"Yeah, I saw it. I was just heading out to check it out. ... Yeah, there's... ... Yeah. ... Listen, this is all pie in the sky until we get a look at the situation. Unless you want to round up a chopper to fly someone there to check it out, I better get going."
Dan put the discoloured old wireless handset back on the charger cradle and pinched the bridge of his nose. He kneaded the ridge of flesh between thumb and forefinger, as if trying to squeeze out the annoyance of the phone conversation. You can only cut back on field personnel and equipment so far before it becomes a joke, and the people clinging to their jobs at the district office seemed to need to ignore that in order to get through their days. Dan delicately perched his old forest service hat on his head and snatched up a radio as he walked out of the peeling shack that was the local field office. He was forced to carry the radio by regulation, even though the only other radio he was likely to be able to contact would be the set in the empty office he was locking up. The old hat, on the other hand, had dutifully kept sun out of his eyes and rain off his head for years, and Dan tended to appreciate things that were useful.
The Ford pickup started after a just-long-enough moment of cranking to remind Dan that it too wasn't exactly brand new. Dan found himself smirking, thinking about putting some dramatic new scratches in the thing on his way to check out the meteorite in the off-chance that the eyesore of a truck might get included in some photographs for a local paper. A little edge of public humiliation for the district forest office for the meagreness of the budget would do Dan's inner child some good. OK, so he wasn't entirely consistent with his appreciation of useful things, but hey, it was only a Ford.
Right, the meteorite. Dan had mostly just seen the contrail of it streaking Earthward while he was driving to the field office. He really only delayed heading up the mountain to check on the impact site so he could grab one of the better topographic maps, but the damn phone caught him. Did they really think they needed to explain the possibility of a fire hazard? Damn pencil pushers.
"Easy Dan, take it easy." He told himself that they're trapped in the same system he was, and it wouldn't do much good to lose control of the truck on this gravel road. He was going a little too fast, and potholes were causing the truck to bounce unpleasantly, and he eased off the throttle as he calmed himself down. When he turned onto the appropriate old logging road, Dan stopped, hopped out to lock the front hubs, and dragged the transfer case into four-wheel-drive before continuing. Soon he was bouncing along over rocks and washouts, and feeling much better. Being out in the middle of nowhere had a certain cheering effect on Dan. Plus, checking out a meteorite was just plain cool, because it was so out of the ordinary.
Dan was trying to peek through the trees, to see if there was any smoke or anything yet, and so didn't spot the person crawling along the logging road until he got close enough to curse with surprise as he stood on the brakes and skidded to a stop a couple meters away. After shifting the Ford into park and kicking the park brake, Dan jumped out of the truck and hurried over to the man. "What's wrong, sir?" The man was moving jerkily, painfully, with spasmodic lurches in each limb in turn in a pathetic crawl. His head craned back into a vertebrae-creaking position and he looked at Dan with a face that was a hideous mask of anguish. Dan almost thought he recognized the person, but it was really hard to tell with all the contortions and blemishes. Blood oozed from the man's mouth, and his face was writhing with efforts even though the eyes remained fixed.
"Sir, what happened? How are you hurt?" Dan carefully tried to hoist the person to his feet by looping an arm under his right shoulder. While he looked at the poor man's face for an answer, he could see that not only was the blood dribbling from his mouth because he was biting his own tongue, but also that the man's jaw muscles were straining with the effort. The eyes watched Dan coldly, yet the rest of the man's face squirmed as if trying to speak. Or scream.
The man seemed strong enough to support his own weight, but he had no balance whatsoever. Dan was completely at a loss as to what could cause such a malady, and could only think to try to get the man to some medical help. So he escorted the man to the passenger seat of the truck, in a clumsy dance with the poor man seeming to randomly flail and try to clutch at Dan. "Don't worry, sir. We'll get you to a doctor. OUCH! What the hell?!"
Some sort of thorny leech was enthusiastically trying to burrow into Dan's wrist. He smacked it off with a reflexive disgusted gesture. "Never seen one of those before." He inspected the bite, a little aghast at how much skin it had torn away. Hell, it even looked like it had made some headway through his tendons. Dan wrapped his left hand around his bleeding wrist, slammed the passenger door closed, and strode around to the driver's side. Dan hopped in and tugged his door closed, and looked over at his suffering passenger. "Did you see that thing? Real nasty looking." The man stared at him, slumped back on the vinyl covered bench seat, with tears running down his cheeks which were starting to show some truly awful-looking hives or something. "Never mind. Let's just get out of here. If you can, you should try to put on your seatbelt." Dan reached down to tug the parking brake release, then deftly dragged the gear selector to reverse.
There wasn't quite room to turn around on the logging road, so Dan just backed the Ford into the bush over a couple small logs, and used the 4-wheel-drive to scramble out again to head down the mountain. "Say, you didn't happen to see a meteor, did you?" The man was quiet, other than bumping around slightly due the jouncing of the truck. "That's actually why I'm up here. Saw a meteor streak down, meteorite actually since I think it hit the ground. Whups, sorry about that bump. Forest service got a bunch of phone calls from town about it too, sounds like. Our first concern is about possible forest fire hazard, of course. But, uh, seems to me like... whoa, little fast for that corner. Anyway, seems to me like there would be, you know, scientific interest. Plus, probably people would be keen to hear about it, so maybe newspapers and such."
Suddenly, the passenger lurched across bench seat to sprawl against Dan. As Dan tried to use his elbow to heave the shuddering man off of him, he could just hear a chorus of wet pops and plops. Glancing sideways, Dan could see that the "hives" on the man's face erupting, each one sending another thorny leech-like creature spurting on a splash of stringy slime to land on his cheek and neck. Dan yelled, swiping desperately at the creatures to dislodge them, and convulsively locking the brakes on the truck. As the Ford slid and slewed, Dan could feel some of the spiny slugs burrowing into his cheek and neck despite his desperate clawing, and started to feel the swarming biting mass of other barbed grubs surging along slime trails from the collapsed passenger into Dan's side and leg. Then the Ford's left front wheel slipped off the gravel road, and pitched the truck forcibly onto its side in the trees.
And the world went dark, abruptly quieting Dan's screaming.
When Dan regained consciousness, he was wedged under the oozing but unmoving form of the passenger, with sprouts of pain shooting all through him. After a moment of remembering where he was, Dan struggled unsuccessfully to escape the dead man's touch. Then he realized that he was anchored by his seat belt, and found the release, then squirmed to a standing position in the sideways cab with his head by the glove box. It was then that Dan saw that the inside of the Ford's cab was covered in hundreds of squirming crawling thorny leeches, each trailing a path of viscous slime. He kicked out the smashed windshield, and shoved himself out as he gave into his flight instinct. Once he had scrabbled away from the wrecked Ford, Dan's hands trembled as he took stock of himself.
Holes. Holes in his neck. A hole in his cheek. Holes through his shirt and pants that lead to holes in him. Holes all over him. Holes oozing, blood and slime. And the threads of pain were starting to feel less like fractures and bruises. With horror, he realized that he could see and feel painful lumps moving under his skin.
"A doctor. Gotta get to a doctor." With fear prickling the very fibre of his being, Dan began to run down the logging road towards the highway. Dan ran on ignoring the distinct sensation that he was creating blisters inside his heavy boots. He ran regardless of the wheezing pains in his chest, because he feared that they weren't just because he was out of breath. He ran with a dizzy buzzing headache screeching inside his skull that jarred his thoughts so badly that he had trouble thinking straight.
Hours later, Dan finally made it down to the pavement of the secondary highway, and had to stop with his hands braced against his knees as he vomited. It actually reassured him a little; there was no blood, and no squirming sharp-edged monsters. The fuzzy whining static of his headache was nearly unbearable now, making him feel like his teeth were vibrating. He looked around for a car, or anything he could possibly flag down for a ride into town. As luck would have it, he saw an approaching bus heading in the right direction, and he began to wave desperately to flag it down. The combination of Dan's desperate demeanour and his uniform were sufficient to convince the bus driver to stop, despite how dishevelled Dan actually was upon closer inspection.
The bus stopped, gave a squawk-hiss of pneumatics, and the door swung open with a tired sigh. Dan marched himself up the steps with a word of thanks on the tip of his tongue... But there was something wrong. He felt a queer compulsion to pivot his head and swivel his eyes to survey the few passengers on the inter-city coach. His gaze turned back to regard the concerned-looking driver, and he felt his arms begin to reach towards her throat.
No! For the brief moment that it took for Dan's vestiges of hope to evaporate, his arms trembled at his sides. Then his hands struck out and wrapped around the poor lady's windpipe and crushed it with a grisly strength that Dan wouldn't have guessed possible. Dan was momentarily stunned, while the driver clutched wretchedly at his arms and her eyes bulged. But then he could feel swellings of pain dotting around his arms, followed shortly by the sickening bursting of a dozen new tiny thorned leeches out of his flesh and charging down his forearms to bury themselves in her face and neck. "Oh God. Oh God! Oh God no!" Dan found that he couldn't even close his eyes, to prevent himself from watching; they were not under his control.
Without letting go of his frantic victim, Dan's head turned to gaze at the alarmed passengers in the bus that were leaning into the aisle so see what was going on. He wanted to warn them, to tell them to flee and to keep away from him. But as he thought it, his mouth yawned open, his tongue was stiffly thrust out, and his jaws clamped down on his tongue as an excruciating and effective gag. Somehow, feeling the alien control of his tongue slacken afterwards made it feel even worse.
Finally, the driver's struggling faded. Dan's hands released their grip, and he felt an urge to walk down the aisle of the bus. When he resisted, he legs began to awkwardly perambulate despite his will. The short journey down the first couple rows to the first passenger passed as an eternity of pain and confused misery for Dan. But when he found himself stopping and turning towards a young woman curled up against the window terrified, he was snapped out of his miserable reverie as she began screaming. Whatever it was that was driving Dan's body, it was not even slightly affected by her cries as he reached towards her. Again there was the painful stabs of new leeches bursting from out of his skin, this time his chest, and they wriggle-raced down his arms in anticipation the bridge being completed to the fresh victim's neck. The woman shrieked even louder and began kicking Dan in the stomach and legs, but it did not prevent his hands from latching around her throat and squeezing.
Dan was relieved when somebody finally hit him in the back of the head. The leeches making for the victim dropped off Dan's elbows and started burrowing into her chest and arm, and Dan found himself shaking her by the throat to dash her head against the window sill. Dan immediately felt a painful blow to his kidney, and he was driven to release the stunned victim and turn to face the assailant. It was a young tough that Dan thought he recognized as being a local named Joe. Joe deftly swept aside Dan's outflung arm, and drove another hard punch to the side of Dan's ribs. Dan reflexively gagged, yet was still helplessly driven to lunge bodily at Joe in an attempt to bear him down with sheer mass. Joe twisted in Dan's fumbling grasp, leaving him gripping an empty old leather jacket.
Joe eyed Dan darkly. "What the fuck, man?!"
Dan felt sharp pains swelling in his cheeks and along his neck, and found himself making another lunge at the wiry youngster. Joe swept the grappling arms aside and pounded a stunning blow to Dan's jaw. Inside Dan's head a wobbling pattern of lights floated, but the mind-eroding buzz faltered and he found that he could assert some control over his body. Dan focussed his eyes to see Joe cradling his hand and crushing a thorny leech with an angry oath. With blood bubbling from his lips and his ruined tongue causing a lisp, Dan begged. "Hith meh adden, Dzoe. En dza hed... Bleese."
Dan barely saw Joe's foot lash out towards his temple, and instead of prolonging his instant of freedom everything went dark again.
When Dan awoke this time, the buzzing was already there. His arms were stuck behind his back, and he found himself on the floor of the bus with his back to one of the seats, and every part of his body was in agony. Dan found himself grimly wishing that instead of just tying him up that Joe had killed him, to free him from this multiplicity of misery. This seemed to make the buzzing ripple.
No, it wasn't rippling. It was laughing. This realization brought a fresh chorus from the alien brain slug laugh track. His eyes were forced to focus on Joe up at the front of the bus, inexpertly driving into town. Then his eyes swept over another passenger ministering to the semi-conscious driver laid out on the floor at the front of the bus. With a mental shiver, he realized that he could feel some of the buzzing coming from her. More rippling buzz of malicious alien laughter. Finally, his eyes showed him several dozen faint bloody tracks of newborn thorny leeches crawling away from his agonized body, each registering a spark of static in his mind.
Dan felt no hope. A despair darker than he ever would have imagined possible swallowed him, and he finally understood how suicide could be contemplated. It was at this lowest possible ebb that the alien brain slugs gleefully struck at Dan's mind.
First, through a nightmare of images and sensation, they forced the knowledge of their plan to surge through the hospital to gather more hosts and breeding flesh. They even let him see how they used his mind's natural reactions to think of ways to stop them so that they could improve their plan, making his unwilling treachery complete. Keening misery of both body and mind piled on Dan's hopelessness for the entertainment of the invading tormentors.
Then they began eating his mind. Perhaps even physically. Dan could helplessly sense the luminous essence that lived between his memories and his deeds being unmade. A final, primal drive to exist burst out in a brilliant mental firework of fear. The malignant spectators buzzed their ooooh's and aaaah's in the crowded temple of Dan's mind as the flaring panic illuminated the fundamental architecture in stark contrasts and vivid detail.
And so it was that Dan came to finally understand himself completely, just before he faded away.