Winter Star

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by M. C. Tuggle

Winter Star

by M. C. Tuggle

M. C. Tuggle is a life-long tinkerer and science geek now retired from the insurance industry, where he worked in project management and operations research. His science fiction, fantasy, and mystery stories have been featured in several publications, including Mystery Weekly, Hexagon Speculative Fiction, and Metaphorosis. The Novel Fox published his novella Aztec Midnight in 2016, a fantasy adventure based on his extended stay in a Mexican village. He posts his literary opinions at mctuggle.com, and occasionally tweets at @tuggle_mike.

 

 

We made it to the top of the mountain at five in the afternoon. Despite the tough uphill trek from the end of the dirt path where I’d parked Dad’s truck, I immediately got to work. Only two hours till sunset. Two hours to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I unzipped my backpack. On top were two Mason jars of homemade chili. Mom had taped a note on one that said, “Be careful, Trey. And have fun.” Under the food was the cardboard box holding a reel of wire, a long gutter nail, two packs of C batteries, and my Heathkit radio. After I inserted the fresh batteries, I set the radio on the box, powered it up, and dialed it to an Atlanta rock station we could barely tune in at home. We were on top of Winter Star Mountain, the highest in the county. With only the built-in antenna, the Heathkit boomed out “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” the latest hit from Guns ‘N Roses.

Booney looked up from rearranging ice, beer cans, and a bottle of Strawberry Hill wine in the cooler. “You brought the shortwave. Bet you’ll pick up a lot from up here.”

“And it’s not just the altitude. There’s a solar storm – what?” I stared over Booney’s shoulder, not sure what I was looking at.

“What’s wrong, Trey?”

I moved toward a dark circle in the sand. It was at least 50 feet wide – too big and too perfect to have been caused by a campfire. But the strangest thing about it was the white strands swaying in the center like hundreds of kite strings, though without kites. They must’ve been as light as spider webs, because there was no breeze. Some of the silky strings reflected the mid-September sunlight like little rainbows.

Booney strode up beside me with two beers. He handed one to me, took a long swig, and said, “Know what I think?”

“What?”

“Couple a nights ago, my Dad was driving home at four in the morning after his shift at the paper mill. He said some strange lights were bouncing around up here. He thinks it must’ve been moonshiners.”

“It’s 1988, not 1928. Folks these days get their liquor in Asheville.”

“Moonshine’s cheaper. And there’s a few old-timers who like shine better than that city stuff.”

I nodded. “Maybe. And those white threads could have come from the sugar they use.”

Booney emptied his beer. “There you go.”

My next job was to set up the world’s greatest antenna. I unwound the reel of wire as I made my way toward the tallest pine on the mountain. When I reached it, I tied the wire around a rock and flung it toward the top limb.

The rock looped perfectly over the limb on the first try. Not bad. I returned to camp, straightening the line as I went. The radio greeted me with the words, “Oh, we’re half-way there.” That was about right. I stripped off an inch of insulator with a pocketknife and stooped.

When I connected the bare wire to the antenna terminal, Bon Jovi sounded like he just got a shot of raw adrenaline.

We scrounged fallen limbs, broke them up for the campfire, and warmed up the chili, which we ate with the beer. Small talk about school and big talk about girls followed, followed by swigs of cheap wine.

The sun inched down behind the trees, and the light from the campfire cast our shadows on the ground. I gazed up at the crescent moon. “I think it’s time.” Using a rock as a hammer, I drove a seven-inch gutter nail into the hardened soil. A short strip of wire connected the nail to the Heathkit’s ground connection.

Now we were connected to the earth and sky.

With the campfire blazing behind us, we sat on a log and I tuned in familiar frequencies. In a few minutes, we’d intercepted Soviet propaganda, control towers in London and Capetown directing jets over the Atlantic, as well as fishing boats battling rough weather near Vancouver. Two captains cursed the hostile sea while barking orders to their crews.

Cradling a beer in both hands, Booney sat cross-legged on the ground. “Now that’s crazy.”

“You’re liable to hear anything on shortwave.”

“It’s like they’re next door.”

“There’s a humongous solar storm this weekend. Earth’s being covered by radiation from the Sun. They call it the ionosphere. Kinda like a bubble the shortwave signals bounce off of and travel farther than usual.”

I wasn’t sure if Booney’s wide-eyed expression was his reaction to the mystery of geophysics or the beer and wine.

The fishing boat captains signed off and I twisted the dial. A woman’s voice, clear, strong, and slightly accented, rang out:

“Dos. Cinco. Tres. Uno.

Ocho. Tres. Cuatro. Cuatro.

Uno. Siete. Dos. Seis.”

Booney cocked his head. “One, seven, two, six. What’s she doing?”

“It’s a Spanish numbers station. Some say it’s drug smugglers, others think it’s coded messages to Castro’s spies in Florida.”

“Cool.”

“Like I said, there’s no telling what’s out there.” Our long wire antenna was perfect for lower frequencies, so I switched bands. After a few twists of the knob, a strange new sound made both of us lean closer to the radio. Metallic and musical, it seemed to flutter in and out, rising and dropping in tone and volume.

Two deafening bursts suddenly rattled the speaker, and we twisted away.

Booney rubbed his ears. “What the hell was that?”

“No idea.”

A second fluttering sound tinkled from the radio. Unlike the first, it combined several distinct tones, like music boxes cranked at high speed. The volume rose, and I turned the RF gain down.

Booney pointed up. “Look!”

Overhead, a pale blue circle grew as it descended. For a second, it hovered at tree-top level. It dropped to the ground, and the blue light dimmed to darkness. We stared, frozen in place. The flickering campfire revealed a saucer the size of a bulldozer. Dull silver, it was covered in blocky, black figures that had to be writing.

Prickles ran down my neck and arms. Nothing moved. There was no wind, no sound.

A panel slid and a figure in a black suit stepped toward us. It wore a helmet that looked like an ant’s head. Only when it was a few feet away did I notice the glowing instrument in its hand – a hand in black gloves with three stubby fingers. On its chest and stomach were white markings similar to the ones on its ship.

It held the instrument in front of me. A message glowed on its screen. I read out loud, “I am pursuing a dangerous criminal. Your radio has detected the thrust signatures of his vehicle. Please show me how to use your radio.”

Booney’s voice cracked when he said, “Don’t, Trey. We have no idea what he’s really up to.”

The alien leaned his head toward Booney, at me. He waved his hand over the little screen and held it up for both of us to see.

It read, “There is a reward.”

I looked at Booney, at the visitor, at his craft.

I took a slow breath and tried to think. Finally, I knelt in front of the shortwave radio. The alien knelt beside me. I glanced down at him a couple of times, but couldn’t see a face through the helmet. If it had a face.

I showed the alien how to use the band selector, the main and fine tuning, and the RF gain for volume. He grasped the fine tuning knob with two baby-like fingers and turned it slowly. The tinny musical tones returned, and the alien held his miniature television close to the Heathkit’s speaker. The device pinged. The alien touched the device and angled it toward me. It read, “Thank you.”

He stood, turned, and marched into his craft. The panel slid shut behind him. The blue circle pulsed, flashed yellow, and the craft silently rose ten or twelve feet. It stalled a moment before soaring across the sky. The last I saw of it was a faint blue ring zooming south.

Still gazing up, Booney said, “Think he’s really chasing a criminal?”

“Yeah. The markings on his ship and uniform looked official.”

“That’s it?”

“His story made sense. We’re inside a heavy ionosphere, the perfect place for an outlaw ship to hide, since it would cover his tracks from anyone in space. But if a smart lawman figured that out, the mountains would be a good spot to detect unusual signals.”

“But if he’s so advanced, why wouldn’t he know how to use your radio?”

“The same reason you can’t drive a stick shift. Or why I couldn’t operate a telegraph.”

“Oh.”

We did not speak for the next several moments. All we could do was to search the starry skies above.

Finally I crept to the spot where the craft had landed. The light of the dying camp fire revealed another circle in the sand, black and perfect. Web-like strands glistened white inside the circle.

Without a word, we plopped our sleeping bags near the fire and cocooned ourselves.

The next morning, we gathered our gear and trudged down the mountain to the truck. When I lowered the tailgate, we froze, bags in hand. A rock the size of a shoebox lay in the center of the bed. It was black, with gleaming, golden streaks.

Booney frowned. “Where’d that come from?”

It took me a while to calm my breathing before I could answer. “I’d say from the Asteroid Belt.”

“What is it?

I climbed into the bed and kicked the rock. It didn’t budge.

“Booney,” I said, “that’s our reward.”

4 Comments

  1. Great story, Mike. I really felt like I was there on Winter Star Mountain with you. Tall Tale TV is lucky to be able to publish it.

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