First Monday Free Fiction: The Sphere That Ate the Mississippi Delta

Southern MonstersWelcome to the July 2021 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

Since I’m currently in the middle of the 2021 July Short Story Challenge, here is a cosmic horror story that was one of the stories written during the 2016 July Short Story Challenge. It’s called “The Sphere That Ate the Mississippi Delta” and it may be found in the collection Southern Monsters.

So follow our narrator, an astronomer from Tulane University, as he faces…

The Sphere That Ate the Mississippi Delta

It all started in early March, just after Mardi Gras, when a streak of light appeared in the night sky over the Mississippi River Delta. Sheriff’s departments from Galveston to Mobile were inundated with reports of everything from UFO sightings via World War Three to angels, demons and the rapture.

But I was an astronomer, a man of science and reason in a part of the country all too often beset by irrationality. I’d clawed my way up from the Lower Ninth Ward all the way to Tulane, a local boy done good. And so I immediately recognised that the strange phenomenon that lit up the Southern sky was a meteorite, a meteorite that had landed somewhere in the delta. My calculations could even pinpoint the meteorite’s landing place with fair accuracy, estimates that were bolstered by eyewitness reports from fishermen who claimed to have seen a ball of fire fall from the sky near Delacroix Island.

The next day, three geology students from Tulane University set out in a small boat to locate and secure the meteorite for the University’s collection. They were never heard from again, just vanished without a trace. At first, no one was overly worried about that. A tragedy, for sure, but hardly unexpected. After all, the bayous were treacherous, the alligators perpetually hungry and the students had been inexperienced, three boys from the Midwest who’d probably never even seen a boat before, much less steered one.

So the university mourned the three lives lost, the dean of the geology department mourned the loss of a valuable addition to his meteorite collection and I mourned the chance to have my calculations proven right. But otherwise, we all went on with our lives.

Two weeks later, a tiny article in the local part of Times-Picayune caught my eye. A fishing boat had gone missing in St. Bernard Parish, near Delacroix Island. I didn’t think much about it — just another pointless tragedy — and promptly forgot about it.

But then, the following week, there was another article in the local section of Times-Picayune. A fisherman from Shell Beach had gone missing. His wife said that he’d gone crab fishing at Delacroix Island.

Then, two weeks later, another boat went missing, this time a speedboat carrying three young never-do-wells from Wood Lake. And once again, the boat had last been spotted near Delacroix Island. The three boys had been known troublemakers, drinking and driving, drinking and boating, all combined with weed and meth. It was only a matter of time before something happened, the locals said.

It was at this moment, when I read the article about the three missing boys from Wood Lake, that something clicked inside my head. Of course, boats went missing on the delta all the time, for any number of reasons. But four boats in six weeks? And all near Delacroix Island?

Of course, it might all be coincidence. The geology students had been inexperienced and really had no business being in a boat on the river all on their own in the first place. And the boys from Wood Lake had been known drinkers with a drug habit. So yes, their disappearances might have been a tragic accident. But the fishermen had been experienced and knew the delta like the back of their hands. Sure, fishing was a dangerous profession and deaths were common. But fishing boats rarely vanished without a trace. And what were the odds that all of these tragic accidents would happen in such a short span of time and all near the same small island? The very island where the meteorite had come down.

So I decided to investigate further. I drove down to St. Bernard Parish myself — no, not to head for Delacroix Island, I wasn’t that stupid. Instead, I went to the office of the local newspaper, the St. Bernard Voice, and asked to see their archives.

I found a lot more information about the missing fishermen, all highly experienced skippers who’d been fishing on the delta for decades. I found more information about the three missing boys — troublemakers, yes, but also the sons of local fishermen who knew their way around a boat. I found information on the missing students — though nothing I hadn’t heard yet at Tulane. I even found information about the meteorite, eyewitness accounts about a fiery ball straight out of hell that had fallen into the river near Delacroix Island.

But I found even more. For the four missing boats and their crews weren’t the only ones who’d gone missing in St. Bernard Parish of late. There had also been a wave of disappearances of pets — dogs and cats mostly, but also backyard chickens — all attributed to alligators, though some also suspected pet snatchers at work. In Meraux, a man had reported his wife missing, after she hadn’t returned from a visit to her parents on Delacroix Island. No foul play was suspected, it was believed she’d run off with a lover. And in Reggio, an elderly man with dementia had gone missing, believed to have fallen into the bayou.

There were other reports as well. An oyster bank had suddenly died off to much hue and cry from the local fishermen; the cause was believed to be pollution. Fishermen said they’d seen bubbles rise from the water near Delacroix Island. Others reported seeing strange lights, will-o-the-wisps, dancing above the bayou at night. And one fisherman, a fellow by the name of John Letourneur, claimed that he had spotted a black blob under the surface of the water, believed to be a massive oil clump left over from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

It might still all be coincidence. But the coincidences were really piling up by now. And they were all centered on one place: Delacroix Island.

So I finally did what I should have done in the first place. I went out to Delacroix Island myself. And unlike those unfortunate three geology students, I hired one of the most experienced fishermen of St. Bernard Parish to take me there, the very John Letourneur who’d claimed to have spotted the oil blob.

I asked him to take me to the exact spot where he had seen the oil clump. But in the end, that turned out not to be necessary, for the object that Letourneur had seen was easy enough to spot. And it definitely wasn’t an oil clump.

It was about the size of a house, a smooth sphere that rose from the water, its surface a glossy black. The meteorite, I was certain, only that it looked like no meteorite I had ever seen. It was also, so John Letourneur assured me, a lot bigger than the first time he’d seen it.

“God in Heaven,” John exclaimed and promptly crossed himself, “What is it?”

“I have no idea,” I whispered, and though I was a lapsed Catholic, I mirrored his gesture.

Of course, I longed to investigate further, but neither John nor I were stupid enough to go anywhere near the sphere. After all, it might well be connected to the disappearance of thirteen people and heaven knew how many pets. So we returned to make our reports, John to the local sheriff department and I to the university.

The investigation into the nature of the sphere was mounted by the geology department of Tulane. Everybody was there, the dean and his entire faculty, down to the last adjunct, the sheriff and his deputies, the State Police, a preacher who talked of the end times, and reporters from the St. Bernard Voice and the Times-Picayune.

The dean himself approached the sphere to take a sample. “It is hard…” he reported, “…smooth like… — arrgh!”

That was the last we ever heard of him, because the sphere suddenly swallowed him, just sucked him in. In the confusion that followed, it also consumed two deputies, the ranting preacher and the entire geology department of Tulane.

At first, we thought we could contain it. The State Police and the Coast Guard put up warning signs and barriers all around the sphere. But it was to no avail, for the sphere continued to grow, feeding on alligators and pelicans, on crabs and oysters and on the bayou itself.

The National Guard was called in and later the Army and the Navy and the Air Force. Planes from Keesler Air Force Base flew daily rounds over the sphere to monitor its growth, while their bosses were trying to figure out what to do about it. They fired everything they had at the sphere, from bullets to missiles. But nothing they could throw at the sphere as much as made a dent into its smooth black exterior. The bullets and missiles simply vanished, swallowed up, while the sphere grew a little bigger.

Delacroix Island was evacuated soon thereafter, then Wood Lake, Reggio, Yscloskey, Shell Beach, Scarsdale, Poydras, until eventually all of St. Bernard Parish and parts of Plaquemines Parish and Hancock County in Mississippi had to be evacuated as well. And steadily the sphere grew and grew.

You could see while it driving across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway now, a massive malevolent thing rising from the delta and blotting out the view. And still it was growing.

The federal government didn’t help us, but after Katrina and Deepwater Horizon we were used to that. The rest of America simply didn’t care about the Gulf Coast. We were the embarrassing poor relations, backwards, racist, rednecks, hicks. Even if like me, you were neither. No one cared what happened to us.

And still the sphere grew. Highways 300 and 46 were already gone, along with several towns and communities. And we all knew that it was only a matter of time before it took New Orleans, feasting on homes and businesses, streets and canals.

Some generals at the Pentagon — bless their hearts — suggested nuking the thing. Sure, it would turn Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast into a radioactive wasteland, but who cared? Those people were just hicks and rednecks anyway. But the President vetoed the decision and declared he would not nuke his own country, no matter the reason.

And still the sphere grew.

Now here I am, stopping my car on the deserted Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, one of the last to evacuate New Orleans.

I get out of the car — no traffic to worry about, not anymore — and turn around to watch the sphere consume New Orleans, watch it eat my city in its never-ending appetite.

I watch One Shell Square go down, the World Trade Center, Place St. Charles, the Plaza Tower, the Energy Center, the Sheraton, the Marriott, the Hyatt, the Hibernia Bank building, the First Bank and Trust, the Superdome, watch as the sphere swallows them up. I feel the Causeway shake beneath my feet, as the sphere consumes its southern terminus.

I know I should get into my car and leave, press down on the accelerator and get away as fast as I can. But what’s the point?

The sphere isn’t going to stop, once it has swallowed up New Orleans. It isn’t going to stop, once it has swallowed up Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, the entire South. It’s not even going to stop when it has eaten the whole country, when it has taken Washington DC and the Pentagon with the generals who wanted to nuke us and the White House with the President who didn’t.

It’s not going to stop, ever, until it has swallowed the world whole.

So I stay and watch the sphere nibble away at the Causeway, bit by bit, mile by mile, watch it eclipse the city and the lake and the sky and the entire world.

The End…

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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