the whole of his muscled body was covered in a soft down of pale golden hair. We became constant companions in the next couple of days. I told myself it was a scientific relationship, that I could study him as Dom would have, but there was more to it than that. After the tension of the station he was like a ray of sunshine bursting through thunderclouds, and I was loathe to leave him, even for a little while, in case he disappeared. I decided almost straight away to hide Tore from the others and it proved to be easy: everyone was so distracted that it was easy to let them believe I was working with one of the others, when in fact I was with Tore. In the first few days we wandered together all over the forest: Tore showing me things I wouldn't have spotted on my own; taking me to hidden places. We talked, though not as much as I would have liked, despite Tore's first words being so clear, it was obvious that he had to think carefully before trying to speak to me, and played. Tore might have looked like a child, but he was no innocent: often when we swam together he would swim towards me and rub himself to me, holding me with his legs around my waist; when we were walking he would often sidle up to me and shimmy his hand up my back. But I didn't stop him. I found that I enjoyed his attention.
We were walking in the woods a couple of days after we'd first met, and Tore was lagging behind, playing the idiot. I don't think I deliberately went into the grove, but just ended up there and walked out into the sunlight gladly. The first thing that I noticed was that some of the trees on the South side were dead: shells, husks, the bark dry and dead; the core all gone. I was standing there, wondering why something was dying in Spring, when I heard a whisper - I had forgotten about Tore for a moment and he stood in the trees just before the clearing. I motioned him to come in, but he wouldn't and just stood there, frowning, biting his bottom lip. He whispered something again but I didn't catch it and called out to him. He started like a frightened rabbit and scuttled off into the forest.