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The Coyote and the Strange Thing

PG

The sun makes the air hazy in those places. Nothing lives there but the toughest. Over the crags a coyote looks on, tongue panting in the arid heat. The land ahead holds no water, just scant brush and rock, and death, and the coyote ambles on, among the mesquite flats. There is a carcass of a jackrabbit, but the meat has been picked dry. The coyote licks the bone and scratches the back of her head with her hind leg.

There is a movement in the skies. Above, something blows cool air through the desert, and a rumbling causes a mass of dust and sand to wave over the coyote. She darts away, and hangs low, among the bleached rocks up on the hill.

The thing is a dull green, now covered in dust, and it is a perfect sphere. A single light shines through its center, blinking red, and six long tubes burst out of the sides of the sphere, crashing into the ground with metallic claws. In the center, a layer of alloy opens to reveal a single dull red eye with a soulless yellow pupil. Watching. The sphere walks on its six tubes, scanning the desert. It finds the carcass and looks at it; its yellow eye pulsates.

The coyote looks on, ears down, shoulders pressed. She smells the thing, but it is unknown to her.

The sphere moves across the flats, and its tube-claws break into the hard dirt, and it looks at a mesquite. The mesquite is dry and brown, and the strange thing looks at it at all angles, for a good while. The coyote crawls near; if this new thing can be eaten there is little indication, so she does nothing. It is likely dangerous, but her hunger and starvation keep her near.

A canyon mouse darts out from below the mesquite and runs across under the sphere. It reacts, running, fast, its pulsing red eye following the mouse, and a quick tube reaches out and encapsulates it in a thin bubble. The mouse is trapped. The red eye looks at it for a long time. The sun is moved by the time it is finished.

The coyote has not moved, and she is no longer panting. She has forgotten she needs to. She follows the sphere, and sees it release the canyon mouse which scurries among salt flats and disappears in the distance. The coyote rustles against a yucca, and the sphere turns and comes running.

The sphere looks at the coyote, who looks back. They match eyes - the coyote tries to dominate it with her gaze, but the unblinking light is too intense, and she looks away. She cedes hierarchy to the sphere. The sphere examines the coyote from all sides. When it tries to prod her with a tube, she yelps and backs away, and scurries back. Day passes over the valley. The sphere passes through the upper salt flats into a place where no life exists. The coyote has to hang back - the land is too hot here, the sand too burning, the salt too poisonous, the water too scarce - but she watches from the shade of a rock.

The sphere examines the ground, and stays in the lower flats. There is nothing here, and plants cannot grow in this dead land. It is wasteland - and nothing but rocks and hot merciless wind foster here. There is a bleached skeleton that holds no marrow.

The sphere remains for three days, scouting the valley. It examines birds, the occasional snake - and usually, the coyote follows after. The coyote hunts the squirrel and breaks its neck in her teeth and drinks her blood, her marrow, and the sphere watches on. Always the eye, pulsing, dull, never emitting a single sound. The coyote eats in silence.

Now she watches, lying in the shade, as the sphere seems to do nothing. In fact, it retracts those six undulating tubes, and it remains that featureless green - except, of course, for the eye.

The eye takes one final look at the coyote, and blinks to a colorless black. Alloy seeps over the eye, as if it were never there, and as always it says nothing. A cricket chirps. Then, the sphere begins to rotate, slowly, at first, but then faster, and faster, and faster, until all the dust and salt and dirt and sand of the desert whirls around it, and the coyote yelps and climbs a rock and the sphere keeps turning and turning until it begins to hover over the ground. It ignites. There is a flash of sharp red, and it explodes off into the sky. Soon it is gone.

After the dust settles, the coyote sniffs where the sphere once was. She looks up and howls. Though she is just a coyote, a feeling of some loneliness and distance passes through her. That night, she does not eat. She looks up at the stars, and she watches. But nothing ever comes again.