Paul Jackson rose and fell, rose and fell, in sync with the swell and ebb of each passing wave. He stood alone on the open deck of the twenty five meter cutter as it powered its way through the zig-zag patrol pattern ten kilometers off the western coast of the Spanish island of La Palma. His eyes watched the majestic 2400 meter Cauldron rise out of the Atlantic, its crown frosted with an unusual snowy cap.
He had warned his wife, Erica, that today might not be the best Saturday of the year to climb into the lush forest of the Cauldron's crater, one of the largest on the planet. The storm was predicted to bring in a large cold front and modest amounts of precipitation. But, she had wanted to impress upon him her control and freedom - from him - and had said to mind his own business. Well, maybe after spending the day in a chilly rain, she'd listen to him next time. Probably not, he thought, and zipped his climate gear up to his chin.
Bringing up his binoculars, he scanned West, away from the island, then North, then back to the East. The morning sun still hid itself from the western half of the island, its tall spine blocking the early sunlight. The city of Los Llanos - 'The Plains' he translated to himself - stood out between the blue green ocean and the entrance to the huge crater. He could see level after level of tapered banana plantations along the entire western coast line. Intermixed with the sloped banana farms were the concrete watering reservoirs, some circular some rectangular, that were used to regulate the watering cycle of the bananas.
Paul swept the binoculars back to the deep crevice that led from the Cauldron's crater down to the Atlantic. It was almost as if a primordial giant, upon seeing the bubbling Cauldron about to overflow with lava, had taken a stick and cut a rough passageway to the ocean, channeling the flowing mass to freedom. This giant's cut was the path that Erica would be following today. In fact, it was the only way to reach the Cauldron's crater, all other directions being blocked by the shear cliffs of the extinct volcano. He wondered where in the ascent she was now.
He still struggled with mixed feelings for his wife. Ever since she had left him six months earlier, he had wanted on the one hand, to get as far away from her as possible in order to escape the deep hurt and shame he felt, yet on the other hand, he still wanted to be near her, to convince her that they could make it, that their love could be resurrected.
If only she would be a little more understanding of his feelings, he thought. What true man didn't want children? They had fought over this subject for years, but Paul was always confident that he would eventually win her over and convince her to take some time off from work and have a baby. As the years went by and the fights grew more emotional and savage, he had finally given her an ultimatum - have a baby with him or else. She took the 'or else' more seriously than he had anticipated, and had moved out the next week. He was crushed. After the separation, he told his friends that he was planning to move back to the U.S. but he never did anything to arrange for the move. He stopped mentioning the move after several weeks of the bluff.
Now he just hung around the island like a whipped dog, hoping its master would call it back. Well, at least he had a job, he thought, and gave himself a mocking grin.
After leaving the U.N. Marine Corp, he had hooked up with SecuTel, a large private security firm that had its start back in the pre-jump days as a tele-com security and protection company. Now, SecuTel had operations planet wide, and provided security forces for nearly every major communications company that still retained assets on Earth. In fact, SecuTel security forces, technically employees, constituted the tenth largest standing army on Old Mother Earth.
Recalling why SecuTel had assigned him to La Palma, he continued his observation, but without much conviction. He knew that the cutter's scanning hyper-doppler air, sea, and space radar would observe any adversaries long before his puny binoculars would. Still, he'd run across some very creative pirates in his two years aboard the SST Corona. He was more concerned that the pirates would attempt to seize the Corona than he was that they would try to force entry into any of the land based radars or communication towers located on the Cauldron's peaks. Pirates needed ships, not land based radars, after all. Besides, all of the military installations up on the rim had their own security forces, and a year ago, Erica had told him that among the academics, even the independent Aussies had hired some protection. That left the commercial installations, and SecuTel was under contract to provide security for all of those.
No, Paul thought, pirates weren't going to attack the comm installations. His own hunch was that the big comm firms had hired SecuTel just to provide their employees with peace of mind.
"Como Esta, amigo" said Captain Ernesto Padillo as he made his way towards Paul from the main cabin.
Paul responded in his excellent Spanish, "I'm fine captain. How are you this cheery morning?"
Captain Padillo made a show of looking to the heavens, then with a look of understanding, said "What's with the mock happiness, my friend? The wife got you in a state again?"
Paul rolled his eyes. "She didn't take my advice to stay home this weekend. I told her there would be plenty of weekends for her to muddy her shoes and scrape her knees. I think she would have stayed home, but since I advised that course, she did the opposite. She doesn't take much advice from me lately."
Captain Padillo placed his hand on Paul's shoulder. "My friend, I am truly sorry for you. Will you believe me now when I say you are better off without this unnatural woman who refuses to give you offspring?"
Padillo winked, then patted Paul's shoulder before moving back towards the cabin and relative comfort.
"Unnatural, indeed," Paul said to the Captain, who entered the cabin and closed the door behind him. Paul knew that the Captain's concern for him was from the heart. He had spoken with the Captain on several occasions about his wife and her unwillingness to have children. The Captain had shown true heartache during each discussion, and had offered several pieces of good advice - none of which had any effect on Erica. The Captain struggled to understand how a loving wife could not desire children of her own. His own wife had borne him seven children, five sons and two daughters. If only he were so lucky, thought Paul.
Paul turned to go back to the cabin for some morning coffee, when he saw an orange glow in the low sky, off to the West. He brought up his binoculars, and found the object in the viewfinder. Range was 12 kilometers, but closing rapidly. It would pass over them maybe a kilometer to the south, and it was headed toward the island.
It was sky borne, and it was moving fast. Meteor? Range now eight kilometers. Now six. The object finally took on a recognizable shape - perhaps a satellite falling from orbit? The flames were extinguished now, and he could see the shape of intelligence in its making, not the random shape of a meteoroid come to Earth. Paul tracked the object for several more seconds in the viewfinder of his binoculars, then lowered the instrument to his side, and watched with his natural eyesight as the object traversed the cutter's path and continued its trajectory towards the island. Paul thought he saw the spray of impact with the rough sea, but he couldn't be sure. It was near the coast line, where spray from the surf was more pronounced than usual this stormy morning.
He ran to the cutter's cabin, burst through the deck door and saw the Captain and Rodriquez, the radar operator, talking and sipping coffee.
"What was it?" asked Paul, annoyed that the two weren't bent over the radar control screen already.
"What was what?" said Rodriquez.
Paul stood stunned for a moment. "Are you telling me your high-tech toy didn't see that thing, even though it nearly took off our mast?"
Captain Padillo, seeing the frustration on Paul's face, stood up and moved towards Paul. "What, Paul? What nearly took off our mast?"
Paul looked again at Rodriquez, who shrugged his shoulders and gave a small shake of his head. Paul looked back to the Captain. "I don't know..it, uh, it was moving too fast. I thought it was a meteor at first, but then I saw that it was something manufactured, like a satellite, maybe."
The Captain asked Rodriquez, "You sure you got nothing, Manuel?"
Rodriquez turned back to his console, brought up the last ten minutes of tracks, saw nothing and shook his head again. "If there was something there, the doppler didn't pick it up."
"There was something there!" insisted Paul.
Captain Padillo put his hand on Paul's shoulder, as he had done earlier. "Ok, Paul, we believe you, its just that the radar, for some reason, wasn't able to track it. That doesn't mean it wasn't there, just that the radar didn't see it. But since you did see it, I think we should take this old girl in and check it out."
Paul felt a twinge of guilt for talking so sharply to these two men, both good friends, but he just nodded and listened to the Captain give orders to take the Corona closer to shore.
Paul directed the Corona to where he thought he had seen the splash. There was no debris, drag chute or other obvious clue to indicate that the object had impacted here. Paul scanned the shore, half a kilometer off to the East. He punched the zoom up to max, and did his best given the choppy seas, to see something out of the ordinary.
Along the only section of the coastline that had a beach, Paul could just make out the depressions of footsteps in the sand. Several sets, from the look of it. He followed them up the damp sand until they disappeared into the banana trees further up the beach. He wouldn't have given the foot prints a second thought, but these occurred on a section of coastline that wasn't prime beach property. The small section of beach was twenty or thirty meters across, and wouldn't attract beach goers, especially not this early on a rainy morning.
He returned the viewfinder to the banana trees, but saw nothing unusual. He was about to turn the powerful binoculars on a different section of the coast, when a large wave tumbled to the beach, revealing a large transparent - thing - bobbing in the surf thirty of forty meters off the beach. Aha! He knew he hadn't been hallucinating and now he had tangible proof for the others.
* * * * *
Mission leader Slu Nitook motioned the others forward, then took cover behind one of the trees with the strange elongated fruit. While he waited for the other four members of his Ka to catch up, he thought about tasting the fruit - perhaps it was edible. The groves of these trees were clearly planned - the groomed look, the regularity of their spacing and the cleared ground indicated that the planet's inhabitants valued these trees.
The others approached him. Ska Nabo was limping visibly. She had been injured during the impact with the planet's large body of water. And what water! Saturated with sodium chloride in such amounts that his entire solar system could be supplied with that valuable chemical for centuries. Impossible to drink, however, so irrelevant to the current situation. The Ka needed water to replenish its supply. Slu Nitook remembered that there were many small bodies of liquid interspersed with the trees in which he now rested. Hopefully these reservoirs contained pure, unsalted water.
The atmosphere on this planet contained sufficient oxygen and nitrogen to sustain his body's cell structure, as his previous scans had shown, but breathing was difficult due to, by his standards, the small amount of water moisture in the air. His atmosphere breathing lungs were functioning at less than optimal efficiency and comfort.
He moved forward and was entangled by a clear fibrous material, almost like the spinning threads used in garment manufacturing. A multi legged creature, as large as his manipulator and encased with exoskeleton, floated along the chord towards him. His taloned manipulators flashed out, piercing the creature, then tearing it from its small cable. Slu Nitook brought the creature close to his large eyes, and studied it. He flicked out his tasting tongue, caressing the struggling life form. Its taste intrigued him. He brought it to his mouth, small, though well endowed with many sharp teeth, and bit into the crunchy body. A warm liquid squirted over his tasting glands, delighting his pleasure sensors. He desired to stay and enjoy the moment, and perhaps even look for more of these tasty creatures, but knew he needed to keep moving forward. He tossed the remains into his mouth and vowed to catch more of these deliquesces if the opportunity presented itself.
The Ka moved forward, weapons drawn and at the combat ready in case they encountered residents. Their reconnaissance had shown this island to be sparsely populated, at least compared to most of the other land masses on the planet. Nine other Ka had been dispatched to locations of concern around the watery planet; at least one Ka for every large land mass except the icy southern continent and the frozen seas of the north. All of the target sites had been selected precisely for their remote locations and small population masses.
Slu Nitook led his four through the thick rows of fruit trees, until one of his small side eyes caught sight of a rectangular body of still liquid. He moved towards it with a smooth grace, sliding around the dense tangle of intervening trees.
The reservoir was constructed of a rock like substance that appeared to Slu Nitook to be manufactured rather than natural. He scanned the area surrounding the reservoir, and then dashed across the open area to the side of the structure. He scaled the low wall, and peered down into the container, which was eight or ten meters across and twice that in length. The liquid, most certainly water now that his large eyes studied it, was a meter below the surface of the ground. He could not determine how deep the calm water was, for many circular plant forms grew on the surface, partially covering it. He leaned his upper torso down towards the liquid, and flicked out his long prehensile tongue the remaining half meter to the surface of the liquid. Ah! Cool water. He took in a large mouthful of the restoring liquid, and then motioned for the rest of his Ka to come forward and enjoy the refreshment.
As the others drank and refilled their water packs, Slu Nitook dreamed of sliding into the cool water and re-hydrating his dry skin. Under other circumstances, he would do just that - but, unfortunately, not today. It was a shame really. Even though his species was equally adaptable for life and work either in water or on solid ground, he greatly preferred the water. Not all of his kind agreed with him however. He glanced at Har Koolah - she, for instance, would rather dry out on a warm rock than slide her sleek body under the cool depths of the pool before them. His eyes lingered on her firm body, shaped by many missions such as this. Perhaps later, he thought, forcing his eyes back to the positioning indicator that he held in his manipulator.
They would circumvent the nearby population center, march to the East of it and, hopefully avoid contact with local inhabitants. Once past it, they would make their way to the large crevasse that ascended into the gargantuan volcanic bowl, hundreds of meters in elevation above where they now rested. If reconnaissance proved correct, a pathway lead all the way to the base of the cliffs that surrounded the bowl. It should only take them one daylight cycle to make their way to their ultimate destination. Then they just needed to make their way back to the pick up point in the ocean to await an extraction team.
* * * * *
"Would you two stop making out in there." yelled Erica Jackson back towards the crawl space opening. Shaking her head and rolling her eyes, she walked back to the narrow opening, stooped down and poked her head into the darkness. She heard female giggling, then a 'stop it!' followed by more laughter.
"Do I need to call your parents, children?" she asked the darkness.
Her best friend and fellow astronomer, Jill Harrah, answered, "Yes mother, we're coming."
Jill's dark head of full hair emerged from the small opening. She was followed by Angel Madrone, her current boy friend, and responsible for today's outing. Angel, whose full name was Angel Jesus De La Virgin Maria Madrone, rose to his feet, brushed off his hiking pants, and then with a wink at Erica, did the same to the back side of Jill's pants, even though they had crawled through the twenty meter tunnel on hands and knees. Jill looked at Erica, and shook her head slowly. "Men" was all she said, but smiled nonetheless.
Erica asked, for the fourth time, "How much farther until we get to the Caldera?" She hadn't wanted to come on this hiking trip today, and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Paul tried to convince her not to come, but she didn't want to let him rule her decisions, so she came anyway, knowing fully that it would be rainy and miserable.
Angel answered in his accented English, "I would say, maybe another two hours. But, senorita, the whole point of the hike is to enjoy the trip. Stop worrying about how long it will be, and just take in the air, wet as it is, and the trees, and the dirt and rocks."
Erica took in a deep breath, held it and let it ease past her lips. He's right, she thought.
"Ok, I'll try. I'm just too accustomed to work, and all the schedule pressure."
"We're not at work," said Jill. "Relax, it will do you some good. You've been wanting to hike up here ever since you got to La Palma. Now that you're here, at least enjoy it." She took Angel's hand and the two continued walking up the narrow trail.
Erica watched them for a moment, then with determination, forced herself to relax and not worry about time, or pressure or weather. Or Paul. She looked up and saw the large pines, bows spreading majestically as if giving her a welcome, or a blessing. It is gorgeous, she thought. And strange. Two hours ago she was walking near thick plantations of banana trees with their large bunches of bananas propped up with makeshift sticks, under huge avocado trees, and along rows of tall, stately palms. Now, a thousand meters higher, she was among massive pine trees, ferns with their fractal leaf patterns, and quakies of all things, just like in the mountains of her youth.
Below her, just discernible through the layer of topsoil, she could see the square concrete water pipe that brought fresh water from the upper caldera to the people of Los Llanos below. The pipe was about one square meter in cross section, and served as the base of the hiking trail for most of the climb. She could hear the water gurgling through the pipe in its urgent need to reach the bottom.
Jill and Angel disappear around a bend in the trail, and Erica hurried to catch up. She didn't run, however, as the trail here was quite narrow and fell steeply to her left. To her right, the mountain side rose sharply, in reflection to the dramatic fall to her left. Jagged rocks and many pines covered the steep slopes. Hundreds of meters below, a small stream snaked along the narrow canyon floor. Most of the water was trapped and diverted into the concrete pipe, but a small amount still flowed over the ancient volcanic rock below. According to Angel, they would have to pass over the stream where it was dammed and diverted. He had also told the two astronomers that there was a deep pool in which they could swim, but as the mist turned to a light rain, Erica thought she would forego that invitation.
* * * * *
Paul Jackson, Pedro Garcia, and Juan Hernandez hauled the rubber landing craft out of the surf and up the beach to the first line of stubby palm trees. They took care to avoid the footprints Paul had seen. While Paul anchored the raft to the trunk of a large palm, Pedro and Juan slung their snub nosed submachine guns over their shoulders. Paul took a thirty round clip from his jacket pocket and snapped it into place. After their discovery of the strange object, they would be prepared.
Paul returned to the footprints. In the damp sand, where the surf had not destroyed the markings, Paul could see the impressions of, what appeared to be, small crocodile pads. There were five or six sets of them here, but they became jumbled in the sand further away from the smoothing influence of the surf. It was plain to all three men, however, that all prints led to the shadowy banana plantations.
"I don't see how these could have come out of that scary piece of hardware anchored out there." said Hernandez, still bent low examining the prints. "These look like lizard prints."
"I don't know." Paul said. "All I do know is that there's some weird crap out there." He thrust his chin up, indicating the heavens above. "Do you remember that incident with the jump ship Titan a few years ago?"
Hernandez looked up. "Yeah, I remember. All seventy five members of the crew dead from a massive radiation leak, right?"
"Well, thats what the U.N. Space Agency wants us to believe. But that's not what really happened."
"Don't tell me the ship was attacked by lizards, amigo, because I just won't believe it," said Hernandez, grinning slightly.
Paul shook his head. "No, no, nothing like that. I was in the Marine Corp then, and had a buddy, Mark Delaney, that was involved with the recovery mission to the Titan."
Paul motioned the other two men to follow, and he made his way up the beach towards the line of trees.
"Anyway, after the mission, Delaney was back on Earth attending Space Borne Operations School in San Fransisco, and I happened to run into him. He let it slip, after a few too many beers, that he had gone aboard the Titan with one of the teams. They had entered wearing full radiation gear, because they all thought that's what had happened. Once they were aboard, they measured the radiation, and it wasn't one rad above normal. They searched the entire ship, and not a sign of the crew."
"Just gone?" asked Garcia.
"Yeah, just gone," said Paul, remembering the look of fright on Delaney's slightly drunken face at the time. "They couldn't find them - not one."
Hernandez stopped walking and said, "So, did they ever find them?"
"Nope," said Paul. "They did find something though. After crewing the Titan and getting it back to Hellis Point Naval station, they did a thorough diagnostic check on the entire ship. Everything was in perfect order - except that the audio-video logs for a short period of time had been erased, and that the entire ship's data core had been downloaded during that same period of time."
"So, someone had kidnapped, or killed the crew, and somehow had broken into the ship's core and stolen all the data," said Hernandez. He rolled his eyes and said, "Right."
"That's just it," said Paul. "The Titan was a war ship. All her data systems were hardened to protect from unfriendlies getting their hands on it. I was stationed on similar ships, and believe me, there is just no way that the ship's entire crew and data core could just disappear without a mark appearing on her."
"What was Delaney's explanation," asked Garcia.
"He had none." said Paul. "Neither did anyone else, thus the crock story about the radiation leak."
The three men moved towards the tree line in silence for a moment, then Hernandez asked, "So, you think this...these footprints and that capsule anchored out there, have something to do with the Titan?"
Paul shrugged, "They could, who knows? I'm sure you can imagine all the data stored on a jumpship's central computer system - weapon's info, fleet positions, personnel files...navigation charts...routes back to Earth..." Paul trailed off and the two Spaniards asked no more questions.
* * * * *
Slu Nitook and his Ka acsended through several kilometers of the fruit trees and then came upon another artificial reservoir. Slu Nitook halted the Ka with a raised paw, and scanned the area. Seeing nothing, he motioned for Har Koolah and Shulah Nabar to move forward and refill the water pouches. Slu Nitook, Ska Nabo with her injured walking pad, and Thuz Sook remained in the trees, on the lookout for natives.
Shulah Nabar filled one pouch, and placed it on the artificial rock wall. A small piece of the smooth rock-like substance came loose with the weight of the water pouch and fell into the reservoir with a small plunk.
"Froggy?" came a small voice, startling the entire Ka. Slu Nitook watched as a native, not much larger than himself, stood from behind the wall that surrounded the pool. The creature's two forward looking eyes, placed in the center of its shaggy covered head, stared at the two females gathering water. Then it exploded in a shrill, high pitched screech. Slu Nitook centered his weapon's aiming reticle on the creature's face, directly between its eyes. The eyes were opened wide and the mouth continued making that annoying sound. It was a young pup, thought Slu Nitook, and remembering his own brood of young, decided to let it live. He called out to Har Koolah and Shulah Nabar to find cover. They could fill the water pouches later, he thought. Then he realized it was too late.
Another resident burst through the fruit trees. This one was obviously an adult specimen - it must have massed over one hundred kilos and stood over two meters in height. It carried a large bundle of the elongated fruit on its torso, one of its extremities holding it in place. The other manipulator held a blade, as long as Slu Nitook's entire body.
"Antonio! Que pasa? What is it son?"
The big creature's eyes followed those of the smaller, and then it dropped the fruit.
"Antonio, run! Run to mama!"
Slu Nitook cursed as his combat instructors had taught him to do so well when he was a young whelp, of an age similar to the fleeing pup.
The large creature, however, was not fleeing. In fact, it moved towards the two exposed females, raising its blade in attack and emitting a loud battle cry
Slu Nitook pulsed the creature twice - once in the head and once in the center of the torso. It fell with a great crash, coming to rest face down among a pile of large green leaves. He then motioned for Har Koolah to follow and dispatch the young creature. He disliked taking such drastic measures on account of the terrified pup, but now that it was on the run it would warn others. It would have to be eliminated. As Har Koolah pulled out the sleek hunting blade and vanished into the trees, he could still hear the young alien's cries as it ran through the fruit trees.
Mission leader Slu Nitook then began cleaning up.
* * * * *
Paul instinctively crouched when he heard first, the child screaming, and then the low, but unmistakable growl of weapons fire. Still keeping his head and shoulders low, he increased his pace to a slow run. His bent form passed under most of the banana leaves, but occasionally, one pulled or tugged at his rain gear. Garcia and Hernandez followed close behind, also running in a crouch. Both Spaniards, though concerned about the gunfire, fell into the honed routine of the boarding party taking an enemy ship. Both men trusted Paul, an ex U.N. Marine with combat experience against foes tougher than any scraggly group of pirates looking to snag some extra loot from a boat load of day trippers.
The screaming child went silent, and Paul pulled up for a moment. When the screaming did not return, he set off again in the direction of child's last sound.
The mist turned to a light rain, and a soft pitter-patter arose from all three of the jogging men's rain gear. Paul brushed against one of the large banana leaves and it dumped its small pool of collected water down the back of his jeans. He resisted the urge to stand up and shake like a wet dog.
He saw a small clearing ahead. It surrounded one of the many irrigation reservoirs that dotted the banana plantations. He slowed and stopped, still in the light cover of the plantation's small trees. His alert senses gave him nothing. No movement, no sound, no smells - only rain and its byproducts, puddles and pools. He was about to cross the clearing around the watering reservoir, when he noticed one of those pools running red. He froze. His physical senses may have been telling him there was no danger, but his gut sense was telling him otherwise.
Paul watched and listened for several seconds, then moved into the clearing, heading to the red stain. He stooped down, looking for any signs or marks similar to those at the beach. Nothing. He stood and, when Garcia gave him a questioning look, just shook his head back and forth. The soil here was too grainy to hold detail from passing footprints. Garcia came out of the trees, and then verified for himself that, indeed, no footprints were visible.
Hernandez made his way to the concrete reservoir. A swarm of lily pads covered most of the water. Thousands of concentric rings spread out in all directions, each beginning with the small impact of a raindrop from heaven. The dark water revealed nothing to Hernandez and he was about to turn away, when several disturbances bubbled up from below. Hernandez moved closer to the wall, slung his submachine gun over his back, and leaned over the edge. He stuck his face low to the water, studying the stream of bubbles coming up from below.
"Hey, Paul, what do you make of this?" asked Hernandez.
He pointed at the bubbles when Paul came closer, and together they watched for another moment as small pockets of air continued to burst on the surface. Garcia arrived at their sides.
"What is it?" asked Garcia.
Something was floating up from below. Something white or tan colored. It came closer, and Paul could almost make it out for what it was. Oval, like...a face. It came closer still and they all stepped back in unison. It was a face, with a crimson hole in its forehead.
"Damn it man," said Hernandez, and unslung his weapon. "What is going on?"
Paul looked back at the floating corpse, still several centimeters below the water, as if something were anchoring it below. Disturbing, thought Paul, to be buried in a watery grave.
A crunching sound broke the silent eulogy. The three men spun around, weapons ready to spray death at any attacking demon. It was only a wet, mangy dog. Its tail was between its legs and its brownish coat dripped steady streams of rain water. Paul knelt and called it to him.
"Here, boy. Come on boy, we won't hurt you."
The dog hesitated for a moment, but then trotted towards him, tail beginning to wag. It stopped out of range of Paul's grasp and sniffed him. Then the mutt sniffed Garcia and Hernandez. Satisfied, it stuck its dripping nose into Paul's outstretched hand.
"Good boy. What are you doing out in this rain?"
"Probably looking for his dead master," said Garcia.
Paul was about to tell him to cool it, but then realized that Garcia was probably right. He led the dog over to the red tainted pool, which it sniffed. Then it whined and followed some scent, detectable only to him, across the wet ground to the side of the watering reservoir. It put its front paws on the concrete barrier, sniffed again, then jumped up on the edge. The dog made its way along the rim, to where the body floated under the water. Looking back at the men, the dog whimpered.
"Come on boy," said Paul. "Let's get out of here."
Before they left the clearing, Paul called the SST Corona.
* * * * *
Erica wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She told herself that it was better to remove cool rain from her brow than sun induced sweat, but even as she thought it, she didn't believe it. Why couldn't this day have been the typical gorgeous La Palma day?
She, Jill and Angel had finally broken into the Caldera proper. The massive volcano crater had a diameter of over five kilometers, making it the largest in the world. She could see in the distance, through low hanging clouds, the shear cliffs that surrounded the massive bowl of the crater.
It was on top of these cliffs, inside the Issac Newton Astronomical Observatory, that she spent her normal days, or rather, nights. She marveled at the lush beauty that surrounded her here below; Beauty that was just over the horizon of her vision every night. In the future, she would remember that over the edge of the rim, was a wondrous forest of greenery and ferns, pines and quakies, jagged outcroppings of rock and clear springs of water. Not all aesthetically pleasing forms resided in the heavens above, she now realized.
The three friends stood on a rocky ledge, looking down seven or eight meters to the deep pool of water that had formed because of the blockage put here by human hands. An effective diversion dam had been formed when the concrete water pipe had been built, and it forced all but a small stream to enter the square opening of the pipe. The pool looked two or three meters deep here, and on a warm spring day it would have been tempting to drop backpacks, strip off clothing and shoes, and plunge feet first into the mountain water. Angel was teasing Jill that, despite the light rain and cool temperature, he would give her a dip anyway. She squealed in protest.
Erica smiled when she remembered how Paul had threatened to throw her into the pounding ocean surf one day after they arrived on La Palma. She had splashed him as they walked along the surf's edge. He was always in such a good mood; nothing could bring him down. Until she refused to get pregnant. That depressed him at first. Then he grew...not angry, but withdrawn. Then she responded in kind, and the downward spiral got out of control. How should she have responded? She didn't want to have children at that point in her life and career. Maybe if she had given him some hope that eventually she was willing to have a family it would have made a difference. Had she ever told him that she was willing to have kids later? She couldn't remember.
"Who's not listening now?" shouted Jill over the gurgling stream.
She and Angel stood below and across the stream from her. How long have I been standing here, Erica wondered. She waved and made her way down the steep incline.
* * * * *
Mission leader Slu Nitook's atmosphere lungs burned with use. Despite the Ka's ability at camouflage and evasion, the local residents were somehow tracking them. Since its narrow escape at the irrigation pool, the Ka had pushed hard to catch up with Har Koolah.
She appeared from behind a tree, not a fruit tree, but a similar type. Slu Nitook called for a brief stop while he debriefed Har Koolah on the fleeing pup alien. She had caught it, and after a brief skirmish, had disposed of it. Being larger than she was, it had fought for its life, but the trained Koolah had overpowered it with her superior fighting skill. She had only had time to cover its body with several of the large leaves of these strange trees before joining up with the Ka.
A sharp sound reached him from behind; the pursuing aliens were gaining on them. This new sound didn't sound like the attacking native at the constructed pool. Slu Nitook didn't know what it was. He asked the others - none of them knew either. He thought for a moment. He needed to take a different evasive approach. The Natives larger frame and longer stride were making it difficult for the Ka to put distance between them. In fact, Slu Nitook knew that the sentients would catch the Ka soon - unless he changed his tactics.
There was more of the new sound - very close now. Slu Nitook commanded the Ka to follow him in a new direction.
* * * * *
Fred, that's what Paul called the stray mutt, was leading the three men through the banana trees, following the scent of something. Paul wondered if the scent belonged to the screaming child, or the murderer of the man in the irrigation reservoir. Part of him, the bigger part he realized, wanted Fred to lead him to the child. The thought of a frightened child running, and probably running from its father's killer, disturbed him. The other part of Paul wanted Fred to lead them to those killers. This smaller part of him was afraid - afraid of what he would find, of what he would do. He hated and yet, relished, this feeling of juiced up fear. He had felt this many times in his tour with the Marines, and less frequently with his current job of pirate hunting, but often enough to be in practice. He didn't think this would turn out to be as simple as boarding a pirate's ship, making arrests and then going home for the evening to watch the world news. No, this was something different, something scary.
Fred stopped, sniffed the air in two directions, then barked in the direction at right angles to their current path. The dog took off, almost doubling back to the way they had come from.
"Come on boy," said Paul. "Keep going, don't let them get away."
Fred barked again and continued in the direction away from the chase. Paul considered leaving the dog, and pushing on alone, but then dismissed the idea. Paul had given the dog his trust since leaving its dead master, and there was no sense in not trusting him now.
"OK, boy, lead on."
The men followed Fred for a short distance and found the dog clawing at a pile of large banana leaves.
"Oh no," said Paul. He didn't like the look of the pile or the thought of what he knew to be hidden under it.
Garcia pulled the leaves back, and Paul's insides went icy. It wasn't just the sight of the dead child, but of the thought of some poor woman who would soon find out that she had lost both husband and son. At this moment, Paul wasn't sure whether it would be worse to have had a child, and to have then lost it, or to have never had the chance to experience the joy along with the possibility of grief.
"What do we do now?" asked Hernandez.
"I don't know," said Paul. "We can't leave this little boy here, though. The authorities may never find his body, and he needs a proper burial."
"I'll take him back," said Hernandez. "Once I meet up with the police, I can call you and meet up somewhere."
Paul nodded, thankful that he wouldn't have to see the soon to be grieving woman. He pulled out his cell and made a call to the Los Llanos police department as Hernandez kneeled and lifted the unmoving boy into his arms.
* * * * *
Erica was sweating profusely; the humid air and the last hour's steep climb both contributing to her condition. It felt wonderful, she thought. The clouds were clearing, the rain had stopped, and from the precipice where she stood she could see most of the cauldron - the steep cliff walls circling above her, the rushing stream many meters below, the lush undergrowth, the tall pines. She would have to bring Paul here someday, and then wondered why that thought had popped into her head. The likelihood of that event ever happening were slim, she knew. She wasn't ready to have a baby, and Paul had given her an ultimatum.
She turned her attention upwards. Angel had said they were thirty minutes from their destination and lunch. Her stomach growled at the thought of her boring ham sandwich and bag of chips. Angel had brought Spanish tortilla, and that brightened her mood even more. She began her climb, choosing her steps with care.
Erica hung back, letting Jill and Angel be alone in their lover's conversation. The two were acting like teenagers smitten with love at first sight.
The three friends arrived at the picnic area, the object of their ascent. It was a small clearing amid the pines and ferns. A small waterfall splashed down from above, leaving golden, silver and copper streaks on the slippery rock surface like the trails of shooting comets. Except for the soft splashing of the water, the entire grove was still and quiet. Erica was awestruck by the beauty of the place; in some strange way, it felt sacred.
Angel began unpacking a small blanket and the food. The two women joined in and soon the three were eating in silence, gazing around at the incredible beauty of the scene.
After lunch, Angel and Jill snuggled together for a short nap, while Erica lay on her small section of the blanket and let her eyes wander up to the top of the cliffs, thinking about the observatory just over the rim of her vision. Maybe the observatory wasn't the only thing just out of her sight.
* * * * *
Slu Nitook knew that his Ka would not reach the entry point before being overtaken by the pursuing sentients. He had tried several attempts as losing them, but they somehow always knew which path to follow. He hadn't wanted to kill earlier, but now, he knew he must if his mission was to succeed. He directed Har Koolah to sprint ahead and verify that the entry point to the waterway was accessible. The other three members of the Ka were to continue on and meet at the waterway, while he created a diversion, hopefully a permanent solution to their pursuit.
He could hear the creatures, seconds away. He hid himself under several large leafs, intending to let the pursuers pass and then to pulse them from behind. He would then catch up to his Ka, and complete the mission.
The noise from the perusers stopped. He heard the sharp rasping sound again. He waited several moments, then realized he was compromised somehow. These creatures must be using some device or a sense that allowed them to track him; some instrument that his people were not aware of. Ah, the surprises they held for each other.
He poked his head out from under the leaf - and stared into the face of an entirely new creature. This was not the same species that he had pulsed earlier. This alien had a long snout, with a small black object at its end, which quivered. The creature had four limbs, all of which were in contact with the ground. Two upright shapes at the top of its head had to be hearing organs, and it had a mouthful of teeth, not of the vegetable eating variety, the mission leader noted.
Slu Nitook then saw an inhabitant, in the form of the earlier one he had killed. This one held a weapon of some sort pointed at him. The four limbed creature ejected a loud sound, Slu Nitook fired his own weapon at the armed pursuer, then ran, dodging behind tree limbs and underbrush. A series of rapid explosions sent him tumbling to avoid being shredded by the alien's return fire. Bark and leaves burst to pieces near his head; better those than him, he thought, and continued running and returning fire from his own weapon.
He broke into the clearing that held the entry point to the waterway. It was another stone construction, similar to the others he had encountered this day. This one was smaller however, and he could hear the rush of water within - the others had been calm and current free. Excellent, he thought. That meant they were in the right spot.
His Ka was busy on top of the rock container. As Slu Nitook ran closer, he could see a metal grate covering a small opening into the interior of the pond. Har Koolah was using a chemical cutting agent to burn the cross bars away one by one. Slu Nitook saw that she was half way through when the aliens burst into the clearing, weapons spitting flame and smoke. Har Koolah dropped the chemical pouch and tumbled onto the grate as several small holes appeared in her environmental suit.
* * * * *
When the small creature fired its weapon at him, Paul went into auto-mode. All his previous missions and years of training came to bear, without his conscious mind ever realizing what was happening. He dropped and rolled to avoid the creature's - no, the alien's - automatic weapon fire. Luckily, Fred had given him a few milliseconds warning with his bark.
Fred darted after the little alien without waiting to see if his new masters would follow. Paul knew he would have lost the alien in the first moments, but Fred's nose was not to be misled by the alien's feints and misdirections. Then he broke into a clearing with more aliens, and squeezed off a burst of his machine pistol at one of them on top of the pipeline.
Now, the alien return fire forced his body to dive and roll. It was all happening in the proverbial slow motion of an action film. The alien they chased fired backwards at them as it ran toward the pipeline opening. Other aliens were firing at him as well; leaves and gravel and dirt were thrown up in front of his face, making it difficult to select his next target. He squeezed off a controlled burst at another alien atop the pipeline that was shooting at Garcia. It ducked behind the rock wall as his bullets bit a line into the volcanic stones.
The little aliens were frantically working at something on top of the pipeline. Paul wondered if they were trying to poison the water supply. This was a freshwater pipeline, bringing the cool liquid from the cauldron's springs above. He hoped it wasn't poison; there wouldn't be enough time to warn the population of Los Llanos of the danger.
A loud metallic clank complemented the bursts of weapon fire, and Paul saw the aliens make a dash into top of the pipeline. He attempted to kneel and fire off a few shots at one of the running creatures, but another had been waiting for him to make his move, and expertly laid down covering fire, one of the rounds punching a neat hole through his loose outer jacket sleeve. He dove back to the ground, face down in the wet earth. He looked up in time to see Fred the dog chase the last alien into the pipeline and then the only sounds were those of the rushing water and Fred's barking.
Paul stood and rushed the concrete pipeline. He wished for a stun grenade to toss into the opening, but he had none. Garcia indicated that he would put covering fire into the opening. Garcia fired and Paul poked his head into the opening, but only saw rushing water. Fred continued to bark. Paul shook his head and let out a long sigh. His nerves were still keyed up for a fight, but he forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly. As his breathing calmed, so did his thoughts and fighting instincts.
Fred jumped on the pipe and began sniffing around the opening through which the aliens had fled. "It's OK, boy, calm down," said Paul. He rubbed the dog's head, and at his touch, Fred seemed to sense that the time for fighting was over. The dog settled down some, but was still anxious to continue the chase.
"I think you got one," said Garcia. "I saw it go down hard."
"I think I got it too," said Paul. He wondered if the alien was dead or merely injured.
"Looks like one almost got you too", said Garcia, finger the hole in Paul's jacket. "What do you think they want?"
"At this point, I have no idea."
Garcia climbed onto the pipeline and pointed down. "Look at this. Blood of some type."
Paul jumped onto the pipeline. It wasn't red, but he agreed with Garcia, it was probably blood. He had hit the alien.
"Well then, what do you think they are?" asked Garcia, now looking into the pipeline's opening.
"Trouble," was all Paul could think of to say.
Garcia nodded his agreement. "Looks like they burned away the grating. I wonder if they went up or down."
Paul thought about his question for a moment, then said, "They probably went down. My guess is that they want to infiltrate the city, and this would be a very good way to do that. They could come out of any manhole as soon as it was dark, and nobody would be the wiser."
Garcia was still looking down, the beam of his flashlamp dancing off the water. "I'm not so sure," he said. "Take a look at the water."
Paul pulled his own flashlamp from his small pack and shined it down towards the dark water. It looked cold to Paul; a reaction to what had gone into it? A dark stain, the color of the alien blood, was flowing in the water coming from the Cauldron. The aliens had gone upward, towards the cauldron, not towards the city.
* * * * *
Erica peered through the eyepiece of the largest telescope at the observatory, and saw the bowl of the Cauldron from above. She had the telescope aimed down, somehow, so that it was viewing the blanket where she had been earlier in the day. She could see Jill and Angel still embracing, asleep. An alarm was sounding below her, and she was annoyed that it wouldn't stop. She couldn't see herself on the blanket. She knew she had - brrrrrr, brrrrrrrr - that damned alarm. She wished it would shut off. Brrrrrr, brrrrrr. She left the observatory and floated down to the trees just above the blanket.
Erica opened her eyes and realized she had been dozing in the warming mountain air. The phone in her pants pocket was buzzing. She pulled it out, noticing that, as in her dream, Angel and Jill were still asleep. She stood, careful not to wake the embracing lovers, and moved several meters away before answering.
"This is Erica."
"Erica, its me."
"Paul?" Her anger started to rise. "Look, its a little late to try and talk me out of the hike, we're already at the Cauldron."
There was a brief pause, then Paul said, "Erica, I'm not calling because of that."
Another pause, this one lasting longer. Not able to wait longer, Erica said, "Yes, what is it then?"
"You're in danger. I need you to come down immediately. We have -"
"I don't believe this," said Erica. She looked over at the two sleeping forms, and then in a softer voice said, "Paul, I told you, I'm already here. You're not going to change anything by trying to talk me out of something I've already done."
"I'm not trying to talk you out of it," said Paul. "I just want you to come back down now. Please. It's important. OK?"
Erica felt her cheeks grow hot. He was always trying to talk her into doing things his way. Not today. "Paul, I'm sorry but I need to go. Bye."
"No! Eri -" She closed her phone and put it back into her pocket. She huffed, then thought she should wake the others. They wanted to take more pictures before they headed back.
Brrrrr, brrrrrr. She ignored the phone, knowing it was Paul. It rang again. He'd get the hint before long, and stop calling.
"Are you going to answer that, or should I?" asked Jill. She was sitting up and stretching without shame, even though in Spain, stretching in public was considered rude.
"It's just Paul. He'll stop in a minute. When I don't answer, I mean."
"What does he want?" asked Jill. She stood up and nudged Angel several times before he groaned and started moving.
Erica reached into her pocket for the phone, and said to Jill, "He just wants to be a jerk."
She turned and walked into a thicket of trees, out of earshot of Jill and Angel before answering this time. She saw that the ID was Paul's. He wasn't going to convince her to leave.
"Paul," she answered, "I'm trying not to be rude, but please stop."
"Erica, just listen to me for a minute. A man and his little boy have already been killed by them, and they're on their way to the Cauldron as we speak."
Erica had to admit that he had caught her attention, something she had just vowed he wouldn't do. She lowered her voice and asked, "Who killed a man and his little boy?"
"Some bad guys, Erica. This is why I need you to come down now."
Erica thought of hiking back down the pipeline and running into a group of thugs. "If they are coming into the Cauldron as you say, then we don't want to come down and meet them on the trail, do we?" she asked. "And, how do you know this? Aren't you at work?"
There was a pause before he answered. "You won't meet them on the trail, but you need to leave now. And yes, I am at work, but I happen to be at the trail-head to the Cauldron right now. That's how I know they are coming up there."
She could sense that he wasn't telling her everything he knew. Her eyes narrowed. Was he lying to her? No, probably not. He had never been like that and wouldn't start now, no matter how much he didn't want her in the Cauldron. But, he was acting strange.
"I don't get it, Paul," she said. "How can we not meet them if they are coming into the Cauldron. The only way to get in here is to come up the pipeline trail. You know that since you've been up here before. So, what aren't you telling me?"
She heard him sigh, then say, "OK, look, they're coming through the pipeline. That's why you won't meet them on the trail. But, you've got to leave now. Please, Erica, listen to me for once."
"Are you drunk?" she asked before thinking.
"No, I'm not drunk" he said. He didn't sound drunk, she thought.
"But you're telling me these people, these murderers, are coming up here through the pipeline. Like fish maybe? What, they have scuba suits and tanks? Come on Paul, do you expect me to believe this tale of yours?"
"OK, OK," he said. "They're extraterrestrials."
"Aliens?" She had had enough of this. "Goodbye Paul, don't call back."
She hung up the phone and set it to not accept calls from Paul Jackson. She walked back to where Jill and Angel were packing up the blankets and pulling out their cameras. Erica wanted to get a shot of herself standing over the large precipice they had passed earlier. She saw her pack on the ground, and began moving towards it anticipating the upcoming pictures. Damn that Paul, she thought. His ludicrous warning had unnerved her. She forced the thought out of her head, and chose instead to think of the best view from which to snap the spectacular pictures she had in mind.
* * * * *
The water was cold and refreshing, thought Slu Nitook. The current was also stiffer than it had first appeared. Nothing he couldn't handle, of course, but it was impeding his desire for utmost speed.
The aliens knew what and where they had entered, and might guess the Ka's intent. Speed was now crucial. He thought of Har Koolah, wounded and struggling to keep up.
He slowed his swimming, and allowed the black water to carry him back to where Har Koolah swam. She was loosing internal fluids, though the cold water helped staunch the flow. He shined his lamp onto her torso and gazed at the series of holes. Her green liquid oozed out and was whipped away by the rapid water. Her face was a study of pain and fatigue. She wouldn't survive the mission, he realized. Better to kill her now, and let the water dispose of her shell. That way she wouldn't endanger the mission or the other members of the Ka. His mind recoiled at that course of action. She was the only member of the Ka who had not borne him offspring, and he very much looked forward to making the attempt again. He reached out to her, clasped her forepaw, and pulled her along with him.
* * * * *
Paul shook his head. "Why won't that woman listen to me, just once?" he asked.
Garcia, sensing Paul's frustration, asked, "You want me to call her? Maybe she'd listen to me."
"It's worth a try, I guess," said Paul. He dialed Erica's number and handed the phone to Garcia. Maybe he can get through to her, thought Paul - maybe she'd listen to Garcia and understand the danger she was in; she wouldn't listen to him.
"She's not answering," said Garcia. "I've let it ring twenty, thirty, times."
Paul held out his hand. "You might as well give it back, she isn't going to answer. She's got my ID blocked. Every time I tell her something she doesn't like to hear, my name goes on the Do Not Answer list." Fred, sensing a friend, licked Paul's hand before Garcia could hand him back his phone.
"That's a good boy," said Paul. He took the phone from Garcia, and bent down to pet the dog between the ears. "What do you think we should do, huh boy? You want to chase some aliens?"
"What are you going to do?" asked Garcia.
Paul didn't hear the question, his thoughts were back to his and Erica's happy first years of marriage. He knew where it had gone wrong, he thought, but he would do things the same if he had the chance to do it over.
"Does your wife ever listen to you?" he asked Garcia.
"When she has the mind to, yeah."
"How often does she have the mind to?"
Garcia rolled his eyes. "When she has already decided to do what I suggest."
"Yeah," said Paul. He thought in silence for a moment. "I'm going to need some of your equipment."
"What are you planning?" said Garcia.
"I've been thinking about the alien's objective," said Paul. "They're going for the military installation or the observatories up on the rim. Why they chose this round about path, I don't know, but what else could they be interested in? If they had wanted to screw with the water supply, they could have already done that. There's nothing in the Cauldron itself that could possibly interest these things. What else could they be doing?"
Garcia shook his head. "Why go at them from this route? It would have been much easier to land on the other side of the island, then go up the main road to the observatories, no?"
"Maybe they were trying for the element of surprise," said Paul. "I certainly wouldn't have looked for any kind of attack to come from the Cauldron's cliffs. But whatever their goal, I feel a responsibility to try and help Erica, even though she doesn't want my help."
"What about me?" asked Garcia.
"I need you to get word to the military guys up on top to be ready for something. They'll be as skeptical as my wife, so be prepared to do some convincing. Also, see if you can find Hernandez. If I can find Erica and her friends, we could help out up on the rim with information of what we've seen."
Paul motioned for Garcia to remove his pack. "I'll need your flashlamp, and an extra clip or two of ammo. You didn't bring any stun grenades did you?"
Garcia indicated that he hadn't. He handed over two clips of ammo and his flashlamp, which Paul stuffed into his backpack.
"I hope I'm back before dark, but I don't know." He looked at Garcia, and said, "I'm worried about Erica, that damned stubborn woman. I need to get up there."
"Good luck, amigo. I'll try to have things ready when you get back."
Paul shouldered his pack, motioned for Fred to follow, and began the ascent into the Cauldron.
* * * * *
"Be careful here, senoritas, there are loose rocks," said Angel. Jill was gripping his hand so tightly as they navigated the steep descent, that Angel's fingers were turning white. Erica placed each foot on solid rock, avoiding the loose gravel as best she could. Falling here would send her tumbling to the basin of the stream. Once over the stream and diversion dam, they could get back onto the flat pipeline where their pace could increase to normal. Until then, she would take baby steps.
The three companions rounded a bend in the trail and saw the diversion dam a hundred meters below.
"What say we take a dip in that before we go on, eh chicas?" said Angel, smiling and nodding towards the pool of clear water formed by the diversion dam. Even though it had warmed since this morning, it was still too cold for any kind of playing in the Cauldron's clear water.
"I'm up for it," said Jill. "It won't be too cold will it?" She was grinning like a junior high school girl, thought Erica.
Erica was about to get in on the frivolity and say that even she might dangle her feet in the stream for a few moments, when she saw a disturbance in the water around the diversion dam. Jill and Angel didn't see what she saw, for they continued talking and descending. Erica slowed and then came to a complete stop. Small rocks continued sliding downwards towards her friends. Paul had to be lying about creatures in the pipeline, didn't he?
"Hold on a second, guys."
Jill jerked to a stop, nearly dragging Angel off his feet. They both looked back up at her.
"What's going on with the water down there?" asked Erica, pointing to the growing boil of bubbles on the surface.
Jill and Angel looked at where she pointed. The water bubbled, but its cause was hidden beneath the surface.
"It is probably a small school of fish, maybe in a feeding or mating frenzy," said Angel. "Some of my friends have caught a few tasty little swimmers from this hole. I wouldn't have guessed that there were so many here, though."
"Maybe," said Erica as she moved down the trail towards her two friends. "Maybe, but lets have a look." She took off her pack, and removed her digital camera. She had used it earlier to take pictures of Jill and Angle while they appeared to hang over the edge of a large cliff. Now, she aimed the camera at the boiling area of water, and turned the telephoto lens setting up to it maximum, 3X.
The water was jumping, as if actually boiling. There was also a light smoke coming from the surface that reminded her of fog created by dry ice used in cheap Halloween spook alleys. Erica didn't know what was causing this behavior, but she didn't have a good feeling about it. Her mind kept going back to what Paul had said earlier, about aliens in the pipeline. Sure, humanity in its exploration had encountered alien species, but they had all been plant or non-intelligent animal life forms. She remembered back to some of the stories that Paul told her after their marriage, the ones about disappearing crew members from some exploration ship. At the time, she thought he had just been trying to scare her, but now she wasn't so sure.
"What is it?" asked Jill.
"I don't know," said Erica.
"Let me have a look," said Angel and took the camera from her. He looked through the camera for several moments, then handed it back to Erica. "If it wasn't for that smoke, I'd say it was caused by fish. I don't know. Any ideas?"
Erica returned her attention to the camera's view screen. Something broke the surface of the water, something like a dog head or maybe an alligator head. It had eyes on the top portion of its skull, and a longish sort of snout. No more of the head, or whatever it was, poked through the water.
"Oh no," whispered Erica. She crouched down, trying to make herself small and unnoticeable.
"What? What is it," said Jill, a confused look taking over her features.
"Get down. I think we should get out of sight for now," said Erica.
Jill dropped into a crouching position, but Angel, ever the macho Spaniard, remained standing like a lighthouse on a craggy coastline.
"Angel, get down. There's something in the water," said Erica, trying to see what it was through the camera, but having no luck.
Angel started walking down the trail. "So, lets go see what it is then. If it is not fish, then I want to know what it is."
Jill's voice almost broke as she said, "Angel, wait. I don't like the way this feels. Something is wrong."
Angel ignored her and continued down the trail. When he was almost to the water's edge, he turned and shouted back at the two crouching women, "I'll see what it is. I'm sure its just a school of fish. Maybe we can make a pole and have another bite to eat, eh?"
Erica watched him turn back to the water. The boiling had stopped now, and the smoke had drifted over the dam wall, towards the town below. A small form rose out of water, near to where Angel stood. Erica focused her camera on the thing and saw two bright flashes erupt from the water and strike Angel in the chest, at the same time hearing a soft whump-whump. Erica thought Jill was going to scream, but she only sucked in her breath as if she were having trouble inhaling the cool mountain air.
Erica dropped her camera into the dirt and saw Angel fall headlong into the stream, a small splash the only indication that he had gone under. She waited for several seconds, and when he didn't come back up, she heard scuffling behind her. She turned to see Jill scrambling back up the trail on all fours. Actually, thought Erica, that was a very good idea. She picked up her camera, and began shuffling up the steep trail herself.
She stopped after fifty meters. She saw that Jill was still climbing, her breath now exploding in and out of her lungs.
"Jill, wait," said Erica.
No answer. She called again, this time louder. "Jill, we need to see what is happening. Maybe we can still help Angel." Still no answer and Jill continued climbing.
"Damn it, Jill. Stop."
Finally, Jill slowed and looked back, coming to a stop. Her breathing was hard and ragged, like she had just run an Olympic event. The fright in her eyes reminded Erica of a small child, awakened by a nightmare.
"It killed him," said Jill. "Just gunned him down like an animal. He never had a chance. Why didn't he listen to me? Why didn't he stop?" Her eyes darted down the trail, maybe expecting to see the creature that had killed Angel.
Erica turned away from Jill, shame now filling her breast. Why indeed hadn't Angel listened to them. For the same reason reason she hadn't listened to Paul. Because the whole idea of aliens in the pipeline was absurd. Aliens didn't appear and attack innocent people on a weekend hike. At least, they weren't supposed to. Not in the world that Erica lived in. She glanced back to Jill, whose entire body was shivering. Well, thought Erica, that old world of rational happenings and consequences was now a thing of the past.
She pulled her phone out of her pants pocket and dialed Paul's number.
"Paul, I'm glad you answered. I didn't know if you would after I hung up on you earlier. I'm sorry about that, I-"
"Are you OK?"
"No. They killed Angel, Paul. We're in trouble."
"Can you get out of there," he asked.
Erica almost broke down and started sobbing at the sound of his voice. She wished that he were here now.
"I don't know. They've got us trapped on the upper side of the diversion dam and I don't think there's another way across. Paul, I'm sorry, I should have listened to you earlier - it sounded so hokey, though."
"Erica, listen to me," said Paul. "You've got to calm down, first of all."
She took a deep breath, then said, "I'm OK now. What are these things? What do they want?"
He told her about the deaths of the man and boy, and about the firefight at the pipeline. Then he asked, "Can you see them from where you are?"
"No, we got out of there as fast as we could when they killed Angel."
"Can you get somewhere and watch them, without them seeing you? Maybe they won't come up any higher. I wonder if they are trying to do something to the water supply."
"I think I can watch them," said Erica. "Hold on a minute." She covered the phone with her othe hand and then asked Jill, "Do you have a pair of binoculars?"
Jill pulled off her pack and rummaged through it for a moment. She held a small instrument that looked like a mini pirate's telescope and measured the length of her hand. "Angel must have had the binoculars. All I've got is this cheap monocular."
"That'll do," said Erica. She spoke back into the phone. "I can do it without them seeing me. Give me a few minutes, then I'll call back."
"Wait," said Paul. "Is there anywhere you can hide?"
"Maybe farther up the trail. There were a couple thick stands of pines up where we took several pictures."
"Once you see what they are doing, get up there and hide. If they don't know you're there, then you'll be OK."
Erica closed the phone and dropped it into her pocket. She climbed the short distance to Jill and took the monocular.
She said to Jill, "You know where we took the pictures? Make your way back to there. I think there is enough space off the trail for them to not see us if they come this way. I'm going to see if I can make out what they're doing. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Jill seemed to calm down a little once she had firm instructions of what to do. She began climbing up the trail. Erica watched her for a few seconds, thought she would be OK and then started back down the trail. She wanted to get to the point in the trail where the diversion dam first came into view. She could lay down and watch the water with out exposing herself to view. At least that was the plan.
Erica got on her hands and knees a few meters before the bend in the trail where she could see the diversion dam. The last meter she traversed on her belly. She didn't know much about what she was dealing with at this point, having only Paul's brief account of his pursuit and fight at the pipeline. She would be as careful as needed to make it out of this alive - that was her only goal at this point.
She wondered at her apparent lack of nerves now that she was taking action. If someone would have told her a week ago that today she would meet with a band of murderous alien beings and that it would be just her and her brain against them and their deadly weapons, she would have thought that she would have wet herself. Of course, she was scared. Nearly scared out of her wits, she thought. But she knew she had to be in control here, or she would never have the chance of being scared again.
First, she placed her digital camera in a position to capture as much of the diversion dam, its pool, and the trail leading up from the pool as possible. She then positioned several stones around the camera, then poured several handfuls of dirt among the rocks, trying to make the camera as invisible as possible and still be able to film the action she thought would come this way. She set the camera to continuous record. She figured it had about six to eight hours of battery power left. That would be plenty.
Next, she peeked over the edge of the trail and focused the monocular on the pool. She didn't feel like a captain pirate of old, looking for booty, but rather like the poor merchantman in the sights of the merciless cutthroats. She saw several of the beings crawling over the rocks at the pools edge. She thumbed up the monocular magnification, and saw two of the reptilian creatures pulling a third out of the water and onto a rock. That must be the one that Paul shot, she thought. She scanned left and right, noticing two others keeping lookout, one facing towards Los Llanos below, the other looking in her direction.
She heard a strange ululation from one of the aliens; she thought the sound came from the alien next to the wounded being lying on the rock. The first voice was joined by another, then another, and soon all four voices blended in a strange and haunting song of sorrow. The dirge was short; one moment they were all singing, the next they were silent. Erica watched as the first alien, the one she identified as the leader, took several rocks and stuffed them inside the wounded alien's skin suit. She focused on the wounded creature, trying to make out if it was alive or dead. She could see several dark stains on the creature's suit. There was no movement from the body as the rocks were placed inside, and Erica felt certain that it was dead. With a quick motion, the leader closed the suit, and pushed the rock laden body into the pool. It sank without a trace. The others gathered up their gear, looked towards her, and began hopping across the rocks in the stream. They reached the near side of the stream and began climbing towards her position.
Erica crouched and began climbing up the steep incline as fast as her lungs and legs allowed. She was certain that the aliens were far enough behind that they wouldn't see her before she reached the cover of a stand of pines fifty meters or so up the trail. She hoped that Jill was hiding there now. Earlier they had taken pictures of each other standing near the edge of a cliff. The magnificent Cauldron with its jagged cliffs and green trees made for the picture's stunning backdrop. Now, Erica hoped that they could retreat to a small edge that she had seen near the cliff, and hide until the reptilian creatures passed.
It would have to work - there was nowhere else to hide. The terrain here was much too rugged and steep to try maneuvering anywhere but the groomed trail. The loose rocks and dirt away from the trail would be very dangerous, and once a slip and fall occurred, there would be no hope of stopping until the bottom many, many meters below. Unfortunately, the trail offered no cover, and if they didn't get off it before the picnic area, the aliens would have them trapped there - the trail was a dead-end there and went no higher. The picnic area was at the base of the Cauldron's four hundred meter cliffs that encircled the entire bowl. Once trapped there...well, she didn't need to imagine what would happen then.
Erica reached the pine trees, then tried to hide behind one of the larger ones and have a look back down the trail, but realized the tree just didn't have enough girth to hide her. Two of the aliens were just passing her hidden camera. They were darting their heads back and forth, but didn't appear to take notice of her camera.
"Jill," she whispered. "Jill." She saw her near the cliff's edge, crouching behind a small bush, her face pale. The bush didn't even cover half of Jill's crouching form - they would have to do better than that. Erica carefully made her way off the trail and down the slope to where they had taken pictures earlier. She could hear noises coming from the trail. If the aliens arrived at the pine stand, they would see the two women standing like idiots on the edge of the cliff, with nowhere to run. She sat down and slide her bottom along the ground, not trusting herself to stay aloft. A fall this close to the edge would mean certain death. She moved as fast as she dared to the small ledge, but it too was open to plain view from the trail. They would be seen. The hissings and clickings were closer - at the edge of the pine stand.
She motioned for Jill to slide down towards her. There was another ledge, a couple of steps down from the one she was now perched on. She looked down, and seeing the near vertical fall, averted her gaze.
"I'm scared, Erica. What do we do?"
Erica put her finger to her lips in the motion that every child recognized - shhh. "Slide down here to me," she said. "There's another ledge down a meter or so from this one. If we can get to it, I think we'll be out of sight."
Erica, trying not to think about what she was going to do, half hopped, half slid her way to the ledge below her. She felt her stomach clench with fear, but held on to the jagged outcroppings and safely reached the ledge. She could hear the aliens now; they had to be within sight of them.
"Hurry, Jill, slide down." She saw Jill's feet coming over the edge, much to fast. Jill's body slid over the edge, her hands grasping at loose rocks and dirt.
"Erica, help me," she said so loudly that Erica was certain the aliens would come to investigate. She is going to fall, thought Erica, but as Jill's feet slipped off the edge of the upper ledge, her knees crashed hard onto its surface. Then her knees went over too, but the jarring impact had slowed her slide enough for her to grab the ledge before falling to her death.
"Hold on Jill," said Erica. She could hear the aliens, a stone's throw away. The voices were harsh sounding to Erica's ears, as if they were planning vengeance for their comrade's death. She stood and peered over the cliff. The four aliens were not more than five meters away. She held her breath, and eased herself back down. Small pebbles and dirt poured off the ledge supporting Jill, and Erica saw that she had her eyes clenched shut. Tears rolled out of the corners of her eyes, and Erica knew she was in trouble. Erica also knew that if she stood to help, the aliens would see and kill them for sure. She held her ground and prayed that Jill could hold on for a few more moments.
The voices passed above them, then began, ever so slowly to recede, thought Erica. Jill grunted, and Erica saw that she was losing her grip. Jill's body slid several centimeters lower. Erica again raised her head above the edge and peered over. One alien was hanging back - had it heard the movement?
"I'm falling," whispered Jill and she slipped yet lower.
Erica knew she had to act now or it would be too late. She could see huge drops of sweat mingling with the tears on Jill's cheek, and Erica knew it wouldn't be long before her friend just dropped from the ledge, like the pine cone she'd seen fall from a tree earlier in their hike. Erica poked her head up again, just enough to see over the ledge. The alien was still there. Any sudden movement, such as that needed to help Jill, would catch its attention and bring death to both of them. She felt the terrible pains of guilt as she chose not to move to help her friend. If she helped, both would die. If she did nothing, then maybe one would live.
Jill's fingers lost their grip and her jacket scraped across the rock ledge - then she slid over, her eyes wide, and was gone. Erica watched as Jill's body tumbled through the air in silence, in sharp contrast to her own spirit, which screamed in agony.
* * * * *
Slu Nitook was deeply saddened by the loss of Har Koolah. He wouldn't be able to avenge his mate's death on the creature that killed her, but if everything went as planned, then he and his entire race would pay for his arrogance.
Slu Nitook relished this feeling of fire in his guts; his sleek body fed on the hatred he now felt for the inhabitants of this watery world. He wanted to scale this precipice on which he hung and then kill more of them. He thought back on his earlier reluctance to exterminate the youngling in the forest near the beach, and scolded himself for his weakness. He wouldn't send one of his subordinates to perform that duty again - he would do it himself, and do it with pleasure.
He placed claw over claw, and pulled himself up the cliff face. How slight was the gravity of this world, he thought. He hadn't had the chance to notice the difference until the climb upwards began. He pulled himself into a small crevice in the rock, and sat his backside down for a moment. He looked down and saw the three other members of his Ka climbing towards his position. He was, perhaps, two hundred meters above their starting point, and could now see the entire bowl of this ancient volcano. He understood that it must be a volcano, similar to those on his own dying world. If only his planet could have the water of this world, then this and future missions of bloodshed would not have to be.
He fastened another anchor into the solid rock wall, and gathered up some of the slack in the thin climbing cable that attached him to the others. His Ka would not need the safety provided by the cable - their claws and powerful muscles would allow them to grip this rock for hour upon hour of climbing. With the lessened gravity, he questioned the need for the lengthy and difficult training he had undergone to prepare for this mission. Well, better prepared than surprised, he thought.
Thuz Sook reached him and pulled herself into the small cave. He moved over grudgingly, but she needed space to sit, as would Ska Nabo. Thuz Sook pulled in the slack from her section of the cable and after a few moments, helped Ska Nabo into the crevice, more accommodating than he had been, thought Slu Nitook. Never mind. He was the mission leader, and they were subordinate to him and his rule. Another several moments passed and Shulah Nabar reached their resting place, but this time, she did not enter the cavity for rest, but continued climbing upward. She would now take the lead, climbing upwards and anchoring the cable every twenty or thirty meters. When she reached an appropriate resting place, she would do as Slu Nitook was doing now. This swapping of positions would continue upwards, like a thin, delicate insect crawling up a wall, until they reached the top. Then the real mission would begin.
* * * * *
Erica reached the edge of the pool where Angel had been shot without warning. She was afraid to cross, fearful that another one of the small aliens would pop out of the water and put a smoking hole through her chest as well. She had retrieved her hidden camera from its hiding spot and had watched the several moments of film showing the aliens as they scrambled past the lens. They had passed within a meter of the camera, and Erica saw the strange features of their faces, the smooth flowing muscles under the glimmering suits, the small packs they carried on their backs, their ugly weapons. She counted the aliens, making sure that all of them had passed the camera. None waited in the pool but the dead one weighted down with stones and sunk to the bottom. The fact that they had all passed gave her no comfort - she was still frightened. No use waiting, it will only make it worse, she told herself, and forced herself to jumped from rock to rock, until she was across the stream. She began climbing the steep rock wall that would take her back to the concrete pipe, and to the trail leading to Los Llanos.
She reached the top of the precipice, where earlier in the day she had stood daydreaming while Angel and Jill beckoned her from the far side of the stream. How long ago it now seemed to her. She saw Jill fall, for the hundredth time since Jill had actually died. She looked into the water of the pool, and thought that Angel's body must be in there somewhere as well. She shuddered, and began walking down the trail.
As she walked along the concrete pipe, her mind replayed the scene at the ledge, and just as before, she chose to not help Jill but instead let her fall to her death. It was her only choice, she told herself. If she would have risen up to help her, Jill would still be dead, and she along with her.
She walked in a daze for an hour before she saw Paul hurrying up the trail with a dog running at his side.
* * * * *
Paul knew that something terrible had happened as soon as he saw her, even before he realized that she was alone. She half ran, half stumbled into his arms. He hugged her tightly, and smelled her familiar scent. Fred liked her smell as well, and licked her hand when she lowered it to pet his bobbing head. She didn't release Paul immediately as he thought she would. She held him, and a deep sadness swelled in him when he realized that this closeness was a temporary relief from his sense of loss. He did still love her, but he knew that she didn't love him as she once had. Still, he cherished the softness of her embrace, however brief it might be.
He reluctantly let her go as she pulled back. She looked at him for a moment in silence, then broke into great sobs. He held her again, listening without saying anything, as she told of Jill's fall from the cliff and Angel's death at the pool. After some time, she showed him the camera footage and then, with his arm wrapped about her shoulders, and Fred close by their sides, the three Earth beings started their descent out of the Cauldron.
* * * * *
They reached Jill's Land Rover just as the Sun was sinking behind the western horizon. Erica didn't have keys, but she knew that Jill kept an extra key in a magnetic holder attached to the inside of the rear driver's side fender. Paul reached up into the wheel well, found the key holder and used the key inside to let them into Jill's four wheel drive. Fred jumped in the back at a motion from Paul, and Erica climbed into the passenger's seat. Paul switched on the headlights and began the drive through Los Llanos that would take them out of the city. He first would first wind up the steep mountain side, then pass through the tunnel that separated the western side of La Palma from the capital of Santa Cruz on the Eastern side. From the capital, they would again ascend a steep, winding road to reach the summit of the Cauldron ,the observatories, and the military installations - to where they guessed they aliens were heading.
As they drove, Paul called Garcia. Garcia had not been able to convince the military guys up on the Cauldron's rim that they were in any kind of danger. They did say they would post an extra guard at the gate however. Paul shook his head. A lot of good that would do. He was certain that the aliens would just present themselves at the front gate like a tourist group on a weekend outing. The police were taking statements from both Garcia and Hernandez, and they wanted Paul to come in as well. He had no intention of doing that right now, however. He needed to get to the rim and make the military boys understand that they were in real danger. Erica also wanted to get her research out of the observatory before any thing happened to it. Paul told Garcia that he would come into the police station as soon as he could, then hung up, feeling a little guilty that he was leaving his two companions to deal with the messy work of police questioning.
The Land Rover passed out of Los Llanos and into the lush banana plantations. They passed more of the irrigation reservoirs and Paul shivered a little at the thought of the dead man still floating in one of them. He drove higher onto the mountain and the road began winding through the dark vegetation.
They drove without speaking - the sound of Fred's slight panting keeping the silence at bay. As they passed into the narrow tunnel through the top of the island's spine, Fred gave a nervous whimper.
"It's OK, boy, we'll be out in a minute," said Paul.
"Will we?" asked Erica. She stared out the passenger's side window at the blank tunnel walls.
Paul took her meaning and shrugged. "You don't have to come to the top with me. I could drop you off in Santa Cruz. We still have friends there if you need to be with someone."
"What happened to us Paul?" she asked. "I mean, really, what happened? Was it just over having kids that we split up?"
Paul glanced over at her, but she was still focused on looking out the side window. Paul was now confused. In his mind, that was the entire reason. Maybe he had pushed her too hard to have children, and he realized that, but the issue of children was the only reason he knew of that they ever fought.
Erica let out a small sigh, then continued, almost talking to herself. "It wasn't like I never wanted to have kids. I just didn't think it was the right time. I still had a lot of research to do. Now I don't know. Maybe I was wrong." She turned and looked at Paul. He glanced at her again.
"Is it going to be too late now?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean all of this. The aliens, us, everything. Why are they here? What do they want with us? Are all of our lives going to change because of them?"
Paul shrugged again, feeling the anxiety of the questions himself. He didn't know the answers, but he did know that the aliens were not here on a mission of peace. He also knew that he still wanted to work things out with Erica, and if she was asking about it, then now was the time to tell her how he felt.
"Look, Erica, I'm sorry about demanding that you have kids. If I would have been a better husband, I would have known that you needed more time. I was selfish, I see that now, and, well, I'm sorry." He wanted to tell her that they could still work things out, that they could try again and it would be better this time. But, he couldn't, not yet. He needed to know more about how she felt.
They emerged from the tunnel, and the road began a steep descent down into the Capital. Far off the eastern shore, a hundred kilometers or more, they could see the towering volcano of Tenerife with the last rays of the sun still lighting its upper peak. Paul had ridden the cable car up that slope several years ago, and then hiked the last hour up the boulder strewn trail to reach a plush restaurant and gift shop. He had eaten a Belgian waffle smothered in whipped cream and marveled at the fantastic view afforded from the huge glass windows facing down the slope. He didn't think that the trek to the top of the Cauldron would give him such pleasure.
They passed through another tunnel that marked the entrance to Santa Cruz. This port city was the largest of the island, one that Columbus visited on his trip to discover the new world. The steep streets of this small capital always reminded Paul of San Fransisco, although this Spanish city was nothing like that far away coastal city of the United States. Still, he loved walking the streets here in the evening, when the Spaniards would go out with girlfriends, boyfriends, or families, and walk hand in hand for hours, enjoying the evening air.
"I should let you out," said Paul. "It will be dangerous."
Erica shook her head, "You know me, always letting my work rule my life. I need to get my work to a safer spot."
Paul thought about arguing his point, but knew it wouldn't make any difference. It was her choice after all. "You always were stubborn," he said, a small grin on his face.
* * * * *
The fabric that encased Slu Nitook and his Ka all but made them invisible in the darkness at the Cauldron's rim. He slithered through the small opening cut into the outer defensive barrier of this radar installation. The barrier would provide protection against a massed assault, if the defenders were ready, but not against his silent and invisible Ka.
He could see two of the tall aliens in small structures several hundred meters away. It was the main entrance to the base. He motioned for Ska Nabo to dispatch the guards, and to do it without sound. Shulah Nabar and Thuz Sook would accompany him inside the large building where they would plant the charges to destroy it.
The three aliens crawled across the sharp rocks littering the rim, eventually reaching the building. The words AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY stood out in bold red letters, but Slu Nitook neither understood them nor cared what they meant. He looked to the base entrance and now saw only one guard still standing. Watching with a bit of jealousy at not being able to kill the guards himself, he saw Ska Naboo's blade flash and the guard disappear from his view. Confident that his Ka wouldn't be seen now from anyone outside, he tried the door, but it would not open. He stepped back as Thuz Sook applied a dose of the metal eating corrosive. They waited for a moment, then the smoking handle fell with a clang to the concrete floor. With weapons draw, the three slide inside.
Slu Nitook pressed himself against the cold walls of this place. The corridors here were not bright; not as dark as he would have preferred, but not light enough to give them away.
He needed to get to the command center of the radar site where he could send his message and then destroy the building. He knew at this moment, the other infiltration teams were also carrying out their orders and destroying radar sites around this watery world. With all major space-ward looking radar sites destroyed, the planet would be open to the heavy troop carriers waiting to pounce. Small vessels, similar to the one he and his Ka had arrived in, could cloak themselves from detection, but it was more difficult to hide the behemoth transport ships that were needed in an operation of this scale. Destruction of the major radar sites would improve the element of surprise, hopefully to the point where success was assured before the inevitable detection by the planet's military forces.
The coming battle would be fierce, he knew. The planet's inhabitants were technologically advanced, almost as advanced as his own species, and they had the advantage of fighting on their home ground. Here, he smiled, for he knew that his own people would have the advantage of fighting, not on the ground, but in the water, which made up the majority of this planet's surface.
He consulted his instrumentation for the location of the command center. Appropriately, it was at the center of the building. He motioned for the others to follow and moved forward, hugging the walls as he went. He could now hear the strange voices of the aliens coming from ahead. There was no need for stealth at this point, in fact, the bigger the commotion the better. He wanted those investigating his diversion to think he had completed his purpose and then fled.
He poked his head around the last corner, and saw six of the inhabitants with their backs toward him, facing their information screens. Another three walked from station to station, directing the actions of the others. He pulled out a small explosive device, armed it and, urging the others to be ready, lobbed it into the command center. He ducked behind the corner, and a tremendous flash of heat and sound swept by him. He crouched low and moved into the smoke and fire. The two members of his Ka followed with weapons at the ready.
Most of the creatures that had been sitting at the consoles were obviously dead, but Slu Nitook shot each of them in the center of the head as he passed, just to be sure. Now wasn't the time to be surprised by the obvious. He heard the shouts of one of the aliens ahead. He crouched behind the smoking remains of one of their sitting devices, and saw a tall form stumbling towards him through the haze. The creature didn't even have a weapon out, he noticed. Slu Nitook rose up, pointed his pulse weapon at the bleeding creature and blasted a hole in the center of its chest. It let out a shrill cry and fell with a loud crash among a pile of its destroyed equipment. Slu Nitook stepped closer to the dead being, and noticed that there were insignia of rank on its shoulders. Some officer, thought Slu Nitook, to die without even drawing its weapon. He hoped that he would give a better account of himself when his time to die came.
He heard the report of an energy weapon; one of his Ka had killed another of the this planet's beings. Ska Nabo and Thuz Sook returned and indicated that there were no more living creatures here. Now they would have to be quick. Ska Nabo found the opening to the outside that led to the large radar dish, a hundred meters off. She disappeared through the door where she would connect the specialized device which she carried to the radar and send the agreed upon message of success. Thuz Sook unpacked the small amount of explosive she had carried here, and began placing it around the command center.
While his two female companions did their work, Slu Nitook took off his own pack and removed the complex device which was the real purpose of their mission. He examined the device; it was no larger than his head, but the destructive power contained in it was beyond comprehension. Now, where to place it? In reality, it did not matter where he placed the device, as its nuclear core would vaporize most of the summit on which this station stood. These beings must not have the opportunity of repairing damage to the radar, at least not until it was too late. The device must not be damaged by the explosives that Ska Nabo was setting up as another diversion. He remained still and thought for a moment. It was meant to destroy the entire radar site, so why not place it on the radar itself. He could hide it high up in the metal structure, where the creatures would not look to find it. He moved to door that lead to the radar tower, and to the completion of his mission.
* * * * *
Paul skidded to a stop in the gravel outside the guard station of the U.N. Space Agency radar installation. He hoped he could talk some sense into the commander. He knew his story was fantastical, but that's where Erica's digital camera would come into play. She had recordings of these alien beings and he hoped that would be enough to convince the station commander to at least beef up his security detail, if not call in reinforcements.
Paul's hope melted away as he saw a pair of boots sticking out of bottom of the nearest guard shack. He reached for his machine pistol.
"Stay here," he told Erica. "As soon as I get back, we'll go get your research materials and get out of here."
He stuffed the extra magazines into his jacket, and clicked off the safety of his weapon. He pulled his service automatic from his shoulder holster and handed it to Erica.
"Just in case," he said, and she tucked the pistol into the belt of her hiking trousers.
He got out of the Land Rover, and in a crouch, moved to the guard shack. He found a guard with his throat slit from ear to ear; the same type of wound that had been inflicted on the small boy, earlier in the day. The aliens were already here.
He turned back to the Land Rover when he heard one of its doors open. He saw Fred bounce out of the passenger door and run towards him. The dog's ears dropped when he saw the body on the ground, but then perked up again as his nose caught the scent of the off-worlders.
Paul waved to Erica, who had moved over to the driver's seat of the Land Rover, then he passed the yellow and black striped crossbar that was blocking the road into the base. Fred moved ahead, nose to the ground, and Paul once again trusted the mangy dog to lead him to his target.
Fred was leading him away from the main installation, and Paul wasn't sure if he should follow the dog, who hadn't misled him yet, or to go directly to the base commander.
"Hold on boy," he said to Fred. Paul stood for a moment, weighing his decision. If he followed Fred, he may be able to catch the aliens by surprise and take a few down. On the other hand, the commander needed to know that his security had been breached as soon as possible. Paul decided to go to the commander first. He was certain that Fred could pick up the scent again after that.
"Come on boy, let's go this way." Fred stopped, hesitated, then whimpered. "Come on Fred, we'll chase them in a few minutes."
Paul turned and began running to the base command center. Fred let out a whine which stopped him in his tracks. He felt the ground reach up and punch him in the chest before he realized what was happening. He was knocked off his feet as a fireball exploded out of what had once been the base command center. Pieces of wood, concrete and metal began falling around him. He covered his head with his arms and prayed that nothing bigger than a brick would hit him. After a moment, he decide it was safe to stand, and he looked towards the command center. Only thick smoke, dust and flames were visible in that direction.
Paul didn't see Fred any longer. The blast must have scared the dog off. "Fred! Here boy, come on." Nothing. Well, he couldn't wait now, he needed to see if there were any survivors of the blast; his gut told him not to expect much.
He moved into the growing cloud of smoke and dust, trying to keep his sense of direction to the command center, or what was left of it.
* * * * *
Erica slammed the Land Rover into gear, and spit gravel for several meters as she accelerated in reverse. There was nothing she could do to help Paul by sitting in the front seat of the SUV; she might as well do something useful. If these crazy aliens were destroying buildings, then her observatory could be next. She had to get her research out of there. It had taken her years, and she wasn't about to sit here and do nothing just because Paul had told her to stay put.
She swung the Land Rover around, and sped off to the observatory she called home. It was half a kilometer away, to the south. She drove as fast as she dared, which at the moment was very fast, taking the gentle curves as a Formula One driver would, by crossing over into the other lane in order to make the series of turns as straight as possible. She hoped that no other researchers were up on the rim yet. She knew that some maintenance crews were up here during the day, but she hoped they would be gone by now. The scientists and astronomers wouldn't be up here for several more hours.
She pulled into the Director of Operation's parking spot; it was nearest the entrance. Then she wondered, why not break all the rules? This was an exceptional situation, after all. She bounced the Land Rover over the parking curb, and drove it right up to the observatory's main doors. She shut off the engine, jumped out and entered the building with her encoded key card.
It took her five trips to get her notes and research documents loaded into the back of the Land Rover. She would need Paul's help to move the actual laser onto a hydraulic lift cart. From there, they could get it into the back of the SUV. At least she had the plans and notes on how to construct her invention, even if she couldn't get the actual hardware yet.
She closed the rear cargo door, and drove back to the guard gate at the entrance to the radar site, this time driving like a mother with a child on board instead of a race car champion. She pulled up to the gate, and thought of calling Paul on his cell phone, when she saw a shadow pass in front of the Land Rover's headlight beams. Her breathing quickened, and she felt her knees go weak. It was one of the aliens, she had no doubt of that. She locked the SUV's doors, as if that would help. Then she saw Fred pass in front of the headlight beams, following in the tracks of the little alien. Be careful Fred, she thought.
She took out her cell phone and dialed Paul's number. She realized that she had never taken his number off the Do Not Accept call list of her phone. She had put it on the list after he had tried warning her about the aliens, and her only thought had been that he was a jerk. Now, who was the jerk? He may have tried calling during her ordeal in the Cauldron. He was probably worried sick when she didn't answer. Maybe he even thought she had been killed. Too late to worry about that now. She dialed his number and was disappointed when she heard Paul's phone ring from the center console of the SUV. He had been using it while driving, and must have set it down when they started talking and never remembered to pick it up again. She only hoped that Fred could help him now.
* * * * *
Paul approached the ruins that used to be the command center. The explosion had left a crater several meters deep and twenty meters wide where the building had once stood. He saw now that there was no hope of survivors; any one in the building when it exploded was gone. Oddly, he could see the ten meter radar dish sitting lopsided off to the north, and wondered why the aliens hadn't blown it up as well. Either way was effective; destroy the controls or destroy the actual radar, the results were the same - no radar.
What should he do now? He had come here to try and prevent just such an occurrence, but had failed. Who would he warn now? He turned and began making his way through the rubble, back to the Land Rover. He could still help Erica save her work.
Fred trotted in front of him, in no hurry as he headed towards the cliffs. Paul stopped and watched the dog for a moment.
"Hey boy, what are you up to, huh," he said to the retreating dog. Fred slowed and looked back at him, but then continued on. He's on to something, thought Paul, and headed after the dog.
As he walked closer to the edge of the rim, Paul's internal warning beacon rang louder and louder. He crouched and turned in a complete circle, his senses coming to full alert. He saw no movement. The dog was at the edge of the cliff, sniffing a silvery object on the ground. Paul moved closer to the edge, but stopped ten meters away. There was no way he was going nearer than this to the edge. A four hundred meter drop, like the one he now faced, would give you plenty of time to see your life flash in front of you as you fell screaming to your death. After Erica's description of Jill's fall, Paul wanted nothing to do with this much larger cliff.
Paul heard hisses, coming from over the cliff edge. A frigid fear gripped his insides as he contemplated moving closer to the edge. Its not worth dying over, he told himself. Wait for someone with more authority than he had to come in and take care of the problem. No, that's not who he was. He closed to within two meters of the edge, and saw a slender cable anchored into the solid rock. He sat down and inched closer to the edge. He leaned out to see what was below, but couldn't see from that position. He rolled onto his stomach, and after hooking his foot into the cable, slid forward until his head peeked over the edge of the rim.
Paul was not one that was overly frightened by heights, but this view sent his head reeling. He saw the ocean, kilometers away and could sense the abyss below him that lead into darkness. He forced himself to look down, and saw two of the aliens climbing down the cliff face, their suits attached to the cable. Were all four of them there? He squinted his eyes, trying to see below the two reptilian creatures, but couldn't make out for sure if there were others there or not.
He backed away from the cliff until he sat next to the anchor point of the cable. It was thin, but looked as if it could support several hundred kilograms. Paul had used similar climbing cables in boarding actions, both in space and at sea. He placed the barrel of his machine pistol close to the cable, turned his head, and emptied two seconds worth of ammo onto the cable. He heard the taught cable twang and then watched it break and slither over the edge.
Again, he inched his head over the dizzying cliff edge, and saw the two aliens clinging to the rock wall. They had not gone down with the cable as he had anticipated. No problem, he though, he'd just help them along. He emptied the remainder of his clip on the small creatures. First one, then the other fell, and with no cable to save them, they tumbled into darkness.
He backed away from the edge, sat up, and was struck in the back with a force that knocked the breath out of his lungs and plunged him forward - to within centimeters of the edge. He heard Fred bark and snarl, saw movement behind him and then the pressure was off his back. He scrambled away from the cliff edge, and saw Fred and another alien twisting in the sharp rocks. Fred had his jaws around the small alien's arm, which held a wicked looking serrated knife. The two rolled and tumbled in the rocks. Paul replaced the spent ammo clip and looked for a shot at the alien, but it was impossible to shoot and not hit both of the flashing creatures. Paul was about to call Fred to him, hoping that the separating dog would give him a chance to fire upon the alien, when both the dog and the alien rolled over the edge of the cliff, and were gone.
* * * * *
From high on the radar tower, Slu Nitook saw his prey. The creature had shot Har Koolah, and now, had killed his other mates as well. Slu Nitook lost all desire to escape the coming inferno of the nuclear blast he had set in motion; now his only desire was to kill his mate's killer and then be blown away to meet them in the glorious afterlife given to warriors.
He had come back to the radar tower after the massive explosion had destroyed the building. He had worried that the leaning radar tower may have dislodged the hidden nuclear weapon. His attention was drawn to the cliff when the killer fired his weapon. He had watched from the tower as the killer had first cut the climbing cable and then, without honor, had blasted Thuz Sook and Shulah Nabar from the cliff. He hadn't seen them fall, but knew they were now dead, if not from the creature's weapon fire, then from the terrific height of the fall.
His heart had rejoiced as Ska Nabo had attacked and almost pushed the killer over the edge. She had nearly driven her knife into the coward's sprawling back. His rejoicing turned to sorrow as the other creature, the four legged one, had prevented the knife's killing blow and had then sacrificed itself by dragging both itself and Ska Nabo over the cliff edge.
Now, Slu Nitook knew that he must kill this coward. After making sure the nuclear device was still attached and hidden, he climbed down from the tower and made his way through the destruction towards his target.
He ran over the rocks, jumping from one to the next, until he had the killer in his sights. At the moment of pulling the trigger, a large vehicle with dazzling lights bounded over the slope and forced the killer to jump out of the vehicle's path. Slu Nitook's shots slammed into the vehicle, bursting one of the light producers. The killer staggered, but did not go down. The coward was firing at him as it stumbled into the vehicle. Slu Nitook made no effort to evade the projectiles whizzing by him, but fired again and again, hoping a lucky shot would take down the fleeing coward. His shots shattered glass and gouged out chunks of metal, but the vehicle roared off in the direction from which it had arrived.
* * * * *
"I guess I missed one," said Paul.
" I guess so. Are you OK?"
"Yes, but only because Fred saved me." He reached under his leg and winced. His hand was covered in blood as he brought it away. "It grazed my leg, but I'll be fine until we get to a hospital."
He saw a look of concern on her face, and said, "Really, its not that bad, I'll be OK."
"It's not that," she said. "I think the Land Rover took a few too many hits in that last exchange. We're overheating and I'm losing power."
"Can we get down to Santa Cruz?" Paul asked.
"I don't know."
Paul ejected the empty clip from his machine pistol and rammed in a full one. "This is the last clip."
Erica drove another hundred meters before the battered Land Rover lurched to a stop. They were near her observatory. She exited the Land Rover and went to the passenger's side door to help Paul out. "I think we should head for my office. We can call for help and then take cover inside."
Paul nodded and then grimaced in pain as he put weight on his injured leg, but he thought he could make it to the observatory. He leaned back into the SUV and snatched up his cell phone before they left the vehicle.
They made their way to Erica's observatory as fast as Paul's damaged leg allowed. They had not seen the alien in their short walk, but could almost feel it gaining on them. They closed the outer glass door and made their way to elevator when the front door exploded in thousands of glass daggers. The alien was running into the building as the elevator doors closed on Paul and Erica.
Paul's cell phone rang on the ride to the third floor.
"This is Paul."
"Paul, this is Garcia. You've got trouble."
"Tell me about it," Paul said. "Look, we got three of the aliens, the last one is on our tails. Any way someone could get up here quick and help?"
"We're already on our way, but you've got bigger problems than one alien," Garcia said. "We've got several reports of attacks on other radar facilities around the world, and here's the bad news, some of them have had massive explosions."
"Yeah, they blew up the command center here as well," Paul said.
"No, no, Paul, listen to me. I mean massive as in blowing away the top third of the rim. They used nukes, Paul."
After a moment of silence, Garcia said, "Paul, you still there?"
"I'm here. How much time do you think we have?"
"I don't know. We didn't get that much information from the other sites. Its chaos all over, man. I think this is a prelude to an invasion."
Paul thought for a moment, remembering the radar tower. "I think I know where the nuke is. Can you get a chopper up here, and fast?"
"We're in one now. ETA is about eight minutes."
"We'll hold out in the Newton Observatory, in Erica's office. Room 310, third floor," Paul said. "And Garcia, if things go bad for us here, I think the nuke is on the radar tower somewhere, so start looking there first." He hung up.
Erica's eyes went wide. "Nuke? What's going on, Paul?"
"There have been other attacks, and nukes were used. That's all I know."
The elevator arrived at the third floor, the bell sounded and the doors slid open.
As they came out of the elevator, Erica said, "I've got an idea. If we can lure the creature past my office door, I think we can stop it."
"How?" asked Paul.
"By cutting it in half. If we can set up the laser in my office to aim out the door, I think we're in business. At max power, this thing will cut through an inch of steel at a hundred meters."
Paul raised his eyebrows. "Just don't miss and get me instead."
They hurried to Erica's office and began adjusting the laser so that it pointed out her office door.
"I'll try and coax the alien up here," Paul said. "Be ready, but don't fire until I get by. I don't want to know how it feels to be a cube of butter sliced by the proverbial hot knife." He checked the machine pistol's ammo clip and started to leave. Erica reached out and took his arm. She kissed him on the cheek and said, "Be careful." Paul nodded, and headed down the corridor.
Erica hid as best she could behind the large cart on which the laser rested. She could see the hallway just outside the door, and would be able to see Paul run past. She turned on the laser to let it warm up to operating temperature, but kept the beam turned off for now. Once the laser was at temperature, then a mere flick of the switch would instantly send the high powered beam across the hallway, slicing through any living tissue in its way.
Paul braced his back against every corner he came to, cast a quick glance down the corridor, then crouched and entered at the ready. He made his way to the balcony that overlooked the large entrance way to the building, the area they had been in when the alien shot out the windows. He looked down, but didn't see the alien.
He made his way to the stairwell that serviced all three of the observatory's levels. He pushed open the door, and made his way down the concrete steps, until he reached the bottom level. If he could surprise the nimble alien, he could take it down with one burst of auto-fire. It was quick, he had been witness to that fact several times today, so he needed to remember that, or it could get him killed.
Paul wondered why the alien wasn't fleeing if it had set a nuclear weapon to detonate on the rim. Maybe the creatures didn't set one here - or maybe this one didn't care about dying now that Paul and Fred had killed its companions.
How long did he have before the nuke detonated. Ten minutes? An Hour? Two? He didn't know, but he thought he had some time. The aliens he had killed on the cliff face were fleeing the rim. How long would it have taken them to reach a point of safety? Fifteen minutes to get down the cliff, an hour to get back to the sea if they swan down the pipe and ran the rest of the way. How long had passed since they set the timer? Again, he had no way of knowing. All he knew was that he had to kill this creature as soon as possible, then get to the radar tower and find the nuke - if it was there as he hoped and suspected.
He heard crunching glass in the foyer. He limped into the main lobby, just in time to see the elevator doors closing and a flash of the alien's dark suit.
"Oh damn," he said, and tried to sprint up the stairs that he had just descended. His leg throbbed with pain at the first stride, and he was forced to slow himself to a fast walk. If it gets to Erica before she's ready - no, don't think that way. He stopped, pulled out his cell phone and dialed Erica's number. It rang, and rang. No answer. Damn it, she still hasn't taken my name off her Do Not Accept call list. She'll be ready, he told himself, and continued the painful task of climbing steps.
* * * * *
Erica heard the familiar ding of the elevator doors opening down the hall. Paul was back sooner than she expected. She hadn't heard his gun, and she would have heard it in the enclosed space of the observatory. Why was he back already?
She heard footfalls, but they were not the step-step-step of your average Joe Human. These had a slap-slap sound, and a cadence faster than a normal walking person. Her breathing rate increased as she realized it wasn't Paul, but the alien. She crouched down and prepared to flip the switch. Everything was ready - she would cut the little creature in half and it would never know what hit it.
A bone rattling jar spread from her feet into her upper body, and then a tremendous sound like the crashing of two trains reached her ears. The lights in her office, flickered once, and then went out. She had never realized how dark it was in here with no lights. The soft whine of the laser stuttered and died out. The flap-flap of the footsteps came closer. What if the creature had killed Paul, and was now on its way to finish her? She felt the cold grip of fear start to take root in her breast as it had on the narrow ledge in the Cauldron at the time of Jill's death. She fought to still her racing heart and breathing. She had to think clearly now, her life depended on it. What could she do? She remembered Paul's pistol, and pulled it free of her belt and thumbed off the safety.
The footsteps stopped in front of her door. Erica held her breath. The footsteps continued their flapping down the hall way. She stood and with the gun gripped in both hands, made her way to the door. She could make her way to the roof and hide in the telescope room. No, she couldn't. She needed to find Paul, plus the nuke could go off at any moment. If she wanted to live, she couldn't hide and do nothing, as she had done earlier; she had let Jill die without doing anything to help her. Well, now was the time to take action, to at least make an attempt to survive.
She poked her head out of her office and, by the glow of the emergency lighting, saw the alien heading towards the balcony area. She followed.
* * * * *
Paul's leg burned like it was on fire, but he made it to the third floor again. He had thought about using the elevator at the second floor, but the explosion and power outage had put an end to that plan. The little alien had used its time wisely while he and Erica had prepared their ambush - their now useless ambush.
He had to drag his wounded leg now. He could feel the warm blood running down his leg, soaking into his sock. The pain was relentless. He grunted his way to the balcony area. He needed to get back to Erica, and get her out of here. The chopper would be here any moment now, and if they could get back outside and flag down some help, the alien would be dealt with. He took two more steps, and through the red glow of the few emergency lights, saw Erica come around the corner at the far end of the balcony area. Relief flooded through him as he saw that she was not hurt. He started towards her.
The alien vaulted up and over the banister that ran the length of the balcony. It smashed its weapon down onto Paul's arm that held the machine pistol. Paul cried out, dropped his weapon and was knocked to the floor, pain flooding through his leg. The alien stood over him, its weapon pointed at his chest. Paul didn't know this species, but he could tell that a look of triumph covered its small face. The creature's many sharp teeth flashed in the emergency lighting, then it took aim and - two gunshots from behind made it duck and turn. The alien fired over its shoulder at Erica then started to climb the banister. Paul grabbed his machine pistol and unloaded half the clip into the creature's back. The small alien was thrown over the railing in a spray of its blood. It fell to the glass strewn floor, three stories below.
Erica ran to Paul, and helped him up.
"I thought you were dead," she said.
"So did I...so did I." The tremors set in, and he had to sit down again. Erica looked over the balcony, but couldn't see the floor through the darkness.
"Is it dead?" she asked.
Paul nodded, "Unless it has magical powers and can regrow its back, then, yes, its dead."
Paul's cell phone rang.
"This is Paul."
Garcia greeted him. "We're at the command center, or what's left of it. Where are you?"
"We're in Erica's building. We got the last alien. You better send somebody to find the nuke."
"Way ahead of you, amigo. We already got somebody on it. They are going to take it out to sea and dump it."
Erica helped Paul down the three flights of steps, and after assuring themselves that the last alien was dead, made their way outside into the cool island night. Garcia met them as the helicopter lifted off and headed to the Northwest.
"We found the device on the radar tower, just as you said," Garcia said. "How did you know it was there?"
Paul shrugged. "It was the only thing left standing in that whole area after the blast. Really, it was just a guess. If it hadn't been there, then I would have had no idea of where to look."
Garcia wandered back to several other men who were studying the dead alien, leaving Paul and Erica alone.
"Paul, maybe we were too quick to break things off before. After today, I realize you have a lot of extraordinary qualities that I took for granted."
"Does this mean you'll accept my phone calls again?" he asked.
She laughed, then tears rolled down her cheeks. "Oh Paul. I'm so sorry, its just that after you told me about aliens, I was angry with you and -"
He pulled her close and held her for a long time. They sat there holding hands, until an hour later they watched the darkened west erupt into a tiny orange sun.
© 2009 Rocky Keele
This story is re-published with permission of the author.
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