A Low Profile - Fiction - By Michael Palisano - The-Laser.com









In Memory
Sean Pettibone




A Low Profile (part two)

There was another sharp bend, but the path ahead came into view immediately once I crossed the second, twisting corner. There was a long narrow path scraping along the embankment, rolling through and under a tangle of brush and thick, imposing trees. That led to a narrow silver steel walkway that pointed us towards another area. It seemed as cold and flat as the place where we’d just left, and there didn’t look it led to anything. It was like a path to nothing, there wasn’t anything there. The emptiness seemed to stretch on for miles with no landmarks or buildings. She started going on one of them and its steps seemed to reflect her movement, clanging and shaking as she walked. I watched her carefully maneuver through their uneven steps and reluctantly followed, carefully easing myself onto the bridge one step at a time. It felt shaky and uneven and felt like it might collapse at any moment if I stood in one place too long. The cold was unrelenting, I could feel it going right through me, but I had no choice. There were no alternatives to freezing out there, with no escape or shelter visible as the cold, flat land stretched out to the horizon on all sides.

I had to keep going and would follow her, not worrying about where we’d end up. It took some time before we made significant progress, but it the journey slowly unfolded. As we walked further, it got easier as the surface began to incline. The downward path was a relief, making for a downward path that allowed us to move much faster. At the same time, our position shifted. We had gone far enough that the moon was sitting behind us, lighting the icy surface ahead. After what could have been an hour of walking, we reached a kind of partition where the ground changed from steel to concrete and felt more stable and grounded. She took a pause, turned around, and looked towards my direction, and waved at me, it was safe to join her. We surveyed the icy expanse for a few minutes while she decided what to do next. I was cold and tired at that point but knew I couldn’t give up. I looked above and watched the stars, now clearly visible. They seemed to rest for a moment, no longer battling for position in the sky.

A few minutes of rest was a welcome development, it had been an intense few hours, draining some of my energy. I took the time to think about things and remembered some of our previous encounters. I closed my eyes and we were dancing on a similar sheet of ice once more. I held out my arms and started waving them around, like I had on that night. When I opened my eyes, she was looking at me like I was crazy. I moved my shoulders and tried to mimic my old moves. It seemed to bring it back to her again and she gave me short, tentative smile. She remembered, but it felt so long ago at that moment. It was still cold and I felt the frigid air once again when I stood up. I looked around and spotted something strange in the outer distance, a strange object seemed to be poking out of the ice, a strange antenna with twisted arms. It resembled a tree branch. I couldn’t be sure at first what it was, but it definitely stood out. I pointed it out to her and she quickly ran towards it, I tried to follow but had to go slower on the slippery ice.

She tracked towards it and arrived about a minute before I did. When I caught up, she was already examining it. It seemed old but strong, sturdy and completely mysterious to what it did. I had no idea what was it doing out there. There seemed be nothing surrounding it, no real reason for its placement. On the other hand, she seemed happy to have located it. She told me that she was relieved that it was in exactly where she expected it to be. Moving closer, she began to adjust and fiddle with the device. She began moving its wires out of the way, reducing its clutter and moving its arms in different directions. It was a seemingly deliberate task that she was able to perform while carefully avoiding coming into contact with its trunk. As I moved closer, it gave off a buzzing and humming, giving off some kind of weird noise that seemed to be broadcasting its location, and by extension, our presence there.

She reached inside her bag and remaining doubts and fears quickly subsided. I realized she knew what she was doing and what was happening. I was relieved and suddenly curious when she took out her small laser powered machine, holding it in the air triumphantly. I thought she would quickly mark out a portal and engineer a quick escape for us, but she surprised me by doing something unexpected. Instead of merely pushing its buttons, she pulled its receiving end out and extended it towards the antenna. Unfolding its control panel, she punched in a series of buttons and it began to make a strange sound. It took a moment to warm up, but I could see it begin to glow and run at a higher speed, churning out noises that gradually increased in length and intensity. I wondered what functions she was going to show me.

After a few minutes, it released its accumulated energy in a sudden burst. This built up and created a flickering vision that ultimately built intensity until there was a steady beam of light. It stabilized and she was able to point it, and the buttons began to glow, their strange symbols lot up. I deciphered them quickly once they became visible as they began to shine. She moved her fingers across the buttons and placed it on the ground. In that position, it seemed to change and become a beacon. It pulsed and wavered, brightening the surroundings instantly as it pointed towards the clouds and stars in the distance. She moved back towards it to adjust the intensity and angles. She pulled it around aimed it in another direction, and it began to push energy straight above us. It lit the sky reaching above into the far reaches of the night. The light looked like it went all the way to the moon, and it shone radiantly for several minutes, giving us a steady accompaniment. She looked at me and asked if I wanted to try it out for a little while. I decided not to take any chances and held out my hands against my body, telling her I wasn’t ready. She tried to convince me that there was nothing I could do to mess it up. I nodded my head no, and after a few minutes she finally persuaded me to have it for awhile I decided that I would have to face up to the unexpected task, whether I was ready or not. She thrust it into my hands and it felt heavier than it looked. I wasn’t able to keep it steady at first and it gave off some strong bumps when it lost its balance. This made the beam unstable as well and it began to waver. She warned me that I had to be careful not to drop or damage it. I struggled to keep it under control and it seemed to be too large for me at first, but I was determined to prove I could handle it.

After a few minutes, I was able to keep it level and it began to respond to my movements, Slowly, I figured out how to adjust its speed, volume and intensity. I began to manipulate it along the edges, making minor changes, but nothing that couldn’t be quickly switched back it things went out of alignment. I took a few steps back and looked up, scanning the skies for some point I wanted to illuminate. It was mostly black and the unfamiliar constellations gave me little to go on. I decided to find an unusual cluster and see what would happen. I focused its energy on that odd part of the sky, which caused the beam to change to a bright red color unexpectedly. The machine began to shake and gave off a series of urgent beeps. I quickly crossed back and moved the beam back towards a more neutral section. I looked at her to see if she knew what happened. She was puzzled and it seemed and she couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, either.

Quickly figuring out that I had taken on more than I could handle, she took it back from me. I reluctantly had to agree that it was the right thing to do. She adjusted its height and turned its dials some more until the beams of light seemed to have stabilized. They resumed a steady, strong glow under her guidance. She pointed it towards a lower quadrant of the sky, moving its focus to a section just above the far horizon. There seemed to be a confluence after it reached its position. I heard a distant rumble and then I noticed sparks and flashes coming out the sky. These increased in speed and intensity until the entire sky began to light up. The shafts of white and yellow streaks swirled above us, building outward until it they had overtaken the night completely. She held onto the device and ran its buttons again, configuring its position to a higher position. The beam of light changed to yellow and seemed like was absorbing energy from the sky. It looked like it was taking a deep drink, drawing a rejuvenating power from the swarming streaks of light above. The colors suddenly brightened and a sudden flash of white exploded into the night, blinding us without warning.

I took a step back and closed my eyes, waited for it to subside. When I came to, I saw that she had hidden the device, and taken shelter on the other side of the antenna, the beacon had become a shelter. I rushed back and stood behind her, nervously anticipating what it might have awakened. Everything was eerily still for a moment, I couldn’t even hear myself breathing. She stood still and crouched downward, and I quickly followed her lead. We hid behind the antenna for a few minutes, until a faint sound rolled in the distance. At first, it was so far away that I couldn’t make out what it might be coming from. As we sat there aside one another, things became unsteady. Something was causing the ground to rumble. It gradually came closer towards our position, increasing in speed and volume until it was so loud I couldn’t hear her yelling at me. It drew ever closer and I heard what sounded like large engines roaring across the expanse of tundra. I glanced beyond the antenna for a moment and it looked like something was driving directly towards us at a high rate. I hid back behind her once more and suddenly, there was another sudden burst of light. This time it came from the surface as the machine turned its lights towards us. It lit everything up like it was
noon, revealing our position for anyone and anything to see. After spending our night largely cloaked in darkness, there were no shadows to hide behind.

We held our breath as the vehicle stormed over the icy surface, nothing impeding its progress. It came closer in a flash. My instincts told me to run away and get out of danger. I began to panic as it quickly approached our position. Its engine seemed to double in ferocity with each second, until it was screaming into the night. She stood there and surprised me. She looked calm, almost completely at ease with the dangerous situation. She looked over towards me and put her hands out, telling me to stay in place, not moving was the safest thing we could do. She was serene and calm, standing pat. The ground began to shake and it wasn’t stopping for anything. Then something unexpected happened, she rose from behind the antenna as it careened towards us and stood with her arms crossed. She stood unflinching as it came crashing right towards us. As I saw the mysterious vehicles moving towards us, I realized how it was able to move so quickly. There was no friction with its long, sharp rails digging into the ground. There was nothing to stop it and it continued to scream towards us, moving at an unstoppable pace. I watched her standing steadfast and worried that she was making a terrible mistake. Her strange calmness wasn’t reassuring and only increased my apprehension.

I wondered what she had planned. I was prepared to dive out of the path if she miscalculated. I’d have to make an instant decision which direction to go in, but thought I could make it in time. Before I knew it, the vehicle was a few dozen feet from us, and there would be no time to react, there was nothing we could do. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best, hoping it would somehow spot us and turn away. I heard its engine screaming ever louder, the ground under my feet rumbled and shook. I almost ran, but in a split second, I remembered what I learned during the last test and decided to stand in place, and not budge. I wasn’t as brave as she was and had to close my eyes. I stood there holding my breath and tried to stay calm, its engine grew louder until it was almost right on top of us. It was unrelenting, aggressive. Nothing would stand in its way, it was screaming, already poised for an attack. I wasn’t expecting this and didn’t know how to respond to its increasing threat.

I felt my heart stop and heard a loud crashing noise. I remained standing in place as a shockwave shook the ground. It seemed to encounter a barrier in its path that caused it to come to a sudden stop. I heard its engines screech and suddenly cut out. The vehicle sounded like it was skidding and had reversed into a long stall. I heard its gears grinding and its engine seemed like it was shorting out. It seemed like it was directly in front of us, I could smell the burning metal of its engine, but I stood in place. I heard more crashes and bangs, as the vehicle swung towards us then stopped at just the right moment. It came to a stop and began to shift into a down cycle. I waited for some noise or signal from her that she was safe. Throughout all of this, I kept my eyes closed and couldn’t see where she was. The silence that followed was terrifying. I worried that something terrible had occurred. For a few moments, I was afraid to see what was happening. The ground had stopped shaking and there was only a low rustling sound from the engine, still running at a lower hum, the ground was shaking but not with the same intensity. Nervously, I lifted my eyes, looked around and saw something unexpected.

She was standing in the same place, completely unmoved by the noises and actions. The vehicle seemed to have flooded its brakes and skidded, stopping short of our position by only a few inches. It didn’t seem to have left any tracks behind it, and nothing on its surface looked damaged or even scratched. It had stopped short and was idling, directly in front of the antenna, parked in its place at an angle. I waited nervously, keeping a safe distance for a moment to make sure it had stopped, and carefully walked towards it. Its shiny metal surface reflected the stars and it had a group of distinct symbols painted on it, most of which I recognized immediately. I felt a sudden sense of relief – it wasn’t attacking us after all.

It had come to complete stop and as I looked it over, my perceptions began to change. I looked at its long metallic skis underneath. They seemed steely and sharp, their edges unblemished despite the commotion they had created. It sat benevolently at rest, though I didn’t realize at the time where it had come from, I had a good idea of who had alerted it to our presence. I didn’t know who or what our rescuer was. I wondered if anybody else might have been out there, watching us the entire time. I walked closer but couldn’t see who was driving it. The front cabin was sealed shut and while there was a door, it wouldn’t open. I looked closer at its front above the engine, but any one there was hiding behind an opaque window. I decided not to ask too many questions and moved towards the back. An attached back section swung behind on its rails, and its grey surface unfolded in partitions that resembled an ancient carryover. They seemed to blow in the wind, like large parachutes, extending up into the sky, catching the wind at the surface to slow and steady it quickly.

She emerged from the other side and towards me, walking quickly and looking things over. The back parachutes began to retract as she walked closer towards the back. I was surprised by how calm she remained, seemingly unafraid, or unaware of the close call. She closed her small machine up and it put back inside her bag. I heard a loud thump followed by a quick snap. I watched as a door towards the back of the vehicle slid open. She walked inside and motioned me to join her. It was still cold and there was no other nearby shelter. I once again followed her and took my seat. The engines were fluttering back to life and began to roar loudly. I quickly strapped my belt on and was pushed backwards into the seat when it screamed forward, venturing fearlessly as it propelled us towards the horizon. It had been a long night but, when I looked at her, she somehow realized what we had done, accidentally or not. We knew our journey was just beginning.

- Michael Palisano