The darkness was so thick Jake could feel it pressing against his skin. Empty fields surrounded him, swallowed up in the same blackness, while rolling hills in the distance were silhouetted against the night sky. A monster lurked nearby as well, a hulking mass to the left that was a shade darker than the surrounding terrain. A forest. There was no moon, but the millions of stars overhead seemed to watch silently while offering no help. Jake pulled hard on his ponytail, enough for it to hurt. For thirty minutes, he’d been trying to fix the engine. It was past midnight, and he was stuck on the side of the road miles from town with Alex and Sarah.
“Give me the flashlight,” he muttered to Sarah. She handed it back to him before wrapping her arms nervously around her chest. “Alex, try it again!” Jake yelled.
He had no clue what the problem was, and he couldn’t understand why. He’d been working at an auto repair shop after school for the past six months. He braced himself as a now-familiar cacophony of clunks and clangs exploded around him. The noise battered his eardrums, but he could still make out the hissing also coming from the engine. The sound hadn’t been there when he’d taken the truck, unlike the clunks and clangs, and now the engine wouldn’t start.
One second stretched into another. He still couldn’t find it. He cursed, as he broke into a cold sweat. He’d stolen this truck from the shop, he’d let two younger kids from the group home come with him, and no judge would care that he was only sixteen or just going on a joyride. He was going to jail. “Where is it!” he yelled, banging his fist a little too hard against the truck. Every time he thought he had it, the sound moved. It was taunting him. “Alex, stop!”
The engine sighed as it stopped struggling. Next to Jake, Sarah shifted anxiously on her feet. She was thirteen, small, and wearing a yellow dress with white flowers and purple sneakers. “Jake, what are we gonna do?” she asked, her voice strained.
He had no answer.
“I’m thinking, okay?” He was trying to control his temper. She was just scared. But he was scared too.
“What about walking back?”
He shook his head. “It’s over ten miles. We can’t make it back before morning. Especially not Alex.”
They glanced at the truck. From the driver’s seat, Alex was watching them, his eyes wide with fear. He was fourteen years old, but no bigger than Sarah. An accident at birth had left his right side weaker than the left. He limped when he walked and couldn’t speak clearly.
“Could you…carry…” Sarah spoke in a whisper so Alex couldn’t hear through the open window.
“Carry him, are you serious?” Jake cringed just imagining having to explain that to Alex. “I’m not doing that.”
“But we gotta do something!”
“Sarah, we can’t leave the truck, all right! They’ll find it and figure out where it came from. And then I’m screwed.”
“But how could they prove it was you? It could’ve been anyone.” Jake put his hands on his hips in thought. “But if they find us out here, we’re all in trouble.”
Jake took a deep breath. He didn’t want his friends to get caught. But leave the truck behind? It was a huge risk.
He was shaken out of his thoughts by the sound of a car door opening. Alex was climbing out of the truck.
Jake followed Alex’s finger to the right. Something was burning in the sky. It was moving, with flames trailing behind it in a long arc.
“Is that a shooting star?” Sarah asked.
“It's too big,” Jake said. The light winked out, and he thought it was lost for good.
“There!” Sarah pointed.
Jake spotted the dark contour hurtling through the sky. It had grown in the past few seconds. Jake had expected it to look like a rock, but the sides were straight and smooth. Sleek. The darkness had to be playing tricks on him, because he could have sworn it was headed right for them.
A thunderous whoosh shook the air as it flew right over them. Sarah screamed, and they all fell to the ground. Hot air washed over them.
The object shot over the field to their left. Jake squinted to keep track of it. There was a massive boom as the object smashed into the forest, and a rumble began, as it pulverized one row of trees after another. Then, a second, duller boom followed, and a tremor shook the earth beneath their feet. The object had hit the ground. The rumbling continued, growing fainter and fainter, until it died away to nothing.
They stayed on the ground for another second. Jake slowly got up and helped Alex and Sarah to their feet.
“What was that?” Sarah asked.
Jake was staring at where the object had disappeared. Maybe it had been a spy plane. Or a satellite.
“Ith looked like a spathe-thip,” Alex said.
Jake glanced at him. Somehow, that didn’t sound too crazy.
“Do you think it was a…alie…” Sarah was too afraid to finish her question, but Jake understood.
“Guys, it’s not aliens,” he said. But he wasn’t so sure himself.
“Wha’ do we do?” Alex asked.
Jake turned back to where the ship had disappeared. “Stay here. I’ll check it out.”
“Jake, no,” Sarah said. “You need to fix the car, and we need to get out of here.”
Jake bristled. He didn’t want to admit he couldn’t fix it. “I wanna know what that was. And we’re stuck here anyway. ”
“Then we start walking back! Jake, it could be dangerous! Just fix the truck! Or let us leave!”
Jake was taken aback by the panic in her voice. He was about to give in and say they would start walking. Just then, an idea—really a stroke of genius—came to him. Something Sarah couldn’t argue against. “If it really was a ship, someone might have been inside, right? They might need help.” Sarah bit her lip. “I’ll go for a sec, come back, and then I’ll fix the truck and we’ll go home. All right?”
Sarah didn’t immediately answer. “We’re coming with you,” she finally said. Alex spun to her in surprise.
“That’s crazy,” Jake said. “Just wait here.”
“No!” Sarah said. “We’re not waiting here alone.”
Jake glanced between them. He didn’t want them coming. But leaving them behind on a deserted country road didn’t sound too smart either. “Alex, you’ll be okay coming?”
Alex hesitated. “I’ be fine.”
Jake felt bad for asking. Alex never complained or asked for special treatment, even if he possibly needed it.
Before they left, Jake turned on the truck’s headlights, so they’d have an easy way to find it when they came back. He also checked his cell phone, a privilege afforded him because he worked at the shop. No reception.
He led them off the road and into the field. Prickly, knee-high grass wrapped around their legs and tugged on their clothes, as if trying to hold them back. After only a few steps, Jake glanced over his shoulder at the truck. It looked so far away. He thought about turning back, but he would still need to fix the engine, and he couldn’t face that right now.
They reached the edge of the forest a few minutes later. Jake stopped to examine the circular hole the object had punched through the trees. The ones directly in its path had been decapitated about fifteen feet above the ground, leaving jagged, smoking stumps. Off to the sides, the trees had massive gashes in their trunks, and there were branches strewn all over the ground.
“Stay close,” Jake said.
A pall had settled over the forest. It was pitch black and utterly silent. A line of beheaded trees marked the way forward. Jake, Alex, and Sarah pushed on, picking their way through debris and vegetation. They stumbled more than once, and their shoes produced a grating chorus of crunches and crackles, squishes and swishes that could probably be heard for miles.
Forty yards in, they came upon a deep trench. It was twenty-feet wide and littered with metal shards and glowing embers. Rather than walking through it, Jake steered them to the left. As they advanced, the air grew hot and ashy, and a soft hiss floated around them. The trench kept going deeper and deeper into the forest.
Then, Jake saw it. A huge mound with hard edges at the end of the trench. Jake ground to a halt, and Alex accidentally walked into him from behind. Both his friends sucked in their breath when they saw it. The object was larger than an eighteen-wheeler and wedged against several trees that had been partially knocked over. Nothing was on fire, but the entire crash site was covered by an ominous haze.
Jake turned to his friends. Sarah was trembling, and Alex was trying to look brave, but his face was ashen. “Stay here,” Jake whispered.
He approached on tiptoe and slowly brought the flashlight up. The light bounced off metal. This was not a meteorite.
He let his flashlight roam over the object. It was shaped like a massive cone, with a molded point at the front that widened to a flat base fifteen-feet-wide at the stern. Rows of straight fins, which swept forward rather than backward, covered the surface and got progressively smaller as they approached the bow, making the object look like a weirdly shaped porcupine. Many of the fins near the bottom had been damaged or shorn clean off during the crash. Jake had never seen anything like it, even in pictures. Was it a ship? A missile? Jake hesitated. Was this thing about to blow up?
Jake cursed and jumped away. It took him a second to realize he was still in one piece. Looking back, he saw a portion of the hull swinging open near the nose. A loud beeping was coming from inside.
Sarah and Alex were slowly making their way to him.
“Hold on!” He still wasn’t sure this thing wasn’t a bomb.
“Do you hear that?” Sarah asked, as they reached him.
“Yes, I—” Jake stopped. The beeping had shut off. “Get back!”
Jake whirled around, and Sarah grabbed his arm. The sound had come from the front of the object. A hand appeared and slumped over the lip of the ship. It looked human. In the flashlight’s beam, Jake saw dark smudges that could only be blood.
He spun to Alex and Sarah. “Get back now!” Without waiting to see if they listened, he crept forward until he was only a few feet away from the ship. From here, he could see every scratch and dent in the hull. Acrid fumes filled his nostrils.
“Hello?” he called out softly. “Hello?”
The hand didn’t move.
Jake gave it a wide berth as he reached the cockpit. The beam of his flashlight was shaking. With a deep breath, he pointed his light into the ship.
There was a man inside. He was old, with long gray hair, a gray beard, and wrinkles on his forehead. He was wearing a maroon robe that was open in the front, revealing a black skin-suit with a blue sheen beneath. His right arm was clutching his belly, and he was slumped over in his seat.
“Hello?” Jake repeated a little louder. Still nothing.
Cautiously, he reached out and tapped the man’s hand, doing his best to avoid the blood. The man was a giant! With their hands right next to each other, Jake realized that the pilot’s fingers were twice as long as his whole hand. He was too scrunched over for Jake to tell how tall he was, but he had to be at least eight feet tall. Jake swung his flashlight in Alex and Sarah’s direction. They were standing by the stern of the ship. “Don’t move,” he whispered.
He turned back to the injured pilot. He wasn’t sure he should try waking him up. But the alternative was walking away—and probably letting him die. “Can you hear me!” he yelled. “You’re hurt!”
He got no response, and he didn’t want to get any closer. He grabbed a twig and pressed it into the giant’s hand, hard enough to hurt. “Hey!”
It worked. The giant’s eyes opened a crack. Slowly, he raised his head and looked around his cockpit. He seemed surprised to be alive. He grew still when he noticed a trembling circle of light on his chest—the beam from Jake’s flashlight. Slowly, he turned in Jake’s direction. He squinted, before the trace of a smile appeared on his face. “Weten…” he said. His voice was weak but kind.
“You’re hurt,” Jake said. “We can get hel—”
With the smallest gesture, the giant stopped Jake. He seemed in no hurry. But he was noticeably pale and taking fast, shallow breaths. He grimaced and adjusted himself so he could cradle his stomach with his left arm. Jake dared a look. His lap was covered in blood.
“I don't understand.”
The old giant chuckled. He seemed about to say something else but instead looked to the side, almost in contemplation.
Jake spun around to find Alex and Sarah standing next to him. They were staring wide-eyed at the gargantuan pilot.
“What are you doing here?”
“He’s bleeding,” Sarah said.
“You’re bleeding!” Sarah said to the giant. She started hastily taking off her sweater to use as a bandage, but the old giant raised his hand, telling her there was no need. Tears appeared in Sarah’s eyes. The giant sighed and closed his eyes.
“Where di’ he come fro’?” Alex asked quietly.
No one answered. Instead, the pilot began speaking in a voice so soft he could have been talking to himself. “Fedale…wiyu…wos…”
“We don't understand you,” Jake said.
As if he understood, the giant stopped speaking and locked eyes with Jake. Jake wasn’t ready for that penetrating gaze. He felt a knot in his stomach.
A gentle smile appeared on the giant’s face, and he weakly raised a finger. “Kotar,” he whispered, rolling the “r.”
“Kotar,” Jake repeated, unable to mimic the sound. Alex and Sarah also said the word.
“Kotar,” the pilot repeated. He put up a second finger. “Iyon.”
“Iyon. Kotar. Iyon.”
“Kotar. Iyon.” Every word seemed to drain a little more of the giant’s strength.
He tried retrieving something from inside his robe, but he winced in pain and gave up. Jake reached over to help, and his fingers grazed the top of a boxlike object. He pulled it out to discover he was holding a black book. It was the size of a lab manual, twice as thick, with gold pages—and drops of blood on the cover. He wiped them away and offered the book to the giant.
“Tiometwol,” the giant whispered, gesturing for Jake to keep it.
Jake opened it to a random place in the middle. Next to him, Alex and Sarah craned their necks to get a better look. The page was covered in indecipherable handwritten symbols arranged in columns. Jake flipped to other pages but it was more of the same.
“Fedale,” the giant gasped. His voice sounded urgent. He gestured for Alex and Sarah to come closer and then reached for the edge of the cockpit. He laughed when his arm missed and fell back into his lap.
“Take this,” Jake said, handing the heavy book to Sarah. He grabbed the giant’s arm. It was cold, weighed a ton, and was covered in blood. Jake pulled with all his strength and managed to get the giant’s hand close enough to grip the wall of the ship. The giant’s skin felt so delicate Jake was amazed he didn’t tear through.
“Bandefiwos.” The way the giant said it, Jake suspected he didn’t want him to let go. “Tilere,” the giant added, speaking to Alex and Sarah.
The two looked at each other before cautiously approaching. Alex put his hands on Jake’s, and Sarah tried putting a hand on Alex’s but lost her grip on the book.
“Anie,” the giant said to Alex, gesturing with his head to the side. “Kanyidebehwer,” he said to Sarah, gesturing to the book and then down.
Sarah gently placed the book on the ground. Alex put his hands next to Jake’s, and Sarah put her hands next to his. Their hands were now in a line, all in direct contact with the giant. Without warning, he used the last bit of his strength to throw his other hand on top of theirs, sandwiching them in place. His large hand covered all of theirs, and the weight hurt, but they didn’t complain.
Nothing was said after that. The old giant’s eyes closed and his breathing grew fainter. For another second, they were perfectly still…
As a last breath left his body, they knew the end had come. The giant had died. In silence, they gazed upon him. They had no idea who he was, where he had come from, or why he was here. Yet, he had seemed remarkably noble.
“I feel something,” Sarah said, breaking the silence.
Jake became aware of it too. His hands, encased by the giant’s, were tingling. It didn’t hurt, but…
“Get your hands out,” Jake said.
“But—” Sarah began.
“Do it now!”
He tried pulling out his hands, only to discover he was stuck. The giant’s hands seemed to have grown even heavier than before. Alex and Sarah couldn’t free themselves either.
“What’s going on!” Jake strained to get out.
Suddenly, the tingling stopped, and they simultaneously whipped their hands out. Jake had been pulling so hard he almost fell.
“What was that?” Sarah asked.
Jake looked at his hands. They looked the same as before. “I don’t know…but we need to get going.”
Sarah picked the book off the ground and held it tightly in her arms.
“Wha’ abouth him?” Alex asked. “We jus’ leave him?”
“There’s nothing we can do,” Jake said. “He’s too big to pull out.”
“Who was he?” Sarah asked quietly. Her eyes wouldn’t leave the giant’s face.
Jake shook his head. “I don’t know. Come on, let’s go.” He still had to fix the truck.
They started heading back, but at the stern of the ship, Sarah stopped. “Look.”
Jake aimed the flashlight at where she was pointing. In the hull were two deep holes with blackened edges that he hadn’t seen before. He didn’t understand how the crash had caused them. Then, another possibility dawned on him. Maybe they were blast holes. From someone firing on the ship.