Brian W. Porter
Also by Brian W. Porter You Cannot Run From Yourself The Discovery of Tonylobons The Defense of Tonylobons Naming Tonylobons The Regional Life New Beginnings The Traveler all found at http://www.scribd.com/Brian%20W%20Porter
The Caterpillar Campaign
Brian W. Porter
Copyright (C) 2009, 2011 by Brian W. Porter All rights reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval or peer to peer system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locals is entirely coincidental.
Robert Farmer reviewed this work, and supplied information regarding radio frequencies. For that, I send many thanks. Many thanks to Sara Gruen for keeping my horses tacked properly. Any errors are mine.
Just one year, the summer after our junior year at school and right through what should have been our senior year, I learned, all three of us learned about life and war, and how to survive as you waged an underground campaign against an invader. We learned to defend ourselves, to hunt and fish, to shoot weapons, and to blow things up. And we learned what it's like to be scared, and what it feels like to run for your life, and what it feels like to save the world. I will say I built up a lot of memories that year. That one year gave me a lifetime of memories. Some say my memories, along with John's and Randy's, are more important than other people's. How can my memories be more important than yours? People say that what we did makes us important. I don't feel important, but many say that John, Randy, Shelly, and I are among the most important people in the world. Just because we three boys first discovered the attack fleet as the Alnoutes approached earth, and the four of us helped with their eventual defeat, isn't that big of a deal. At least not to me. Tell you what. I'll tell you what happened and you decide.
On July 4 of that year, one of the few days John, Randy, and I could get away from our chores at the Taylor Ranch, we'd all gone to the Woodward County Fairgrounds for the celebrations. There were best pet contests, and prize food booths, and rides, and lots of people, and girls, a typical town party before the invasion. But the best part, besides the county sponsored picnic, was the stock car race on the Fairground's dirt track, and the fireworks, which meant we didn't find our beds until well after midnight. Don’t think we slept in, either. We still had to wake up before sunrise in time for our morning chores. Yeah, that’s life on any farm. The next morning, after we took care of the horses and the rest of the morning chores, we were free for the rest of the day. We showered the barn smell off and ate breakfast, then walked behind the out buildings and across the dry run to the Radio Shack, John's "summer project" that we had worked on all of last summer, and the reason we all lived here with John's Uncle Brandon this vacation. Now Randy and I stood at each end of the shed and yawned as we leaned against the metal shelving full of scanners and tape recorders that lined the unfinished walls, fought sleep, and waited for instructions. John sat in front of the radio frequency amplifier and adjusted knobs and peered at meters. I'd almost nodded off, hypnotized by the lights on the scanners as they moved across the display, when he finally he spoke to us. "You guys ready? Remember you have to raise the cutout limit to block the noise so the scanners will check all the frequencies." Like we didn’t know that we had to find what scanner received the static signal from the low noise amp and cut the input to that scanner. Eventually all the scanners would scan all their frequencies while they received the input, and only record when a signal came through, what we needed to have happen. We both told him yes, and then I checked to make sure that all the digital displays moved through the assigned frequencies.
John said, "All right. Here we go. Output down to zero. Graph rolling. Power on. We're ready." I watched him check all the gauges one more time. "Good. Everything’s nominal. You guys ready? I'm going to increase the gain." He touched a knob. One of the scanners on Randy's side broke squelch and sent out a high volume of white noise from the static. I was instantly alert, even with my lack of sleep. Randy jumped. His feet actually left the floor, and when he landed, he quickly reached out to turn a knob to stop the noise. I chuckled quietly then said, "Asaya, I think we’d better turn them down." "Yeah, please," John agreed. "About a quarter or less until we have them set. That was way loud. Dude. You must be in pain." "Nah, East Coast. I’m OK." Randy and I lowered the volumes on our racks of scanners, and then told John to go ahead. John raised the gain slightly again. Several scanners sounded, not as loudly, but it still filled the small area with noise. Both Randy and I hunted them down and turned knobs. Every time John added power to the signal, we hunted down more noisemakers until we had adjusted all the squelches and allowed the scanners to search for true signals across their frequencies. Now we could turn on all the tape recorders, one hundred for each of us, one recorder for each scanner. We also raised the volume on the scanners to over three quarters, where it had been originally. "Now what?" I asked once my side worked properly. This was a good day for a siesta and, believe me, I was ready for one. "Now we wait to see what we pick up," John told us. Just then, one of the scanners next to me began to beep. It was my turn to jump. I really didn't think John's contraption would work, and the lack of sleep made my nervous system overactive. "What was that?" Randy asked, surprised at the clear sounds rather than the white noise we had squelched. "I don't know," John said. "Satellite, or something, maybe." "Maybe a weather satellite," Randy speculated. "I could build a program to read the broadcast and print out satellite pictures.
That'd be cool," I said. Randy, like his Father, was a master programmer and always ready to try something new. John turned slowly to Randy and said, "Hate to burst your bubble, Dude, but there's no way that could be a weather satellite. They have geosynchronous orbits above the Equator. This thing only looks straight up, about thirty five degrees away from there since we're about the thirty-fifth parallel. Actually, depending on where we are in our travels around the sun, and what time of day it is, we could be looking a bit below the solar plane, or nearly fifty degrees above it. Now that would be a good program to set up, and not all that easy." "What's that?" Randy asked always ready for a challenge. John answered, "What star we're looking at during any moment. Sort of like a very narrow band planetarium program. You’d also need to add any satellites, and spy satellites hold top-secret status so they wouldn't be listed anywhere you could find. We'll just have to hope we can tell the difference." "Yeah, I know that, East Coast. Dad’s written programs for them, spy satellites." "It could have been a spy satellite we heard, Asaya," I offered. I’d heard somewhere that weather satellites used polar orbits, or maybe I'd read it somewhere. Communication satellites used geosynchronous orbits and maybe he confused the two, but John was the astronomy expert of our group, and I wasn't about to start an argument just then. I was way too tired to think clearly. "True," John agreed. "Or it could have been just an ordinary telecommunication job, except they're in geosynchronous orbit." I was right about that. More sounds came from a scanner, this time near Randy. He asserted, "There are weather satellites and other types in polar orbits you know, John. This one just now sounded like voices, sort of." "Yeah. Right, Dude," John said. "These frequencies aren’t open to anyone around here; I checked. And I doubt we’d be so lucky to find an illegal broadcast already." "Maybe it, maybe it's a UFO," I joked. John looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and grinned. He held an
imaginary earphone to his ear and said in an announcer’s voice, "Men from Mars attack! Film at ten!" "All right, already," Randy chuckled. "I give up. Come on, East Coast, let’s go ahead and finish. Maybe you and the Cherokee are right. We can replay it tomorrow and find out." "Yeah, we'll check it out tomorrow," John said. "I'm beat from no sleep, but the race was worth it. And those fireworks? I didn't think a County Government could afford a show like that, especially out here." "They were pretty good this year," I agreed. “The whole thing was good. The concert. The races. And Dad talked several of the ranchers into adding money for the fireworks, which was why they were so good, and long.” We had a good County Government, and several very successful ranchers, including John’s Uncle Brandon, but John was from the East Coast. He thought all the folk who lived on the prairie were poor hicks. Other than that, he was a great guy, so Randy and I put up with it. Randy yawned and said, "Yeah. Two hours of sleep is not enough. Let's head back and grab a few winks." *** After dinner the next day, John and I sat on the bed in Randy's room, where we usually sat and played games viewed on the old flatscreen that was set up in one corner. Tonight, however, we ignored the video game system for once. "Come on, Randy. Leave the keyboard alone," John said, almost whining. "It's not as if we're going to use it to listen." Randy sat at the computer, as usual. In his redheaded way, which sounded as if he was angry, he countered, "I'm not at the keyboard. This happens to be where the tape player is." I guess we had begun to grate on each others' nerves since we'd been together more than a month. Now John wanted to go through the tapes we had recorded on the first full day of "listening to the sky," as Mr. Taylor called it. Randy announced, "The first tape I'm putting in is the one we recorded yesterday when we were setting up. It's the one with the noise.
Here we go." Static blasted for ten seconds, followed by faint noises. Randy rewound the tape and boosted the gain on the amplifier. Again, we listened to the noises, and this time they were clearer. "Almost sounds like a person speaking, East Coast," Randy commented from his place next to the speaker. "I don't know," John countered. "It's really faint. You can barely hear it. Hard to tell what it is. Anyway, there's no way we'd get that lucky. Find something the second we start? I doubt it. It's probably just some noise we found." I asked, "Couldn't you run it through the stereo from the headphone jack?" "Not really," John said. "The impedance is wrong. You need to add an impedance adjuster of some nature or you lose whatever clarity you have." "You mean like this?" Randy asked as he pulled a box out of one of his drawers. "I've had this for years and brought it along just in case." "That's what that is?" John asked. "Looks homemade." "Of course. They're easy enough. Earpiece in at four ohms, a small conversion circuit, and three hundred ohms out which will connect to the microphone jack of the amp. No problem." "That would work," John said, "except you have it backwards. The ear piece is out and the mike is in." He was wrong once again, but Randy, like me, let it pass. It took a couple of minutes to make the connections. "OK, Dude," John finally said, "find the noise, not the static, and let me know. I'll blast it." Randy fooled with the tape player for a minute, and then told John he was ready. Out of the left speaker, we heard a faint, distorted, and unmistakable voice that spoke a strange language. Randy whispered, "I'll be--." John's mouth hung wide open. "Holy--." I just sat there and stared at the speaker in disbelief. Who could that be? Or what? Where were they? What were they doing? Could this be what the Science Fiction writers all wrote about, first contact with an
alien race? "What, what, what do we do now, Asaya?" I asked quietly. We all looked at each other. John and Randy looked as shocked and confused as I felt. Another blast of static nearly deafened us, and then the voice came again and spoke to us until it faded. "See if it's on any other tape," John quickly ordered. Randy unplugged the jack from the earphone plug on the tape player, and then played the rest of the tapes we recorded. A disappointing three hours later we had listened to nothing but computer jangle and static. John sighed. "Well, maybe tomorrow." "I'm beat," I said through a yawn. "I'm going to bed. See you guys in the morning." After that burst of adrenaline, then nothing, I felt tired. "Yeah, Monday," John complained. "Wonder what Uncle Brandon will have us do?" We quickly learned. Mr. Taylor had us check the inside pasture fence-line that protected the well and out buildings, as boring as the round we did for the outside fence-line a few weeks before, except we didn't stay out overnight and look at stars. While we looked for loose wires and posts, we talked over what had happened last night. Did we really find something, or had someone played a trick on us. We could not believe that anyone would take enough interest and be mean enough to fake those voices. Maybe we could figure it out when we'd finished the fences. That solved, we talked over our history, laughed about the good times, and complained about the bad. *** You see, John lived on the East Coast. Two years ago, he had come west to help his Uncle Brandon settle a starter herd of kangaroos from Australia, the second money crop. The first herd, reindeer from Northland, had flourished after ten years of hard work, and a debt-ridden sheep ranch finally began to prosper. With the extra money the Taylors could diversify. Mr. Taylor settled on an animal more suited to the climate and with bigger returns, but much harder to control. Just after the 'roos arrived on a Wednesday of that year, the baling machine, a non-computerized contraption that's easy to work on, broke a
chain. Since I was almost fifteen at the time, my father sent me to fix it, my first job alone. With John's unnecessary help, more just company, I made the thing work perfectly. While John helped me fix the baler, he explained a little of what he wanted to do besides help his Uncle with the new herd and get away from the east coast. He wanted to build what he called a "dish", a type of antenna with a reflecting element that looked like a big bowl, or dish, which explained the name. He also told me about his passion, SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. That moment, nearly two years ago, our friendship began. The Saturday after I fixed the baler, I went back just to visit John. He knew more about astronomy than I did, although it had been a hobby of mine for years. While we discussed the merits of different stars out behind the barn where it was really dark, he explained that near the turn of the century astronomers had found other stars with planets around them using the Hubbell Space Based Telescope and a few of the better land based telescopes. The Drake Planet Finder, a space-based telescope that would physically and electronically block out the light of a star so astronomers could study the area around the star, saw the first extra solar earth sized planets, several of them tinted blue, which suggested an oxygen atmosphere and possibly water vapor. Infrared studies from space found several planets that appeared earth-like in star systems less than fifty light years away. Radio telescopes that studied Pulsars also suggested that systems with possible life existed in other parts of the galaxy. John's study of the stars convinced him that life other than human existed somewhere, possibly on one of the several planets with an oxygen atmosphere that we can now see. NASA, along with several other science foundations, had spent billions of dollars and well over a century to explore the radio frequencies above one million hertz, especially those near the natural vibration point of hydrogen. In all that time, they had not found any signal that appeared to repeat, or that had a planned progression. John had a theory that the radio frequencies they searched were too high and decided to search lower frequencies between one thousand and ten thousand megahertz. Air traffic controllers in different countries used
the frequencies near one thousand megahertz, and NASA used somewhat higher frequencies to talk to satellites. We could discount those easier than a computer. He had asked his uncle if the ranch had room for what he wanted to do. His uncle had agreed and gave him permission to build the project. John had come west again last year to help his Uncle Brandon finish off some special fencing necessary if the 'roos panicked. That first weekend Randy, a redheaded friend of mine who lived in town and who was a wizard with computers, had joined us and helped John design a dish antenna and aluminum tube, called a wave guide, that ran to a nearby shed located near a grove of trees. Over the rest of the summer, John and I, with occasional help from Randy, managed to put the dish, the wave-guide, and the shed together. This year the three of us lived on the ranch together. We finished the dish antenna and added equipment to the shed, when we found time from helping around the ranch. Scanners would pick up signals from the dish, amplified by a low noise amp kept in a small deep freeze to help raise the efficiency and send them to Voice Activated Tape Recorders that would record those signals. Then we could listen for patterns or some other sign of intelligence. *** Wednesday night we were back in Randy's room to listen to what we had recorded while we worked on the fence lines. No voices sounded this time, but Randy tried to run some of the noise through his computer and printed out some interesting symbols. That night we had the second bad storm of the year. We all scrambled to save a wind-powered well that supplied water to the southwest range. Randy and I worked to rebuild the mechanics, while John helped Mr. Taylor shore up and partially rebuild the tower. For two weeks after the storm we rode our horses, and worked, and generally enjoyed the summer weather, except for the occasional thunderstorm. Every night we were at the house we listened to the tapes. The second Thursday after we rebuilt the water pump we again heard something strange. It was faint, garbled, and no language we had
ever heard before, but it was definitely a voice. There was no doubt about it. Someone spoke over a radio, and we could receive it. All three of us were speechless. "What do we do now?" John quietly asked us in the silence. "Asaya, I thought you were the expert," I griped. "I figured you'd have plans in case this happened." "Come on, Dude. I never expected anything like voices. Just noises and stuff." "Great scientist you are," I griped. Randy said, "Relax, Cherokee. It's probably only something like a relay satellite from China or something. Why don't I call Dad? I want to ask him about that program he said he'd do. I'll ask him about this, too." Randy's dad was, and is, one of the top programmers in the country. He not only writes for NASA, but also several colleges and major corporations. "Good idea," John said. "There's the phone." Randy called his father, who said he had the program ready and would come out Saturday and listen to what we found. He also suggested we try to figure out what frequencies they used, and whether it could be local rather than a distant source. "Nice," John said after Randy had delivered the message. "He didn't happen to suggest how to do that, did he?" "No, but come on, East Coast, you've got a brain. I bet if you thought about it you could think of a way." "I can, at least if it's from the ground near us or from space," John admitted, "but first we need to know the frequencies used." "Just what he said," I reminded them. John ignored me. "The only way to find that out is to sit in the shack and wait for the voices to come, then write down the frequency displayed on the scanner, convert it, and then we know. A lot of work." "There is one thing," I said slowly as an idea occurred to me. "If it is an alien ship, a UFO sort of thing, who is it broadcasting to? Wouldn’t there be more than one? They might be using more than one frequency, too. Can we reprogram your scanners to pick up single frequencies, Asaya?"
"Sure, that's easy. Finding out which ones they are is the hard part. This is getting complicated." "Oh, man, all day in that shack," Randy groaned. "I hope it's not too hot." "Let's go look at the weather and see what they say for tomorrow," I suggested. The shed was not well ventilated, and I did not want to bake all day either. *** This whole thing, as John called it, this whole series of events we fell into, really started when the Caterpillars, what most people call the aliens we found, first received the signal sent from Arecibo. No, that's not true. It started when Frank Drake and a group of scientists and Science Fiction writers put their heads together and designed a message to describe Earth and the human race. It showed the first few prime numbers, the important elements for life, the general shape of a human, the double spiral of DNA, the planetary system with earth raised, and a dish-style radio antenna. The scientists encoded this message into a simple television signal, a video without the sound, and sent it out toward a global cluster. I don't think they had any hunters in the group since they forgot that since the light from the cluster took twenty thousand years to reach us, the signal would take twenty thousand years to reach the cluster. They did not lead the cluster and shoot for where it would be in twenty thousand years. Instead, they aimed right for it and, of course, it will have moved by then. Around that time, people thought that anyone with the technology to find us and travel here would have given up aggression eons before. The scientists figured that by the time anyone received the signal the human race would be either extinct, or well able to protect itself. Life didn't work out the way those scientists expected. The Caterpillars, or Alnoutes as they called themselves, found the signal less than ten light years away, and turned this direction.
"First Warrior," the communications officer called, "I am receiving a weak signal. No known direction at this time. Possibly repeating and intelligent. Orders?" First Warrior, leader of the Alnoute fleet, glared at First Talker and noted that his skin had not only faded with age, it was dull from a lack of purpose. The communications officer, named First since he was supposedly the best on the ship, lounged at the controls. He leaned back on the working support and relaxed as if nothing important could disturb him. The upper portion of the support wrapped around his head and fed signals from inside and outside the ship into his brain. He leaned forward and moved a knob slightly, then lounged once again as if he relaxed in his cabin during off time. First Warrior seethed as he thought, Laziness. The laziness that grew everywhere in the ship had finally made its way to the Bridge, especially to First Talker. First Warrior finally let his anger out and screeched, "Orders, Talker? Do I always have to give you orders? Send it through the analyzer of course. Any youngster still in the womb could have thought of that. Do I have to teach you everything?" First Talker straightened as his graspers worked the controls. "All pertinent data sent to First Explorer for analysis." First Explorer, near the peace wall, called, "Got it. Analyzing now." First Warrior studied his fellow Alnoute. His patterns also faded with age, but his skin was less dull, more alive. First Explorer lived to learn, to study their universe and pass all the new information he found to the home world. He had purpose, as did First Warrior. Yet the others did not. They all grew old, all of them, and their patterns faded with time, but there had not been a general challenge for far too long. First Explorer studied the monitor in front of him, then called, "May I suggest, First Warrior, that we change direction?" "Why should we?" First Warrior demanded. "The signal is at angle forty. We should change our heading to one
that is perpendicular to the direction of origin of the signal. That way we will find the distance to the origin in a reasonable amount of time." First Warrior calmed slightly as he thought, at least one person does his job. He would whip the rest his crew into shape somehow, but now was not the time. First Warrior commanded, "Do it. Give the new heading to the Finder. Let me know when the analyzer finally does its job." First Warrior leaned against the back support. Anger wore him out, but the crew's recent lackadaisical attitude maddened him more than his most recent failure. His multifaceted eyes looked nowhere as he delved into the ancient memories, the start of the voyage many generations ago. His ancestor, Mmurriss, had seen that the Alnoute race must expand into neighboring star systems in the future, violently if necessary, if they were to save the race. Mmurriss had broken away from the Alnoute Planetary Government, commandeered a ship, and crewed it with rebels. The rogue ship had taken to the Galaxy and placed start-up colonies on two uninhabited worlds before they seeded a new generation. They had colonized several more planets, then destroyed several worlds and used the resources to expand the single ship into a war fleet, and to add to their supplies. More generations had passed until now First Warrior led that rebel fleet that explored and colonized the galaxy. He thought about the last system that they had visited many hundreds of groupsleeps ago, the last time that the crew's alertness and quick action had impressed him. All the planets of that system had been lousy. Not one planet had held intelligent life to conquer. There were no giant class planets, only five small worlds, and only one of them had nutrients in small amounts. Meteoroids and comets were everywhere, therefore navigation was the only decent challenge found in the system. The number of meteorite strikes visible on the planets they had scanned had astonished First Warrior. None of the planets was worth the cost of colonization, which in this case included the cost to clean out the comets and asteroids. That made the stop very unproductive. First Explorer had theorized that the system had not fully formed by the time solid particles had combined to form planets. Much help that had been after they had wasted the time and fuel to slow and explore what First Warrior felt was
a cosmic garbage dump. "The analyzer has a solution, First," First Explorer called. First Warrior thought that finally some competence was shown, yet he must not let the crew slouch again. He replied gruffly, "Well? It's about time." First Explorer bowed. "As you say, First. The signal is definitely intelligent. There is a series of numbers that may be prime in another base, but we will have to wait to study that. A pattern of some nature, thirty-four dots wide and two hundred tall, follows. Permission to put it on the view screen?" "Yes, yes. Let's see what it is." First Explorer gave instructions to First Talker, who changed the settings of several controls. The front wall dissolved into a brightly colored picture. White squares and rectangles spread across the top of the screen, a red shape centered just beneath it. Four copies of a design supported two rows of four green graphics. A white line with indentations ran down the middle, surrounded by what might be a double spiral. Under that, in the center, the red shape of a creature showed. Four appendages, one on each corner of a rectangle, and a square at the top, hinted at a creature that would be listed as a new, and soon to be extinct, species. To the left of that was a white design. A broken white line intersected a blue vertical line to the right of the figure. Below the figure ran a line of ten yellow dots, the dot on the far right larger than the others, and the third one slightly elevated. Under the yellow line a purple shape glowed, which appeared suspiciously like a long distance radio antenna. Another broken line ran along the bottom. First Warrior carefully studied the design. He looked for anything, besides that one shape at the bottom, that made sense. Finally he said, "That's very colorful, Explorer, but what does it mean?" First Explorer pressed some buttons as he said, "Analyzer's working on that. It does say it has divided the picture into groups at apparently designated breaks. Each group has its own color. It says the purple symbol at the bottom is a radio antenna of the type used to scan long distances. Wait, here is more. The top line may be a way of counting. They use a system different from ours. The analyzer says it is base
fourteen, or that our fourteen would be their ten. They must have a different configuration to their bodies." First Warrior growled, "That's obvious. Look at that figure in the middle. How could that be anything like us? Why doesn't that thing of yours, that analyzer, tell us something we don't know?" First Explorer quickly continued, "The Analyzer has more, First. Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen seem important. They apparently are a carbon-based creature that breathes oxygen." "That's poison to us in its pure form. We could never colonize that world." "Granted," First Explorer conceded. "However, it is the third world of that system. Remember several generations ago, the system with thirteen planets our great grandfathers conquered? That system's third planet had nutrients, and the second planet was livable. This system might be the same." First Warrior thought, incompetents, and now they try to push decisions. He growled, "So, in your carefully thought out opinion we should hurry over there full power and wasting fuel, even though we are low on food, and take them over just like that? Keep looking for something closer. Let me know when you've found it." "But we do not know yet how far away this system is," First Explorer protested. "No excuses, Explorer," First Warrior snarled, disgusted at the obvious incompetence. "Just do it!" The Alnoute leader went to his cabin and stretched out on the sleeping platform. His six feet and six graspers hung limply off the deck, the most relaxing position he knew. Green skin marked with black and orange stripes, once bright with youth and now dulled as he grew older, dulled slightly more as his heart slowed. His eyes seemed to glaze over as he dozed. While he relaxed, his secondary mind considered the options open to him. He could order a turn toward this new system where he hoped to find fuel and nutrients, if nothing else. What would happen if the system were already fully colonized, and defended? If that was the case, then why had they sent the message? What if this new creature was just beginning to explore, and did not know about his
people, or any others? That would be an easy takeover, a quick kill for most, and a labor force from those still alive. Still, there was the possibility of weapons. *** The sound of First Talker as he called over the intercom brought First Warrior back to reality. He rose from his platform and pressed the button on the inter-ship communicator. "What is it, Talker? It best be good, or you'll learn what the outside feels like without a suit." First Explorer's voice came through the communicator as he said, "We have a distance to the system, First, of just fewer than 1,000 units of astronomical distance. We could get there in one generation-growth, and still have food. It's also a good possibility, close to the order of certainty, that some of the outer planets in that system would have nutrients we could mine." "How is our fuel?" First Warrior demanded. The voice of First Finder said, "Still good, above half. We used almost as much fuel refining food as we got from that last system." When you considered the conditions encountered, they were lucky they did not spend more fuel than they found. With this new star system, they could have nutrients and fuel both, even before they bothered to colonize. First Warrior answered, "Very well, Finder, set a course to the new system. Inform the fleet. Make a speed that will allow us to teach the young we will have before we reach there. Talker, inform all ship Firsts we sow seeds and begin a new generation when we reach optimum speed. Inform me when you have completed all your tasks. Until then, leave me alone!"
We didn't know it, but the Alnoutes were already close when, after chores the next morning, we laughed as we hung our dripping raincoats just inside the door of the radio shack. As predicted, there was steady rain, not typical for summertime. Mr. Taylor didn't have anything for us to do, just our usual morning chores in the barn, so by nine o'clock in the morning we were ready to find our voices. Randy and I would have to stand near the scanners and, when we heard a voice or something close, call out the frequency to John. He'd convert it, and later that night we'd work out how to record only those frequencies we'd noted. "How 'bout when we find a frequency we lock it out," I suggested. "Why?" John asked. I explained, "'Cause if one channel is talking, the scanner won't look at others." "That’s good, Cherokee. That's good," Randy said. "Way to go, Ted. I didn't think of that," John admitted. "That is a good idea. We may lose a bit, but we might gain more in the--." One of the scanners on Randy's side spoke. "Hold it," Randy said. "5-2-5, 9-3-0, scanner twelve," he told John, then, "Locked out. I'm surprised. I didn't expect it this soon." A minute passed. "5-2-5, 9-4-5, same scanner, locked, 5-2-5, 8-7-5, same, locked." It was my turn next. We threw numbers at John for the next three hours before the signals disappeared. After a half hour of silence, we decided we'd hear no more voices. "Do we have to do this every day?" I asked. "No," John said. "We'll reset the scanners tomorrow, and the other scanners will hear any other voices." I gave my usual comment about unclear statements. "Huh?" Randy smiled. "That wasn't too clear, East Coast. Cherokee, what we're going to do is to set some of the scanners to receive just these frequencies. The others we'll set to receive frequencies close to, but not
on these. Then, after a day or two, by noting which scanner picks up what, we can find out if we have all the channels used or not." "Oh, I got ya. Today is a bust as far as recording goes, but tomorrow we'll have better info. Why not change them today? Did we get some of that on tape?" "Some of it," John said. "Don't bother me for a few minutes." He checked figures on several pieces of paper, did some multiplication, and told us to lock certain scanners on a frequency and to block that frequency on other scanners. "That should do it," he told us when we finished. "I used the scanners far from the frequencies we heard for the single channels. Now we should get anything broadcast by whoever it is, as long as our antenna is pointing that way. Let's go on up to the house. I heard Bell's offering the 'Star Trek' collection as a package deal. These are the original movies, digitally revamped and sent HD. The effects should be awesome." When we reached the house, Mrs. Taylor called out for us to wipe our feet. For the next ten hours we relaxed and watched old movies. *** Saturday, Mr. Matheson, Randy’s Dad, came over for a short visit and sipped a cup a coffee, what he called "the elixir of life," while he listened to Randy explain what had happened with the strange voices. He quickly discovered we had more news than he had realized. "H'm," he said thoughtfully. "You boys have no idea what it could be? You've never heard this language before? You're sure it's not someone playing a trick on you, or just something normal or natural?" "It could be, Mr. Matheson," John told him. "I have to set up another receiver with an omnidirectional antenna. At least that's what the professional radio astrophysicists do. Then if it's a local broadcast, it'll show up on the omni, too. If it's from space, it'll just show up on the dish. Of course, I can't perform the other tests because the antenna's fixed, but I can report my findings if they are real and let other people figure out what's going on. That is if I knew who to call." "I think I know one or two people," Mr. Matheson said. "Let's go
listen to these voices of yours and we'll see what can be done. Where do we go, Son?" "Upstairs," Randy said. We all grabbed our drinks and filed up the stairs to Randy's room. On the way, Mr. Matheson handed Randy a new cube. "This one has parts of several of my other programs pieced together. You'll have to run it off the cube since I added anti-copy into the program. It'll do the job, though. Now about these voices. Let me hear what you've recorded." "OK." Randy loaded the tape into the player and used his homemade interface to connect the player to the stereo. He explained, "We were setting up the scanners, setting the frequencies, when this noise came from one of them. It sounded kind of strange, not like the computer signals we expected, so we brought it up here to figure out what it was. The first time we listened to it, we just used the tape player. We still couldn't make out what it was, so we worked out a way to run it through the stereo amp. That gave us enough volume to hear that it was a voice. This is what we heard." Randy played the tape. Again, the sounds came out of the static, a voice that spoke words in an unknown language. When the voice dissipated into the static, Mr. Matheson asked to have it played again. "That sounds more than foreign to me," he said. "It's fuzzy, as if there's more than what you recorded. H'm. I wonder. You have any more?" We played the rest of the tapes we’d gathered from the second and third day of setting the frequencies. Mr. Matheson asked, "John, do you think it would be possible to use your phone for a long distance call?" "I'd have to ask Uncle Brandon," John told him. "We'll ask him together," Randy's father said. "I may have to explain who I want to call." Mr. Taylor sat at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee surrounded by his hands. He and Mr. Matheson talked for a minute, and then Mr. Matheson walked to the door, picked up the phone, and punched in the eleven digits of a long distance number. After a few seconds the other four heard, "Charley, Roland here.
Glad I caught you in.--Family's fine. Doing well, thank you.--Charlie, I've run into a little problem.--No, nothing like that. A friend of my boy's working on a project, and he's found something that might interest you.-No, I don't think that's a good idea. Hold on a second." He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "Brandon, can I invite two professors from the State University up today? I think it might be important." Mr. Taylor frowned but nodded. Mr. Matheson resumed his phone conversation. "You'd better come here. It's up thirty-four from Woodward, through the hills, on the left a half mile after County Road 200. Bring Marilyn and her equipment, too.--Yes, that kind of problem. I think you might find it enjoyable.--Four hours? Good. See you then." He cradled the phone. "What kind of problem, Roland?" Mr. Taylor asked. Mr. Matheson walked to the sink and drew a glass of water from the faucet. He took a slow sip, and then stared into the glass for a few seconds. "Brandon, I don't know how to explain it except to say the boys have apparently overheard some kind of radio broadcast in a language that's not English. I want to find out what language it is, if it's even human. They might have run into something that's of major importance." Mr Taylor looked at Randy's Dad as if he came from outer space. "You want to explain yourself?" he asked. I had to agree. I didn't understand what he thought this was, and I was one of the boys. "Brandon, it's highly secret. If I tell you anything, you have to swear not to breathe a word." "Breath a word about what? You'd better start explainin' yourself pretty fast Roland." I could see that Mr. Taylor's blood pressure slowly climbed toward critical mass. Mr. Matheson knew his lack of information so far hadn't helped. "Take it easy, Brandon. I just wanted to impress on you the importance of keeping quiet. That goes for you boys, too. You can talk among yourselves, but not to anyone else. Randy, make me a cup of the elixir of life." Mr. Matheson pulled out a chair and sat at the table. He paused a
moment as if he had to organize his thoughts, or decide how much to say. "OK. Here it is. For the past several years, NASA and some of the other space agencies have picked up indications of one, or more, alien ships approaching the solar system, but they could never get a good fix on them. It may be that you boys found them, or at least heard them, but we won't know until Marilyn and Charlie show up with their equipment. However, if I'm right, you boys are going to be famous. If we can get a fix on them, learn their language, then we'll know what they're doing. Some think they're benign, possibly even helpful. Others, including me, aren't so sure about that. That's what we have to find out, and quickly. "Tell you what. While we wait for the professors, John, why don't you show me how you reconfigured this installation you have. We might have time to test that program."
Last year, the day John had arrived at the ranch and we started his project, Tuesday, June 17, to be exact, began as a typically hot Oklahoma summer day with one or two very small clouds in a deep blue sky. I worked on Mrs. Taylor's baby-poop-green, my name for the color, hybrid in which sulfur-aluminum batteries supplied the electricity that ran the lightweight plastic motors, an inexpensive model several years old and recently beyond warranty. A small propane engine ran a generator, and a primitive regenerative braking system supplied some gravity charging, so it made more sense out here in the open lands than a small fuel cell powered city car. Mrs. Taylor had told me it ran well, but was sluggish as she approached top speed. I assumed I had to replace the batteries, or possibly the generator needed work, but I was wrong on both counts. That's why I was half-buried in the innards of the thing when I heard Mr. Taylor's truck rattle up the gravel drive. I carefully worked my way out of the carriage, my equipment abandoned for the moment, to greet John. John jumped out of the cab of the beat up dark brown stake body truck that Mr. Taylor had used to pick him up at the train station, with the same wild brown hair, the same white T-shirt, the same blue jeans as he'd had when I first met him. It looked as if he'd filled out some though, maybe gained some muscle from workouts. John called over to me, "Hey, Ted, how come you weren't at the station? It's been a year. I would have liked to have seen you when I arrived, and anyway, we could have used the help." "Hey your, hey yourself, John," I called back. "I had, I had things to do here, and anyway, there wouldn't have been any room for me when you came back. How you, how you been?" John grinned at me in his good-natured fashion. "Good. Good. Passed again with ease, top of my class. How 'bout you?" "I'll never be as good as you and Randy, but I made out OK. I made a bit of extra money working maintenance at an apartment complex, and
got me a truck. See it over there?" I pointed to what looked like a pile of junk, mismatched paint on fenders and body and a bed that was in need of repair. "Needs a bit of work, but it runs good, and you should see the engine. Talk about a classic. What all did you bring?" "Anything you get your hands on runs well, Ted. Give us a hand unloading and I'll show you. Randy's going to bring the truck around after I take my stuff upstairs." Mr. Taylor slid a large cylinder of hydrogen off the truck. "First, Ted, why don't you give me a hand refueling the cell?" I waved an OK to Mr. Taylor, and then asked John, "Why not let me help your uncle and finish fixing your aunt's hybrid before we unload?" Another friend of mine, a redhead who lived in town, carried luggage up the front steps between two six-by-six columns, across the light blue wooden porch, and into the white century old farmhouse. I helped Mr. Taylor carry three large tanks to the fuel cell shed, and then waited until the redhead walked back onto the porch. "Asaya, I could use your help. I've traced the problem to the processor, but I don't know where to go from there." I dove back into the carriage as he bounded down the five steps and put his electronic genius to work. While we struggled, John lugged enough luggage to last a year out of the truck and into the house. After a while, John returned. "What gives?" he asked. "Oh, the control chip for the charger has a glitch in it," Randy told him. "I'm trying to change the values without the proper equipment, or a schematic. What I really need is a hand held, but I left mine at home. Makes for a challenge." John studied our project for a moment, and then said, "Sounds like it. How long do you think it'll take? Need any help?" Randy answered from under the hood, "No, East Coast, I'm about done. You could check the charge on the meter." John called from inside the carriage, "Reads about half." "It was near full when I checked it before I started," I told them. "Then that's what your problem was," Randy informed me as he straightened. "Run the generator and we'll check the charge when we've finished unloading. John, your uncle cleared out a corner of the barn for your equipment. Cut through the house, grab us a soda, and I'll meet you
with the truck around back." John cut through the house, and after I plugged the car into the charging circuit, I jogged across the back yard to help Mr. Taylor set up sensors and switches for the fuel cell that supplied electricity for the whole farm. The system automatically started a new tank when the previous one emptied, but if it didn't, and if the FC died, it could cause major problems. The automatic changeover must work properly every time. John and I met as he ran out the back door, across the back yard and corral, to the oxidized lead red barn at the edge of the work yard. We arrived just as Randy started to back the truck up to the barn door. "Come on back," John directed loudly as Randy approached the building. "Little more. Little more. Whoa, that's good right there." He turned to me and asked, "Where are we putting this?" Randy shut the truck off, pocketed the key, and climbed out. He said, "Hold on a minute and I'll show you," then led us inside the barn doors and pointed toward the far corner, invisible until our eyes adjusted to the gloom. "Over in that corner to the right, where it's cleaned out. We spent all day yesterday making room. There's a door near there you can open to get more light. What've you got, anyway?" John answered, "Some electronics, scanners and things. Just help me unload and I'll explain it." Randy climbed into the back of the truck and began to hand crates and boxes to John and me, some of which took both of us to lift. We carried them over to the corner and stacked them as neatly and securely as possible. While we worked, John explained what he had in mind. "I want to build a parabolic dish antenna in that hollow out near the pond. That aluminum window screen will serve as a reflector, plus it will be a partial barrier to radio waves coming from behind it, although radio waves should not come from the ground. The mono-filament cable will support the antenna itself. We can string it across the top, if it's deep enough. That small box you're holding is the antenna, Ted. I brought along a thousand feet of low loss coaxial cable, although, since we are working with microwaves, a wave-guide would have been better. I just couldn't figure out how to design and build one until I saw what
conditions were going to be. Oh, I also brought a few scanners." "I'll say," Randy griped. "Seems like that's all you brought. How come so many?" "So I can cover more frequencies. Each one will monitor a set of two hundred channels and send what they pick up to a cassette recorder. They receive signals sent through a microwave amp and processor I built myself. That’s the deep freezer for the low noise amp you’re holding, Ralph, although I wish I had access to liquid nitrogen. The colder the amp is, the less noise it puts out, and the more signal it amplifies to a level that will break the scanner's squelch. Then the control box and converter lower the frequencies to those the scanners will receive. We get to listen to the tapes to decide what signals are man-made, and what aren't. That could be the fun part as I hope, or it might be boring, but, hopefully, with two thousand frequencies to scan, we'll find something." For somebody able to design and build a system like that, he sure messed up on math. I asked, "How many frequencies, John? Seems like it would be more like forty thousand, two hundred times two hundred. That's an awful lot." John grinned sheepishly. "Man. I feel so dumb. Hey, watch it Randy, that'll break really easy. That's the low noise microwave amplifier." "Where are you going to put this stuff when you set it up?" Randy asked. "There's nothing here to cover it. Unless you're planning to have it out in the open, you have a problem." John answered, "Not really. I figured I'd go into town to the lumberyard and pick up a shed, and that way I can fit it into whatever space is available. Besides, wood's wood. I'd rather buy it here than ship it. That it?" Randy leaned against the side of the truck and ran his hand across his forehead. "Yeah, and that's enough. I feel like I've moved a ton or two. Let's put the truck away and raid the fridge. I'm hungry." "You got it," John agreed as he placed the final crate on the pile. "Meet you inside." I beat them both into the kitchen. After we made sandwiches, we went upstairs. John headed to his
room, since he didn't know yet that Randy and I were also here for the summer. Randy and I sneaked into Randy's room and suppressed our laughter as we waited for John to look for us, which he did a short time later. After about five minutes he walked in and said, "So this is where you guys disappeared. What are you--hey, whose system is that?" "Oh, it's mine," Randy said nonchalantly. "This is my room, and Ted's next door. We're staying for the summer 'cause your uncle figured that we'd be here every day anyway, so we might as well sleep here, too. You like this?" he asked as he patted the large metal box on the desk that had a keyboard in front of it and a flat screen monitor on a stand behind it. "It's--it's--I don't know what it is." "It's five two-point-five-terraflop coprocessors in a tunneled parallel network. I set it up so each motherboard reads a different programming language and translates it into machine language. Then the CPUs work together using machine language, dividing the task among themselves to get the answer quicker. It's not quite a super computer, but this way I can run any program written in any of the DOS/Basics and Visuals, or any of the 'C+s', or in one of the OS modes, or JPL, or even the ADA language used by the military, which I got from Dad. He has a group of programs that he built for the Army and Air Force he lets me use. I also have two printers, an extra hard drive, and an optical reader." That explanation went totally over my head. I figured it would be the same for John since Randy seems to think everyone knows as much about computers as he does. Apparently John knew what Randy said, however, because he turned to Randy and asked, "A what? An optical reader? I've never heard of that." "They're new on the market, and talk about expensive! My dad gave it to me for a birthday present, or I couldn’t afford one. You know, this one cube will hold as much information as twenty or thirty hard drives put together, all on this piece of clear plastic that’s smaller than a floppy. It's amazing. Almost two thousand gigabytes in one place! I figured we'd use it to design the dish or something. My dad even wrote a program for it, designing the dish."
"What? A program just for us?" John asked. "That's cool of him. I know he has better things to do." Randy explained, "Actually, he just adapted one of his programs to one of my languages. He said we could try it out, see if we found any bugs, sort of beta test it before he goes commercial. We survey the area and enter the data to get a three-dimensional drawing. Then we enter the height and width of the dish we want, and it'll work out what we have to do. It's very involved. I just hope it works." "What happens if it doesn't?" John asked. "Then I call my dad. Hey, did you know Wild Fire had a foal?" "That's right!" John exclaimed. "Uncle Brandon told me about that. Let's go look." I checked my watch and told them, "We have time for a ride, too." We all raced out to the stables. Inside the barn we slowed so we wouldn't scare the animals, and John reached Wild Fire's stall before the rest of us. He talked to his favorite horse until she finally recognized him. When she moved over to the stall door, he rubbed her nose and talked quietly to her some more, until she let him into the stall with her. He took advantage of the opportunity to check out the baby. While he inspected the six-week-old, his uncle walked quietly up beside us. "Beautiful filly, isn't she?" he asked. "Sure is," John agreed. Randy and I echoed the sentiment as we watched John make friends with the smaller animal. He stroked the white diamond on the filly's chest and it half bucked, half jumped to the other side of the stall. Mr. Taylor chuckled from behind us at the foal's actions. He admired the youngster with us for a moment before he said, "Of course you realize that it's up to you to take care of her, don't you John?" "Why is that, Uncle Brandon?" John asked. "Well," Mr. Taylor drawled with a smile, "I reckon it's 'cause she's yours." "Mine? Mine!" John yelled, scaring the animals who rustled and banged in their stalls. "Easy, boy," Mr. Taylor chuckled. "Yes, yours."
"You're beautiful," John kept repeating to the colt as he rubbed her flanks. After about ten minutes Randy said, "That's enough admiration, John. Let's go for a ride." We curried and brushed the horses, then positioned the blankets mid back and tacked up, what John says is the proper term for putting on blankets, saddles and bridles. John chose Wild Fire, who lived up to her name with everyone except him. She seemed to know John was a city boy and took it easy. Randy mounted Free Wind, the spirited stallion that had sired the colt. I laid claim to Spring Green, a gentle gray mare who was easy to ride, and about all I can handle. We walked around the barn yard for a bit so John could relax into the saddle again, then wandered out toward a grove of trees a bit north of the house. John led us along a path that circled a hollow nearly one hundred feet across. "Hey, I remember this one," he said as he circled the top. "A good shape. An almost perfect shape. What do you think, Ted, can we change this hollow into an antenna housing?" Sometimes John can be very single minded. "I thought we were just out for a ride?" I protested while I inspected the walls. "Yeah, it's possible, I think. You'd have to be careful not to undercut the sandstone or gypsum cap, but with work we can do it. Take a while though, couple weeks at least." "That's no problem," John said. "I'm not in that big of a hurry." "Think it's time to head back," Randy said as he held his watch up so we could see it. "We still need to bed these guys down before we go in for dinner." "Well then, let's go," John said and he turned Wild Fire's head toward the barn. I thought that to reshape the hollow into what was needed for a reflector would be hard work, but as I fell in at the end of the line I kept it to myself. *** That night we gathered in Randy's room. At John's request, Randy
played with a program that would work out what shape dish would pick up the maximum number of signals for a reasonable price. John and I sat on Randy's bed where we could view the flat screen and played War of the Worlds while we discussed the merits of the local girls. "You liked Julie O'Dell when you met her here last year, didn't you?" I asked John. "You remember, the girl who came with her folks? We went for a ride." "You bet I remember her," John answered. "She's sure a cute little blond." "She's working at the pharmacy for the summer," I told him with a grin. "We can sneak in there when we pick up your shed." "Sounds like I'll be volunteering to go to town a lot," John grinned. "Why not just ask her out here to go for a ride again," I suggested. "I'm sure she would." John lost interest in the game for a moment and just stared into space. I quickly killed his avatar, then waited for him to come back to the world. Finally he asked, "But would her parents let her? They probably don't remember me." "They know Randy and me, and your uncle. Why not?" I asked in return. "I don't know. Parents are so strange sometimes; you never can be sure what they're going to do." "I wish you two would quit gabbing for a minute," Randy groused from his chair in front of the keyboard. He settled back into his program. Not two minutes later, just when I had sighted on John, Randy said, "Look at this, John. Says here that a dish with sides that are one third the height of the antenna proper would be relatively effective and not that costly." We gathered around the monitor. Centered in the screen was a half line of plain English. That one line was the only visible result of the program. "How did you get it to do that--whatever it is?" John asked. "It's the answer," Randy said slightly perturbed. "I just loaded that program Dad made for us, entered the data it asked for, and let it go. I can run it again, put the echo on, and let you watch, but all you would
see were numbers and symbols flashing by too fast to read." "No, that's all right," John answered. "I think we can live without that. Are there any movies on?" I said, "I don't know, but your uncle subscribes to the Bell Video System. They have a good library of movies." We went downstairs to look through the catalog. *** The next morning, after we cleared the pancake leavings, John asked, "Uncle Brandon, last year we found a place, a depression out by the pond, that would work for the dish, but we have to do some work to it. Would you look at these printouts we made last night? Maybe you could suggest a way we could do this easily?" "Let me see them," Mr. Taylor said, as he reached cross the table. He slowly sifted through the files, then asked, "Any idea how you're going to follow this curve? No matter. Ted'll work something out when the time comes. Right now you need to dig out some of the base to get the fill you need to smooth it out, right?" "That's right," John agreed. "Might have to make it deeper. Take some measurements, first. Ain't no easy way to dig it out unless you use the front-end loader. I'll get Fred to meet you down there when he gets in tomorrow. Now off with you boys. There's work to do." We cleaned the stalls and fed the horses, a chore that felt like two hours of stinking drudgery, but it helped John's Uncle make ends meet. Like many things in life, as I've learned, it was hard work with nothing permanent that showed. At least that's the way I felt as we rode to the hollow to take measurements. About lunch time, we headed back to the house. As we ate, we decided that Randy would enter the data into the program his father had dreamed up, and John and I would head to town. It helped that we would use my truck. That way I had an excuse to get away from the ranch. In town, our first stop was the pharmacy to pick up a few things for John's Aunt Edna. She needed shampoo and stuff, and John was eager to see if Julie O'Dell was working.
We saw Julie behind the cash register as she talked to a boy who lived in town. He looked big enough to be on the school football team, but he wasn't. I knew he was a member of the rowdy group that gave everybody trouble, including the sheriff, but I couldn't remember his name. John picked out what he needed and walked up to Julie's register. "Hi, Julie," he said, just being friendly. "Hey! Stranger! Who you talkin' to?" the town boy demanded. "Leave him alone, Bob," Julie admonished. "He's from back east, a friend of Ted's here, and Randy." Obviously someone had told her. She wouldn't have remembered John from one meeting last year. "Oh, yeah, the eggs," Bob answered with what he considered an insult. "Why don't you two go to the library where you belong, smart boys?" "Leave them alone I said," Julie told him emphatically. She turned to John. "Don't listen to him. He's harmless. You staying at your uncle's for the summer?" John replied, "Sure am. You're welcome to come visit, and bring a girlfriend or two." "Why?" she asked, flashing me a grin. "Don't tell me Ted's staying there, too. He's enough for two girls." John chuckled. "He and Randy both. We're trying out a project of mine to see if it works. If you want, you can come take a look." "Why, thank you, John. Maybe I will." She rang up his purchases on the register. "That's $20.79. Do you need a bag?" "Would help," John answered. She put the items into a paper bag and handed it to him. "Good to see you back, and maybe I'll be out to take a look at whatever it is you're doing." "Over my dead body," Bob told her. "Robert Dryfus, you do not own me," Julie said coldly as John and I left the pharmacy. We could hear them argue as we walked down the street. "Boy, I would not want to meet him in a dark alley," John commented as we climbed into my truck. "He's not a good person to know, that’s for sure. Randy and I try to
avoid him. Of course it helps that I've fixed motor carriages for several linebackers on the football team." John chuckled. "That would do it. I fixed a $5,000 home theater system for the quarterback of my school's team. He makes sure the varsity squad looks out for me. It sure helps when you know someone." We drove over to the lumber yard just outside town and picked up the shed, a fifteen-by-twenty-foot wooden structure, with white shingles. Plastered on the box it came in was "Easily Assembled and Painted." I knew how easy it would be--not very--and now we'd have to buy paint. I had measured for a wave guide, a long aluminum tube that the microwaves would follow to the radio shack, when we scouted the hollow. We also picked up the sheets of aluminum and aluminum heating ducts I needed to form the guide. This looked more like work every time I turned around. *** Back at the ranch, we unloaded the shed and put it in the corner with the rest of John's equipment. On the way up to Randy's room we grabbed three sodas. John burst through Randy's door and yelled, "What's new, dude?" "I have been thinking," Randy said ominously. I jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with the program and looked at the monitor. It looked like the view screen of a spaceship that moved through the stars. Sometimes the stars came close enough to see them as a disk, the most realistic view I'd seen yet. Randy broke into my thoughts as he continued, "Tell me something, John. How are you going to get electricity out to the shed to run all your equipment?" John's mouth fell open. He looked extremely embarrassed. He even began to turn red. Comical. "Uh. Uh," he began sheepishly. "I, um, never thought about that." "Well I've been thinking about that," Randy announced. "You'll either have to buy a fuel cell, not a cheap proposition, or tie into your uncle's. Either way, you'll have to get an electrician out here to work on it. Otherwise, it won't be up to code."
"You're right, Randy," John admitted. "Who's good around here?" "Mr. Dryfus is fairly good, though you might want to talk to your uncle about it. He might have someone he prefers." "Is that the same Dryfus that we ran into today, Ted?" John asked. I answered, "There's only the one family. Usually Mr. Dryfus comes alone, though. John, talk to your uncle. He may have a reason not to want Dryfus in, or he might know of someone else. Hey, let's drop the subject for now. How's the program running, Randy?" "It is. I can't be sure of the progress because of all the variables. Probably take until after dinner at least. Want to watch another movie while we wait?" I said, "You guys go ahead. I'm going to read that new Brin, Jr. I just picked up." *** The next morning we loaded the shed onto the truck, one piece at a time. John drove it along ranch roads until we were near the pond, as close to the depression as possible, then traveled cross-country to the hollow. We began to unload, two of us together on the heaviest pieces. We had carried a third of the shed back, and stacked most of the ties we would use to climb the slight rise along the path to the shed, when we heard the sputtering of the front end loader/back hoe as it approached. Randy and I carried the last of the ties to the stack while John waited to explain what Fred had to do. I must say that Fred knew the easy way to carry the rest of the shed. We slid the pieces onto the front-end loader and steadied them as he drove to the pile we had already made. "Any use carrying it farther?" Randy asked. "I can't see any," I told him. "Why pick it up now and put it down, when we'll only have to pick it up again?" "Good point," John agreed. "Ted, will you help me get this started? Randy can make sure Fred knows what he's doing before he comes to help, too." John picked up the directions for the shed assembly. It didn't take Randy long to tell Fred about the project. We could hear the front-end loader rev up and die back down as it worked when
Randy wandered back to help us about fifteen minutes later. The three of us got the floor, the frame, and the walls of the shed built before it was time to head back. "We'll have to take a break for Saturday and Sunday," Randy said as we drove back toward the house. "I know Fred won't want to be working." "We'll see," John said. "I'll have to ask him. He might volunteer." "I doubt it," I told John. "He's like everyone else. He likes his weekends off." I was wrong. Fred not only helped shape the dish reflector, he helped me form and lay the wave guide, and worked with us for three weeks straight through, and only took breaks when Mr. Taylor needed his help. It took us until three o'clock that third Sunday afternoon to smooth the base of the hollow enough to lay the screen. *** Over the next few weeks, until he had to go back east, John transported and set up some of his equipment. Randy and I made sure the slope and curve of the antenna dish followed the specifications of the computer program, and that the wave guide was set to guide the waves in a usable form and not scatter them. All the measurements we could make confirmed we had shaped both properly, so we looked for John at the shed. "Looking good, John," Randy said that last day as he entered what we would call the radio shack. I followed Randy closely. Across from the door John had placed a table large enough to write on, with a black box, three feet cubed, at one end. Knobs, switches, and meters formed a happy face on the front, and a huge amount of connectors covered the other exposed sides. Next to the table, the freezer for the amp added more to the workspace. Wires connected it to the box on the table. A straight back chair, appropriated from Mr. Taylor's basement, sat in front of the table. A wire harness of coaxial cables as thick as my thigh ran along the walls to the left and right. Shelves completely covered the unused walls of the shack. Each section of shelving held a scanner and tape recorder, tied together as a pair. A cable connected each scanner to the black box. The scanner also had a wire that ran from the earphone
plug through a small transformer to the tape-recorder microphone plug. The windows in the end walls were open for light and air, the only source of both at the time. "It's dark in here, John," I observed. "How did you get all the wiring done?" "It's not done yet," he told us. "I only placed the wire where it belongs, except the wire from each scanner to its recorder. I had that set up and ready to plug in before I came. However, before I do anything else, I need electricity in here. So, before I leave, I have to talk to Uncle Brandon." That night, during supper, Mr. Taylor asked how we were doing. "We still have the antenna to install," John told him, "along with the electricity. By the way, can we tap into your fuel cell? I'll pay for the extra hydrogen. Who do you know can run a cable to the shed so we can have some juice? Or would you rather I buy my own cell while I'm home?" Mr. Taylor looked at his half-finished plate and shook his head. "How much power will you need?" he asked. "Not much, really. Just thirty or forty amps should do it, with a leeway for more." "You going to want heat during winter? Need to think about insulation and add another twenty amps to be safe. OK, boy. I'll get in touch with Ron Dryfus. He's the only one competent to do the job," "Thanks, Uncle Brandon," John said happily. "Just ask him not to bring his son, all right?" "Why? And it better be a good reason." "He's a bully that doesn't like people with good grades." John told his uncle what had happened in town, how Rob had threatened us because he thought we were trying to pick up his girlfriend. We didn't tell John's uncle that he was right. John explained, "I'm afraid he would want to come back and mess up my antenna." "I've met people like that before," Mr. Taylor told John. "Don't worry about it. I'll be sure the Dryfus boy don't come. "Randy. Can you do something to work out how we can get the
highest profit margin. If you can't do it with that computer of yours, I don't think anybody can." *** The school year passed, and we all passed, and senior year was a few months of fun into the future. A few weeks into summer vacation John returned and we laid the reflector for the antenna on the ground we had shaped last year. I unrolled the aluminum window screen that John had brought with him last year. John and Randy followed and folded the seams twice to form a good connection of what would become the reflector. It took a couple of days, but we finally finished. Now we were ready to set the upper reflector, what many people think is the antenna, but it just reflects the signal to the wave guide in the center. "Ted," John yelled across the open space, "start to pull her across!" We were on the top of the depression, above the dish, with a string stretched across the opening. I had used my bow, which had a seventyfive-pound pull, to shoot an arrow with a string tied to the shaft over the dish to John and Randy who waited on the other side. They had tied twine to the string, wire to the twine, and the antenna support cable to the wire. Now I had to pull the whole affair across the open space above the dish. Once I had it anchored on my end, they would draw the cable tight. Then they could attach the reflector onto the cable, on pulleys, so they could roll it to the center, something like at Arecibo. At both places, Arecibo and here, the reflector was suspended above the dish and reflected signals to a wave guide, but at Arecibo the reflector could move. We figured it would take several tries to hang our reflector precisely, but John had figured out a good way to set it properly, and we had a bright mark painted on the support cable about where the center would be. That would get us close. I hauled on the string, then the twine, then the wire. That length of wire began to add weight to the line I pulled. "Give me a hand," I yelled. "Right behind you," I heard Fred say. I looked back and saw that Fred and Mr. Taylor stood there and waited for me to ask for help. Both grabbed the wire, and we hauled the cable across until the loop stretched over the anchor mounted fifteen feet from the edge. When we had
secured the cable to the anchor, I yelled and waved across to John to take up the slack. "You sure that'll hold?" Mr. Taylor asked. "Should," I answered. "John has a nine foot spike on this anchor. We drove it about six feet through soil before we hit rock. With about three feet of the spike in that, it should hold." "Yep," Mr. Taylor agreed, "that ought to do it." By that time, Randy had attached the other end of the cable to a winch. He started the motor, and when it had come up to speed, carefully engaged the clutch. Slowly the cable began to wind onto the spool. John guided it with his gloved hands so it would lie neatly on the roll. When it began to strain, Randy locked the roller in place, and John crimped the cable to a loop attached to another anchor on their side, positioned fifteen feet from the edge. They walked to the edge on their side and looked at the cable strung across the hollow. After a minute, John yelled, "You ready for the next step?" "Whenever you are," I yelled back. "OK, shoot us another line." I had originally expected we would have to shove the reflector out to the center and haul it back to the side of the hollow, but John had thought of a better idea. He had the reflector suspended from two plastic cables attached securely to each end of the reflector, non-conductive and with a higher tensile strength than steel. Each cable end went through a pulley on a frame that rode the cable to opposite sides of the hollow. All we had to do was to pull on one cable, or both, to change the reflector's position in any direction. I tied the string to another arrow and shot it across the dug out depression to their side. They tied the string to the thinner plastic cable and yelled for me to pull. Hand over hand I slowly eased the string across until it was time to mount the reflector. After they lay the pulleys carefully onto the support cable and made sure they had attached the cable properly, I began to pull the string slowly, then the lightweight plastic line. The reflector rolled across until it reached the center marked on the support cable.
John headed out to a spot we had surveyed earlier. We had marked a stick with the proper height calculated according to Pythagorean Theorem, and had the center-line of the reflector brightly marked so it would be easy to find. I waited for him to reach the position where he would sight and tell us what to do. "You tie this into the same anchor as the support cable?" Mr. Taylor asked. "Sure. Most of the strain will be from the tension of the support cable. If that’s too much, we can loosen it. This cable doesn't even hold the weight of the reflector. The main cable supports that through the pulleys and the mono-filament, so, no big deal. There's John taking up his position." I concentrated on his instructions so I could follow them exactly. He placed the measuring stick on the mark, sighted carefully, and called to Randy and me to tell us which way to go. Only five minutes later he yelled we had placed it properly. I wrapped the cable around the eye of the anchor and crimped the loop closed. Then, after another careful check, John gave a final OK and motioned for us to come to the shed. Mr. Taylor looked inside when John had unlocked the door. "This looks good, boy," he said as he inspected the work we had done. "Looks like it's meant for serious work. You ready to go now? Goin' to turn it on?" John answered, "No, Uncle Brandon, I still have work to do. I need to have one person on one end of a wire, and one person on the other end, and match up the scanners to the proper frequency conversion. Then I have to wait for Mr. Dryfus to run the electricity out here before I can turn it on. It'll take a day or two more." The next afternoon, John and I were in the shack. I read the number of the sticker on the scanner, and the number on the sticker wrapped around the coax. John worked with switches inside the amplifier to set a code and properly route the signals. We had almost finished when we heard a thump as something hit the wall. John shot outside as if the roof had caved in. I was close behind him. Mr. Dryfus was above us with a roll of heavy electrical cable draped next to him.
"Sorry to scare you like that, boys," he called. "Almost got you ready for action. Wait a minute and you can show me where you want me to bring it in." I figured we were done for the day, or at least we would have sit around and watch him run the wire and connect it to a circuit breaker box he installed. "Got you run underground from the cell to here," he told John. "Best I could do to protect it from the weather. Lots cheaper than poles, too. What you boys doing here, anyway?" "Just a homemade SETI project," John told him nonchalantly. "A what?" Mr. Dryfus asked, puzzled. "SETI," John repeated, then explained, "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, signals from space. Sort of what NASA's doing, but on a smaller scale. I doubt if anything will come of it, but it's fun to play with, and it'll look good on our resume. At least I hope it will." "Yeah? Well, good luck, kid. I'll have you hooked up in about an hour. You need me to run anything inside?" John thought for a moment, and then said, "I don't know. Why don't you put the circuit breakers inside, say under the table, and I'll take it from there? Can you do that?" "Sure, kid," Mr. Dryfus agreed, "whatever you want. Come back in an hour and I'll be done." "OK if we keep working?" John asked. "Got nothing against that, kid. You go ahead and do your thing. I'll finish up and let you know. You goin' into town for the fireworks tomorrow night? They're at the fairground." "Sounds interesting," John said as he and I continued to attach the coax. We had almost finished when Mr. Dryfus told us he'd completed his job. We told him goodbye, and completed our task. On the way to the house, John told me that when he had connected the inside wiring and we plugged everything in we would be ready to start. Less than one day, unless Mr. Taylor gave us a job to do, a doubtful situation on the Fourth of July. Anyway, we had tickets to the race at the fairground, and there were fireworks.
After we let Mr. Matheson hear the strange voices, while we waited for the two professors to arrive, we took Randy's dad down to the radio shack and John explained the system changes. While we were there, we replaced the used tapes and brought them back to the house with us. Randy and his father ran them through the computer while they tested the new program, and after a few false starts, debugs, and rewrites, found several tapes with voices on them. We finally broke for lunch. The two professors arrived about three thirty that afternoon. They raised dust as they drove up the drive in a beat up compact car that was many years old. The driver, who wore the blue jeans and green corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches that was the uniform for college professors, unfolded himself as he maneuvered from behind the wheel. The passenger was a short woman in a short dress with blond hair and a shape that demanded my attention. I admit it; I like to look at women. Don't all guys? The man walked up to us as we waited on the front porch. "Roland, I found you," he said laughing as he shook Mr. Matheson's hand. Randy's father introduced us to Dr. Hargraves and Dr. Meadowwood, the woman. Slowly we worked our way into the kitchen. While we drank coffee, John had to explain his SETI project yet again. After he finished, Dr. Hargraves suggested we listen to the tapes. Randy explained the equipment was upstairs, and we ought to go up there. "Standard cassette?" Dr. Meadowwood asked in a low, sexy voice. "Sure," Randy replied. "Then go get it. You two help me bring my equipment in from the car, and we'll see what we can find." Dr. Meadowwood opened a trunk loaded with electronic equipment that put anything John or Randy had to shame. It was the first time I had seen most of this stuff, except some mockups in movies. John lovingly petted a complicated looking oscilloscope as he waited for the rest of us to grab an armful. Dr. Meadowwood handed me a combination tape
player and something else. Randy finally came out and offered to help. When we all had a load, we went into the living room to set up the equipment. It took Dr. Meadowwood fifteen minutes to plug in all the wires, calibrate the meters, and set the levels. Finally, she asked Randy for a tape. "What will happen," she explained, "is that the signal stored on the tape in magnetic pulses will be read by the player and changed into electrical impulses that are detected by the computer. The computer will store the information, read the whole section, decide what is noise and what is a true signal, and delete what it has decided is noise. The computer feeds this cleaned up signal to the oscilloscope, which shows it and sends it on to the continuous graph printer." "I have one of them," John interrupted. Dr. Meadowwood didn't even pause. "We can look at the hard copy and use it to decide whether to send it through again, or keep it as a record to prosecute any hoaxers, or discover if we have a nonhuman source. We then amplify the signal and send the electric pulses through the speakers. This causes them to move and create sound we can hear. We'll copy the cleaned tape, also, if that's all right with you, Randy." He nodded. "I know it sounds complicated, but it's really a simple process." She touched the play button and the tape started, but we did not hear anything. "It will take a few minutes for the computer to work out what's noise," she explained. Squiggles began to show on the oscilloscope, then the pen on the continuous printer began to move, and we could hear the voices, much clearer this time. "That is a new language, I believe," Dr. Hargraves informed us, "unless it is a code of some kind." Dr. Meadowwood said, "That's a new language for you, Charlie. Look at the graph. In fact, we ought to run it through again with the frequency--no that wouldn't work. We'll have to use the SETI equipment in Arizona to get a true range. The frequency response of the equipment here isn't large enough. Look at this. You see the peaks here? They're flattened, or cut off. The vocals are partially above the frequency that the human ear can hear, or at least the range of the equipment these boys used. Didn't you say you had a graph, John?"
I didn't think she had heard him. "Yes Ma'am," he answered. "Can you get it for me?" He ran out of the house without a moment's hesitation. Now that was something I’d never seen him do before, obey an order or request so quickly. Whether it was due to the excitement of the moment, or he had the same interest in the professor that I felt I didn’t know, but he returned shortly with a roll of paper and unrolled it in front of her. "This is what we recorded yesterday," he said. "Where is it attached, the graph?" Dr. Meadowwood asked. "Just behind the multi-amp, before the signal is split. It has it's own squelch so it doesn't record all the noise." "Good. We have a chance to see the true frequency range." She studied the roll of paper. "Yes, here it is. Look at the spikes. Look how high that is. That has to be part of the voice, but we can't correlate this now. It has to be done at the source, at the time of the recording. But this is enough. This signal has not originated from any equipment of terrestrial manufacture that I know about, nor is its source a human larynx. Therefore, we are listening to an alien broadcast." "And I am the first to listen to the language," Dr. Hargraves announced, his chin held high. "Not quite," Mr. Matheson commented. "The boys heard it first." "Sure, sure," Dr. Hargraves said with a wave of his hand, "but they are not qualified to make a determination of whether this is a new language or not. They will get the credit for the discovery. I will take the credit for the recognition." "You'll share the credit, Charlie," Dr. Meadowwood said, her voice low, her eyebrows lowered as she stared right at the other professor. "Without my equipment, you wouldn't have known for sure that it was new." "All right, all right," Dr. Hargraves finally acquiesced. "I am only one of the team. Now let us decide what needs to be done about this new discovery." "What, what, exactly, have we discovered," I asked. I must admit I was a bit confused. From the time the computer cleared up the voice to
now had been only five or ten minutes, most of it, as far as I remembered, a discussion of who had made the "discovery." "Can I explain it?" Dr. Meadowwood asked. Everyone agreed, including me; I like the sound of her voice. "Ted, what happened is that by running the sound through the equipment, and looking at John's graph, we have discovered that this is not only a voice, but is probably not a human voice. In other words, you three are the first to hear an alien." She remembered my name. "Then shouldn't, shouldn't we, shouldn't we tell the tabloids?" I asked. Yeah, when I'm excited, I stutter. "You know the type of story they print, Cherokee," Randy said. "This isn't just any UFO make-believe." "But it could very well be a spaceship, a UFO, or more than one, Randy," Dr. Meadowwood said. "In fact, they set up the whole SETI project for something just like this. If we tell NASA, they'll be able to adjust their receivers to scan this range. But we don't want to tell them yet." "Why not, Marilyn?" Mr. Matheson asked. "I've dealt with them also, and they've always been straight up, as much as bureaucrats are. "Because, having dealt with them recently, I know the political side, and they'd steal the credit. They still deal with the United States Congress, so they have to show results to get appropriations. This one discovery could make or break them, and since the Mars disaster, when insufficient funding for supplies wiped the colony out you'll remember, they've been after all the good PR they can get. If they can show that their SETI project came through, they can persuade Congress to increase their funding. However, if it comes out that some kid in the sticks with a homemade setup made the crucial initial discovery, then they might as well close up shop. Personally, I don't agree they should close down. As a pure research and development group they can't be beat, if congress gives them enough funding and they're pushed. But that's politics. No, Roland, I think we have to tell the International Astronomical Society about this. They'll record our discovery, and then spread the word, giving us full credit."
"How do we get in touch with them?" Randy asked. "Do you have your modem with you?" Mr. Matheson asked. "Sure," Randy answered. "Then I have a website you can use to contact their computer directly." "Sure, Dude!" John exclaimed. "Then the program will automatically record the universal time and stellar date. Do it, Randy." "But what am I supposed to say?" Randy asked. Dr. Meadowwood suggested, "Fill out the form, then in the comments area say something like this: On this date, a cassette tape recording of signals on or near, then enter the frequency or the range, obtained by using a fixed 'dish' antenna the previous day, by, and give your names, was played for myself and Charlie, but use our proper titles. Your dad knows what they are. We have determined this recording to probably, and make sure you put in probably, be of extraterrestrial origin. Due to the nature of the facilities available, further experiments cannot be undertaken. Complete details to follow. Randy, you and your dad work that out on a word processor and you can copy something that sounds professional into the form. Makes it more likely someone will act. We'll compose that letter to NASA in a while, John, but right now Randy needs to send that message, and I want to see what you've built. We might be able to supply better information than you think to help others document this." "What? You tell the world that my nephew here made this so called discovery, then let everyone else figure out what it is?" Mr. Taylor protested as he strode into the room. "No, no, not at all," Dr. Meadowwood answered. "John and the boys have made a discovery, and I'll tell you this is one hell of a discovery. With the limited amount of equipment at their disposal, though, it's highly unlikely they can follow through with the necessary tests. For that, they would need highly sophisticated machinery costing hundreds of millions of dollars. They just can't do it. So we'll do the next best thing. We record their discovery with a reputable clearinghouse, and believe me there's none better, who will document that the boys made the discovery with help from Charlie and me. Then whoever we use for
a clearinghouse sends out cablegrams, telegrams, and e-mail and makes phone calls and generally alerts the world. Usually, within a day or two, someone confirms the discovery, and the discoverers are famous, or infamous as the case may be. It's really the only way in this case. Now, John, would you show me what you built?"
We composed the long message to the International Astronomical Society and Randy sent it out before the professors left. You would not believe the excitement that announcement started. You've heard the saying, may all your days be exciting? That's an insult, believe me. I never want to go through another day like that again. Everyone and his sister called that Monday, two days after we sent out the cable about the discovery. We heard from amateur astronomers, heads of astronomical institutes, heads of astrophysics departments of universities, crackpots, reporters, even the military. And to top that off, on one of the hottest days of the year, the air conditioning died. To say that Mr. Taylor got upset would be a major understatement. For three straight hours John would answer the phone, say, "Hello.--The International Astronomical Society will have all the pertinent information.--Thanks for calling," hang up, and immediately repeat the process. Mr. Taylor finally unplugged the phone. John said he looked as if he was about to throw it across the room, and I can't say I blame him. The phone was so busy with incoming calls, I drove into town to alert the sheriff we expected some problems and ask if he could help. He told me that if things got out of hand, he'd lend us a deputy to sit at the end of the drive, and that a man from the Air Force had asked where the Taylors lived. I thanked him and used his phone to call in a technician for the air conditioning. Even though I was out in the more than fortydegree heat, almost halfway between ice and steam, I considered myself lucky. At least I had moving air around me. On the way back to the ranch, I caught up with a blue car that was covered with dust and wore government tags. The four people inside, one obviously older than the rest, wore uniforms as far as I could tell. They'd fly along the road until they reached a drive to a ranch or research facility or water well, pass it slowly, then pick up speed and fly down to the next drive. I figured they searched for something, and I thought I knew what it was. I passed them when I could and hurried back to the ranch. After I parked out of sight behind the house, I found
Mr. Taylor in the barn as he stacked a load of straw that had just arrived. Mr. Taylor listened to what the sheriff had said, and what I had seen on my way back. "Air Force, comin' here? Thanks Ted. At least they won't surprise us. Why don't you go get John? I think he and Randy are in their room. Tell him to meet me on the front porch, and we'll show these people they can't take us over." Just as Mr. Taylor had predicted, the blue car pulled up in front of the house in a cloud of dust that hung over the driveway and surrounded the car in the unusually still air. Randy and I stood at the top of the steps alongside John and his uncle as we waited for the people to get out. Mr. Taylor quietly ordered, "Let me handle this, boys." He waited until the people had stepped out of the car and approached the porch. "What do you people want?" Mr. Taylor demanded. The older man, who was just about the same size as John and wore a dark blue uniform, said, "I'm looking for a--" he glanced at a sheet of paper in his hand, "--John Taylor. He's supposed to be at this address." "Why are you lookin' for him? I can see you have Air Force uniforms, and you have that emblem printed on the side of your car. That holds no count with me. Is he a criminal? Absent without leave? A spy? Even if he was here, what authority do you have to even speak to him, let alone take him away? Are you even Air Force? You might be some foreigner in disguise." The Air Force man sighed as if he'd had this problem every time he wanted to speak to someone. Calmly he stated, "I am Colonel James Kennedy of the 415th Division of the United States Air Force. My Commander-in-Chief has ordered me to talk to Mr. John Taylor and anyone involved with him about a matter that could concern the nation's safety, or possibly the world’s. Is he here?" "Is he under arrest?" Mr. Taylor countered. "Will you detain him in any way?" "No, Sir, he is not under arrest. If he, in his person, is not a risk, I will not detain him. I don't want to detain him. I do not want that hassle. I just want to speak to him about the report he made to--" again he referred to the paper in his hand, "--the International Astronomical Society on Saturday, August 2, at 2258 hours Universal, or about five
o'clock in the afternoon, here. As of this moment there is no reason to arrest him, nor do I foresee any, but I must speak to him. Now." Mr. Taylor finally relented. "All right, John's here. Now say your piece." "Which one of you is John Taylor?" Colonel Kennedy asked. John stepped forward. "Did you make the report I mentioned earlier?" John nodded. "Have you worked out the code or language yet?" John looked over at Randy. Randy answered, "It's only been two days, Sir. As you probably know, even with an Epson 51-47-93 running a holographic decipher program, the results don't begin to show for at least two days. If you're lucky. We don't have anything even close to that. Or that program." "Who are you? And how do you know about that program, anything about that program." the colonel asked belligerently. "Randy Matheson, Sir. My father is Roland." "That explains it. Is your father here?" "No, Sir, but I can call him." "Do so," the colonel ordered. "He knows me. We'll reach a better understanding quicker. Mr. Taylor, are you expecting anyone in today, besides the people we'll call in?" "Got my straw, so just the repair people for the air conditioner," Mr. Taylor answered. He still sounded a little put out that a visitor could even think he was in charge as this Colonel Kennedy seemed to think. "Very important today, I agree." The Colonel dispatched two of the men to stand where the driveway branched to go to the front or behind the house, and gave them orders to allow only certain people access. Then he suggested we all go inside. Mr. Taylor led them into the living room and offered the colonel a chair. "Can I use your phone?" the colonel asked. "I doubt you can get through," Mr. Taylor told him. "I had to unplug the thing to get any peace. We couldn't get through to the repair shop for all the incomin' calls." "That can be alleviated in no time," the colonel said with a smile, and ordered the young man with him, his adjunct, to get his briefcase from inside the trunk.
"I'm going to tie in with the microwave antenna the phone company installed on your roof to beam your calls to the switching office. By using a special frequency, I can bypass your phone and all the incoming calls until I can have the line cleared. Now give me the names of people you're willing to accept calls from." While we waited for the adjunct to return with the briefcase, we put our heads together to think of anyone we knew who might call: neighbors, friends, suppliers, and buyers. When the young man returned, the colonel opened the case on his lap, ran a small antenna out of its top, and clicked some buttons. He picked up a receiver inside the case, listened for a minute, flicked a switch, and dialed a number. After a moment, you could hear a buzz from the receiver. "This is Colonel James Kennedy of the 415th Division, Air Force Command, Code 7516172, requesting priority service. Yes, I'll hold." He waited for a minute, repeated what he had just said, then waited for two more minutes. He repeated the information again, and one more time, before he found a person who could help. "Yes, I need a phone line monitored.--No, not for surveillance. I need to make outgoing calls, and it's swamped with incoming.--Just a minute." He asked Mr. Taylor his phone number, then repeated it to the operator. "Excellent. I will call back on that line with further instructions. Thank you." He flipped the switch back to its original position, pressed a button, waited, and then dialed another number. "Yes, it's Colonel Kennedy. Do we have to go through the rigmarole again?--Thank you. Now here's the list." He reeled off the list of names we gave him, plus some of his own, asked to have the line secured, then cut the connection. "That should clear up that mess. Randy, call your father, please. We'll need him to set up a program among other things." Randy made the phone call, and then suggested that he call the two professors who had been out on Saturday. The Colonel said he would do it himself 'cause he carried more clout and would be able to have them skip classes. Shortly he hung up, just as the adjunct told us the repair person for the air conditioner had arrived. Before Mr. Matheson showed, the AC was worked again and we
felt a lot cooler, and less ready to tear off someone's head. Randy's Father wandered in the door, saw the colonel, grinned and held out his hand. "Jim. It's good to see you again. Overreacting as usual?" "I don't think so, Roland. You've heard the voice, or whatever it is. Do you think I am? Don't answer that yet. Let's wait for the experts. Those two professors you had here the other day should be coming. Are they any good?" "I'll let you decide, Jim. One is Dr. Charles Hargraves, used to be the Director of his department over at Harvard. Now he's semi-retired and teaching a couple of classes out here. The other is Dr. Marilyn Meadowwood. She has a medical doctorate along with a doctorate in jurisprudence. I think she's qualified." "Short, curvy, with a voice males would die for?" the colonel asked. "You do know her," Randy's father confirmed with a smile. "Think she's qualified?" "I've worked with her before, but I couldn't remember her name. She's good. Not the best, but good. Hargraves now, I'm glad it's him. He'll carry the weight we need." Colonel Kennedy slouched slightly into the chair. "Now that I know who's coming I can relax for a while. What have you been doing since I saw you last? As I remember, you were debugging a program for the Cipher Unit, something about an extended program." "That's still in use. I can only say it's all mine. Since then I've been busy with other things." They talked for nearly an hour as they caught up on each other's doings until the conversation turned to Randy. Mr. Matheson was a proud parent, with good reason. "He's sixteen and already he's excelled in all the courses he needs for college. He knows five programming languages, you could say he's fluent in them, and next year he starts computer engineering classes. I think he may be smarter than me. Anyway, he's staying here this summer, helping John with his project. His computer was the one that designed the dish." "Oh? What do you have?" the colonel asked. "It's just a home-built. Nothing much. Just five two-point-five-
teraflop coprocessors in a case made by Cherokee here, each connected to its own operating system. I set up each operating system to translate a different programming language into machine language. Then the CPUs work together using machine language, dividing the task among themselves to get the answer quicker. It's not quite a super computer, but this way I can cool it normally, although it does have a lot of fans. I also have two printers, an extra terabyte hard drive, and an optical reader." Randy glanced at his father and added, "I'd like to get a plotter, but it's too expensive. Oh, and I have an Epson Cubic Reader. That's my new toy." "One or two thousand?" the colonel asked. Randy gave him a puzzled look. "There's a new one? Oh yeah, I remember. It's coming, but it's not on the market yet." "That's all you'd need to run the cipher program Roland built. I believe the setup can handle everything but the memory needed for the program. Am I right, Roland?" "If Randy first reworks the settings for the RAM, and runs the program off a two thousand reader, it's possible it'd work. Slow, but it'd work. I'd say upgrade the memory, but we're at the top for the motherboards as it is. Why?" "I want to keep this as quiet as possible. I'll get a reader, and permission for the program. You and Randy work on that for the time being. We'll get Hargraves to lend a hand. In the mean time, John, why don't you explain everything about the setup that started this all? Start at the very beginning." While John repeated what was now a boring story, at least to me, I decided to read the rest of my Science Fiction by Brin, Jr. I do like the occasional book since reading relaxes me. *** Late in the afternoon, almost dinner time, the two professors finally pulled up behind the house. They walked into the kitchen, where we had migrated, five large pizzas in hand. Naturally, we boys were happy with the choice, almost as much as Mrs. Taylor who didn't have to cook. As they walked in, Dr. Meadowwood said, "We're here, and a good
thing, too. It's looking awful iffy out toward the west." "There is a possibility of storms," Mr. Taylor agreed. "These may be a bit cold," the professor continued. "It's a ways from the pizza store." "They can warm up in the microwave," Mrs. Taylor said. "Thank you for bringing them." She began to heat and distribute the pizza. Between bites, Dr. Hargraves asked, "What, exactly, is the reason you've called us here, Colonel?" "This is awfully good. Let's wait until we've finished, shall we?" the colonel replied. "But to satisfy some of your curiosity, I'll say that there might be a threat to the world. That is what we are going to discuss tonight. Mr. Taylor, I want you there, too. We may need to make a decision regarding the use of some or all of your land. You know, this pizza is excellent. I haven't had any this good since my tour in Italy." Later that night, as the sun set, we sat around the kitchen table with an after dinner coffee or soda when Colonel Kennedy asked, "What leads you to believe that these voices of yours are from outer space?" "I'll answer that," Dr. Meadowwood said in her sexy contralto. "The voices on the original tape were fuzzy and sometimes lost in static. After we cleaned them up, we checked the original graph, ran them through a voice analyzer, and found that the human larynx is not capable of reproducing the range of tones that we received. That leads me to believe that a nonhuman larynx or voice box is the source, and that they broadcast the higher range because it is a necessary part of their language. To truly understand what they say, we'll have to be able to receive a broader range of frequencies than we do now." "And how would you suggest we do that?" the colonel asked. Dr. Meadowwood looked at John, who answered, "I think I could design a receiver that picks up what's needed. Actually, I think that more than what's needed would be better, and mark the highest and lowest frequencies." Colonel Kennedy smiled. "Good. Do that. design it, and make sure you have the entire range covered. If you need help, I can get it for you. Better yet, just work out the range you need. We'll pass that along to certain listening posts without telling them what it is. They'll beef up
their receivers if that's necessary, record what they pick up, and send the tapes here. I'd rather have complete control of a small group in an outof-the-way location than have everyone in the world allowed access through a military base. Right now, it's too important. Did you bring what you would need to work on some new tapes, Doctor?" "Out in the car," Dr. Meadowwood answered. "Good. John picked up some newly recorded tapes this afternoon. If we could run them through, I might be able to work out if it's a code of some nature." "Oh, it's no code," Dr. Meadowwood stated confidently as she stood. John, Randy, and I joined Dr. Meadowwood at the truck of her car and again carried delicate and expensive equipment into the house. This time, in deference to the colonel, we squeezed the equipment onto the dining room table. She placed the first tape in the player and pressed start. Again, it took a few minutes for the computer to work out the difference between noise and signal, but finally the graph paper began to roll out of the printer, and we heard a voice. It seemed to say a couple sentences, then broke off, and shortly started again. After it repeated the pattern several times, it ended. "I don't know about you," the colonel commented, "but to me it sounded like that was half of a conversation. It sounded like someone was on the phone in the same room." "All I can tell you is that it seemed to be the same language we heard before," Dr. Hargraves informed us. “The structure, the clicks, squeals, and guttural stops all sound familiar.” "Run another tape and we'll see what we've got," the colonel ordered. The same pattern emerged, intermittent speech broken by bursts of static. The only difference was the voice, a sound as much unlike the former as a girl is from a boy. We played several more tapes of different frequencies with the same results. After the tapes played through for about an hour, the colonel asked, "John, what's your opinion?" "I'm not sure," John answered. "It could be an elaborate hoax, or it could be what it sounds like: several spaceships talking to each other." "Ted?" the colonel inquired. I said that I agreed with John, as did
Randy. Mr. Taylor said he couldn't see any reason for a hoax. We all agreed that this was something strange, although I'm sure the colonel only listened to the professors and Mr. Matheson. After we'd all stated our opinions The colonel said, "I'm glad you all agree with me. There's only one thing I can do." I'm sure it didn't matter to the colonel what anyone else thought, especially after I saw the look on his face. He wasn't smiling like when he talked to Randy's dad earlier. He looked very serious, and worried, and a little scared when he picked up the briefcase that sat beside him, opened it, and lifted the receiver. He punched a few buttons, waited for a moment, and said, "Ground only. Priority one. Code 7516172. Thank you." A minute passed. "General? Colonel Kennedy here. It's worse than we thought.--Yes, Sir, I will." The colonel pushed the disconnect button, and then dialed a new number. Again, he waited a minute. "Madam President? Colonel James Kennedy.--Yes, Ma'am, they're all well.--No, Ma'am, I haven't. I haven't had the chance. They keep me very busy.--Yes, Ma'am, the reason I called." Slowly he said, "Well, Ma'am, I think we have a little situation here."
First Noname leaned against the wall of the arena, his Umlaka, the ceremonial sword reserved for the coming-of-age fight, held loosely by his two upper right graspers. He waited for his paternal elder, his opponent, to appear. He had broken his shell many groupsleeps before and since then had grown. Pedagogues had taught him the history of his race he did not remember, and the skills needed by a warrior. They had fed him nutritiously and helped him to grow strong. They had tested him against everyone in his generation in both knowledge and skill. To learn everything known in the past had been hard; yet to perfect his warrior’s skills by combat against others, most of who had been trying to kill him, had been harder. His success was the proof of his right to lead. The visible result of that success was his title of First. Now he must face his biggest challenge yet, the duel to the death for the right to control the fleet. If he failed, his opponent would have to fight Second Noname at once. Second Noname would win and become First Warrior. First Noname could not let that insult to his line happen. His skin glowed with youth as First Noname watched the opposite entrance, until his attention lapsed as he waited impatiently for the battle to start. He thought ahead to when he would be in charge of the fleet of ships that explored the stars of this sector, when he would search for worlds to colonize. When he looked up, First Warrior stood in the open entrance and watched him. "I could have killed you just then," First Warrior told him. "That's the only chance you would have had, old worm," First Noname said arrogantly. First Warrior studied First Noname. "You think so, child? I may be harder to overcome than you imagine." "You? Hard?" First Noname asked with laughter in his voice. "Don't make me laugh. Your time has past. You are done for. Through." "Now is not yet time for you to be so arrogant, my young opponent," First Warrior chastised. "You are yet a newborn waiting for
me to teach you. The waters of your growth still shine in your skin." First Noname ignored the gibe. He proclaimed, "Now it's time for you to let the new order take over. Will you do it gracefully, or do you believe you can win even though your skin grows dull with age?" First Warrior stepped away from the entrance and allowed the door to slide closed. "Granted I am old, child, but do not let that fool you. Youth may have quickness, but age has experience, and that is something for which you cannot study. I have been through many battles, and there is one thing I can tell you, you must always keep your head. Be observant. Think!" From a motionless relaxed stance, First Warrior stepped forward and raised his Umlaka over his head. He brought the blade within a millimeter of his opponent's face, then lowered it to rest ready at his side. He appeared to rest his weight on the weapon, but he maintained his balance. "You have yet to earn your name and position, youth. Are you ready to be serious now?" First Noname's multifaceted eyes seemed to glow with rage. His youthful green skin appeared fluorescent. His black and orange markings seemed to float in midair. He stepped forward as he brought the ceremonial weapon around in a powerful arc. The large blade sped directly toward First Warrior's neck. First Warrior parried the stroke with an upward movement of his weapon, the classic defense learned so long ago and practiced daily. The sword-like upper handle turned his opponent's blade away from their bodies. First Warrior changed the defensive maneuver into a strong blow aimed directly at First Noname's head. First Noname ducked and swung his Umlaka low. One of First Warrior's three left legs slid across the floor and spread green fluid in an intricate pattern. "Nicely done, child; you were thinking," First Warrior gasped through his pain. "Continue to do so. You are not a Warrior, yet." First Warrior thrust his weapon at First Noname and opened a gash on the side of First Noname's torso. The mark of a black arrow pointed at the
wound. First Warrior observed, "Now you have your first battle scar." "And I have your ship!" First Noname cried as he swung the Umlaka in a powerful stroke right at First Warrior's chest. First Warrior misjudged the stroke and ducked. His head bounced across the floor of the arena as his body slowly sank to lie in a puddle of slippery slime. *** First Talker looked up as the victor entered the control cabin, an ooze of fresh blood from his untreated wound plainly visible. "We do not allow juveniles in this area," First Talker said sternly. "You dare to speak to First Warrior in that manner?" the new First Warrior demanded. "Have someone clean up the mess in the arena. No, you clean it up before you add your matter to the disintegrator." First Talker noted the blood, and the tone of Command. He opened the intra-ship communications and said one word, then rose to follow his commander's order. First Warrior waited as word of his victory spread through the ship. Young crew members, brightly colored black on green, quietly exchanged seats with their dull-skinned elders. When the new First Talker had reset the board, First Warrior said, "Talker, tell the fleet of the change in personnel. Inform the Finder when all ships have exchanged crews. "Finder, set a course for the system that the elders chose for us, but place us two widths of the system above its orbital plane. Have the fleet spread out. I want us to appear as if we are stars if they can see us." "Yes First Warrior," the new crew members answered. They had waited for this day, the day when they and not their elders would control their destiny. Now that it had arrived, they were ready to accept their responsibilities. First Warrior eased back in his command seat and wondered if it was it enough to have the best on this ship as his firsts. Perhaps it would be better to transfer the best of the fleet to this ship to be his advisers. The smartest and the most cunning of the fleet together could almost
guarantee a victory with no losses, no matter what the odds. He had plenty of time before the fleet reached the first stage for the change.
The next morning, even with the windows closed, the sound of trucks behind the barn woke me. What was going on before five in the morning when we usually got up? I pulled on a pair of jeans and a Tshirt and ran down to the kitchen. John and Randy had arrived on the back steps first and looked out through the darkness past the barn. A cloud of dust, just lighter than the black sky, rose from the other side of the grove, which was where the noise originated. We looked at each other, and then raced for the path that led to the antenna. An Air Force MP stood near the crest of the small rise between the house and the hollow. "Hey, boys," he yelled as we approached, "where do you think you're going?" It almost sounded like he thought he was important or something, and we were ants he could squash. No, we were less than ants. That attitude didn't phase John. He demanded, "What's happening down there?" I would have asked, but I couldn't make my brain think of the words. "Before I give you any information, boys," the MP said in his holier-than-thou way, "why don't you tell me who you are." His attitude shocked me so much I couldn't think. I helped build the dish, and here he told me I couldn't go to the shack! I just stood there, not able to move or anything. Randy felt the same way, I could tell. His mouth was an insect trap. I know for a fact it made John furious. You should have heard him as he gave that MP a piece of his mind. He used every bit of reasoning he'd built up over the years of debate club. He was only half way through when we saw that Colonel Kennedy approached the stairs I had built. John yelled, "Ask him. Ask him! He'll tell you we belong here!" "What seems to be the trouble, boys?" the colonel asked calmly. John began a heated explanation while the MP started to explain his side in a calmer tone. "Hold on there," the colonel chuckled. "I think I know the problem.
Airman First Class Colleens, isn't it? Here's a list of names of the people allowed access to these facilities. Study it, and pass it on to your relief. In the mean time, I'd like you to meet John Taylor, Ted Solidoak, and Randy Matheson." "I have them on my list, Sir," the MP noted as he used a penlight to read the paper. "You'd better, Colleens. It's their project, in case you haven't figured that out yet. These three boys are the ones that started this mess." The Colonel turned toward us and asked, "What can I do for you boys this early in the morning?" "We heard the trucks and had to see what was happening." "Well, now you see it, and that's why I was coming up, to tell you what we were doing. We're building a road from thirty-four on out to here rather than come past the house all the time. We're also moving the fence so we don't intrude on your uncle's livestock. We'll surround the entire area here with the same type of fence that's out on the road, and a four-meter fence topped with razor wire. That stuff's sharp, so don't touch it. We'll have barracks over there, out of the way. Oh, in case you didn't notice, John, no radios. Right now, unless you really have to go in, I'd suggest you wait for a while. I'll bring up two technicians for you to meet later. What time would be good?" "We have to do some chores, clean the stalls, and feed our horses," Randy said. Every day, starting around seven-thirty when we finished other chores, we cleaned the stalls in the barn. We removed the waste accumulated during the past twenty-four hours and added fresh bedding. It was hard work with nothing permanent that we could see or touch, like many things in life, but it helped John's uncle make ends meet. This chore, unlike the projects we enjoyed, felt like two hours of stinking drudgery. Randy thought a moment, and then said, "Nine-thirty or ten would be good." "Ten hundred hours it is then," the colonel agreed. "We'll be up at the house. Have some coffee ready." Just as Colonel Kennedy had promised, as we poured coffee at ten o'clock, he knocked on the back door. I opened the door and let the
colonel and the two young officers that followed inside. We gathered around the kitchen table, cups of coffee in our hands. "Boys," the colonel began, "let me introduce you to Radio Technician First Class Karl Persinger and Computer Operator First Class Clancy O'Dell. Clancy, you'll be working with Randy Matheson over there. His father's the consulting programmer whose name you've probably heard. He'll be over later today to help get Randy's new cube reader online and running." I don't know how, but Clancy O'Dell managed to mix an Irish accent with one from Northern New Jersey, but it made his way of speaking unique. "That isn't the Matheson who worked out Holographic Cipher is it?" "Yes, that's one of my father's programs," Randy boasted. "Then it'll be an honor to meet him. Working with his son should be good, also. I imagine we can learn things from each other. Where are you going to put the cube reader?" "Upstairs on my system." The Colonel told Clancy, "That's where the two of you are going to be working, O'Dell, so you might as well go on up and familiarize yourself with it. I believe it'll be secure, even outside the fence. It's behind powerful protection from what Roland's told me, and I don't think anyone will expect us to leave ourselves so open. Mr. Persinger, this is John Taylor. It's his contraption you saw outside." The other officer, in his twenties, reached over and shook John's hand. "Y'all worked out an ingenious way to make do with all that offthe-shelf equipment. Excellent work. Shows good imagination. Better than usin' razorbacks as watch hogs, if you get my drift. It'll be great learnin' how you thought of it. Oh, and don't let the MPs rile you; they're harmless. "Tell me somethin', when y'all worked out the frequency conversion, how did you apply it? Did you change the values to the master oscillator, or replace it with a different transistor?" "Neither," John told him. "After the low noise amplifier, I added crystals in line with the IRF oscillator and beat the final frequency to where I wanted. From there all I had to do was route each signal
correctly." "That would work, and be highly reliable. Y'all come up with some good ideas. How did you ever think of usin' window screen for the reflector? It really shouldn't work properly." "I don't see why not, as long as all the electrical connections are good." Mr. Taylor stepped in from the back yard just then, saw the colonel, and asked, "You need Ted for a while?" "No sir," the colonel answered, "he's at loose ends right now." "Good. Ted, can you help me and Fred round up 'bout a hundred deer? They were gonna go to slaughter next week, but I moved it up to this afternoon, and we have to have them in the far corral before lunch." "That's less than two hours," I said as I thought that if I didn't do this, I would just sit around and be bored to death. "Sure, I reckon I can help. Let me saddle up and I'll meet you--." "The southeast range," Mr. Taylor said in answer to my unfinished statement. "I want to bring them in before the noise 'round here spooks 'em skinny." *** The first road driver swung the loading ramp of his trailer to the side of the truck and fastened it before he backed up to the wooden loading ramp. Fred and I guided half the herd into the loading chute while Mr. Taylor counted the heads. After two hours of coaxing, we were ready for the second truck. It took until late afternoon to load the deer into the two long haul tractortrailers that would transport them to the slaughterhouse in Chicago. As we watched the trucks made the turn onto the main road, Mr. Taylor told me, "I don't like what's goin' on, boy, all this building and such, but if we don't go along with the military, they can not only shut this place down, they can put us in jail. I prefer to keep the place, but I feel as if I changed countries overnight." We walked into a kitchen filled with smells of ham and cabbage. Mr. Taylor stepped over to where his wife stirred the contents of the large pot on the stove, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and asked, "How
much longer 'til it's done, lady." "Fifteen or twenty minutes, man," she answered and sneaked him a quick kiss. "Then it looks like we got enough time to get cleaned up. Tell you what, Ted. You got some time on your hands. Let's me and you head on out tomorrow and see if we can bag some of those birds we saw today. Then we'll show that Colonel just how the pioneers used to eat." He just wanted to keep me from being bored, and I appreciated it. I love to read, but after awhile I fall asleep. We spent a day out in the fields as we waited for the Scaled Quail we had seen the day before to show themselves. Three shots by each of us managed to bring down enough for a meal. That night we steamed, plucked, and cut them up, then wrapped them in herbs and covered them with aluminum foil. Next morning we placed them in the oven to bake at low heat. By the time dinner was ready they were delicious. The Colonel even said so. He also told us, "Haven't had anything that good in ages. Thank you people for the hospitality. "I have to go to the United Nations next Monday and tell them what we've found, what we suggest, and why. Now Ted, I know that John and Randy are busy with their projects, and it appears that you have nothing to do, but that's just not so. We need one of you to give the world an idea of just who did this. That it was kids--bright high school kids from the U. S. of A., but still kids--and not a cover-up by the government. It looks like you're going to be doing public relations work." Kids, huh? Maybe I would do what he wanted, but I'd make this hard for him because of that statement. "But, but I can't do, I can't do that," I tried to explain. "I stut, I stutter too much." All right, I exaggerated a bit. It was worth it. "All the better," the colonel encouraged. "That just shows that you aren't an actor. Actually, there's nothing to it. You'll get the hang of it in no time. "I need you to come with me to the U. N. on Monday. That will be OK with your folks, won't it?" "I'll square it," Mr. Taylor volunteered. "Good," the colonel replied. "I'll explain more when we're on the
way. John, how are you and Karl doing?" "Pretty good. We've worked out the time frame and sent it off to NASA, via ground line as you requested. I think we have a fairly complete list of the frequencies they're using, mostly in the dead space between 900 and 1000 kilocycles. We've also established that if it is a hoax, then it's extremely elaborate." "How did you do that?" the colonel asked. John finished chewing before he told us, "We just built an omnidirectional antenna and attached it to a scanner tuned to the frequencies used the most. It hasn't picked up a thing; therefore, the signals are not local. In order for them to register only when we are using the dish, they generally have to come from out in the solar system or beyond. They could come from a satellite, but as you know, that would be expensive." "Hey, John," Randy cut in, "how can you tell how strong a signal is on that system of yours?" John thought for a minute, and then said, "There are several ways. If you tell me why you want to know, I can lead you in the right direction." "Clancy thought he noticed something," Randy told him. "On one of the signals we get, it seems there's not as much noise as before." "That's a good indication of a stronger signal," John agreed. He didn't see that the colonel had stopped eating. "I guess the easiest way would be to listen to the voices and see if you can tell the difference between them. Then listen to the earlier tapes to see if there really is less noise, or if it's a figment of your imagination." "It's no fig," Randy said. "One signal is stronger." "Come to think of it," John said, "one of the signals did seem to be coming in a bit late." "Why didn't you tell me this before?" the colonel yelled. He shoved his chair back so violently it fell. "I have to inform the President." He rushed out of the room. John and Randy exchanged glances, and then looked at Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor stared after the colonel, then looked back at us and said, "Don't look at me. I have no idea what he's talkin' about." "It sounds to me like one of the ships is moving closer," I suggested.
There was silence at the table. No one said a word until the colonel reentered the room, righted his chair, and sat. He pushed his plate away, drank some water, then said, "I just talked to the President. John, those figures you sent to NASA were accurate, except for one. One ship is moving. It's too soon to tell, but it appears to be on a trajectory toward Saturn. I tried to talk the President into sounding an alert, but you know politicians. At least she's taking this seriously, and she's calling for other major powers to do the same. We'll be leaving for Washington in an hour, Ted. You'd better get packed."
Stuart Nugent, Colonel Kennedy's assistant, suggested I pack my best clothes, so I included the suit I'd brought for formal occasions, and started to put my overnight bag in the carriage boot. Stuart came from the path behind the barns to put the colonel's luggage on the porch. "What ya doin', Ted?" he drawled. "Getting ready to go. Got everything packed and I'm ready to roll." "No, Dude, that's too slow. We get to fly with the big boys today. A bird's gonna pick us up and take us to a private jet. You've never done this before?" "Nope," I answered as I pulled my bag from the boot and placed it next to his. "It'll be fun, Dude. Look, take a couple of these." He handed me two pink pills. "They'll keep you from hurlin' in the air. Man, this is gonna be a blast!" We were going to fly? Well, to the east coast, sure, but I never thought I'd fly in a helicopter. That was the only thing that could land here. Stuart was right. This was going to be fun. About fifteen minutes later, I could hear the faint sound of engines from the east just as Stuart had predicted. A dot in the sky grew into a brown and blue plane with very large propellers near the ends of the wings. As it approached, I noticed the body was wide, more like a helicopter, and there was a window in the large sliding door. It had almost reached us when the motors began to pivot until the machine floated above the front drive like a helicopter. It drifted down, the Air Force emblem on the wing clearly visible even with all the dust, and moved forward slowly so the pilot could be sure the way was clear. The Colonel had joined us on the porch as the machine neared the ground, and he watched with us as the helicopter plane settled in a cloud of dust. As the rotors slowed after the plane touched down, the copilot climbed out and ran to the house. "Captain Hubert Barstow, pilot, reporting as ordered. I'm Captain
Shutack. Are you ready, Sir?" the copilot asked. "Let's go," Colonel Kennedy said. "Our bags are there." The copilot motioned to the plane. A stair lowered and two airmen in fatigues ran out, gathered the luggage, and led us into the passenger section. After the airmen stored our bags, settled us into slightly padded leather seats, and made sure we had belted in properly, the engine revs climbed, the rotors began to turn faster, and we lifted off the ground. In less than an hour, we were at the Air Force base to change to a small private-style jet with Air Force markings. A female officer took first rate care of us while we made the trip east, yet showed a disturbing lack of interest in why we went. I asked Stuart about it. He quietly drawled, "Man, we're top secret people. No one knows what's really going on, except for us and a few others. Colonel Kennedy's been paid as a general for three years, and had the responsibility, but his rank showed lower to keep the press and nosy types off his trail, and so the public wouldn't find out about this and panic. "Now listen up. This is important. You don't talk to no one about what's happening unless the colonel tells you to. Not even me. He'll check for bugs, first, before he gives the OK to talk. Even then, he'll take more precautions. Can't you get it through your head? We are Very Important People, with a Very Big Secret." Either Stuart was crazy, or the world was. Come to think of it, for the past couple of hours I had been hearing many "sirs" directed toward me. We crossed the country in just hours. I looked down on Washington, D. C., a jumbled mess with spokes that radiated from a central point near a river, or maybe they were energy rays when you considered our mission. Andrews Air Force Base, where we landed, is near a major highway that I could see was jammed at mid afternoon, way too early for anyone to go home. Another helicopter ride landed us on the south lawn of the White House, our transportation quickly surrounded by Secret Service agents. Some of that group ushered the three of us inside the huge white building's lowest level. Two guards with big rifles stood on the corner of
the roof and watched us as we walked to the canopied entrance. Secret Service agents escorted us through a long vinyl paneled hall to a small desk just inside the door. An officer checked the colonel's identification, a thorough check that included a retinal scan. They took my fingerprints and checked them against three files, and then told Stuart to wait for us in a small room next to the entrance. The Colonel and I followed a well-muscled person in uniform to an elevator. He escorted us up a floor, along a paneled hall, and to another desk. The guard who sat there confirmed our identification, a heavy and intricately paneled wooden double door opened, and we entered an oval shaped office. As the escort backed out and pulled the doors closed, I looked at the shag carpets, the teak furniture, the dark wood paneling, and the paintings of past presidents before it hit me. I stood in the Oval Office of the White House, and the person who led an entourage through the door on the left happened to be the President of the United States. For the first time I realized I was in the middle of something major, something so important that I had to speak to the President and no one else. I got so nervous I was glad I had a good deodorant. "Madam President," the colonel greeted her as she entered. Five or six people followed her in, some of whom just stood around. "Colonel Kennedy. It's good to see you again after so many years. I think we can bring you out of hiding, give you the rank you've deserved for years. This is?" "Ted Solidoak," the new general introduced me. "He's one of the boys who made the discovery." "How old are you, Ted?" the President asked. I told her I was sixteen. "Good. With minds like yours and your friends, this country should be in good hands in the future. Tell me how this happened." During the next half hour, I related how John and I had decided to build the antenna, how I brought Randy aboard for his computer skills, and the trouble we had, more than I have mentioned in this account. When I finished, she turned to one of the people who stood next to her and said, "Is that enough?" "Yes, Ma'am," the tall man in a three-piece suit said. "I can brief the necessary departments and make the arrangements. Can he speak to the
Chiefs?" The President thought for a moment. "I don't see why not. Just about the one subject, though." When they discussed me like that, I felt left out, alone, as if I wasn't there, or that I was a ghost that no one could see. Now I know what it feels like for people to talk about you as if you're invisible; you feel as if you're nothing. "That goes without saying, Madam President," the tall man answered, then instructed, "General, you may go. We've made arraignments for your stay. A driver will pick you up later to speak to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Good day." A Secret Service person ushered us out of the room. "Is that it?" I asked the colonel, no, general as Stuart joined us. "For now. Just try to enjoy yourself." They took us to a hotel, where the only thing I could do was watch television. I couldn't even call out for pizza or a movie. I tried to go for a walk and do some sightseeing, but there was a guard at the door either to keep others away as she said, or to keep me in. You can guess what I think. The next morning the general called and informed me we would leave in an hour. Since this was the Nation's Capitol, and I was here, I tried to think up ways to visit some monuments or maybe a museum, but before I could get my arguments together there was a knock, and the guard on duty opened the door. He didn't even wait for me to say anything. Stuart entered and checked me over, said I'd do, then walked me downstairs to the main entrance. The person who had driven us to the hotel took us back to the White House. Along the way, I asked about sightseeing, but the general vetoed any type of tour. We arrived at an entrance on the side of the building, still at ground level and below the main floor, and again showed our identifications. Secret Service escorted us to a different room, filled with individuals in dress uniforms that sat around a long, oval table. I told my story once again, much as I had to the President, and then waited outside in an office with the driver while the general spoke to the group. I couldn't even take a White House tour. We went back to the hotel about
an hour later, and again I felt as if I was a prisoner under guard. No, I was a prisoner. I didn't like it one bit. Finally, dinner arrived, the highlight of the trip. Succulent foods I'd never tasted before made the meal memorable, about the only good thing that happened in Washington. After I had spent the rest of that day, and that night, in the hotel room, we motored to Andrews Air Force Base for the next leg of the journey. The same jet took us over the east coast and north to an Air Force base in New Jersey. From there we helicoptered to a public heliport along the East River in Manhattan. I've never seen so many houses and streets as I saw while we traveled toward New York city. It seemed as if the whole world was in that one area. We motored a short distance in a hired limousine to a hotel that made anything near home seem slummy. The only sight I had of one of the largest, and tallest, cities in the world turned out to be the sides of buildings and people. More people walked on the sidewalks than I thought existed in the whole world. Again, I spent the rest of the day a prisoner in my room, instead of outside as I explored and learned about our nation or history or what are called the arts. The next day we went to the United Nations, past the flagpoles, and the world within a world sculpture, into the grand hall of an entrance. At the information counter, we received badges, and then followed an escort through the maze of kiosks that filled the main lobby, and through intersecting corridors. Situated next to the East River, the U. N. is not what it started out to be. When the winners of World War 2 founded the United Nations, we were in the middle of what historians called the "cold war" between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, its original name. No matter what one nation wanted to do, the other nation vetoed it. When you add that both nations tried to outdo each other in ways to destroy the world, it was a scary time of history. All that began to change in the late twentieth century. Now that the UN army has controlled or eliminated the extremists, and the world economy has evened out after investment bankers and mortgage lenders and brokers almost sent the world into a major depression, most of the
nations of the world work together to solve problems. The few dissenters find themselves put down quickly, except for the rare times they have a valid point. Thus, a receptive audience waited for us that Monday morning. Guides or security or something escorted us onto the stage of the assembly hall for the Security Council, a group of fifteen delegates and their assistants from fifteen nations who decided what action the U. N. would take. I wore a three-piece suit bought for me the day before, since even the Sunday clothes I'd brought with me were now unsuitable. I was totally uncomfortable after I had worn jeans for many years. As I sat next to the general, I looked out into the audience. A hundred people, some in dark suits, some in bright robes, and most in costumes somewhere in between, milled around. When a bell rang, everyone began to find their seats. Near our seats, on a raised platform near the back of the auditorium, stood a desk like a judge's bench, where the Secretary General sat to preside over the meetings. Shortly an imposing figure in black robes entered from a side door and sat at the center of the bench. When the audience quieted, he introduced us and explained the background of what had happened the past few weeks. Then the general gave a brief account of what we had done on the ranch. He told them whom he contacted, what different agencies had found, and what questions still needed answers. That took almost half an hour. Finally, just before he introduced me, he gave a passionate plea for the respective governments to approve a military defense as the top priority. He listed his reasons, and the actions he would suggest, then concluded, "Now I know what the politicians are saying, that there's no cause for alarm. This well might be. Nothing would please me more than to be wrong. But can we afford to take that chance if I'm right? Look at what I've laid out, how the movements have been designed to help them hide, and consider whether those are the actions of peaceful explorers. Ladies, Gentlemen, the decision lies with you." He introduced me. I found that public speaking does not have to be scary. I ignored the noise and pictured myself in front of a classroom as I recited something. It worked; I only stuttered three times. After that, we
went back to the hotel for the night, then back to the ranch the next morning. Two days in the middle of one of the the largest and two of the most important cities on the continent, heck, in the world. and I hadn't seen a thing except people and the bottoms of buildings.
I returned to the ranch disappointed with a trip that was nowhere near a vacation. I was in Washington D. C. and only saw the Oval Office, not the White House or monuments or any museums. I was in New York City and I only saw the United Nations Security Council, not any of the famous buildings or museums or Central Park. And because of the secrecy of the discussions, I couldn't tell anyone who I'd met, or who said what, until the general cleared it. Not even Randy and John. It roiled around in my stomach and ate me alive. Here I was, bursting with information, and I couldn't tell a soul. Disgusting. I joined Randy in his room after dinner. It turned out that until yesterday he had to let people work on his computer day and night. Finally the programmers, sorry, data entry personnel, had entered enough data for the program to work on its own. All Randy had to do each morning was copy a new set of disks that contained the recordings from the day before and let the machine do the work. I asked him what the program did. "Goes through the language of the aliens holographicly," he answered. I gave my usual reply when I didn't understand what someone said. "Huh?" He explained, "It's that program Dad worked out for the government. We enter what we got on John's antenna and the direct recordings from outside stations into the computer, which tries to set up a three dimensional model of the language. The program's built under the premise that each element of a language interacts with all others, and a two-dimensional grid isn't enough to work out all the variations, or something like that. To tell you the truth, Cherokee, I really don't understand this one myself. It's highly involved." "Well, if you can't understand it, I'm not even going to try. You're the one who works in machine language. What's John been doing?" "Not that much. Even less than me. The Colonel diverted most of
the receiving to three locations around the globe. They use a single antenna at each site, and the results are hand delivered to us. As far as we know, the aliens don't know we've found them. For that matter, it almost seems like the colonel forgot John and me. I can't play with this thing anymore. John's just about been kicked out of the shack. I don't know. It sort of seems like the government's taken over what was supposed to be a summer of fun." "I know what, I know what you mean," I answered in the same tone. "You'd think I would've enjoyed the trip to the East Coast? Nothing doing. All I, all I saw was the inside of hotels. I couldn't even do any sightseeing except from the air. "What can we do about it? Any ideas?" "I don't know what we can do, really, and no, I don't have any ideas," I told him. I felt more discouraged every moment. "General Kennedy--." "General Kennedy?" "Yeah. He got promoted or something, or his rank was hidden for some reason. Anyway, he'll let us do what he wants us to do, and nothing more. He can censor the information we get. Aw, man, now I'm down. Let's see if we can find a comedy to watch." We went down to the living room to look through the movie guide. While we browsed, John came out of the kitchen with a sandwich. "What're you doing, Dude?" he asked. I told him. "Forget it," he told us. "I already tried. Somebody, some operator or some such, will take a message, and then tomorrow the movie you want to watch will be ready for you. There's no way they're going to let us call out. Look. Tomorrow, let's take a ride out on the range. As long as we stay somewhat in sight, they shouldn't say anything. Then we can talk." I thought I'd left prison when I left New York City, but we had met tons of restrictions here, too. "What, what are you, are you afraid of, John?" I asked. All this secrecy, not only from the government types, but from John, too, made me extremely nervous. "Taps. Bugs. I have an idea, but I don't want anyone to get wind of it." "Sounds good to me," Randy said. "And Cherokee, relax. You're
stuttering again." I nodded, and we started to examine the tape library in the living room. Next day, after we cleaned the stalls, we groomed and tacked the horses. John rode Midnight, Wild Fire's colt John's Uncle Brandon had given him last year, Randy mounted Free Wind, and I laid claim to Spring Green, the gentle gray mare. As we headed out from the barn along the path toward the western range, an MP in a Humvee met us, just as John had predicted. She asked us where we thought we were going, and she wasn't even polite about it. "Just riding out to the rocks in the middle of my uncle's land, the ones just past the first stream, beyond the water well." John told her belligerently. "Is there a problem with that?" The MP, a woman of maybe twenty-five, and nowhere near old enough to be our mother, had a worse attitude than any mother I'd met. She told us, "Not if you stay on the ranch. We have orders not to let you leave." "You see that line of trees in the far distance?" John asked. "The cottonwoods in a line, not the clumps?" "I know. We understand that's the far side. Just don't go too close, boys. And don't ride to the road. We'll be watching." She spun the Humvee around and roared back to the fenced in facilities. Free Wind shied a little, but Green Spring was steady as a rock. No wonder I like her. We cantered out to the range, and once we reached decent riding land we let the horses gallop. They ran for twenty minutes as they meandered around the range and enjoyed the freedom before they decided they had enough and slowed to a walk. After we caught our breath, I told what I could about my trip. "Washington D. C. is a jumbled mess of houses and roads. It's so overrun with buildings I can't see how anyone would want to stay there. Even with areas of trees, the place was way too crowded for comfort. We flew over a major highway that I could see was pretty much jammed at mid afternoon, way too early for anyone to go home. It looked like lines of ants crawled along the highway forming globs near the exits.
They took us to a hotel, where the only thing I could do was watch television. I couldn't even call out for pizza or a movie. I tried to go for a walk and do some sightseeing, but there was a guard at the door either to keep others away as she said, or to keep me in. You can guess what I think. "I can tell you one thing about my trip to DC. While I was there discussions were held about who I could meet and when. Now I know what it feels like for people to talk about you as if you're invisible. You feel left out, alone, as if you're nothing, not there, or a ghost that no one can see. That's one thing I'm going to try not to do to anybody else. It's depressing. "Then we went to New York. I've never seen so many houses and streets so close together. It seemed the whole world lived in that one area, that the land grew houses and factories and apartments, and the closer we got to our destination, the more fertilizer was used. Finally, I was on the ground in a limousine as long as three cars. From ground level, the only sight I had of one of the largest cities in the world was the sides of buildings and people. There were more people walking on the sidewalks than I thought existed in the whole world. And I spent the rest of the day a prisoner in my room again, instead of out exploring and learning about our nation or history or the arts." Now I felt sorry for myself, ready to sulk, but John and Randy had problems of their own that wouldn't let me stay in a funk. John said, "Ted, when you left for Washington we were having fun showing the Air Force personnel what we had built and how it operated. That took all of two hours, and then they shoved us to the background. From then on neither of us could do anything really important. I got the distinct impression that they considered me an over-intelligent brat that didn't have an excuse to be alive." He sounded really disgusted with the whole deal, the same as me. "Exactly!" Randy exclaimed. "The only reason I get close to Annabel is that's where I sleep. One thing I don't understand, though, is if they don't want us involved, why are they still using this as a base of operations? They could probably have better control on an Air Force Base."
"Not really," I told him. "Remember what your Dad said earlier? He said the government partially opened the military bases to the general public so they aren't safe from snoops, and the reporters and all didn't have a clue where the ranch was, therefore it would be easier to keep out spies by hiding. I think that's why we're sort of under house arrest. I also overheard the general talking on the way back. He's sure this visit by aliens is a military operation. He thinks the aliens are hoping to surprise us and take over the world for some reason. The problem is, he can't convince the political leaders of the world he's right. I think one of the reasons he's hiding out here is so the U. N. won't shut him down." "When you say that, it almost makes sense," Randy said. "And it gives me an idea how to facilitate my plan," John continued. "What plan?" Randy asked. "I'll tell you when we reach the rocks. If we stay on the far side of them, and keep our voices low, not even a powerful shotgun mike will pick us up unless we see the person operating it." "Good idea, East Coast," Randy said. "You'd make a good spy." We approached what we called the rocks, a pile of stones left by a flood many years before. Near them was one of the ponds we used to supply water to the livestock. We let the horses free since they would stay near the water where the feeding was good, and climbed into a tree near the stream. When the Military Police couldn't see us, I asked John what his plan was. "Well, you remember a couple of years ago when you visited your uncle out in Colorado?" I nodded. "You said there was a cave or something near there?" "An old abandoned mine," I corrected. "Yeah. Why don't we go there before the aliens get too close? Then if they attack, we can find their strong points and their weak points, and cause them problems, or something." I asked, "Do you have any idea what we’d be getting into? Winter in the mountains is nothing to take lightly. We'd need food, clothing, and equipment, not to mention what we'd need to cause problems for a potential enemy. It's a nearly impossible task, Asaya. There's no way we could do it without a lot of help."
Of course, he didn't listen to me. He had his mind set, and this would be his new project. The only thing Randy and I could do was go along with him. Then he really shocked me by saying, "And I know just where to get that help." Both Randy and I looked at him skeptically. After a minute Randy said, "You don't mean?" "But I do, Dude," John answered the unspoken suggestion. "Look at it this way. General Kennedy wants us out of the way, and I know we need something to do. We'll just pick the time, and make the suggestion. The General's got to go along with it. There's nothing else for him to do." I couldn't put my fears into words, but I knew we were heading for trouble.
John and I warred on Gwondo, and, for once, I was winning. Randy sat in his usual place and played with the computer. This used to be a normal evening for us, what we did every night, but it had not happened recently since the military took over our lives. Randy said he wanted to try something new with the program to see if he could get it to run quicker. He watched the monitor screen where words and symbols raced by and typed on the keyboard occasionally, the soft click of the keys the only sound from his area of the room. Several times when I glanced over he just sat there and stared at the screen. He concentrated so hard that not a muscle moved. He didn't even breathe as far as I could tell. I jumped when without warning he yelled, "That's it! I did it! Dudes! Look at this!" "What did you do?" I asked as a blast from John’s avatar wiped me out. Randy sat straight in the chair, his chest puffed out, and his eyes as wide as his smile. Proudly he answered, "I only found the key to the translation. Look at it. Look at the screen. Isn't it beautiful?" "What, Dude?" John asked puzzled. I felt the same since the screen was blank. "Just watch," he told us. As we stared at the monitor, the screen began to fill with paired words. Shortly they scrolled past so fast we couldn't read them. I felt my mouth open and forced it shut. John just stared. As we stared flabbergasted, the screen blanked again, and then a short message formed. The computer beeped. Randy slowly turned toward us, his eyes round. He asked quietly, "You think he'll be mad that I fooled with the program?" It was my turn to act stupid, again. "Who?" "General Kennedy." John answered, "I know he'll be mad if we don't tell him the key's been found. Just say you were asleep. It's late enough. He'll never
know." At least one of us was thinking. "And he won't care once he sees the results," I added. "That's true," Randy said back to his normal self. But not for long. "Let's go!" he cried as excitement took over again. We ran down the stairs and made so much noise, what my mom always calls "a herd of elephants", that we woke Mr. Taylor. Before we reached the kitchen I called, "Be sure to sound excited." "Easy," Randy called back over his shoulder. "I am." "Me, too," John called. Randy banged out the kitchen door and yelled at the top of his voice, "We cracked it! We know the language!" "It's supposed to be secret, you goof," I yelled back. All three of us raced to the path to the dish. Randy tried breathlessly to make the guard understand what he gasped. Finally, the MP picked up the phone next to him and asked for the general. "General Kennedy, sir?" we heard him say into the phone. "Sorry to bother you, sir. It's these kids from the house, sir. They're yelling about cracking something.--Yes, sir, I'll tell them." He hung up the phone and turned to us. "The General wants you to wait here and keep quiet." He then stood at attention and tried to watch everything at once. A short time later the general strode along the path, his clothing rumpled as if he'd jumped out of bed and grabbed what he'd worn yesterday. He nodded to the MP, then gathered us in and headed toward the house. When we were out of earshot of the guard, he stopped and asked, "What's this all about, boys?" Randy said, "I was going to bed when Annabel started to beep and the screen began to flash the message 'Solution Found.'" "Well this is something that I must see," he said as he began to hurry toward the house. We followed him closely. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor met us at the kitchen door dressed for bed. "What's with all the commotion?" Mr. Taylor demanded. "Something world shaking," the general said as he forced his way past them. We gathered in Randy's room and stared at the computer. Enough time had passed so the monitor had blanked. General Kennedy
said, "See if you can bring up the results." Randy sat at the keyboard and typed in an instruction. Lines of print raced up the screen. Randy retyped the instruction and added another couple of symbols. This time the type filled the screen, and stayed for us to read. It looked like instructions on how to maneuver something, but the words were jumbled as if the speaker didn't know anything about grammar. "Try to find more," the general ordered. "That's easy," Randy said and pressed the space bar. A new screen of type appeared. The maneuvering instructions finished and a request for visitation appeared. Randy repeatedly scrolled through the same type of message for several more screens. When one of the screens of words appeared the general cried, "Stop!" On the screen, about halfway down, was a conversation about the level of firepower available. General Kennedy clapped Randy on the back, hard. "Good work, boy, damned good work. Print that in its entirety soonest. Then go through all the data we have and print anything that has to do with weapons. We'll show those politicians yet." He hurried out of the room and back to his office, his grin visible as he left. *** Randy stayed in his room for the next few days as he nursed information out of the disks that had piled up over the past two weeks. John and I had to divide his stalls between us in order to get the barn clean. He didn't even come down for meals. Aunt Edna sent sandwiches to him by way of Technical Sergeant Karl Persinger, who said Randy had orders from the general, so Randy was the one who had to do it. Finally, after two and a half days, Randy allowed Karl to relieve him at the keyboard. He came down to the kitchen while we ate lunch and asked us to help him carry the stacks of computer paper down to the general's office. He looked beat, as if he hadn't slept much. We climbed the stairs and entered his room to see three stacks of computer paper on the floor, each one almost two feet tall. "How are we going to carry that?" John asked. "How much does
each stack weigh?" "Only about twenty-five pounds each. Not much. But I'll tell you what. I have a couple of places marked that the general will like. Tests of weapons, etc. talked about over open frequencies. Not what I'd call secure." "I'd know better than that," I told them. "They must think they're safe." "And they would be, too, if we hadn't been listening," John observed. "Almost everybody else is listening on the higher frequencies. In fact, I'll bet these aliens listened to us, worked out earth's languages, at least one or two of them, and figured out that SETI was monitoring the high freaks. They moved down here to keep from being caught. You remember how they moved and set up, what we heard the general talking about? They're not dumb." Randy picked up one of the stacks of printouts. "No wonder the general's been so big on keeping this a secret. If this got out to the networks, they'd know. They're probably monitoring television and radio right now. Tell you what. When we get these down to the general, I'll show him the parts I tagged, and then hit him with our idea. He ought to be in a good mood since we proved his point." I picked up a stack, and it wasn't nearly as heavy as I thought it would be. John grunted as he lifted his, then said, "And if not so much a good mood, at least ready to take some action, even if it has to be hidden." The MP at the gate didn't give us any hassle when he saw what we carried. He must have had orders to let us pass. When we reached the general's office, Staff Sergeant Stuart Nugent took one look and opened the door for us. We placed all three piles on the general's desk and stepped back. "OK, what did you find?" the general asked. Randy said, "I've tagged a couple places that I think you'll find significant. In this pile, which seems to be the earliest, there's this instruction to drift at a slow speed so as not to arouse suspicion from anyone who happens to be looking." "That is exactly what we observed," the general noted.
Randy continued, "In this pile you have this one, which orders someone to test a newly developed weapon on the opposite side of the sun, which they call the local star, to hide it from us. Down here a bit is the relay to the First Warrior, whoever he is, that says the test was a success, and gives the parameters for firing. Over in this stack are several instructions to remain hidden and move slowly. It appears they don't want to be seen." "It appears that they're planning a surprise attack." General Kennedy told us. "This backs up what I've been saying. Now I'll show those politicians I know what I'm talking about. We'll have to organize our weapon systems; ready them quietly." Randy winked at us. I knew what he thought, that the general planned a conventional battle, and this was anything but a conventional situation. Randy asked, almost in a whisper, "General, do you read science fiction?" "Huh? What? No. Why?" "Well, we all do. One system that is always on board any interstellar ship is a deflector shield, one that can deflect a good size meteor at a high rate of speed. If it can do that, it can deflect just about anything we can throw at it, unless it's a powerful laser. Do we have any of them?" "Three in the world," the general admitted, "and they've been shut down for years." Randy said, as if to himself, "Three shots, maybe three ships, more likely three misses. OK, General. Do you think the aliens would allow us to use anything that could hurt them more than once? We'd fire a laser once; they'd have it sighted and take it out. What else do we have?" The General thought for a couple of minutes. "If they have a deflector or a shield or something like you suggested, missiles and bombs wouldn't get close enough. Only radiation from nuclear weapons would reach them, maybe, and that takes weeks or months to kill, and it would do the same to us, so it’s useless. So that’s what we have. Nothing." "Then we've had it?" Randy asked. He sounded beaten already. "I hate to say it, but the situation doesn't look hopeful," the general
told us quietly. "We'll give it the best shot we can, but--." He let the sentence hang in the air. Randy tried to hide a grin. "We have a suggestion." The General smiled knowingly. "I wondered where this was leading. OK, what is it? What's this suggestion of yours?" "Ted knows of an abandoned mine in Colorado. If we were to take one person with us who knew weapons systems, we could hide out until they figured they were safe, then hit them good." "A clandestine operation," the general said thoughtfully, and started to pace behind his desk. "Interesting idea. Need a lot of supplies, at least a year's worth of MRTEs. Weapons. And not just one. I'll have to work on it, boys. Thanks for the idea." We didn't move. "General," Randy continued, "remember that any personal records that exist will be checked. If you've ever read '1984', you need what they called 'unpersons' in the book. Teens, spies, and people like that would be the easiest to erase. That's why we volunteered." "And the amount of paperwork on anyone in the military, except a very few, is atrocious. We'd never delete it all." The General stewed for a couple of minutes. "Not a word to anyone. John, I can make your uncle understand. Randy, your father's no problem. Ted, how are your folks. How much of a fuss will they make?" "Offer to pay my college," I told him. "That'll convince them to agree." The way Native Americans, in fact the way all minorities were treated, I knew they had nowhere near what it would take for even a semester, let alone the three or four years it would take to graduate, and no way to raise the funds. The General smiled. "Excellent. I can arrange that easily. I have to clear this with the President," he got a faraway look, "or do I? You boys let me work on this. I have some phone calls to make. This is definitely the best suggestion I've heard yet." He escorted us out of his office with a smile, and then closed the door. Stuart Nugent watched as the general closed the door to his office. "That's only the second time since this thing started that I've seen him smile," he commented. "Both times have been after he's talked to you
dudes. Keep it up, will ya?"
We hung around the ranch with nothing to do once again, bored to death for nearly a week. We didn't even see the general, just officers and enlisted personnel as they roamed around the compound, and the everpresent MP who ignored us and did not supply any information. To fill the time, we visited the shack, now air-conditioned and the one place inside the fence we could go, to see what new information they had heard. We also rode the horses around the ranch and checked on the deer, kangaroos, and the condition of the fences. Tuesday, an unusual tornado seemed to touch down near the back fence, unusual in that tornadoes normally show up earlier in the year. We groomed the horses, tacked up, and took a ride to check for damage. The twister had loosened several of the minor fence line poles, but nothing significant, and we had them sturdy again with a minimum of effort. While we packed new dirt around the poles, we discussed our lives and possible futures. John said some virus or bacteria would wipe the invaders out in a couple weeks. Randy thought others would push us aside again and do all the exciting stuff. I wondered whether we wanted to do exciting stuff. This was nothing like a video game. Even though we never got close to a true prediction of what would happen over the next nine or so months, we got away from the house, the officers, and the constant noise for a while. *** It wasn't until Sunday that we saw the general again. He had quietly told Mrs. Taylor to expect him to bring a guest, a person that the three of us would get to know very well. How well we didn't learn until later that night. The general walked in the kitchen door followed by a young blond captain in a green dress uniform, picked up one of the filled platters, and strolled into the dining room. "Evening, all," he said as he placed the platter on the table. "Let me
introduce Captain Lawrence Singer of the Army. He's visiting us tonight for a reason I'll make clear later." I exchanged looks with Randy, then John. All three of us had already guessed what was in store. Dinner was fun. Not only did Mrs. Taylor cook good food as she always did, but also Captain Singer kept us laughing with his stories of army life. Finally, we helped clear the table and Mrs. Taylor left to wash the dishes. John distributed coffee as the general leaned back in his chair. "Boys," he began, "I want to personally thank you for what may be the only solution to this mess we seem to be getting into. For the past week I've been talking to the military leaders not only of this country, but many others. Considering all the details, even if the aliens wait until next winter to invade, we don't have a chance to put up more than token resistance. As it is, the projections say they'll hit next spring. They seem to be moving to Saturn at a slow rate of speed, then crossing to the asteroid belt on the opposite side of the sun from us. NASA reports they have one vehicle in one of the Lagrange points, apparently to relay radio signals from earth to them. They should finish grouping in the asteroids by early January. According to the figures quoted to me, it will then take less than a month to move the whole fleet to the orbit of the moon. Therefore, we don't have time to get any weapons ready, let alone built. As I said, the best we can do is to put up token resistance, let them settle in, then hit them with small forces that have remained hidden. A guerrilla operation if you will. "Ted, I talked with your father, and your uncle. They both confirm the mine would be a good hiding place. In fact, your uncle said that one of the shafts--no, drifts he called it--one of the passages goes nearly to the side of the mountain. Only five or six feet, more or less, separates the passage from the outside. He suggested, Ted, that you dig a new opening, then use your truck to collapse the existing entrance." Wait one minute. He wanted me to destroy my project, my 1975 Chevy pickup with the pseudo-gasoline engine that I’d chromed out over the past four years? Sure, the body looked like a body-putty party, but just a bit more sanding, paint, finish, and it’d be a showpiece. No way. If that was the case, I hoped the Alnoutes destroyed him. I glared at him. I
think that's the proper term. If my look had physical force, it would have killed him. Hold on, Ted," the general quickly said. "I wouldn't suggest it unless I had a reason to think that it would work out for you. Just hear me out. "This is Captain Singer of the United States Army. I know I introduced him before, but I did not mention that he is Special Forces and holds expert ranking in field weapons, explosives, clandestine operations, and code. He's to head a four man team to be hidden in a mine in Colorado." I know that announcement surprised me. Randy had a pleased look on his face. John, well, I couldn't tell. The General saw our expressions and smiled. "Yes, you boys. Other teams, like yours, are being hidden all over the world, probably within the next couple of weeks. There are many teams of one expert operative, spy, or whatever you want to call him, and two or three teens. We'll wait until the proper time, then bring them out all at one time to try to wipe out the invading forces. However, until we order you out, you have to live. "The Army is stockpiling food, weapons, and whatever else we feel you need, in the mine. Captain Singer is going up there tomorrow and will guard them until you boys reach there next week. After that, you four will be on your own until January 20, the contact date. You and your contact will work out a means of communication to coordinate the hit. That's one reason you have Captain Singer. "The rest of his duty will be to teach you how to use the weapons you'll have safely, including explosives. That's enough, more than enough, to keep you busy for the winter. Other than that, I have no instructions. Captain, do you want to add anything?" "You've about covered it, General," the tall, blond man answered. "I'm leaving tonight, boys. I'll secure the area, kick out any vagrants, bears, or whatever. You boys leave on Friday, August 29. To anyone looking it would obviously be for a camping trip before John goes back to school. You'll bring all your camping gear, and make sure it can be seen. When you arrive that night, we'll play it by ear. Oh, two other
things. I'll want to take a good look at your truck, Ted, so I can recognize it when you arrive. Also, since we'll be living in close quarters for several months, we might as well be on friendly terms. I know your names. You can just call me Larry. Come on Ted. Let's take a look at what you have." As we walked out to the back where I had my truck parked, I asked, "General, you said we should use the truck to collapse the ceiling of the mine. The way I see things that would destroy it. Am I right?" "That's true enough," the general answered. "But you said I would make out OK. How do you figure?" "Well, Ted, when a piece of private property is requisitioned by the United States military and it's destroyed, we generally buy the citizen a replacement. However, we usually don't give the owner time to change engines, or whatever. Just be sure the outside looks the same as it does now. We want everyone who sees you to think that you're off to camp and nothing more. This is a top-secret operation, hidden at all costs. We'll buy you a new truck when it's finished." Sure, they would. But what kind. "This is it?" Captain Singer sounded curious as he walked around the truck. He studied the tri-colored primer painted fenders, the blotchy chrome on the bumpers, the off color door on the driver's side, the torn bench seat, and the cracked dashboard. "What makes this so special?" he asked, not sure what to make of a machine that looked like a hunk of junk. I opened the hood. An internal combustion engine in show room condition, the kind not made any more, with spark plugs and wires and even a chrome air cleaner, shone out at him. I had converted it to propane to keep it legal, then painted each part with primary colors, then added a chrome air filter and chrome valve covers and chrome headers. The chrome reflected the overhead light, and the forms of those who looked at it. The engine glowed; it was that clean. The captain never said a word. He just stared. "I’m only part way along on the body, there’s still a lot of work, but losing that engine would depress me," I explained. "I take it you can change the engine," the general stated.
"I believe there might be an extra one around," Mr. Taylor answered with a grin. The general echoed Mr. Taylor's expression. "And it doesn't show. Save that by all means. In a truck ready for show it would look great, a winner, and Ted, you're the one to show it. When you come back, we'll work things out. Ready, Captain?" They walked toward the path that led to the dish and the military complex that was hidden from the road by greenery. When they reached the barn, Captain Singer turned as if to ask something, but apparently thought better of it 'cause he disappeared behind the barn without saying a word.
Tuesday through Thursday we drained the fluids, removed the show engine from the truck, and placed it in the corner where we had stored John's equipment. With help from John and Randy, and two motor pool mechanics, the showpiece came out in four hours, but the old diesel engine didn't fit. We reworked the motor mounts to lean it over to the right, matched the bolt holes we could and made new ones where necessary, and rerouted the air supply. Then we had to change gear ratios in the transmission since the diesel ran at less than half the revolutions per minute as the showpiece. At least the old tractor motor didn't show. We figured that would get us to the mine at least, and it wouldn't do anyone any good if it just sat around. Thursday night we loaded tents, sleeping bags, boxes and bags that looked like food but were full of clothing, a screen gazebo, and an inverter to run the video game system. We made sure the two sleeping bags and the tent peeked out from the tarp that covered the truck's bed in case any reporters spied on us. There wasn't any news to carry to Captain Singer; nothing new went on planet-side or out in space. The alien ships continued to move to Saturn and away, one at a time. The best trackers said there might be only two or three that had yet to fuel, but the telescopes that watched them couldn't tell. The politicians, who still had the attitude that if an alien culture had the technology to visit us, then they must have learned how to coexist with others, refused to believe that a military strike was possible. They believed in friendly aliens, that we could probably learn from them. I hoped they were right, for we'd be having fun I hoped, and learning new skills, all at the government's expense, and it would be fine with me if we didn't have a reason to use those skills. We woke very early in the morning to prepare for the trip, even earlier than if we had to go to school. By the time we were ready to leave, the shadow of the house had slid halfway down the barn. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor gave John last minute instructions. Randy sat in the truck,
ready to leave. General Kennedy held the driver's door open and told me, "Listen to Captain Singer. Do what he tells you. He knows a lot; let him teach you." Finally, we were ready to go. John climbed in the passenger seat and I slid behind the wheel, cramped quarters for what could be a twelve-hour trip through the mountains of Colorado. I backed the truck around, drove out the driveway, and immediately changed my estimate to fourteen hours. The engine I had installed had nowhere near the power of the show engine, and we would slow down as we climbed the mountains. The terrain got hilly as we approached Rt. 64 and on into Kansas, but it would flatten out again after we crossed the Cimarron River, a fact I knew from trips up to Coldwater. North of there, we started to see crop circles. Long irrigation pipes on wheels circled around a central water supply that controlled how much water reached the crops. The irrigated sections formed circles of green and brown. Four hours of back roads, of intersections with stop signs and traffic lights, of jogs with small directional signs, past farms and oil fields with their pump arms that went up and down, past fields and groups of buildings, finally led us to the interstate. Once on the open road of Interstate 70, I could move. In three hours, it was close to noon and we started to look for a place to eat. Goodland, Kansas had bio-diesel and a fast food chicken joint just off the exit. The place was not all that clean, but the food was good and we didn't get sick, a major plus. We passed more crop circles as we crossed the plains, but these were huge, at least a mile wide or more, measured as we flew by. Colorado's border, our next goal, lay just past Kanarado, Kansas, but the plains continued for quite a way. We’d almost reached Peoria, Colorado, a crossroad more than fifty miles from Denver, before we saw the real mountains appear as if out of a mist, although they were about fifty-five or sixty miles away. The sight reminded me of the song as we approached them, the one that spoke of purple mountain majesties. They really were purple in the distance. As time passed, they grew steadily,
the peaks rose above ground level and the landscape gained detail as we closed. I watched those peaks get higher and higher, until, as we passed through the city of Denver, I wondered how we would climb that massive wall. On the west side of Denver, after we refueled again, we followed creeks and valleys through the maze of mountains, almost always headed upwards. The road clung to the valley walls or followed a creek bank, with trees and rocks that towered over us on one side, and narrow water trails that bubbled over the rocks below. The scenery was beautiful, forests and meadows that lined valleys and climbed the huge rock walls on either side. Once we left the Interstate the small hills, tight turns, and occasional long climbs really took a toll. The sun had nearly set when we reached the cutoff in Hayden, a gravel road south of town that led past the speedway and a couple houses with huge yards back into the Williams Fork Mountains. At the base of the range, about half a mile from the main road, a pair of ruts wound through trees at the base of a hill to the entrance to the mine. We bounced past an old rusted out water tank and partially collapsed buildings to the opening, then climbed out, stiff and sore. I half-expected to hear a shot. A noise in the woods alerted us to the arrival of Captain Singer. He said, "Unpack that thing and drive it on in as far as the second turn. Don't go any farther or you'll run over where I've been camping." "Why unload it first?" I asked. "If I have enough light, I ought to be able to back it in that far, and then we wouldn't have to carry all this equipment." "That works for me," the captain answered with a smile. "How much light do you need?" "Not much. One lantern carried behind me would do it. The person carrying the light could watch and make sure I don't hit anything." "Then do it." John held the light and, as he carefully walked backwards, guided me between the supports of the adit, what miners call a level entrance. I had to tell him to hold the light low so the bed of the pickup hid the glare. Randy and the captain followed and watched that I didn't scrape
the walls with the front of the truck. The only drawback we hadn't counted on was the exhaust that hung around where we wanted to sleep. Even with the required selective catalytic converter, you could still smell the fumes. "Don't worry about it," Captain Singer told us. "I've had a fire in here every night. The smoke seems to dissipate into the ceiling after a while. For now, we can head outside and I'll show you some things I've found before the light totally fades. By the time it's dark, the exhaust will clear. By the way, Ted, the mine seems to drop a bit further back. It's submerged." I thought for a minute, and then told him, "That shouldn't be a problem. As I remember, there's an opening to the left after this corridor drops a total of six feet, and we should be able to manage that, even if we get our feet wet." The captain picked up another lantern. He told us, "The floor seemed to go down about two feet before I hit water. I didn't want to go any farther without a partner, but we'll deal with that later. Let's head out." We explored outside and Captain Singer pointed out a few trees where we could watch the entrance, easy to climb with leaves thick enough to keep you hidden, until winter. He explained that the lights of a vehicle would show at the bend in the ruts before the vehicle could see us. Until we made our hidden entrance, we would have to keep watch against thieves and curious people. Once we made the new entrance, we could collapse this one and remain hidden, we hoped. After the exhaust dissipated, we had a very late dinner. I took the first watch that evening, and was I ever bored just sitting in that tree. I watched the sky and wondered what it would look like when the aliens showed. Would lights move across the sky? Flashes in the dark? I fantasized what would happen while my eyelids slowly closed as I daydreamed. Luckily, Captain Singer relieved me just when I thought I would fall asleep. *** In the morning, after a breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on the
propane stove, we began to explore the mine. Captain Singer led the way back past a small dug out section filled with supplies, and more stacks of wooden crates and cardboard boxes stored in a wide area. If we couldn't last the winter and then some, we had a problem. Just a few steps later the footwall, the wall you place your feet on, the floor of a mine, started to descend. Captain Singer asked, "How deep is the water before we reach the branch?" I thought for a moment and tried to picture the one time I had visited the mine. "It used to be up about half way to my knees, but the level could have changed. We'll just have to hope." "What happens if you keep going back?" "I don't know. I didn’t go that far. I would imagine it follows the line of sediment that seems to be dropping in that direction. When I found the passage to the left the one time I explored, I followed that." I chuckled at a memory. "I'll tell you one thing, when my uncle found out I had been in here, he tanned my hide good. I couldn't sit down for a week." "Bit of exaggeration there, Dude?" John asked. I replied, "You know what I mean. Hey. The water's higher than it was then. We might have three feet of water, maybe more, before you find the passage to the left." The level of the water was almost up to the footwall, where before there had been a good drop before I got my feet wet. The level of the ground water must have risen. "Then if you don’t want to walk around in soaked clothes, it might be a good idea if we took off our shoes and pants before we go on," Captain Singer suggested. "Since we’re not in a combat or training situation can do that, or you can roll up your pants, but the water will soak them if it's that deep, so I'd suggest you take them off. Just be careful where you put your feet." "You don't think we'd step on anything, do you?" Randy asked. "There may be glass or something." "That's a valid point," I said to back up my friend. "This place wasn't boarded up. Who knows who's used it in the past?" "Or what it's been used for," John continued. "Druggy's probably hung out in here."
"Or lovers’ lane," I said. I tried to be a bit more optimistic. "Who knows what's under the water. I think I want all the protection I can get. After a moment Captain Singer, who held the light, did not remove any clothing before he stepped into the water. We watched as the light moved away. It gradually lowered toward the water as it faded. We waited and listened for a gurgle or a splash. We watched for sudden darkness to announce the light had extinguished. We braced ourselves for the sounds of a human drowning. Before our worst fears came true, he called, "I found it. It's open. Come along. Follow the left wall with your fingers until you feel the opening. The floor begins to rise when you make the turn." I followed John hesitantly into the stagnant water. Who knew what I would find under the surface? What had entered over the years and waited to pounce? Would something nasty slither silently toward me through the water, deliver venom when it bit, or would it just latch on gently and suck out all my blood? As I moved forward the rock under my fingers was damp, but not slimy, and there wasn't a mildew smell like there is in an unventilated bathroom. I didn't feel anything alive attack me. Just rough, damp rock that led to a pale, flat sheet. Still it was a bit nerve-wracking until I realized I could see the light Captain Singer held without much trouble. I felt less nervous as I joined John and the captain, followed by Randy. We stood in soaked shoes and pants and peered down the corridor. The light shone a short way into the dark, but it didn't reach the end of the passage. From what we could see, the wall on the right side was fairly straight, while the wall on the left seemed to grow closer until only a narrow passage remained. “You did this by yourself, Cherokee? No wonder you guys were called braves.” “Actually, Man or Warrior was the preferred term, depending on the situation. Brave was used by ignorant whites, which were most of them until the twenty-first century.” "Let's go," Captain Singer said as he began to walk into the darkness. The lantern he held as he walked away diffused what could have turned into an ugly situation. The passage did get narrower. The
walls seemed to grow as we advanced, seemed to reach out for us, ready to bury us under all that rock. The corridor jogged to the right and opened out, only to close again almost immediately. This time the wall on the left retreated first, then the wall on the right fell back and the corridor opened into a large room. At its widest, the room had to have been fifty feet across and eight or nine, or maybe ten feet high, the ceiling supported by rock pillars left when the miners dug out the minerals. "Now this looks good," the captain said as we looked around at the long room. "Plenty of room to set up camp. We'll follow the passage on back to the end, and then move the barracks equipment in here. We can wait until we explore the other passage before we move the crates. Let's go." He led the way farther into the unknown along the length of this wide area, a good hike. Finally, the room widened even more, the ceiling lowered a bit, and our path ended at a rock wall. "Dead end," Randy said as he looked at the wall. “Hold on a second,” John said and moved closer to the back wall. “Hey, there's dirt between these rocks." "I told, I told you it ended close to the surface," I said, proud of myself. "Look at the, the, the dirt here in the cracks. It's got to be why the miners stopped digging." "That is a possibility," Captain Singer said. "OK, we found the end, and it looks as if we'll be able to break through. Let's go ahead and move the bags and stove, and a few digging implements. Then we can get to work." Randy asked, "What about the other passage? We have time to check that out before we move stuff." "We'll see, Randy. Ted, you're sure you can't remember anything about the other, um, drift I think it's called?" He was trying to prove he was more knowledgeable than we were. He threw around terms he'd just learned to put us in our place. I tried to turn the tables. "Actually, a drift goes parallel to the orebody. They dug this along the vein, so I'm not sure what you would call it, though it might be a
drift also. Anyway, I do remember hearing about a higher level somewhere in the area. Whether it branches off from here, or has its own entrance, I couldn't tell you. It might be on the other passage." "Good enough," the captain said. "We'll check it out. Let's go." We found our way back to the water and stopped. Captain Singer told us to wait while he checked out the depth of the water and made sure it was passable. As he slowly moved off, the light he held made it possible to follow his progress. It followed the same general direction for a bit, and then seemed to get a bit higher. "I'm going up," he called back. "There's a small room on the right. No. It’s just an open space. It's submerged, though. Still going up. I'm out of the water, and it climbs as far as I can see. Come on up. The water will get a little over waist high, but it's not bad." He was right. As we sloshed through to where Captain Singer waited, the water rose to my bellybutton, and then began to lower. I could see in the glow of the lantern that the ramp curved around to the right as it climbed. With the captain in the lead, we followed the rising ramp carved out of the rock. The walls began to recede until they opened into another room, smaller than the one on the other passage. "This looks like a better area to set up our base," the captain said. "It's away from the cold winds that will blow through in a couple of months." "But we have to go through the water every time we want to leave," John observed. "We'll be going out in freezing temperatures with wet feet." "We'll just have to find a way around that," the captain replied. I found an opening in the left-hand wall and told them about it. The ramp climbed steeply until it took a left turn and went out of sight. "Looks like we found your upper level, Cherokee," Randy said as he elbowed me in the ribs. “Why the nickname?” the captain asked. Randy explained, “He’s full blooded, listed in the Cherokee Nation Register and all. His Dad’s on the council. Pretty well known and respected in school.”
The captain nodded and said, "On we go then." He led us on up the path. It jogged left, then right, and then opened into a small room that still climbed toward the back. We crossed the room and passed through to an opening in the back wall. This passage climbed around to the left until it reached a large room that had a level floor. When Captain Singer played his beam-light around, we could see that to the right of the opening the light disappeared before it reached a wall. He told us, "This is a good size for target practice. It looks good for storing our supplies, too. Let's see." He lit a match, let it burn for a few seconds, then blew it out and watched the smoke drift slowly away. "We'll have fresh air. Excellent. We move everything today. Supplies go up here. Sleeping, etc. is down in the next room. We'll dig the new entrance where we planned, and use the rocks and dirt to fill up the waterlogged areas. If the ceiling seems to lower to the floor, so much the better. Now, back to your truck, Ted, and we'll have lunch." When he mentioned lunch, I realized I was hungry. Up to then I had been too busy to notice. After we ate cold cut sandwiches we brought with us, we began to move the supplies to the upper room. We started with the smallest boxes. I carried a box or two to John, who took them through the water to Randy. He carried them to Captain Singer who waited at the bottom of the steep passage and carried them to where they would go. It may seem from that description that John had the easiest job, and while it's true he had the shortest distance to carry the supplies, the water soaked him and chilled him to the bone. Later in the afternoon, we reached the long crates that the captain said were weapons, most of which took two people to carry. By the time Randy had prepared dinner, we all had our wet shoes and socks off, and our feet and pants dried by the stove. While Randy took his turn to cook, he said to Captain Singer, "Hey, Larry. General Kennedy listed a bunch of stuff you're expert in, including clandestine operations. Wouldn't you have to know hand to hand combat for that?" "Sure, and I do." "But you're not expert in that."
"True, I'm not what the Army calls expert," the captain explained. "According to the Army, I don't do it right. Oh, I have a fifth degree black belt in several disciplines. I can handle--" "Isn't fifth degree the highest you can get?" John interrupted. "Yes, John, in some disciplines it is," Captain Singer answered quietly. He looked irritated, and I decided to warn John not to interrupt him again. Later. The captain continued, "Like I said, I can handle myself, but it's not the Army way, therefore I'm not an expert. I'll tell you a story though. I was in basic, and we had gone through the opening rigmarole: jogged five miles, took our first course in basic weaponry. We finally gathered in the field to learn the basics of hand-to-hand. The first thing the drill sergeant asked was if anyone thought they could lay a hand on him. Of course, being young and reckless, just a bit older than you boys, I said I could. He told me to come out to the middle of the circle. I did, then turned my back to give him an opening. I could hear the other guys snickering, so I knew he had made some sort of gesture, so I spun around and broke his nose. They almost threw me into the brig and they were ready to give me a dishonorable discharge. As it was, they transferred the Sergeant, and I had to do extra pushups every day of basic. Boy, was I glad when that was over. Now tell me how you built your antenna." John told about how we found the depression, and measured the whole thing. He explained how we located the place for the shed, and how I manufactured the wave-guide. I told how we lined it all with aluminum window screen. I began to tell how I shot the lines across the rim to mount the reflector when the captain interrupted. “Bow? Arrows? Ted, just how good are you?" "I placed third in target and first in 3D hunting, statewide." "That's pretty good, with a nearly silent weapon to boot. That gives me an idea, but for later. "Speaking of weapons, it's time to unpack some of them." We groaned, "Ted and John, find the crates marked M-18 and break them open. I'll show you how to operate the basic military weapon, break it down, and clean it."
That's how we spent the next week. During the day, we'd dig at the far wall in the lowest room where we wanted to put a new entrance, and after dinner, we'd learn about a weapon and practice aiming and shooting it. Target practice interested me since instead of ammunition we used a target laser triggered by the drop of the hammer. We would take aim and fire, the laser would mark where on the target we hit, and that mark would glow long enough for us to see where it was. It was a quiet and easy way to learn. I think we would have been deaf by the time we finished if we had used live ammo inside the cave.
On September 9, the day we were due to go back to school, we continued to dig out the end of the left-hand passage to make a new and, we hoped, hidden entrance. John and Randy scraped thin layers of dirt off the wall rather than launch a shovel blade through a thin place in front of some curious person’s nose. I pulled the dirt they dropped into a pile on the right. Captain Singer supervised and helped as necessary. John stopped in mid scrape, threw his shovel down, and exclaimed, "Hey! I see light!" The captain came over and looked. "You're right, John. OK, try to use the handle to open it. But carefully. As soon as you have a hole big enough to see through, let me know. We'll want to be sure it's hidden before we make it visible." John followed instructions until he'd opened a hole about as big as a fist. Each of us took a look and tried to decide what we could see. When I looked, I saw the rough walls of the small hole, and beyond that green needles and brown branches. It looked as if they were in shadow. OK, who’s the best in tight places?” the captain asked. “Probably East Coast.” “No, Randy, you’re the thinnest,” John said. The captain had John widen the hole until Randy, the thinnest of us, could slither through the opening. John and I helped lift him into the hole and pushed on his legs. His pants or belt caught on something and we thought we'd have to pull him out, but luckily, with us pulling and pushing him a couple of times, he made it to the outside. "You got pine trees out here, a small grove that hides the opening. They go up a slope and down part way to a stream. There's a gravel road at the bottom of the slope just before the stream." We enlarged the hole until there was enough room for a normal person to walk through without ducking, then joined Randy outside. At the edge of the trees, we could see the valley we'd entered. The entrance was almost halfway up a hill behind a clump of pines. Trees
that grew across from us hid the opposite slope, which looked rather steep. Below us a stream no bigger than a trickle led along the valley floor and followed the slope down to more trees. A creek ran past, just visible from our elevation over the treetops, that meandered along the valley and disappeared into a culvert under a gravel road that followed the valley floor. A steep rise on the other side of the stream blocked any view of what lay beyond. Captain Singer said, "Go on down to the stream, get a drink, and wash up, but be careful you aren't seen, and try not to leave any tracks. On your way back keep to the trees and pick up all the dry wood you can find. Take the wood to the room just inside. We'll light a few fires there so it looks like that's the only area anyone's used, and that not too recently." We hiked across to the water, drew a canteen each from the stream, and collected wood as we wandered back to the mine. After the captain checked the wind direction to make sure no visible smoke would leave the opening, we lit three small fires. While they burned, Captain Singer showed us how to use the field test kit for water quality. I was glad the stream tested safe, 'cause not only had we just ingested whatever was in the stream, we were halfway through the water supply we had brought with us. Now we knew that we would not run out of water. *** That night, after dark, the captain and I drove through the town of Hayden toward the small local airport. A phone booth stood in front of the 'Gas and Go,' a combination gas station and diner located just down a hill from the terminal and hangers. Polished aluminum gleamed at us where windows didn't interrupt the walls. Bright, warm, and inviting light shone out on the parking lot and called to me to come out of the evening chill. When the captain came back to the truck, I suggested we get something to eat. "Why?" he asked me. Using my best spy story vocabulary I said, "It might be a good opportunity to get some intelligence on the local scene. Find out what's happening."
He paused and stared at the windows of the diner, or maybe what the posters in the windows pictured. "H'm. Possibly. I wouldn't mind a cup of coffee. Let's go." It wasn't the coffee he wanted; we had that back at the mine. It was the thick slice of chocolate cake he ordered that made up his mind. The owners kept the diner super clean, without the usual layer of grease on the walls, the counter, or the area next to the kitchen. The coffee was excellent, and the cake wasn't bad either. We agreed not to mention the snack to the others when we got back. While we ate, we listened to two weather-beaten old men who sat several places down from us and talked about the strange goings on at the mine. First was all the rental trucks that drove that direction, with the tracks plainly visible in the dusty ruts to the mine. Then that beat up old truck with the three boys that disappeared in the area. One of the men, the one who looked as if he hadn't shaved in several days, said, "Mark my words, Murphy, ain't no good gonna come of it. That mine played out when I was a young'un. I seen lots of them engineer fellas go up there just to say that it warn't worth opening. Now them young brats is up there without a by-your-leave. Ain't no good gonna come of it, I'm tellin' ya." "I hear you," the other man said. "I could've told them nothing's there myself. I came out here after I retired to have a look, and the amount of work necessary to dig out whatever minerals still exist is more than the mine's worth. It's not even worth having as a hobby. I don't know what's happening up there, but I do agree that whatever it is, it can't be good. We ought to take a look to see if we can find anything illegal." "Not me, Murphy, not me. My days o' hiding and spying is long past, I'll tell ya. No, the best way, I think, would be to talk to the Reynolds boy, see if he can get one or two of his sons to mosey on out there and take a look around." "That sounds like a good idea, Zeb. Why don't we go over in the morning and talk to Reynolds? We might uncover something very interesting." That was enough for us. We finished our coffee quickly and headed
out the door. Captain Singer called in again to report the new situation, and then climbed in the truck and had me drive back to the mine. On the way, he was silent and distant, almost as if he considered our options. We’d just reached the entrance road when he told me, "Orders are for us to collapse the tunnel tonight. We need to make it look like no one's been left alive. We don't want them trying to dig us out. You know where the road the diner's on swings around and enters the main road just at the east edge of town? You are to be there at twenty-two hundred hours, that's ten o'clock, on Friday to receive a package. You will know the delivery person, and he'll know you. You'll check the package, make sure it's equipment we need, then make your way back, all without letting yourself be seen. Good practice for later when we have to pick up clandestine messages. "When we get to the mine, pull in. We want to go all the way back to the wide area where the supply dump was. Then we'll rig a small explosion to bring down the front entrance, and bury your truck farther back by backing it into the supports at the end of the narrow section, or something. It'll take some special rigging to do it safely and quietly, but we can do it. We will do it. Tonight." "You, you, you, mean we have, we have to work with, with the, the explosives?" I asked. That stuff scared me stiff. For some reason it fascinated John, but I really wanted nothing to do with it. "Don't worry about it," the captain told me. "I'll be there to supervise, and you need all the practical experience with it you can get before we have to make it count. If you guys lose me, you must be able to set any charges necessary." "Why would we lose you? You're going to be with us the whole time, right?" "I don't know, Ted. Anything can happen during a war, and this is going to be war, although different from anything seen before. Here we are. Let me guide you." We maneuvered the truck back to where the floor dipped into the water. John and Randy were waiting when I shut off the engine."What're you doing, man?" John demanded as I opened the door. "Just what he was ordered to," Captain Singer said.
John and Randy took one look at the captain's face and immediately became serious. The captain ordered, "John, Randy, go up to the supplies. Get two pounds of C-7 explosive. Also pick up a roll, no make it two, of Electric Fuse and a case of detonators. Ted and I will work out where to place the charges while we're waiting for you to get back." "Why?" John demanded. "What's happening? What's the hurry?" "If we're ever in a crisis there'll be no time for questions. You'll have to do what I say, exactly what I tell you, immediately. Get used to it and move! I'll explain later." John and Randy hurried through the water and ran up toward the supply storage. "OK, Ted, let's look at what we have. We'll need to set the charges so no one will see them, and it won't be obvious that we collapsed the entrance on purpose. We'll have to set the charges to the back of the uprights, down low near the bottom, but at different heights and angles, not in a straight line. We'll try to collapse them mostly toward the middle of the passage, but pointing a little bit out so it will look as if the tunnel collapsed from the inside. We'll only need a quarter ounce at each position, but I want to start inside and work my way to the entrance. Any ideas on how to do that?" I thought for a minute. "You could set the charges to blow one at a time, each one fused separately, and blow them in order. But that would leave wires behind in the rubble, wouldn't it?" "I'm glad you saw that. We'll see if the others catch that problem, too. That's why I wanted Electric Fuse. It's specially formulated to disintegrate after a charge has run through it. It leaves a residue, but you have to know what you're looking for to find it. Now quickly, why the amount I specified?" "I would say that a quarter ounce is enough to go through a support, dislodge it and make it collapse, but not enough for someone to hear far away." "That's good. I'm going to further muffle the blasts by blowing the outside first. If we're lucky it'll look like the vibrations from inside did it. Now make sure you don't give the answers away when I ask John and Randy. They have to learn this, same as you."
John and Randy returned with the supplies, and then answered the same pop quiz I'd just passed. We watched Captain Singer set the first two charges. He rolled a small amount of explosive between his hands until it became a worm, and then pushed the paste like substance onto the wood. He reached around the support as far as he could, then continued the thin line from the other side. We followed his lead for the rest of the supports, each of us taking a quarter of the supports and placing tiny worms around them. One hundred twenty-eight charges later, we were back to the wide area. While Captain Singer checked our work and installed the detonators, I backed my truck near the wall on the right as if it had pushed the supports from under the roof. Then I filled the gas tank to overflowing with water. We didn't want the diesel to catch fire or explode in the tank and bring down the mountain above us. The captain finished his inspection of the preparations and the hanging wall, moved us back through the water, and said, "I think we'll be OK here, but we may have to dig ourselves out a bit. Randy, go get a shovel and set yourself up outside. Watch the blast and make sure the outside collapses completely. I don't want anyone to think it's worth digging us out. When the outside comes down, wait for five minutes, then throw dry dirt over the area. That should make it look like it's been down for a while. Then come in the new entrance and make sure the roof didn't collapse too far back. You may have to dig us out." Randy smiled, said OK, then ran back to get the shovel. He splashed through the water in his hurry as he followed the light of his lantern. The captain called to him before he was out of sight, "Be careful, Randy. Try not to use the light while you're outside." Then quietly to us, "And now we wait. I'll give him ten minutes to get into position. "Now for what I expect will happen, I'm going to blow the outside first like I said. We'll hear it, though not too loudly, I hope. Then I'll blow the next set of charges. John, how will we know the first charge worked?” “The first one closed the entrance if the dust that's raised comes back here with some force,” he answered. “If it's not closed, the dust will drift back, or not show up at all.” “That’s good. If the first charge closed the entrance, I'll blow from
the inside. If not, we'll have to see what went wrong. For now, though, let's make sure we have the fuses in the right order." We checked the fuses and decided we set them properly. Then we took cover back by the water. The captain asked if we were ready, then touched the leads of the first fuse to the battery he carried in his pocket. Quiet thunder erupted from the entrance of the mine as I smelled the acrid stink of wires burning. The fuse disintegrated in front of my eyes and left no trace. Dust began to float back and settle slowly to the ground. The captain smiled. "Ready for number two?" he asked as the air cleared. We nodded and he touched the second pair of leads to the battery. Again, thunder sounded, but this time the dust came back at us forcefully as it rode the wave of the blast. "OK, Ted, what's that mean?" the captain asked. I thought quizzes were limited to school, but I’d had two quizzes so far today. This was schooling of a sort, though, so I answered, "I would say that the tunnel entrance was closed." "Why?" "Well, it seems we got the full force of the blast." "Very good," he praised me. I felt good. "Now to take care of the rest." He quickly touched the battery to the rest of the leads in order as the mine filled with dust. When he set off the last charge, he said, "Let's get out of here," and led the way out the new entrance, now the only one. We met Randy just outside. He was dodging quickly between the trees, hurrying to the entrance. Breathlessly he said, "There's someone coming!" "Show me," Captain Singer told him quietly. As they moved off along the line of trees that hid the new entrance, he called over his shoulder, "Wait for me there. And keep quiet." "My throat's drier than it's ever been," John complained when they had rounded the corner. I told him, "It's all that dust, Asaya. Your face is black. You look like a commando ready for a night raid." I had dry mouth also, a condition I attributed to breathing the dust raised by the cave-in. "Just think what's in our lungs. Let's go clean up a bit, rinse out our
mouths and stuff. Larry will never know. We can get down there and back before he returns." John and I wandered down to the stream to wash our faces and get a drink to clear our throats. While we leaned over the water John asked, "Who do you think it is?" "I have no idea," I told him. "Probably someone who heard the blasts and came to check. Let's head back to the entrance before Larry knows we left. He'll make all kinds of noise if we aren't there." As luck would have it, Larry returned to the new entrance first. "I thought I told you to stay at the entrance," he whispered forcefully. "What would have happened if the intruder had decided to go exploring and found you two out by the stream? How would you have explained yourselves? How would you have kept them from picking you up as runaways and held in the jail until they could send you home? Unless, of course, you're willing to compromise this mission. Is that what it is?" I hung my head and didn't say a thing. I figured it was the best course of action at the moment. John said, "Yes, sir," quietly. He sounded well chastened. I thought I knew him better. "Well, Mr. Solidoak? What do you have to say for yourself?" the captain demanded. John's intuition had been right. "Yes, sir," I said. I did my best to echo John's tone of voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't think about that." "All right. Let that be an end to it." The captain took a deep breath, then told us, "The person was an old man, the one we saw earlier that could speak proper English, Ted. His name is Murphy, I think. He looked, decided he couldn't dig it out, and left again. I don't know if he's going for help or if he's just going to forget it. If he comes back, I don't know if he'll bring people and equipment, or when he'll come, so I want a lookout out here for the next twenty-four hours. Ted, you have the first watch. In three hours, you come in and get John, unless he gets you first. That'll be at," the captain looked at his watch, "zero, four hundred hours. Randy, zero, seven hundred for you to relieve John. I'll take the rest of the day around nine or ten hundred. While you're not on watch, I have a chore for you to do, but I'll explain that in the morning. Ted, go pick
your spot and wait for John. If you see anything, come wake me. Most important, however, don't get caught. Now move!" I made my way slantwise up the steep slope above the entrance. More ruts ran along the ridge, though they looked unused. The slope down to the entrance looked like ocean waves, small undulations as it dropped almost a hundred feet. The entrance of the mine we had just collapsed, and the road, was visible from behind the lowest crest halfway down the hill. I lay on my stomach in their shadows and watched. It was more boring than you would believe. Time seemed stretched by a factor of fifty or more, but I managed to stay awake. After a while, I rolled over to look at the stars while I listened for tires or engines. I could see the Big and Little Dipper, and Leo, and Hercules and Pegasus, and Pisces, and Andromeda. All my friends from when I lived on the reservation before we moved to town looked down at me. It seemed three years later when I finally heard a noise behind me and turned to see John as he walked up the hill. "Figured you'd be here," he said. "This is the place I would have picked. You OK? What can you see?" "Yeah, I'm OK," I yawned. "It'll take more than a talking to for me to get upset. I don't know, though. I reckon this is good and all, and we are learning things we'll need to know, but does Larry have to be so downright demanding? He could let up a bit and we'd still live." "Maybe," John answered thoughtfully, "but if he gets killed or something, it'll be up to us. I guess that's what he's thinking. What's out tonight?" I told him, "Seeing's good, even better than the ranch. There's not much light pollution 'round here. You have to look carefully, but I've seen Alamak in Draco, the horse and rider in Urea Major, and of course Vega. I saw Orion's Nebula about as well as you can see it by eye. Oh, the Pleiades are really bright. Tell you what, though. I'm tired. I'm going to bed. I'll see you tomorrow. By the way, I haven't seen a thing on the ground." I made my way back over the ridge and into the mine, found the lantern John used on his way out, and stumbled up to the sleeping area.
*** I still felt tired when Captain Singer had John cook breakfast three hours later. He said, "The main chore for today is to get that low place completely filled. I have an idea about that though. We could slice off that point and make more of a straight path to here. Then we fill the dip with the stones and rock we blew down yesterday. We make the slope of the passage coming from the main entrance steeper. That might make it look as if the back areas collapsed also and discourage anyone who would come in that way." The dirt from the new entrance had raised the level through the water by a couple of feet, but it was still knee deep. I could live with that for now, but how cold would it get in a few weeks or months? He was right; we had to fill it in. "We could scrape part of the hanging wall away, couldn't we?" I asked. "Then we'd have head room as well as a dry place to walk." "OK, try that," the captain told us, "but be sure that only one person is near there, and that both are on the side that has the entrance. And watch while you're doing it. I don't want any cave-ins to crush you." With that advice, he left us to watch the entrance. John and I grabbed shovels and picks and headed down to carry out the orders. We decided John would fill buckets with the dirt blown out the night before, and when he got back, Randy could help me carry the dirt back to the water and spread it out, if Randy was up to the chore after he was awake for so long. From the entrance side of the water, I carefully poked at the hanging wall, what miners called the ceiling, and watched loose dirt fall, followed by dust. "That doesn't look too good, dude," John said from behind me. "Yeah. Just what we need. No way to get to our stuff upstairs. In the other room. You know what I mean. Guess we'll have to use the buckets." John had just begun to fill the first bucket when Captain Singer hurried back in, followed closely by Randy. The captain told us, "Sheriff and that old man are back. Looks like they have a probe. Everyone up in the supply room, and be quiet. I'm
going to keep watch." He ran back toward the outside. We quickly cleaned up the areas that looked as if someone had just worked there and hurried up to the third level. While we waited, we practiced with the M-18 and the Target Laser. John, closest to the opening, held up his hand. Randy and I froze and listened. Very faintly, we could hear a tapping as the people outside drove in the probe. We carefully put the weapons down, safeties on, and sat on the floor to wait out the danger. We knew we couldn't make a sound. They would hear us if they had a listening device. The tapping stopped. We waited. We listened to the silence. We did not hear a scrape or falling dirt. All we could hear was our hearts as they beat, actually the blood that pulsed through our inner ear. After a year, or maybe just an hour, footsteps approached through the mine. The measured step sounded familiar, and didn't hesitate when it reached the water. We slowly stood and worked the kinks out while we waited for Captain Singer. "Well, boys," he said heartily, "we've weathered that crisis. I could hear them talking. They kept driving a probe in until it reached open air, and then they listened for about half an hour. When they didn't hear anything, they decided it wasn't worth doing anything about, so they left. When they were out of sight, I came back. "Tell me something, Ted. How long would it take for you to get a couple squirrels, or rabbits, or something?" "Couple of hours," I replied. "Well, why don't you do that," the captain suggested, "but stay in the trees and don't let yourself be seen. We'll have ourselves some fresh meat to celebrate crossing that hurdle." I didn't argue. Hunting was better than moving dirt any day. I grabbed a rifle and some ammo and headed through the water. By the time I had returned, they had raised the passage to where you could walk through and only wet your pants to just above the ankle, although you had to duck to avoid a knock on the head. As I walked into the lighted room, John said, "Oh, gross. Can't you do something with them?" I did have two gutted rabbits by the ears, but to me it was no big deal. Even Randy had seen me carry rabbits before.
Since John was a city boy, he couldn't deal with it. "It would probably be better if you butchered them down by the stream," Captain Singer suggested. "Why don't you go a bit downstream and see what's there? Here, take a plate to hold the meat so you can bring it back. By then I'll be ready to cook it. What do you think? Should we boil, or roast." "Roasting keeps the flavor, and that's how I like it," I told him, "but since it's John's first taste, maybe you better boil some. That tends to weaken the gaminess, and that can be strong." "It'll be my first time, too," the captain admitted. "We'll do both." I went down the valley, turned left, and followed the stream a short distance while I stayed just inside the trees. The stream took a sharp right and met me. I'd already eviscerated the animals, so I skinned them and sliced the meat from the bones, then rinsed the meat and threw the carcasses farther into the wood. During dinner, we discussed the problem with the water in the corridor. Apparently, it was ground water rather than a stream. No matter what we did, the level would match the ground water of the area. Therefore, the only thing we could do would be to raise the path above that level. That had its problems, though. It would be almost impossible to maneuver the heavier equipment through when we needed to take it back outside. We thought about it, brainstormed as it's called, and John suggested we use a cart or dolly to roll the heaviest boxes. We didn't have anything like that, but the captain suggested we build a small sledge. "How do we do that?" Randy asked. My mind went into creative overdrive, one reason John had originally wanted me to help him. "Actually, Asaya, it might just be possible. We'd need a couple of logs of different sizes. Some, some tools. What kind of, kind of tools do we have, Larry?" "Whoa, slow down Ted," the captain chuckled. "We have a saw and an ax or two, but nothing spectacular." "That'll be enough," I said carefully as I concentrated on what I said. I did not want to stutter. "I can take a round log and saw it into four pieces to make wheels. I can hollow holes out with my knife, and use
sticks as axles." "They'd have to be fairly substantial," John interrupted needlessly. "I know this, John," I told him, then continued. "I can split a straight log for the frame, and fasten it together with whatever we have at hand. I mean, the pioneers made do, didn't they?" "That they did, Ted," Captain Singer agreed with a grin, "and so did your people, and the miners. Since we are not supposed to be here, we do too. Don't rush about it, though. We'll wait for a few weeks before we tackle finding logs or cutting trees. We might find something better in our supplies. This winter you'll be happy to have something to do. Until then, leave it alone." Captain Singer had remembered to bring several packs of playing cards. We played until it was time for us to hit the sack, although I would have enjoyed a book.
I left the mine on Friday after dark, a necessary precaution since we were dead or nonexistent to the rest of the world. My mission was to meet the contact who had our new equipment at Route 40 next to a stream just east of town, an easy location for both of us to find. I had just about enough time to get there, as long as nothing got in my way. The night was clear without much humidity to block what little light was available. I kept low as I hurried downhill along the open area to the trees that lined the road worried that someone would see me. Once among the trees I could relax a bit. I found Ursa Minor and saw Polaris was easily visible among the leaves, a good way to confirm my direction. I had to walk about two and three quarter miles along the road while I watched for headlights and houses, and tried to stay in the wind break of trees. I remembered that I passed some open fields as I drove in, and hoped I'd find some sort of cover, or that dogs from nearby farms would not decide to bark at a possible intruder. The area opened up just as I feared, with the lights of a house ahead of me, but there was a small ridge alongside the road. I bent low and managed to remain unseen. When the road turned left, I had to follow another road northeast for a short way. I looked for Mirfak, but it must have been behind the mountains because I couldn't find it. Gamma Cassiopeia could also guide me, and it was higher in the sky. A pair of ruts branched off and ran along the side of a field. I checked Polaris to confirm my direction, and then headed north. At the top of a small ridge, I saw a road to the east less than a football field away. I stayed on the west side of the ridge and continued almost north across a gravel road and past some more houses. I ducked as I heard a vehicle go by just past some bushes, a lucky break since if I was a minute earlier, I'd have walked right in front of it. It seemed to take forever for my contact to arrive at the edge of the bushes, but Cappella had barely shown when, shortly after ten, a black car coasted to a stop at the edge of the road. The driver climbed out,
gave a tire a vicious kick, and lifted the hood. By the small light in the engine compartment I could see it was Stuart Nugent, the general's adjunct. He acted as if he'd had a problem. I waited until no other lights showed, then walked out and joined him in front of the car. "Howdy, Ted," he greeted me. "I wondered if you made it here yet." "I'm here. What've you got?" I asked. "It's in the back, Dude. Let's pick out some tools." We walked around to the back of the car. When Stuart lifted the trunk lid, I saw four double compound bows built by the top manufacturer in the nation, leather wrist and arm guards that would truly protect us, and plenty of arrows with interchangeable tips. There were also two fishing poles and a tackle box. "Is this what you need?" he asked quietly. They were all top quality, and just what we needed. These put what I had at home to shame. "It'll do," I told him as I suppressed my excitement and tried to sound nonchalant. "How am I going to carry this?" "You're gonna to have to show me a place to hide this thing, Dude," he said as he patted the car. "Then we'll hoof it the rest of the way. I have instructions for the captain. I ain't supposed to know where y'all is, so tell me what you'd do." As if I needed to learn this. I'd watched enough movies to know, and anyway, if the captain had thought I'd needed special instructions, he'd have told me. Still, Stuart was my "superior" so I had to humor him. "I'm going to lead you to a place somewhat close, but not that close. Then I'll bring the captain to you." "Way to go, Dude," he told me, smiling. "That's just what I'd do. Now let's find somewhere to hide the car." We found a small clear place near the road hidden by bushes. After we parked, we walked back along the ravines and fields. I led with the bows slung over my shoulder, and Stuart followed with two large bags. The arrow of Copernicus pointed to Deneb Algiedi, which was not exactly south, but was close enough to keep us oriented. We followed the path back toward the mine until I reached the road to the entrance we had collapsed. Just off to the west was a clump of trees. A small clearing
was a little ways into the grove, with a fallen log just sitting height near the far edge. I told Stuart to wait, and continued on to the mine. Back at our base of operations, I was again careful while I crossed the clearing. I found Captain Singer with the others on the third level as they opened another crate. "Mission accomplished," I told him, "but there's an added factor. I met Staff Sergeant Nugent as planned, and accepted the supplies from him, all top quality by the way. Captain, he said he had a message for you. I left him at a good meeting point, a place where he's safe and hidden, and you can find him." "Why didn't you bring him here?" Captain Singer asked gruffly. From the look on his face, I thought I'd made a mistake, but I answered, "'cause I didn't want him to know where we are, so if he's questioned he can't give away our position." The captain smiled. "That's the reason. Where is he?" "I left him and the equipment he was carrying in the clearing by the crossroads, Sir." I have no idea why I added the sir. It just seemed appropriate. "OK. I'll go to him. I want you three to go out and gather some wood. Make a fire in the entry room, in one of the previously used fire pits. Make up a large pot of coffee. I'll ascertain what information he has to give us and possibly bring him back, along with the equipment you left behind. If I do bring him in, though, I'll blindfold him, so don't leave anything in the way. Let's do it." By the time we had the fire started and the coffee hot, the captain had returned with Sergeant Nugent. John removed the blindfold and Randy placed a cup of coffee in Stuart's hand. Stuart sat on one of the logs near the fire and took a sip. "Hey, man, this is good. You guys ain't doing too bad for yourselves." The captain took a proffered cup and said, "Stu's told me a couple things I believe he should tell us all. Of course, you'll also want word of your families. Stu?" "Well, dudes, first of all, we're going to disassemble and store the antenna at the ranch." He quickly raised his hand when John's eyebrows lowered and his eyes flashed fire. "Yo, John, relax. We'll be careful.
Two radiomen work as ranch hands. When things get dirty, we expect to have all our dishes destroyed. When that happens, the two fake hands will rebuild yours. That's the plan, at least, so we can hear them sometimes. And yeah, it's gonna to come to that." He paused as if he considered how to tell someone a close friend died. "We've picked up instructions about several plans of attack, but we got no idea when it's going to happen. We're not sure they've even worked out when to attack yet. The numbers they've been sendin' can only mean one thing, though, and they all start with the ships surrounding the world in a sphere as big as the lunar orbit. There will be some night in the future that you dudes may look up to see a flash or two in the sky. If so," he paused for a minute, and then said, almost in a whisper, "if so, you're on your own." Stuart sat and thought for a minute before he continued. "Now for the good news. The United Nations worked out a good way of coverin' all the clandestine operations. We'll hit them with nuclear warheads, but we don't expect to damage them much. We'll control the number of warheads we use to limit the fallout. We're gonna use the EMP effect to wipe out all the magnetic records." Randy had told me years ago, when we studied about nuclear reactions and weapons in science, that when a nuclear weapon explodes high in the atmosphere, or possibly space, it ionizes the atmosphere and kills almost all long distance radio communication. It can also send an electromagnetic signal that scrambles unprotected computer memory chips and hard drives, which is why he learned it. "The EMP effect?" John protested. "That will create havoc with airlines and magnarail and such, make the planes fall and the trains stop. The nuclear radiation and electromagnetic pulse effects will just about wipe out the human race, won't it?" "Not accordin' to the experts the general's consulted," Stuart answered. "But, that's a chance we're gonna have to take. There's no other way out that we can see. We may have to fake it, at least with the military records, but it's the best way of hidin' people we can find." "So that means you have a way of putting professionals out in the field without the enemy knowing?" I asked.
"That's true, Dude, but we can't count on them completely. You guys, and others like you, may be the ones that do it in the long run. We can't predict how others will act. We have to count on everyone doin' their share. "Yo, Red. Have you ever heard of the Clay Company?" "They make the best super computers," Randy answered. "I thought you'd know of them. For security reasons, we had to destroy your system. I had the pleasure of makin' the report of what you had, and let me tell you I exaggerated some. What you did for us with workin' out the language needs some reward, more than the general can give. After I finished, it turned out you get a small Clay, the 3110, with an Epson 4000 Cube Reader and an optical writer. That's the best I could do." "That's great!" Randy cried. "It's super-parallel and refrigerated normally. I won't have to keep buying liquid nitrogen. And I've wanted an optical writer since they first came out, but could only afford a reader." Stuart chuckled. "That was one of my exaggerations. Um, John, we're not sure what to do for you yet, but we'll come up with something. Ted, you'll have your truck. I think I found one you'll like. Oh, and the money for college. "We've established a contact for you. His name is Zebidiah Huxley and he's an old prospector, lived out here for ages. He's combed the mountains since he came out here fifty years ago, and said the best place to meet would be the Elkhead/Ralph White State Fishing Area. He said, now let me think, he said, 'A non-local can sit there and fish all day and never get a second glance. It's the only place a stranger could hang around and look normal.' He also said to watch out in the 'Gas and Go,' whatever that is. He said they gossip. Why would he say that?" "Describe him," Captain Singer ordered. "Oh, 'bout sixty-five, seventy, gray hair, suit, weathered face. It seems like he has a permanent three-day beard. He needs dentures but usually doesn't wear them. He has a friend, a guy named Murphy, who speaks proper English, which is a rarity in these parts so you can use it as part of his identification. Murphy used to be a teacher, or something,
before he hit the lottery and moved out here. When I talked to Zebidiah today, he said he's glad you're all right. He said the sheriff thinks you left. Do you know what he means?" Captain Singer filled him in on our adventures. Stuart told us about our families and stopped our worries for a while, then felt it was time to leave. I took him to the clearing, removed his blindfold, and led the way back to his car. By the time I returned to the mine a few hours into morning I was exhausted and ready to sleep late on Saturday. The captain had different ideas, though. We started to train on a new weapon just after breakfast. *** The weeks went by slowly. Every morning we'd clean our sleeping area and learn how to use a new piece of equipment. During lunch we usually sat outside near the entrance and enjoyed the last of the nice weather, but we stayed close to the trees so we could hide if someone came. After lunch, we'd drill with various weapons or hand-to-hand combat, the sort of things Captain Singer said we would need. After dinner, we'd sit outside the mine entrance and watch the stars. One of these days something would happen, stars would move or lights would flash, but we had no idea what or when. On Sundays, I'd go out into the woods and see what I could bring back for our meal, and now I used a bow so I wouldn't make any noise. Captain Singer would go fishing at the State Park and hope to meet our contact. The first week of October, he came back later than usual. I had already cleaned two rabbits and had them boiling nicely when he slowly walked into the room and placed his poles against the wall. He sat in his usual seat by the fire, silent. He did not move or look at us, an unusual occurrence. Finally, he looked at us, his face more solemn than ever before. Quietly he let us in on the news. "They heard the order to move. The alien fleet is beginning to approach us with multi G acceleration, harder than a human can take. According to what they've translated, the attack is due Halloween night. There's no way we can stop it. Token resistance, that's all we can do. Hopefully, they want our resources intact and won't just destroy us. At
least that's what the powers-that-be believe will happen. That's our only chance." We sat quietly and watched the water in the pot boil, each of us with his own thoughts. Finally, Randy put what we all felt into words. "This is getting scary, know what I mean?" "Yeah, I do, Dude," John replied. "I want to go home, be with my folks, but I know it wouldn't help." "The worst, worst thing is not, not, not knowing what to, what to do," I said. I got a chorus of agreement with that. The captain looked at me with the softest expression I'd seen yet. "Easy, Ted. You're not quite right. The worst is yet to come, boys." His expression hardened. "I hate to be the one who tells you this, but until now this has been a vacation. Once they attack, we go on military footing. No outside adventures during daylight. None at night, either, unless it's absolutely necessary. The only exception will be the weekly meeting with our contact. I expect all orders obeyed instantly. "I'm going to step up the drills. Ted, it's time for you to start teaching us how to use a bow and arrow. We'll continue with the hand to hand, and the weapons, but now you'll get intensive instruction on code work and explosives. No more days off, either. Boys, you'll wish you were back in school in a month. Now let's get to work."
October was rough. We all tired of constantly drilling with weapons. Even with the mix-and-match ingredients of the Meals Ready to Eat, we soon tired of the same ten cardboard meals day after day after day. Snow showers and steady rain kept us indoors. For relief on the first clear night in two weeks, Halloween night, we sat outside the mine, watched the sky darken, and looked for signs of the invasion. At seven o'clock in the evening, well, after dark, we began to notice strange things among the stars. Occasionally we could see a streak of light, or what looked like a moving star or a satellite, and sometimes a bright point of light erupted. Once the whole sky lit as if by a distant lightning bolt. The battle without sound was strange, a new experience, but it worried us also. We thought about the future. There was no way the earth could win. Life would never be the same as it had been. This action, this war in space, would change world, probably for the worse for some time, and we could not go back to last summer and start again. The captain placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "This is the first battle the human race has ever fought in space, but I'm willing to bet it's not the last. Once we win back our planet, the politicians and government heads may wake up to the truth, and the priorities of the world might change. But then again, history repeats itself, and it's been said by many that people rarely learn from history, and you have to remember that mankind has been warring over food and land since we came out of the forests, so I'm not sure anything will change." John said, "Yeah, maybe we will learn to get along Cap, if there is a planet left. My Dad is friends with a lot of those folk in Washington. He says they don't have a good grasp on reality, and they never learn anything except how to get more money." "Don't be so morose, Asaya," I admonished John, although I mostly agreed. He sounded depressed, and we needed his brain. "Yeah, East Coast. We'll make out OK, you'll see." The captain must have agreed, 'cause he tried to be upbeat. "Sure.
You'll see. Once this is over everyone in the world will come together. Arabs, Chinese, Russians. Everyone. We'll want to get into space and learn to defend ourselves, possibly enough to make a united effort. Now that will be something to see. But for now, I think we've seen enough. Let's hit the sack." *** Since we hid back in the wilderness, we didn't notice much change for a while. After his fishing trips, Captain Singer would tell us about the changes in the world: the new rules, the constant searches, and the suspicion of strangers. To us it wasn't real. For us, the world stayed the same: drill, drill, drill. We ate, drank, and worked just as we always had since we'd reached the mine, if not harder. November 9, Captain Singer returned from fishing with an instant camera. Of course, we had to ask him why he had it, even though I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer. He told us, "Seems like they decided that the world needs to know who's who. New picture ID for everyone. Papers if you move. Papers if you sit. Papers if you breathe. It's getting bad. Orders say that half the male population of the world will learn how to mine, refine, drill, and otherwise deplete the wealth of the earth. "Aw, man, I'm sorry guys. I've been talking to our contact. The aliens hit us hard just like you predicted, then issued an ultimatum. We had to accept. We just had to. We had no choice. Then, after they won we could do nothing against them. Nothing at all." He paused as if he had to control his emotions. He probably did. "Jeez. Sorry fellas. After they won, they executed the President, the Cabinet, and all the people of the government, in all the governments all over the world. Three days after they won! They put new people in charge, controlled by the aliens of course. They call themselves Alnoutes. The aliens, that is. This is worse than the stories of the Nazis, or the Communists in the old Soviet Union. Man, this has really gotten me depressed." The captain grew silent for a couple of minutes. Finally, he sniffed, squared his shoulders, and continued, "Until we get to strike back we have to stay under cover. When we move we need to have a counterfeit
ID and some papers, and they have to pass any inspection given. Therefore, we must each have a picture, head and shoulders passport style, so we can travel around a bit if we need to. "Let's see," the captain said to himself, "we need a plain background. Light gray, or white." "How about that canvas?" Randy asked. "It's green," Captain Singer explained. "We can change the color with white powder." "Where do you suggest we get white powder?" the captain asked. "Didn't our supplies include talcum powder?" Randy asked. "Sure," John said enthusiastically. "Make a paste and use that to change the color." I remembered I had read about how the ancient humans, around the time of the ice age, made white leather. I said, "You know, I remember in the series about the 'Earth Children' that one lady let her urine sit until it changed to ammonia. She'd use that to bleach out the color of leather. We could do that." "What? Let that stink up the place?" Randy asked, shocked at the thought. "No," I answered. "We do have both ammonia and sodium hypochlorite. They're both bleaches." "That sounds like the best idea," Captain Singer told us, "and use the powder if it's not white enough. OK, let's see what kind of a container we can find. Something large enough to hold the canvas at least. One of the plastic lined crates, maybe." "Unless the ammonia eats the plastic," I said. "The ammonia's for other things," the captain informed me. "We'll use the chlorine, the sodium hypochlorite. It shouldn't eat the plastic and it's an adequate bleach. Since the flow of air seems to be toward the top of the mine, we'll process it on the upper level. Let's go find a crate." The captain took the camera with him when he went fishing the next week, and the unfinished papers came back a week after that. The extremely complicated forms had many spaces that we filled with small writing. Each form needed five signatures already printed where they belonged, and we had to work around two embossed stamps. There was
a special code used in several sections, printed on the back of the forms for easy reference. We filled them out, a tedious but necessary chore that seemed to take forever, but when we had finished we had counterfeit papers that could pass inspection. We could safely move around. We hoped. *** On the thirtieth, Captain Singer came back from fishing with information that a new local control building neared completion, with occupation on Wednesday. His orders said to look it over and decide what we needed to do about it. "I need one of you to go with me," he told us. "I'll go in and look around, or at least get as close as I can. I need someone else along in case they discover me. This information, the layout of the complex, must get through to our contact. Who wants to go?" We all volunteered loudly. "OK, OK," he laughed. "Ted, you've seen our contact; I can't risk you. John, you grew up in a city; you'll have your chance, but not yet. Randy, I guess you're it." We clapped Randy on the back and generally congratulated him. The captain and Randy went to the upper level to sort over clothes and pick out what to wear. John and I had an easy week. The captain taught Randy the fine points of "Clan-des-stine Operations" as he called them. John and I listened in and picked up more information than you would believe, but Randy, since he was the one scheduled to go, received the most attention. Thursday night they dressed in dark clothes and left as the sun set. John and I followed them out to look at the stars. We sat in the growing dark and looked up much as we had one time at the ranch when we had checked fences. We had both given Randy a tour of the sky. John said, "Hey, Ted. Look at Taurus. I don't remember the pattern being like that. Draco's different, too." "You know, you're right," I told him. "The 'V' is filled more than it should be. There are six Pleiades instead of five. Polaris shouldn't be a double. I think we're seeing space ships reflecting the sun's light. They have got to be pretty far out if they're still out of the earth's shadow this
late at night. I wonder what kind of scanners they have." "If they have infrared, we're in trouble. They'll see Larry and Randy going cross country." True, but how long does it take the report to reach the earth from space? If Randy and Larry are lucky, the aliens will mistake them for animals." "Or the image won't resolve since they're so far away." "I doubt that, John. If they couldn't see, they wouldn't position their ships like that. We'll have to hope they're slow. The temperature difference between body temperature and the outside air tonight would be too good a target for any infrared scanner to miss, especially in the open like that. Come to think of it, they probably can pick us up, too." "Yeah," John said. "Besides which, I'm cold. Let's head on in." *** I don't know if the message was slow to reach earth or not, but the humans recruited as security forces were quick. Randy came back late that night. He gasped for air as he entered the living area. Captain Singer was nowhere in sight. Randy doubled over as he slowed to a stop, leaned on his hands braced on his knees. We watched him and waited for him to collapse or tell us what happened. After a moment he panted, "We almost got caught. We followed the directions, toward the bridge, out of town, over a small hummock, and around an outcropping, of rocks. Ahead of us, we saw a well lit, sort of 'L' shape building, with a square fenced in area that had dish antennas, like the one we built but smaller and pointed parallel to the ground, on towers inside the letter part. You could tell everything was new. It was shiny clean. You could even see the lines in the sod. Near the gate in the fence, a couple of guards stood watching. We moved closer for a better look and hid behind some bushes." He was breathing normally now, but he talked slowly. "You would think the kind of person who would do the work of the enemy would be grungy and drunk, but those two guards weren't. I cracked a twig, and one of them came over to have a look. Why he didn't
see us, I don't know; our luck must have been holding. However, when Larry decided to try to go in, I knew we were pushing our luck. We moved back to a line of trees and followed it around to a wood behind the building. There we saw a break in the fence with no one around. Larry started for it, but I told him they wouldn't leave such an obvious hole open without having a way to watch it. I was right. He was almost there when one of the guards from the gate came running around yelling for him to stop. We both ran for cover. I made it back, but I think they caught him." "You, you, you think, you think they got him?" I demanded. "You didn't wait to, wait to see? What, what, what happens to him if they did catch him, Asaya? Did you ever, ever think, ever think of that? And what do you expect us to do, huh? Now what?" "Now we wait," John informed us. He stopped the argument when he took command. "If Larry's not back by the morning, we'll have to assume we're on our own. Ted, you said you found a place above us where you can see the whole valley?" I told him I had. "Then you can go up there in the morning just after it's light and see if they're starting a search. Hopefully not. Randy, were you seen at all?" "I don't think so East Coast, but do you realize that if they aren't searching, then Larry's been caught?" "Or communications are slow, or they think it was just a couple of kids, or any one of a number of different things," John told him. Randy considered what John had said. "OK, I'll agree with you. But Cherokee, they may find us while you're up on the mountain, or possibly they'll find us when East Coast is away. Let me pass on what I've learned. The building is an easy lob from the woods for the GL-57. With anti-installation on board there should be no problem wiping out the building with several hits. Another lob would wipe out the tower with the antennas. Should be a piece of cake for any of us." "Good," John answered. "Look, hit the sack. Tomorrow starts early for you, Ted. Randy, you've had your excitement. I'll keep a watch from the entrance tonight, and wake you, Randy, when my eyes won't stay open anymore."
Captain Singer woke me that morning before the sun was scheduled to rise. It took me a moment before it registered he'd returned, but then I shouted, "Larry! Good to, good to see you! I didn't know if you got away." "And it worried you so much you couldn't sleep," he answered. "That's OK. Go grab yourself a cup of coffee off the stove. Get something to eat, too. Soon as you finish, grab another MRTE, the big field glasses, and that refracting scope I brought, and assume your post on the lookout. If you definitely see something, and can get back down without anyone seeing you, report it immediately. Otherwise, wait until dusk to return. Now get." At the entrance, dressed in a heavy hooded coat so I my body heat wouldn't give our position away, I scanned the area from behind the pine trees and made sure no one watched. I scrambled over rocks and almost twisted my ankle twice on the steep slope as I followed the stream’s small ravine uphill. Part way up it branched. One part went straight, and the other headed off at an angle to the left. I followed the left branch and stayed under trees until I reached the ridge, which headed south. The ground sloped away on three sides, with a small outcropping of rocks on the north face. A graded gravel road meandered a couple of hundred feet below me on the other side of the ridge, but no one could see me although I could see for miles. The rocks made the perfect lookout point for anyone who wanted to watch the valley. If I sat in just the right place, I could see as far north as the next range and all of Hayden and the surrounding area, and no one could see me. Even with the strong binoculars, the valley looked like a miniature train set with tracks that ran between the town and the river. No, it was more like one of those area models in the tourist information buildings, with about as much movement. I watched as a motorcar, just a bit bigger than an ant even through the powerful binoculars, moved out of town past the airport and stopped
at the diner. A dot moved into the building, then came back out in a minute. The car started back through town until it reached what I took to be the fishing area, almost too far away to see even with the field glasses. I aimed the telescope that way as it parked in the parking lot, and watched as two miniature people moved along the bank of the stream until they reached another miniature person next to the water. The people stayed together for a minute, and then all three began to move back toward the car. It looked as if two big individuals hauled an old man between them, at least from what I could see in the telescope. The three got into the car, the old person in the middle shoved into in the back by the other two, and then they got in front. The car went back the way it came, out of sight behind the buildings of Hayden. The rest of the day I kept watch, but saw nothing else unusual except the lack of traffic. As dusk fell, I headed back toward the mine with the hope that the dark would hide me. I looked up into the dark night as I approached the entrance of the mine. It appeared that there were even more stars in the constellations at the zenith than there had been before. I was thankful for the cold weather gear I had put on in the morning that would help hide me from the infrared detectors. Inside the mine, my hair and body dripping with sweat even on that cold winter day, I shed my coat. As I reached where the water used to be, the level of the ground water had lowered, John caught up with me. He whispered, "I saw you come in. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I was thinking about the person I saw arrested or captured and had no idea what John meant. "What?" I asked. "About the extra stars and how they disappear toward the west." "Oh, you mean that they might be watching with infrared like we thought last night?" He saw how hot I was in my heavy coat. What did he think? Anyway, I had more important duties to perform. I turned toward the ramp. "Yeah," he insisted. He grabbed my arm to keep me from leaving. “And they’re lower so they can see better.” This was ridiculous. "I'll tell Larry, don't worry about that. But there's worse news than being watched. You'll find out about it when
you come back in. Now get back out where you belong." I must admit I was a bit gruff, but he was keeping us both from doing our jobs. John must have taken the hint 'cause he turned and headed back to his post. Captain Singer and Randy sat in the room we used as our headquarters and studied a drawing of the new government offices when I greeted them. "Hey, Captain. Randy. Captain, I think I saw our contact apprehended today." I told them about the car and the miniature people I had seen from the lookout. The captain considered what I'd told him and said, "It's possible you did see that. If you did, they'll pick me up when I go for our meet Sunday. I want you to watch and see if they do. We'll make contingency plans in case I am. Anything else to report?" I mentioned the extra stars. His eyes lit and his brow furrowed. He growled, "Go get John, bring him in, and make sure only he shows. I want it to look like there's only one person here." I hurried. John was in a tree that had a view of the entrance to the mine and the mouth of the canyon. I called softly for him to come in, and then waited just inside the mine until he came close. As he shed his coat and hat, I told him what Captain Singer had said, and then brought him up to date on what I had seen from my perch above the valley while we walked to join the others. "Good. You're here," Captain Singer said when we entered the room. "I want to go over the details of the rest of the mission as far as I know it. Grab a cup of coffee, John, and sit. We've got a lot to go over." I poured two cups out of the fresh pot on the stove and handed one to John. We sank to a sitting position on the floor near Randy, our legs crossed and faced the captain. He took a sip from his cup and said, "First. If I'm captured, John's in charge. He's the best at organizing, but he'll need input from both of you. And John, no big head. You need these two. Don't try to do it all yourself, or lord it over them. You're organizer and leader, which means you let the others know what they're doing, and what you're doing, so all the jobs get done and no one does something someone else did. It's a responsibility, not a game. "Now, for what we have to do. If we lost our contact, you will have
to establish a new one. Let them find you while you’re fishing. That's a known contact point and your best bet. The password is 'That would be a whale of an explosion.' Unless you hear that phrase, don't trust anyone you meet. Be wary of the person who uses that phrase, too. Give the answer 'That's for sure, but dynamite would be better.' If they look at you like you're strange, then get out of there fast. Otherwise, you'll probably be OK. It's a new password, but it's possible that I, or someone else, could compromise it, give it away, so be careful. "Now, we do need to blow up that building, but not until we receive the orders. Whoever is in charge will be arranging multiple hits, so you need to wait until it's time. And be on time. The GL-57s will do the job, but if you can get close, Randy knows what charges to use and where to place them. But he may not be with you, so let me tell you what to do." He droned on for well over an hour telling us where to place charges, how much to use, and whether to make a snake or ball. Finally, he changed the subject to places to go if we needed information and did not have a contact. After almost another hour of further instructions, he stopped for a cup of coffee. Between sips of his full cup, he said, "Also, there's another group who can do the job if we can't. It's just possible that they will need us to do something else. Now then, are there any questions?" None of us said anything. All the information we'd just received still rattled around in my brain. I hoped I'd remember half of what he'd said, let alone all that information, and I'm sure the others felt the same way. Larry continued, "OK, if you think of something shout it out. For now, here are your orders, and you follow them even if I am picked up. First. No one shows out of the mine for at least two weeks. Let them think they've found us all. In two weeks, Ted, you go fishing at the park. Make sure you have all your papers, and that they're the right ones, and that they match. "There is one more thing I need to tell you. You may come upon a type of weapon called an MFOW. It's pronounced Mufow. Most of those are humongous, but there is a portable one that fits on a truck and works like the RFAVW that you're so good with, Randy, and I have reported that to headquarters so they may reassign you. If you get a chance to use
one, do so. They are deadly weapons and have a longer range than anything else we have. Use that, and you may have a better chance for success against your target. For now, it's late. Let's hit the sack." *** Sunday Captain Singer left to go fishing and meet his contact. I waited until he was out of sight, then, dressed in the heavy coat John had suggested to fool the infrared detectors the first time I went out years, no, weeks ago, I sneaked up the hill to the lookout. I could see Larry enter the road from my perch in the sky only because I knew where to look. He strolled toward the fishing ground as if he had nothing better to do, just a citizen with time to kill. Through the telescope I saw a motorcar drive up next to him. To men got out as he stood there and pretended not to know what would happen. They pushed him into the car the same way they did the old man and rushed off in the direction of the new government offices. I waited for an hour, and then headed carefully down the mountain, under the trees, and to the mine. After I made sure no one was around, I walked in and dropped the coat with relief. When I reached the main room, John and Randy demanded to know what had happened. I said, "We're on our own now," and let John and Randy come to the logical conclusion. I grabbed an MRTE and, without even heating it, finished it off in no time. I was hungry from the day in the open and the climb, and not worried about how lousy it tasted.
The weather had turned bitter after the captain's capture. Thin ice formed on the stream, so we put water in all the containers we could find before it froze over completely, and then spread dust around the entrance room to make the mine look unused just in case someone checked on the captain's last residence. A few days later we had the first good snow of the year, late this year according to what my uncle told us years ago. He said that usually the first good snow came in October or November, and now it was December according to our calculations. Almost two feet of white powder fell out of the sky, an amount that would make any skier ecstatic, and gave us a good excuse to stay inside the cave. Three days after the snow, December 10, we heard faint voices echo up to us from outside the entrance. John waved his hand toward the entrance, so I stole down to the water level and listened carefully to what the voices said while I stayed out of sight. It was hard to make out the words with the low volume of the speakers and the echoes of the rock walls, but their voices were loud enough that I could hear. One person said, "There ain't no footprints. If he had an accomplice there should be footprints." Someone else said, "We'll have to go inside and check or we'll be out here again, and I for one don't want to do that. It's too damn cold." "Oh, there you go with your complaining again," the first voice said. "You know they don't tolerate complainers. If I reported you, you'd better believe you'd be in the mines in no time. They might even save you for this one." "What do you mean by that? I haven't heard anythin' about opening the old mines back up." "That's because you don't know how to play the game and keep your ears open. That's why I'll be in charge of this region when they go to Venus and not you. And you better believe I'll remember your complaints. Now go on in and see if you can find where he had his fires.
If you can do that, we're done. Then we can go home and you can put your feet up." The voices began to get closer as the first voice continued, "I, for one, am going to have some fun with our prisoner when we get back." "You know they don't allow that." "Keep your mouth shut and I'll keep mine shut. Look at this. It's just how he described it. I'll tell you what, for being a captain in the army he was just a little turkey. Said he was told to talk when they trained him. Warn't no fun, no fun at all. Well it's fun time now. I've seen enough. Let's go." I relaxed as the foot steps retreated. That was enough to convince us that Larry had known what to expect. We decided to do what he had ordered and stay inside a couple more weeks in case they came back. We had enough water for that long, and food for a lot longer, and plenty of time to practice with the weapons and plan what to do next. John and Randy grew to be excellent shots with the bow and arrow, even better than I was. John said we should use them rather than the rifles whenever we were out in the world. The bow was light, we could make arrows if we needed replacement ammunition, it made almost no noise when used, and we could easily remain hidden. My only regret was that we hadn't brought any books. *** We stayed inside until Christmas according to our careful records. To celebrate we decided to explore a bit and see if we could find a cave, since the search party that had investigated the mine had talked about reopening it. I remembered there were several caves in the area, but I didn't know if anything occupied them or not, nor exactly where they were. I slung my bow across my right shoulder, my quiver of arrows over my left shoulder, and carried one of the M-18s. John and Randy didn't have their bows, but besides the M-18s, John had an automatic pistol, and Randy carried a couple of grenades. We figured we were ready for almost anything. We made our way through the water to the edge of the mine. It seems human problems are insignificant to nature, for outside the sky
was a clear blue and did not hint a bit at the trouble with the world. Although the temperature was warm, snow from several storms lined the trees and branches and grew deeper as you moved down the valley. Near the entrance, the ground was essentially bare. Through the branches, you could see where large animals had pushed their way to an unfrozen patch in the stream. From my earlier treks, I knew that if you circled around and climbed through the woods that grew over the mine, you could almost stay hidden. We worked our way uphill through the black and white undergrowth, past the lookout, over the ridge, and slid down the steep slope to a meandering unused road. It led down to a small snow-covered county road where we could walk in the ruts laid down by cars that had passed through and lose our tracks. The last few hundred feet to the road we pushed our way through bushes and knocked snow down to cover our tracks. I hoped it would look like an animal passed through, not people. The county road took us to the bottom of the valley. We crossed bare rock and headed east-northeast along small valleys. Randy and John struggled to follow me through the drifts. Hours later, or probably just one although it seemed longer, we carefully crossed another back road, again snow covered, and again with ruts where the snow melted down to the gravel. By taking large steps, we stayed in the ruts and didn’t show boot prints where we crossed. About three miles beyond that we crossed another road, but not as carefully as before since no one had used this one. John thought we'd look like hunters. In the hills ahead of us, a little above the unused road, I recognized the area of one of the caves. As I recalled, it would not be as large as the mine, but adequate, four or five rooms, two of them hidden in the shadows of the main room. Also, unless you knew where to look, the cave was hard to find. I found it. It was about twenty feet above the gully that ran down the middle of the small valley, mostly hidden by rocks and bushes, and if you didn't know better the cave looked like deep shadows. The entrance was just a short thin opening in the bare ground. When I saw that, I remembered that after you slid through the entrance, the
floor was a couple feet down, then cave opened into a good-sized room that branched near the back. More rooms of substantial size connected to the main room through small openings, in shadows as I had recalled earlier. The room on the right even had a third room, but the air in that third room stagnated as I remembered. The air remained stale unless you tried to stay there a while. Then it began to go bad. "Here it is," I said as we climbed the slope and left deep prints in the snow. Just outside the entrance, I set down my rifle, slipped my bow off my shoulder, and nocked an arrow. "I've been in here before. Let me go first. I've had more practice with this thing if there's a problem." Not ready to get wet yet, I squatted down and looked inside, but couldn't see anything. It was too dark. "Give me a light," I called over my shoulder. "We didn't bring one," John told me. "Wonderful," I answered. Of all the items to forget when looking for a cave to live in, a source of light must be the dumbest. "Well, I'll just have to go in and let my eyes adjust, and hope nothing attacks me." OK, I was following dumb with dumber, but I didn't think of that at the time. I lay on my stomach on the cold ground and carefully slithered head first through the opening. As I remembered, there was a drop of about two feet, and I snaked through the opening to find the floor with my hands and knees. I did not remember the cold round metal tube I felt placed against my neck.
The opening to cave was the same as I remembered, and the darkness inside, but not the girl's voice that said barely louder than a whisper, "Tell your friends not to move." I had half expected to hear a growl or an animal's claws scratch the floor as it attacked, but this problem had stayed well out of my imagination. "Guys," I called outside, "I have a, have a, a problem in here. Stay, stay, stay there, OK?" "What's wrong?" Randy asked. I didn't need their help. Any help they gave would probably get me killed. "Just, just stay there, all, all right?" I called back nervously. "Yeah, sure, whatever," Randy called back. You could hear the questions in his voice. "Good," the girl said softly so those outside couldn't hear her. "Now tell me who you are and what you're doing here in my cave." I had no choice but to do as she ordered. I quickly said, "My name, my name is Ted Solidoak. My uncle owns a, owns a ranch near here. We're trying, trying to hide from, from, from the aliens." "I know him, if he really is your uncle," the girl said. "Tell me about him, and about his ranch." "He raises, raises beef. He's taller than I am. He, he's half Cherokee, has blond hair, blue eyes, dark skin, and, and a rough voice. I haven't seen him, seen him in years. I visited for, for, for, for a summer a few years ago, five or six, and found the old mine and this, this cave. We, we figured we could hide here for a while and, and maybe some, something would turn up that we could do." "Who did you meet while you were here visiting your uncle?" "Several families. The, the Wicksteads. The, the, the Brecken, Brecken something. Ridges. That's it." "Do you remember the names of the Breckenridge kids?" she asked quickly.
"Let's see," I said while I was thinking. "Mr. and Mrs., of course. Then, then the boy, Ralph, I think. They had a daughter named Shelly. Now her I remember." "Yeah? Why?" the girl asked. "She's smart and good looking, and not afraid to say what she thinks, or to take a stand. Thanks," I said as I felt the gun move away from my neck. "I liked her a bunch, but, but she didn't know I was alive." I felt my heart start to pound slower. "Yes, she did," the girl said as I turned my head to face her. I thought I recognized her, now that my eyes had adjusted. "I remember you, Ted. You always could fix things, and you got my CD player running again. Who are your friends?" "One's a friend from school, and the other's a friend from the east coast. Can they come in? It's a long story." "I guess so. I'd rather no one saw them out there, but I can't feed you." "Oh, we have food," I quickly told her, and then called, "Come on in guys." When they had slithered in, I made the introductions. We shared our lunch, and Shelly ate as if she hadn't eaten in years. Randy and John told the story of how we built the antenna and found the aliens. Then I told her about how Larry had disappeared, but I did not mention his military ties. Shelly thought for a moment, and then said, "Tell you what. I have a source of information, so why don't I see what the rumor mill is saying, and tell you about it here, and in the mean time, you can move your stuff? I took that left branch to live in, so I don't see why you can't take the right branch." "That's considerate of you, Shelly," John said after a few moments. I found that I couldn't speak, or pay attention to what John said. While I ate, I studied Shelly, what I could see of her under the flannel shirt and jeans and dirt. She'd grown up since I'd last seen her, and she'd looked good then. Now she was even more interesting. *** We walked back to the mine with nothing, just three boys out for a
walk in the snowy woods if we were found. When we arrived, we packed our sleeping gear and all the food we could stuff into our backpacks. Then, each with a box of ammunition besides our full packs, and John and Randy's bows and arrows, we made our way back to the cave. By the time we got there, it was close to sunset, much of the snow had melted, and Shelly had returned from her search for information. She was ecstatic over the food; her supplies were nonexistent. What she brought back, however, we didn't like. "There was a rumor that an army captain had hidden in the hills, and they captured him, and my source thinks they killed him with torture trying to get information, and they know where he was hiding because he told them, but they think he was working alone 'cause they watched the place for a week and a half without seeing movement, so they're satisfied he told the truth and really was alone. That was your friend, Larry, wasn't it? I'm sorry I had to tell you that your friend died, if that's who he was." I couldn't believe it. They didn't know about us, did not have a clue. That was good. But Larry, our instructor, our leader, our friend, was dead, killed by his captors. We all looked at the floor for a bit. I don't know what the others thought, but I vowed revenge when I learned who killed him. Those aliens were toast. Finally, John said, "Yeah, we figured something like that would happen." Maybe he did, but I sure didn't. "He gave himself up so we could stay safe to fight later, which is what he'd want." There was something in John's voice. I looked over at him and could see his eyes were bright, and a streak of dirt went down one cheek. He looked as if he'd lost his best friend. I reckon he had, one of them. I know that's how I felt. He sniffled, then asked, "What about you, though. How come you're not home?" Shelly settled into a more comfortable position. "I was with my folks when the aliens came, and in no time they had taken over the government and recruited scum to run things in their name, rounded up the first of the people who could do manual labor to work in the mines, both those that were already open and new ones. Magnesium interested
the aliens at first, but now they're taking everything from what I hear, and they have the idiots who are running things convinced that they'll leave the world alone after a year or two, but I don't believe that for an instant. They'll leave when they're good and ready, and we have nothing, or are all dead. I just wish there was something I could do." She paused for a minute, I'm sure to get her emotions under control. "Anyway, they came for my folks while I was at a friend's house. I was almost home, just a block away, when I saw a car with three rough looking guys in it pull up front, and I figured that if I showed myself I'd be in trouble, so I hid in a hedge and watched the creeps herd my folks and my brother out of the house and shove them into the back of the car, then take off, and I decided that if they found me I was dead, so I ran and I haven't been home since. "I had a few friends like the professor, but the goons picked him up, too, 'cause he'd go fishing and not catch anything, just talk to a stranger, so they picked him up and took him to jail, and that's the last I've heard of him. I still see his friend, though, and that's where I got the information about your captain. He said the professor and the captain were working together, and that he knew what the plans were." "Good," John said. "We were Captain Singer's squad. We could use the information to carry out our mission." I had a suspicion John had just gone too far, but I was upset too, and wanted revenge. Shelly speculated, "If you're a squad of an army captain and you don't just know him, then you must have more available to you than what you have with you." Yep, our leader John had given away our secret. To make matters worse, Randy added, "That's right. It's all where we used to be." John kicked Randy, although John had given us away. Shelly didn't see the kick, though. She continued, "Then leave it there for now. Look. I'll try to find out what I can for you, but you have to do something for me." "What's that?" John asked. "Take me along," she answered. "Make me a part of your squad." I thought he'd gone too far, and that confirmed it. No way could we have a girl tagging along, even one as good looking as Shelly.
Randy drawled thoughtfully, "I don't know. How can we be sure we can trust you? You may be trying to trap us." Now that was a good question, and John should have thought of that before he opened his big mouth. John answered, "Let us think on it, talk it over, sleep on it, and we'll give you our answer in the morning." Where had I heard that before? I was feeling rather miffed at them, probably a reaction to the news Larry had died. I couldn't see how they could react so normally. "That sounds fair. Besides, it's getting late, so I'm going to hit the sack. Remember, this side over here is mine, and you go over there," she said as she pointed to the right half of the cave. She walked toward the back wall and bore to the left. We could just see the light from the hole she entered on hands and knees. After she crawled through, she covered the hole with something and the light disappeared. "Ted," Randy whispered, "you knew her. What's she like? Can we trust her?" "Now you ask? Why did John blurt that out about us being with Larry if he didn't know we could trust her?" I was angry, but Randy had asked, not John. John had suggested talking, and the rest, so possibly he had a feeling everything was all right and wanted time to ease our worries. I continued, "It was five years ago or so you know. All I remember is that her folks were all for the Democratic Revolution in China. They said it took the Russians fifty years, but they got straightened out, and the Chinese could do the same. They would not have put up with this." "That's what it sounds like to me. OK, I say she's in. How about you, John?" John looked thoughtful. After a couple of minutes he said, "I have a good feeling about this, but after what you said, Randy, I'm a little leery. We should keep regular watches, make sure she doesn't leave, and that no one else comes in." John had told her information earlier, and he didn't know if we could trust her? Some secret operative he was. I felt the need to drain the coffee we'd drunk. I said, "That would be
a good precaution in any case. Who's going to be first?" John replied, "I suggested it. I'll take first shift." "Well, I'm going outside for a minute," I told them. I worked my way through the extra opening and went downhill to a bush. As I stood there, I looked up at the sky. When I finished, I ran back into the cave and whispered excitedly, "Hey, John, the stars are back the way they should be." "You mean?" he asked. "Come look," I told him. All three of us went outside and looked to the heavens. "Look at the Dippers. And Pegasus. And Gemini. There are no extra stars up there." "I think you're right," John agreed as he studied the sky. "I wonder what happened." "Who cares?" Randy said. "This means we can move at night without being seen. We can move the stash in case they decide to search the mine better." "Not the whole thing," I groaned. "No, just what we'll need." "That's most of it," John said. I happened to agree, and the prospect of all that work was not appealing, but I kept quiet. As we went back into the cave I noticed the trail we left pointed directly to it, but I had no idea what to do about it, so I put it into the back of my mind to consider later. Right now, if things really were quiet during the night, we could ask Shelly to try to find out what had happened. While she searched for information, we could move the first load. I could suggest that to John when we got inside. Randy and I went into the right branch of the cave, where a small opening in the right hand wall led to a large second room. It felt much warmer here than outside, and even warmer than the first room since the wall protected it from the wind. Apparently, there was a slight draft through this part of the cave, enough to keep the air fresh. The room widened out into a good-sized area, then closed back into a small alcove. The right wall, after a small indentation, led to a corridor that seemed to dead end, but a low opening at floor level led to the third room, another large area that sloped down toward the far wall. The air smelled stale,
just as I remembered it would, but it would be a good place to store the equipment.
The night passed without any excitement, just what I thought would happen, but we had to be sure. In the morning we shared our food with Shelly, who again dug into an MRTE as if it was a gourmet meal. "What have you been living on?" John asked. "Oh, mice and plants and whatever I could find. I've been really hungry lately, and this is really good." An MRTE is really good? She must be hungry. "So, what are you going to be doing today?" Randy asked. "I guess I could go back and talk to Old Geezer, see what he knows. He might be able to go into town and find out who your contact is just by listening. He may not have an education, but he's really smart. And cunning, too." "Sounds good. We'll see you when you get back." "Why, Randy?" she asked. "What are you going to do?" "We have some more things to move. We ought to get a trip or two in today." Randy had thought of the same thing I did. I know I didn't say anything, and it looked as if John agreed. Maybe after all this time alone together we were getting psychic or something. "What? Food and stuff?" Shelly asked. "Yeah, something like that," Randy told her. As we left the cave, I noticed the air had that peculiar feel to it, a not very cold, somewhat dry humidity, if that's possible. I mentioned it to John as we walked back to the mine. "I noticed it, too," he said. "Hey, Randy. Smells like snow, doesn't it?" "Since you mentioned it, yes," Randy answered. "We ought to get the most important things and transport them to the cave. That way the snow should cover our tracks. Then when it's ready to storm again, we'll make another trip." "Sounds good to me," I said, "since we've made an arrow to the
cave with going in and out all the time. What should we bring back though?" "More ammo for the M-18s," John suggested. "Didn't Larry say that the G-57 Grenade Launcher would take out a building?" "Yeah, Ted, as long as you have the right grenade, and can get close enough. There are two sizes at the mine. How about you pack some ammo for the M-18s and some of both sizes of grenades. Randy can carry some more ammo for the M-18s and two of the G-57s. I'll carry some ammo for the M-18s and some of the explosives, just in case. And we all carry food." "Sounds good to me, John," I said, although I knew I'd be struggling under that weight. "We're up to the road. Who goes first?" "I'll go," Randy volunteered. He looked, and then walked to the other side and into the brush as if he was out for a stroll. John and I followed a bit quicker, but bent double so no one would see us above the bushes. Another hour of hiking found us above the mine, over the entrance field, as we looked for new footprints. We carefully made our way down the hill, and into the pine trees. With our backs to the rock wall John stole a look inside, told us the entrance looked just as we had left it, and nothing inside was disturbed. We walked around the edge of the area with the three fires so we wouldn't disturb the dust, loaded up, and made the two-hour trip back to the cave without a problem. A line of clouds showed in the distance as we began a second trip, the front that would bring snow, we hoped. This time we brought the rest of our arrows, more grenades, all of the ammunition for the M-18s we could find, and, of course, more food. We felt we were finally ready in case something, almost anything, happened, armed and well fed. But we weren't ready for the heavy snow to start before we reached our goal. When we got back to the cave, we looked at each other and cracked up. Snow clung to all our clothes, our hair, and our eyebrows. We looked like actors who played old men in the very first movies of a couple of centuries before. Comical. I laughed so hard my eyes watered as we stored the equipment in the third room, then we came back to the
front room to wait for Shelly. She showed up about fifteen minutes later. "It's really snowing out there," she said as she slid in through the opening. She looked worse than we had just a few minutes ago. Snow clung to her everywhere and made her look like a snowman. "Have you guys been waiting long? I didn't see any tracks." "Not at all," Randy said. "It must really be putting it down for our tracks to have disappeared already." "Well, this is the way it usually snows in December around here," Shelly told us as John looked at his watch. "It's early this year, so don't expect to go out for a few days." "Uh, Shelly," John said hesitantly, "I hate to tell you, but it's almost through December. Yesterday was Christmas. I don't know how long you've been here, but we've been keeping track of the days and it's only 2053 for a few more days." "No wonder Old Geezer thought I was crazy," she chuckled. "He did tell me a few things." She sat looking at her feet, grinning. A minute later, she looked up and asked, "Who's hungry?" I said, "We all are. Hungry for information. What did he say?" "I'll hand out some MRTEs so we can eat," Randy volunteered. "You just keep talking." Shelly wiggled a bit to get herself more comfortable. "Well, let's see. He said he thought the snow was late because of the bombs they used when the aliens arrived, and I thought he was crazy when he said the snow was late, but I guess he was right. Anyway, he said they didn't do any good, the bombs, that they only put radioactive stuff in the upper atmosphere, and that was why the snow was a bit late this year, and he said that the way the Alnoutes are mining and making us refine the minerals will pollute the air so much that in a few years humans won't be able to live, and that we had enough of a head start and really didn't need any help." "But the monitors keep track of the poisons in the air," John protested. "We won't let the manufacturers put out more than the earth can handle. Especially overseas, East Asia, Africa, where the previous years of neglect have allowed it to concentrate. How could he say that?" Randy came to Shelly's defense. "Because it's true. I've seen the
NASA photos. The government's been lying to the world and letting our people get away with over producing the poisons. It's cheaper that way, unless you make massive amounts of a product. Remember, we can't control the pollution they make overseas; we can only complain." "Then that means that we must do something about the aliens soon, before they wipe us out," I said. "Yeah, that's what the old geezer said," Shelly continued. "He said that he's going to talk to another of his friends that works as a guard at the Control House, the building the Alnoutes had put up in the next hollow, that he and his friends are biding their time until they get to blow it up or something, so apparently they have a source of explosives, though I don't know what it is." She looked up at us with a curious expression. "He also asked if I'd seen three boys hanging around, hiding, said that if I saw them, I should tell them to go fishing at the usual place around the middle of January, but what that means, I don't know. Do you?" "Maybe," John said. Why he'd volunteer information and then hold back, I don't know. Since Captain Singer had appointed him our leader, though, I couldn't say any more. "Well, I don't know if I should tell him about you or not," Shelly complained. "Did you?" John asked. "Not yet, but I will if you want me to." "No, don't." John said quickly. "It would be safer if he didn't know. What other changes have there been that we should know about?" "Well," Shelly paused to think. "It's nothing that I can put my finger on, really, more a general feeling, like everyone's oppressed, no, depressed." Our voices were getting louder. "Probably both," Randy said. "Quiet!" John whispered. "I don't know," Shelly continued very softly. "It's more of a feeling, like, you know the diner on the road, the 'Gas and Go'? It used to be immaculate. There wasn't a bug, or a spot of grease, or any type of dirt in there, and the food was really good, and the prices were low, but now, though, I wouldn't go in there if you paid me, especially if I was a
stranger, but maybe that's what they want. Now it's dirty and the food's bad, as if they don't care anymore. I tried to talk to them, but all they say is that it's over, they've given up." We pondered what she had told us. In a couple of minutes John asked, "Who's in charge of the local government?" "I don't know, some outsider, and he brought his own henchmen, but there is one local, a mean guy who doesn't like anyone, and nobody likes him either, who's like the second in command or something, but I think it's more because he knows us than anything else." "Ted, watch the opening," John ordered. "We don't want our air closed off by the snow. Keep it clear near the bottom, as if an animal dug its way out of the cave. That way anyone who passes by won't know we're here. I hope." I quickly threw out, "Unless they hear us." John sounded superior, as if he was better than the rest of us since Larry put him in charge. I continued, "Aye, aye, sir. I will follow your orders." "Don't be that way, Ted," John said apologetically. "I didn't mean anything. It just looks like we're stuck here for a while, so let's try not to get on each other's nerves." Randy said quietly, "John, it's true Larry put you in charge. That doesn't mean you have to act like him." "What do you mean?" "Your attitude. It's almost like you think you're the captain. We're your friends, John, not peons that you can look down on, OK?" "Message received," John answered. I felt better. I didn't know how to say what I felt unless it sounded as if I complained. Randy had taken the problem from me and handled it nicely. I cleared the snow away from the corners of the cave opening, then turned back to the conversation. Shelly told us what it was like before the aliens came. She mentioned the Sterns, and I asked how they were. "I didn't know you knew them," she told me. "I met them when I was visiting my uncle," I told her. "They seemed like decent folks." "They are, or were. Security took both of them away and now a neighbor is running their farm, but he's decent, and if they come back,
he'll turn it back over to them. Now he definitely does not like the new government." "Yeah, but what happened to the Sterns?" I insisted. "Oh, the aliens had them shipped out, but I don't know where." I started to name other people I met. Shelly told me the Alnoutes killed or moved most of them. They had allowed a few to stay, but not many. It grew quiet around the fire as we thought about recent events, and the effects they had on people we knew. Family grew in my thoughts, not only mine, but John's and Randy's also, I'm sure, whether they were safe and well or if they had problems. The silence surrounded us until I felt as if I was in my own little world with no one else to bother me. I reckon we all thought about the same thing, the safety of those we loved. I cleared some snow away from the entrance, saw it came down hard and fast and, bored with the lack of conversation, decided to go to sleep. Just as I began to move to the other room, a scratching noise came from near one of the air holes. We all froze and waited for a weapon to show. There was more scratching, and then silence. We listened for voices. We watched the holes for eyes. I was sure someone had heard us. They would take us away. Torture us. A black nose appeared from under the accumulated snow, followed by the rest of a gray fox. We breathed again. The fox shook itself, looked at us as if to say, "Just leave me alone," then walked along the wall toward Shelly's branch of the cave. I followed quietly and saw it curl up in the far corner and try to keep warm. "Just stay toward the middle when you go to the next room, Shelly, and you should be OK," I suggested after I had quietly moved back to the fire. Finally, I climbed into our room, found my sack, and went to sleep. *** In the morning, I woke before Randy and John, and went out into the main room to clear away the snow. Shelly had curled up by the fire and snuggled under her coat. While I scratched the snow away from the air holes, she woke.
"What happened?" I asked. She looked at me from slitted eyes. "That animal growled at me when I went back there, so I figured it would be better to stay out here." "Probably a good idea," I agreed as I poured water into the coffee pot. "Want some coffee?" She sat and stretched. "No, I'll make up some tea. Wait, my pack's in the other room, so I guess I will take some coffee." I put the water on to heat. "Look Ted. You know me. I'm not a spy or a bad person, am I?" "Not that I know of," I answered carefully. "Then why won't you guys tell me what you're doing? I mean it's not like I'm going to go running out and tell the world or something, and I already know you're with that captain, or used to be." "That's true, Shelly," I told her. I quickly thought of ways to ease her fears. "I know you're not going to tell on us, but it is possible that they may capture you. If you knew more than we're three guys that were hiding with a captain from the army from a bad situation until we can find a way to make it better, and they captured you, you'd tell about it. That would be very bad for all of us. It's better this way." "But will I ever know what's happening?" she demanded. "When the time comes, you'll be told," I answered, trying to be encouraging. She thought for a minute, and then said, "Anyway, I don't think I would tell." I asked patiently, "Shelly, how much do you read? Have you ever read, or watched, a spy story?" She nodded yes. "Then you should know that there are drugs available that will guarantee you tell the truth, no matter what you feel about it. Use your head. Think about it for a minute or two. The less you know, the less you can give away, all right? Now tell me more about the people around here. Tell me about that old geezer and the professor." *** The snow kept us in the cave for the next three days--without books, a condition I would regret a lot. The fox left shortly after Shelly started to tell me about the local people, mostly farmers, ranchers, and
prospectors. The fox came back again at the end of the day and settled in its favorite place, and in the morning left to live a fox's life. The pattern repeated for the next few days until the snow finally melted enough that it would not bury us to our hips. I suggested we go hunt up some fresh meat. "But there's not much cover," Shelly reminded us. "Lots of people will see you on the mountain." "There is that, you know," John agreed. "Why don't you wait and we'll all go out early tomorrow before it gets light? You can stay in a grove of pines, and we'll each pick our own cover. If we're lucky, we'll bring food home. If not, we still have plenty of MRTEs here."
We stayed in the cave for the next two weeks, hammered by another heavy snowstorm. If it was necessary we'd venture out, but most of the time we stayed in the main room of the cave and practiced what we'd learned, or we'd just sit around and talk. John and Randy grew to trust Shelly and agreed we'd let her help where she could. On the second Sunday of January of the year 2054, I took a pole and an ax and trekked to the state park to go ice fishing. I spent six hours shivering in the sub zero breeze, near the side of the stream with my line in the frozen water as I waited for a nonexistent fish to bite or a nonexistent contact to show. There wasn't another person in sight the whole time, which only proved the general populace had more brains than I did. Even with the extra sweater and heavy coat, I spent the whole day frozen for nothing. I waited another week during which the weather warmed and most of the snow melted, and that Sunday went fishing again. As I sat by the edge of the frozen stream with my line through the hole I had chopped by the edge, I again waited for a bite. This time the old man I remembered from the "Gas and Go" walked by. "Ain't gonna catch nothin' that close to the bank, boy," he told me. He walked out onto the ice about halfway across the stream. "Here's where them fish are, down where it's deep. You put your line in here, boy, and you catch somethin'. Tell you what, boy, you want to learn to fish, you meet me up at the 'Gas and Go' Tuesday night. They got a special that's pretty good. You meet me there and I'll tell you how to catch some winter fish." "Who are you?" I asked. "Just an old man, boy. Been around enough to know what to do. Meet me like I told you. You'll learn things." "OK," I agreed, "I'll see you then. What time?" "Dinner time, 'bout six. And move out there where I told you." He walked on toward the road.
I walked out to where he said to go, looked at the thickness of the ice, and started to move my equipment, but when he was out of sight, I shrugged as if it was too late to move, or the ice was too thick. I packed up and walked along the road for a few miles. A pair of bushes hid the path I needed, so, after I looked both ways, I ducked in between them and hiked back to the cave. It was dark when I got back, and I was cold and hungry. Shelly dug out an MRTE, set up the tray, and poured the water over the chemical. After the steam heated it, she handed it to me. I thanked her for the warm food, warmth that spread from my esophagus every time I swallowed. The only problem with the meal was the sight of three eager people who constantly stared at me while I ate. It positively made me nervous. I’d had enough of their impatience. "What?" I demanded. "How did it go?" John asked. "How would you expect it to go?" I groused back. I let them stew for a minute or two, then relented and answered, "Sorry. It went OK. I saw the old man this time. He told me to have dinner with him at the diner on Tuesday night. He's going to teach me how to ice fish." "I'll bet," Randy said. "Which one was it?" "It wasn't the professor. Yet he didn't give me the code phrase either. I have the feeling our contact is really the professor, but he wanted his friend to check us out first." "He's still in jail," Shelly reminded us. "He was the last time you were there, Shelly," I said. "That was quite a while ago. Things might have changed." John kicked Randy who had just opened his mouth to say something. "Anyway, that sounds like a reasonable precaution," John commented. I figured John didn't want Shelly to know that Zebidiah was really our contact. Randy rubbed his shin. "Yeah, but you'll want to be careful. How 'bout one of us goes with you just in case there's trouble." "Not a good idea," I told him. "If they catch me, they'll think I'm the only one and you can try to break me out. However, if one of you goes along, the old man may not trust us, and there goes any chance we have
of finding out what's happening." "Then it's settled," John said. "Hey. Do you remember if we brought the Target Lasers?" *** I shivered in some bushes next to the road about a mile east of Hayden, ready to meet the old man. I didn't want those in charge to catch me before I reached him, so I reconnoitered before I stepped into the open. As far as I could see or hear, nothing moved on the road, so I decided it was safe and stepped out and began to walk toward town. Fifteen minutes later, I could see the sign for the "Gas and Go." When I opened the door of the almost empty diner, I noticed burn marks and bullet holes on the door that weren't there when Larry and I visited. I sat on one of the stools at the counter, the place that seemed the cleanest, and then looked for the server. After a few minutes an old woman came out from the kitchen, sniffled, and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "What ya want?" she asked belligerently. I looked around, but didn't see either of the old men. I told her, "Just give me a vanilla milk shake for now, and a couple of fig bars if you have them." "Yeah, yeah. We got them," she said as if to have a customer was an interruption that she couldn't take. She should try to live in a cave without books for a month or two. The old woman disappeared into the back, and I started to hear noises as if someone cooked something. I waited a few minutes and watched out the windows by looking at the mirror behind the counter and wondered why you would cook a milk shake. I didn't see anything outside, but then I couldn't see too well as it was. The dirt on the mirror and the windows was that thick. A couple of minutes later the old woman came back, a fry pan in her hand. She slid two fried eggs onto the counter. "Here you go," she said as she turned away. "Uh, you forgot the plate," I called to her as she walked away. "And this isn't what I ordered!" "Hey Mable," a voice behind me called. She turned around. "Get us
a good meal. We'll have it in the corner." She answered, "No, Murphy, it's not clean. Come on down here. This your guest?" "The same. What is it with you anyway? You never used to keep the place like this." the owner of the voice chuckled as he walked to the far end of the counter. "Come on, boy. Down here." "Murphy," the old lady called from the back area, "the day the caterpillars and their stooges disappear, I'll go back to serving the best food in the cleanest joint. Until then the world can go screw." "Not a good sentiment, Mable," the old man called back to her. I recognized him as the professor who had argued with the old man that I saw fishing. He turned to me and asked in a whisper, "What's your name, boy. Just your first." "Ted," I whispered back. "Bring three coffees, Mable," he called. "Ted and I are expecting Zeb to show." He told me quietly, "Mable usually doesn't take sides, and she's slow to trust strangers. However, she does respect the privacy of her friends, and she won't talk to spies. Zeb and I usually go into the far booth where we can discuss what's been happening, but the alien's goons must have put a bug there, or she wouldn't have moved us. Here's Zeb now." The old man I met ice fishing slid onto the bench seat next to me. "Murphy," he greeted his friend, and then looked toward me. "See ya came to learn more 'bout ice fishin'. Mable know we're here?" "She set us up here," Murphy told him. Zebidiah nodded, and then said, "Heard they picked up Joseph for questioning. Seems they caught him with a pipe bomb." He chuckled. "Must o' been afraid he could harm them with it." "Yeah," Murphy chuckled. "Like that would be a whale of an explosion." I picked up on the password and quickly gave the answer. "That's for sure, but dynamite would be better." "Not really," the professor said. "Not enough oomph for the noise factor. There are better things out there. The military supplies some of it, or they used to."
The old woman, Mable, brought out the coffee. "There's as much as you want, friends. For some reason I've been slow these past few months." "That's 'cause you made sure you were, sweetie," Zebidiah said. "When's Barney get home?" "I doubt he will, seeing as what they put you through. He couldn't stand up to it. By the way, I baked lasagna for tonight." "Ted," Murphy said as he licked his lips and looked at the ceiling, "you would not believe this lady's lasagna. Light, and with a flavor straight out of Italy. You are going to think you're in seventh heaven." I realized Murphy had just introduced me in such a way that it appeared we knew each other. "I'm looking forward to it," I told them. "Hey, Zeb," Murphy asked. "Whatever became of that government man? You know, the captain?" "They shipped him over to Central Headquarters. That's Salina, Kansas. The aliens built a big headquarters there, supposed to have tanks for special air they call Breathing Gas. Maybe some of them down here." "We'll find out," the professor told me quietly. I wondered why he told me this when Zeb was our contact. "What am I supposed to do?" I asked. "For now, nothing," the professor said. Mable brought out the food. The lasagna looked delicious, and smelled even better. One bite convinced me that it would live up to what my senses promised. After Mable disappeared, the professor continued, "You're an unknown, and that's the way it has to stay, at least for now. Once we get better organized, probably this summer, we'll tell you what you can do. How's your food holding up?" "It might last till spring," I told him. "It's feeding another person." "After losing one," the professor reminded me. "You can hunt?" "Fairly well," I answered, hopefully not sounding boastful. "Do that when the leaves start to come out. Try to save your food." Zebidiah placed his fork on the table. He told me, "The deer'll be roamin' more as the season gets later. You ought to try to get one of
them tomorrow evening. Remember to take a helper to carry it back. Leave it outside after you clean it, hang it in a tree, let it freeze, and bring in what you'll need each night. That'll last you a week or so." The professor said, "Other than that, just wait. I can tell you that the bulk of the fleet moved to Venus to start a colony. Apparently, they don't think they need to do that much to reform that planet to their specifications. They like hot air, or whatever you want to call it. They also thrive on sulfur dioxide, with carbon dioxide mixed in I think, something like the animals at the ocean vents or some plants, and no, a weed killer won't work. People in Ohio tried that, but it just made the Alnoutes mad. They wiped out Athens, that was the town in Ohio that tried it, by dropping a rock or something from orbit, something like a meteor. Now, instead of a town, there's a lake forming. Kind of beats into your head just how strong the force of gravity is." "Company coming," Zebidiah said as he glanced out the window. "Now there's that rock on the right bank. You go 'bout a third the way across right there, watch the ice while you go, and set up. Make a line, draw the shape of the hole first. You don't want no cracks to drop you in. Then carefully chip the ice out of the middle. "What you want, Sheriff?" "Zeb. Murph," the big man in a brown uniform said. The patch on his arm said he was the sheriff of Routt County. The gun on his hip said he thought he was important. Sheriff asked, "Who's your friend?" I quickly gave the name on the counterfeit ID I had brought with me, the name I should have said instead of mine. "Roger Brannigan." OK, there are times I'm stupid, too. I slid the small card along the table to him. "Where you from, boy," the Sheriff asked. "I ain't seen you in these here parts before." "That's 'cause the leaders allowed me to take a vacation." I noticed Mable slip out of the back room and behind the counter. "I came up here to talk to the professor. He taught my dad." "Ain't heard of no one getting no vacation before," the Sheriff said. "How'd you manage that?" The big man slid into the seat next to the
professor. "Solved a problem where I worked," I answered. "The solution was so efficient, they decided to let me take a break." "Why don't you have a seat, Sheriff, and tell us what's on your mind while you're sitting on it?" Murphy suggested. "Don't mind if I do." The big man slid farther over on the seat until he was directly across from Zebidiah. "Tell me something, Uncle Zeb. You hear about any undercover activities?" "Why would you ask me that, Nephew? You wouldn't think I'd be involved in something like that, would you?" "Hard to know what you'd get yourself into, Uncle Zeb. Like to put you in a home, but Maw won't hear to it. Guess you're free for a while." "I know you want me in a home, young'un. I won't be ready for one of them places for a long time. I know you, boy. You'd like it if I was dead. But it ain't gonna do you no good no how. I ain't got nothin' you want or need." "You have that mine. I keep telling you to sell it to me. Do that and I'll leave you alone." "If I do that you'd see me dead. Anyway, nature closed it off. Remember? Why don't you hassle someone else, boy?" The Sheriff stood and looked down at us. "I'm watchin' you, don't you forget it," he said before he stomped out of the diner. Mable moved in from where she had watched, slipped a big knife into her apron pocket, and wiped the table where he had been. The professor shifted to a more comfortable position and rearranged his napkin while he waited for Mable to leave. "I was hoping we could get through this meet without you being seen," he told me finally. "Well, there's no help for it. He'll remember you, you know. Be sure you have that ID on you and no other. "Back to what I was saying. They've pulled most of their ships. With what's left they can scan infrared, and visible light during the day, but the resolution's way down. I doubt they could see a single person. Walk wherever you go, stay under trees, or use cloudy days to your advantage. Most of all, think. Use your head. We'll see you fishing, Sundays as before. Now eat some of Mable's cobbler, then head on back.
And remember what I said. You coming, Zeb?" "In a minute, Murph." The old man watched the professor walk out the door. He stared at me for a minute, then asked, "You all didn't get killed when the mine collapsed, did you?" I almost answered him, and then thought better of it. I told him, "It would probably be better if I said I don't know what you're talking about." He grumbled a bit, nodded, and followed the professor out the door. I ate an apple cobbler that tasted almost as good as the lasagna. When I asked Mable about the bill, she told me it would go onto the professor's tab. Silently I thanked my lucky stars since I didn't have any money on me.
Darkness had fallen by the time I left the Gas and Go. I was halfway to the bushes that hid the path when I suddenly realized I hadn't stuttered once, not even while the cop was there. I almost stood still in amazement, but I kept my head and continued to walk. On the way back to the cave, it began to snow again. The way the white flakes drifted through the shadowy trees, the look of the layer of white snow on black branches, seemed almost magical. I enjoyed the quiet of the woods, the way everything seemed hushed, silent, and respectful of the beauty of the snow. Except for the twig that snapped a short distance behind me. I waited until I saw some rhododendron bushes, brushed past them, silently dropped to the ground, and waited behind them. I had a tail; I knew that. What I didn't know was who, or why. Quiet footsteps cautiously approached. I tensed, ready to spring, as the world slowed, or my mental processes sped up. I'd never really fought a person, other than a couple minor scrapes in school, but this time would be different. This time I had training. I had to remember what Captain Singer taught us, or there was a good possibility I could end up dead. Or worse. But now that I had that training, and had been practicing, possibly, just possibly, I'd be OK. So much time seemed to pass that I thought I had heard wrong. No one followed me. I could continue on my way. Then I heard a faint noise close by. A foot appeared at the edge of the bush. My hand shot out and pulled it sharply toward me. The body that balanced above it toppled to the ground. I jumped over the body as it hit. I aimed the heel of my hand at my opponent's chin. The sharp thrust connected as his head bounced off the ground from my trip. It hurt him, and me too, but I ignored the pain. I could see he was groggy, but still conscience. His head hit the ground again, but not as hard. He began to roll onto his side. I stood and kicked him hard in the side of the head just above the ear. His neck cracked as his head whipped to the side and back.
Finally, he lay still. I watched for a moment to let my heart slow as the snow began to cover him. I checked to be sure he still breathed, and then headed on toward the cave. If I was lucky, the falling snow would cover my tracks by the time he woke. When I slipped through the entrance, Shelly, Randy, and John had gathered close to the fire in an attempt to keep warm. "I was followed," I announced. "What happened?" they all asked together. I told them about the fight, and how I had used what Captain Singer had taught us. Randy said, "I think I'll go keep an eye on the path. I'll be up on the rocks above us." "The area directly around the cave is snow free for, oh, fifty feet or so. But be careful you don't leave tracks other places," I told him. "So what else did you learn?" John asked after Randy slipped outside. "The Alnoutes seem to be living plants or big bacteria or something. They breathe sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and they like heat. The ones that aren't on the planet seem to have ventured off to Venus. They want to start a colony there." "Then that means the earth is expendable," John speculated. "They're just after the minerals like we figured. Once we serve their purpose, they'll get rid of us." "What do you mean?" Shelly demanded. "Just what he said," I explained. "Once we've mined all the minerals, and possibly after they've collected all the water, the Alnoutes will be sure to destroy their only competition in this solar system. Whether they wipe out the planet at the same time doesn't matter. Once they extract the minerals, the planet is dead no matter what they or we do. That's one of the facts of life." "Any idea what they're doing with what they mine?" John asked. "Not that I discovered. The sheriff showed up before I could ask any questions." "Then they'll be watching for you. Maybe in a few days we could send Shelly out to talk to the professor. See what's going on."
"Now wait just a cotton picking minute," Shelly protested. "Just what do you think you're volunteering me for?" I pleaded, "Shelly, you're the only one who stands a chance of not being caught. John would go, except that the professor wouldn't trust him. Randy either. And they're looking for me. They would find me in no time. You're the only one left. It has to be you." "Let's leave it till morning," John suggested. "I'll go relieve Randy in a bit. You were just out in it, Ted, so why don't you call it a night." Randy slid in just then. "It's still snowing. I doubt they'll come looking for us tonight. I'll head out in the morning for a couple hours, see what happens." "And I'll take over around ten or eleven," John told him. "Unless it's snowing," Randy reminded him. "Unless it's snowing," John agreed. *** In the morning, Randy again headed outside to watch for strangers. Shelly came out for her morning cup of tea. Once she had a chance to get her head together, she said, "OK. I'll go, but if I run into any trouble, I'm going to be really pissed." It didn't sound as if she really wanted to go, though, and I couldn't blame her. The trip would be dangerous. An owl hooted three times, barely audible inside inside the cave. I recognized the signal we used in school that meant a teacher was coming to check the bathrooms. "That's Randy." I whispered forcefully. "Someone's coming." I didn't need to tell them to be quiet. Shelly and John looked at each other. They both looked at me. I didn't know what to do either, except keep absolutely still. Every sound, every rustle and twig crack, portended danger. Our breath also waited, trapped in our lungs. Faint voices approached along the path. The owners of the voices seemed to stop near the cave. We listened to the conversation. "What about that cave up there?" the first voice said. "Too small," the second voice answered after a short time. "Think so?" "Yeah, let's go." the second voice told the first voice. As the voices
receded, we all breathed again, and grinned. Then we cracked up. We were still laughing when Randy crept through the opening. "What's so funny?" he demanded. "Nothing," John told him through his last chuckles. "That was close, too close. If Ted hadn't known your signal, we'd have been caught." Randy shucked his coat, and then told us, "I saw them coming a while ago, but I couldn't think of a way to warn you. If I'd've moved, then they would've found me. We hadn't agreed on anything, either. It was lucky I remembered the warning we used in school." "I'll say. And it was lucky I remembered what it meant." Then I remembered the big news. "Oh, Shelly's decided to go next time." "Go?" Randy asked. John explained, "To meet the professor." "Good." Randy thought a moment, and then informed us, "You guys know we have a problem, don't you?" "What's that?" we all asked at once. "Someone will be back to check out the cave. They won't let it go too long, either." "Then what can we do?" Shelly asked. "Move the stuff back to the mine," Randy answered. "But they know about that," I reminded him. "And we do have a lot to move," John said. Randy said, "I was thinking about that on the hill. We can leave the weapons and ammo here for now. You can't see the third room unless you go into the second room and search. I doubt they'll do more than take a quick look. We can move the stuff down to the right-hand corner that's closest to the entrance." "Won't it get wet?" John asked. "You know water collects in there." Randy answered, "I don't think so. It seems to collect along the far wall. What do you think, Ted? You're our resident engineer." I pictured what the room looked like, how the floor sloped. "Randy's right, John. The slope's toward the far wall, and should be steep enough that no more than half the room gets wet." John came to a decision. "OK, then, that's what we'll do. Let's divide the food up and add anything else we can carry. The rest we'll put where
Randy said. Then when Shelly gets back, we can go to the mine." "But we'll have to watch out for booby traps," Randy reminded him. John nodded. "We'll have to be extremely careful, and watch for anything out of the ordinary. In fact, if it's not too cold, it might be a good idea to sleep in the woods the first night, just in case." "Why?" I asked. "So we'll have a full day to look for booby traps," John explained. "Well, how 'bout if Randy goes there tomorrow to see if he can find a camera and disable it," I suggested. "The less we move around, the less chance we have of being found," Randy reminded us. "There is that," John agreed. "I'm open to suggestions." "Do it the way we originally planned. When Shelly gets back, we move to the mine." John thought for a bit, and then agreed. "OK, Randy, that's what we'll do. Right now, I'm going to keep an eye out in case they decide to return. I can't do an owl, but I have a passable quail." "That's a prairie bird, John," I explained. "It'd be a dead giveaway out here in the woods. Can you do this?" I whistled a short tone, then one that quickly descended from a high frequency. John copied it. "Do that and we'll know someone's coming." "Good enough," he replied and headed toward the entrance. Carefully he peered out the opening. He told us, "It's snowing again." "Good," Randy said. "Forget going out, John. Let's work on organizing for tomorrow." We all agreed to that and headed for the back room.
Friday, the twenty-fifth, we waited for Shelly to return from her trip into town. She had gone to the professor's to report someone had followed me and ask what we should do. To pass the time we packed what we would take to the mine early, stored everything else, and discussed what might happen. We occasionally broke out into small arguments, another sign it was time to move. Many hours passed as we talked, and finally we realized that Shelly was late. What had happened, and where? She could have been arrested, or hurt. She might need our help. We had just decided that one of us would have to search when we heard something scratch the rock near the opening. Shelly slid in, her face white and contorted, and slid to the floor. She collapsed onto her left side with a groan, her right sleeve blotchy wet with blood. "What happened?" I asked quickly. "I've been shot," she replied, her voice filled with pain. We eased Shelly to the middle of the room, then gathered around not sure what to do. John took charge, just as the captain knew he would in a crisis. "Randy, make sure no blood shows a trail here. What happened, Shelly?" "Get my pack," she whispered through the pain. I scooted over to where we had our packs piled and ready to go as Randy poured water on some blood drops and smears at the entrance. I dug her pack out from the bottom and jumped back next to her. "Got it." "Inside," she whispered. "Bag tied with drawstring." Randy slithered out the entrance. I searched through what she had packed until I found the bag. "Give me," she said. I opened the pouch wide and held it toward her. With her left hand, she located several smaller bags inside and pulled them out of the pouch. She handed one to me and said, "Make
tea. Use about a teaspoon of thee two. Add little of this. Just a little." She pulled out three more pouches. "Mix these three. Make poultice. Wait." She pulled another bag out of the pouch and handed it to me. "Put pinch of this in tea. Only a pinch." I dug out the portable stove and cooking utensils, hurried so much I just spilled water into a pot, and set it to warm. Shelly's teacup was buried at the bottom of her pack, but I finally found it. As I remembered, you made a poultice with water not as warm as tea, but steeped longer, so I put the three ingredients for the paste into my cup. The water showed a little steam, so I poured some into my cup, replaced the pot on the flame, and set the concoction aside to let it soak. Three minutes later, almost half the day it seemed, the water began to boil. I added the ingredients for the tea directly into the pot, counted by hundred thousands to one hundred eighty, and poured the liquid into her cup. Randy returned while it cooled. He eased close, a look of concern on his face, and announced he'd hidden her tracks. In a whisper, he told me he thought she'd lost a lot of blood. I handed Shelly the cup of steaming liquid as John supported her back and allowed her to sit. She took a sip, nodded to me, and slowly drank the rest. As we watched, we could see the pain leave her face and her muscles relax. "That's better," she breathed as she lay back. "You need to take the bullet out for me. Whoever's the least squeamish." "Forget me," Randy said. "I'll do it," I volunteered. I pulled my knife out of its sheath and held it in the flame over the stove. "While we wait, tell us what happened," John ordered from where he squatted on Shelly's other side. That sounded uncaring, especially his tone of voice, but I could see the logic of what he tried to do. He wanted Shelly to think of something other than her pain, and what I was about to do. Her voice was a little woozy as she said, "I was on my way back when I saw one of the sheriff's friends following me. I waited until there was a good place for an ambush and jumped him. He pulled his gun and
he shot me once, but I managed to use it against him twice. He's lying out there still holding it. I don't think I left a trail here." "There's no trail now," Randy assured her. "They won't be looking for him for a while anyway," John said. Shelly groaned. I said, "Got it," and held the bullet out for her to see. She had concentrated on John, and hadn't seen me get the knife from the fire to dig out the bullet. Randy said, "That was pretty good, getting the gun. Where did you learn that? Did you take self defense or something?" "Watched wrestling at school and picked up some things. More than from movies. I had some self-defense, but didn't help much, stuff I took. More for organized battles like wrestling." John said, "All movies use actors and dancers for fight scenes, and choreographers to make the dances look like a fight. You really can't learn anything from movies. You have to go to a school or learn from a master, and that's why I wondered. It looks like the self defense did help." "How's the poultice?" Shelly asked. I looked. The leaves had soaked up the water and made a coarse paste. I mixed the ingredients a bit more and carried the cup over to her. She looked at it and said, "Not exactly how it's supposed to be done, but it'll do. Spread it on the wound and tie a bandage on it." "What was in the tea?" Randy asked. "Some Comfrey, some Dew Plant, a bit of Jimson Weed, and a very little bit of Indian Poke. That's a narcotic, so you use very little or it can kill you. It all deadens pain, so I'm ready to move." "Then let's get out of here," John said. "We'll take turns carrying Shelly's pack. Randy, you're first. Take a quick look and make sure it's safe. Ted and I'll give Shelly a hand." "Good enough," Randy replied. "When I hoot, come." He slithered part way out of the entrance, then disappeared. A minute later, an owl hooted. I followed Randy's lead, but turned back toward the cave once I was outside. John slid the packs out to me and I stacked them off to the side.
Shelly followed slowly, pushed from behind by John. I helped her stand, and then suggested she put her arm inside her coat, not in the sleeve, then between the fasteners over her stomach. That would support her arm as if it was in a sling. "Come on!" Randy said urgently. I grabbed two packs as John grabbed the other. We slowly made our way to the path, Shelly between John and me, and followed Randy toward the road. I kept an eye on Shelly, and John watched for Randy's signals to take cover. We didn't have to wait long. We had walked about fifteen minutes, and had just topped a rise, when I saw Randy freeze. He made two quick motions with his hand held near his knee and disappeared into the bushes. John and I helped Shelly into the undergrowth, not very gracefully; we left broken twigs on the bushes where we passed. Within a few seconds we heard voices as people approached. Five men with rifles walked nonchalantly up the path. The first one peered from side to side as if he looked for something. The other four just sauntered along as if they were out for a walk in the woods. The first man stopped when he reached the place where we had left the path. He said, "Damion, look at this. Something's been through here, and it warn't no small animal." They inspected the broken twigs, and the tracker took a step toward our hiding place. Just then, a stray cow wandered through the trees on the other side of the path. "Yeah. That," the one called Damion answered as he pointed at the lost animal. He started to laugh as he called to the others, "Look what Turkey's been trackin'. We got to follow cattle around!" The other four joined in the laughter and moved on down the path, followed by the butt of the joke. When they were out of sight, John said, "Come on. We've got to hurry." I helped Shelly back to the path and we headed toward the road as fast as she could stumble. After another hour, Shelly had gone as far as she could. I whistled for Randy who was still in the lead. He looked back, saw we had stopped, and quickly joined us.
"We better get off the path," he said. "See that line of bushes way back there? There's an animal trail that leads that way. Let's follow the trail so we won't leave any tracks, and get beyond those bushes. We'll be well off the main path that way and less likely to be found." John and I carried Shelly to a miniature clearing surrounded by small pines and brush. I walked back and joined Randy as he struggled with our packs. As I shouldered two, he asked me, "How much food did we leave at the mine?" "Some," I answered. "Not that much. Why?" "Just thinking. We're getting low. You and I ought to go hunting, and see if we can get a couple of rabbits." I noted the position of the sun, and told him, "Not till tomorrow at the earliest. We don't want to start a fire tonight. The light would be a dead giveaway. Why don't you and John go scout ahead to see if there are any traps?" Randy looked around at the darkening trees. "You're right, there's not enough time. It'll be dark in fifteen minutes, half an hour. OK, we have to wait here." "What are you two talking about?" John demanded as we joined him. Randy told him while I untied my heavy down sleeping bag and rolled it out next to where Shelly already slept. John agreed we couldn't go farther that night, and that a fire wouldn't do. He wanted to stay with Shelly, though. I tried to explain that the Alnoutes, and their humans, knew both Shelly and me. Therefore, either one or both of us were a danger to Randy and John if the invaders found us together. John wouldn't listen, though. In the morning, Shelly made the decision for us. She told us she still felt weak and groggy, and then said, "Ted knows how to mix the herbs. If I wait for a day, I'll be able to get around better, so why don't you two go scout and leave Ted with me?" Her wishes carried weight right now; someone shot her while she was scouted for us. John and Randy prepared and headed out toward the road. They carried only enough food for lunch, and their bows and arrows. If anyone saw them, they would say they were hunting and hope for the
best. Shelly slept through most of the day. She woke up around noon, alert enough to drink some tea and allow me to renew the poultice and change her bandage. This time the tea didn't have any of the Jimson Weed or Indian Poke in it. Toward dusk, John and Randy returned. The noise woke Shelly, who declared she felt much better. She asked John to tell about their mission. John took a deep breath, sighed, and said, "We didn't find anything on the path to the mine. We did find a camera watching the canyon, but whoever mounted it did a lousy job. It's loose as all get out. I'm sure that storms have changed the angle it's set at, because it misses one corner of the canyon mouth. If you hug the wall, you can get to the entrance and stay hidden by the trees. That's the only danger, and I think we can work around that." "How do you know it misses the corner?" I asked. "It could be a wide angle lens." "True," Randy answered. "The camera's mounted in a weatherproof box. I looked, and the angle from the lens to the side of the window is just enough to miss the one corner. They could see most of the entrance, if there weren't any trees." "Come to think of it, they might be able to see movement through the trees and think that's enough and they're seeing the whole thing, and that no one would see the camera because of those trees," John speculated. Randy continued, "As it is, we can remain hidden because of the angle of the camera. It's the only camera we found. A pretty sloppy job if you ask me." "I wonder why?" Shelly asked. "Remember those men who were looking for us, not the one who had woodcraft but the other four? The type of person who is used by this type of government doesn't really care," John explained. "As long as they get to act like a big shot, bully people around, that's all that concerns them." As Randy laid sticks down as a crude map, he said, "So say this is
the canyon. The trees are over here, on a line about like this. The camera is here. It looks on a line that could go like this at the worst." He lay a stick down so the entrance was just within the angle of view. "They may have been watching it earlier," I conjectured, "and since they didn't see anything, gave up. They haven't noticed that the trees are in their way yet." "Which means they aren't watching, and it's safe to use the entrance again," Shelly said. "That's the way I have it figured," John agreed. "I think we could get inside with no trouble." "Tomorrow," Randy said. "Tomorrow," John agreed. "It's a bit too late to go now. It'd be dark by the time we reached the road." "What do you think it is now?" Shelly asked with a smile. I thought waiting until tomorrow sounded good, too. I thought back to our hurried leaving. "Hey, Shelly, you never told us what the professor said." "He wasn't there," she told us. "When I got to his trailer, Zebidiah was the only one there. We took a walk and he told me that they had arrested Professor Lowell again and taken him to the compound. As far as he knows, the professor's dead. Zeb said he checked with Murphy's contact. The plans are almost complete. He said first of next month Ted should go fishing. He said to watch the fishing hole and wait for him, not to show up early. He has some friends he's going to bring along to make it safer. He said he should know what we're doing by then." I thought about what Shelly had said, that I had to make another walk through the woods. That wasn't bad in itself; it was the contact that had me worried. The new government would expect us to do something like that. Someone might follow or kill me on the way back. I climbed into my cold sleeping bag and looked up at the stars that had begun to show. As the bag warmed from my body heat, an idea occurred to me. "Hey, John, what magnitude do you think the spaceships were?" I asked. John thought back to the last time we had seen them. "About third, as I remember," he finally answered as he climbed into his bag. "Why?"
"I was just wondering if we could see if they had returned." "Not quite dark enough, yet," Randy suggested from where he would sleep. "That's what I thought," I answered. "As I remember, the old man said they received new orders to start a colony or something." "That is what you said, Ted," John told me. We looked at the sky and named off the constellations we could see. "If I remember correctly," John murmured softly, "the ships would show up just after Polaris. It's there at the end of Ursa Minor, plainly visible, same as always. If we watch, we should see if there's anybody watching from up there." Everyone kept a lookout. Soon both John and Randy slept. Shelly said, "I'm about ready to join them, Ted. Thanks for taking care of me. I'll remember it." Shortly she was asleep, also. I watched the sky for a while more and did not see any extra stars, then I, too, rolled over and let sleep come. *** Shelly was the first to wake. By the time we began to stir out of our sleeping bags, she had coffee heated on the small stove and cold cereal opened and ready. Within half an hour we packed our things and started to travel. Shelly's day of rest had helped her regain some of her strength; she kept up with us, though I saw her wince many times. Randy scouted ahead as we eased along the path toward the mine. Patches of ground showed as the snow melted in the late winter warmth. Two hours later we were at the road, behind the bushes as we listened for anything that approached. John carefully eased his head out and searched for danger. "I don't see anyone," he informed us when he pulled his head back. "I think it's safe to cross." "Then let's do it," Randy said. John went first. He ambled across the open space as if he was just out for a walk in the woods. I waited until John had reached the bushes on the other side before I followed so anyone who saw me would think I was alone. Shelly came next, and Randy brought up the rear. He peered over his shoulder as he passed through the brush to where we waited.
We quickly fled from the road's danger to the relative safety of some nearby rhododendron bushes where we discussed who should go to the mine first. I said I would take the point since they already knew about me, terminology used in an old movie we had watched. After I scouted the area for a short time, I found the path toward the mine hidden under wet leaves and walked down the middle of the trail while I kept my eyes and ears open. All I could hear were a few winter birds even though I listened intently for any noise, a welcome sign that we were alone. Gray trunks and bare branches changed the look of the forest. The old mine entrance appeared before I realized where I was. Shelly and Randy joined me. "I'm hungry," she complained. "Not much further to the canyon from here," Randy said. "Let's wait for John, but I'm sure he'd say we should wait until we get inside to eat." "What was that?" John said as he walked up to us. Randy repeated what he had said to Shelly and me. John realized what Randy had meant but not said. "We would be safer inside, I agree. However, I think we'd be hungry and in a hurry to eat if we waited. I'm not sure we'd be as careful as we should be. Let's eat, then go on in." He pulled four MRTEs out of his pack and handed them around. It wasn't long before we were at the mouth of the canyon. With a reminder from Randy to hug the wall and watch for the camera, John led the way behind the trees to the entrance. He squeezed past a large pine tree, followed a narrow path, and finally stopped just inside the entrance to the mine. "Let me scout around a bit when my eyes adjust," he told us. He slid an arrow out of his quiver, nocked it to his bow, and slowly began to move into the first room. I turned to talk to Randy and Shelly, and John was with us again. "No wonder they're not worried about us using this place again," he panted. "There's a humongous bear in the first room." "You mean we can't, we can't stay?" I asked. I had stuttered for the first time in what seemed like months. "I think we can sneak by if we stay close to the wall," John suggested.
"I've heard it takes them some time to come out of hibernation, but when they do they're hungry and mean," Shelly said. Randy was leery since, like the rest of us, he had never dealt with a hibernating bear before, but we decided if we were quiet enough, we shouldn't bother the bear. John led the way through the cave. We filed between the wall and one of the old fireplaces we had built as camouflage. We all kept a close eye on the other tenant. Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, we reached where the water used to be. "This path was submerged in water right here," John whispered. "That's what usually submerges pathways, John," I commented quickly. "Ted!" John quietly exclaimed while Randy and Shelly chuckled. John continued, "Anyway, Shelly, the mine was searched shortly after the aliens landed. The searchers came to the water and gave up. If they had gone farther, they would have found us up here." He led the way up the rise to the room where we used to live. "We slept and ate on this level. We have storage and weapons on the level above us. And, in case you didn't notice, it's almost warm." "I know," Shelly told him. "The ground keeps the temperature around ten or twelve degrees. It's the original geothermal used tens of thousands of years ago." "Dad hates the change to centigrade," I said. OK, it was off topic, but I constantly thought about my folks. John protested, "But that was fifteen years ago, Ted." "Yeah. He's an old fogy, doesn't like any change, but he's still my dad." Shelly asked, "Any idea why it's so warm this year? The outside should be well below zero, but this winter seems to have had more warm days than usual." We talked about the weather, and what could have caused the warm winter. I said it was El Nino. Randy said it was pollution from nuclear fallout. John said the pollution was from the excessive mining with no safeguards. Shelly finally conjectured it was a combination of all three problems. After hours of friendly argument, I finally said, "It's getting late. I'm
hitting the sack. And don't say 'Not too hard,' John. That's mine." "It's old," John countered. "I wouldn't use it anyway."
We counted the days from that Sunday to the next, the first day of February. With my bow as a weapon, and a fishing rod for show, I carefully eased my way past the bear, which Shelly had named Lucy for some unknown reason. I avoided the camera and found the path that led over the mine. The climb to my lookout was more difficult than the time I watched them capture Captain Singer. It seemed as if we had lost the captain years ago, yet it had only been a couple of months, and the memories threatened to cloud my vision. I hid behind the rocks high on the mountain and watched the park as the open area slowly began to fill with locals. They seemed happy to be out; they waved and shouted greetings I could not hear as newcomers arrived. Finally, I saw a toy person I thought I recognized. The telescope revealed Zebidiah as he walked along the bank and talked to a couple of people. He settled where he had told me to fish long ago. I climbed out from my hiding place, ran and slid down the slopes, and walked along the road toward where Zebidiah had swung his ax. Three hours later I called, "Hey, Zeb, need any help?" Zebidiah sat next to a hole in the ice and looked down at a string that hung in the water. His eyes rose to meet mine when he heard my greeting. "Hey, boy. Good to see you. Since you offered, hold this line. Ain't seen nothin' like this. Warm up to last week, only couple of cold spells over the whole winter. We finally get good ice instead of the soft stuff. Maybe now we catch some fish." Zebidiah lit a cigar and clamped it between his gums. With his week's worth of white beard, weatherbeaten face, and chin an inch or more closer to his nose than it should be, it was all I could do to keep from laughing. He caught my look. "Lost my teeth the day after we ate. Can't get no more since the change." Zeb and I talked for what seemed like hours until a person came up with a radio. He greeted Zebidiah boisterously and squatted next to me to gab, the radio almost at full volume. As the stranger shouted
questions, Zebidiah leaned toward him. This brought Zeb's mouth almost to my ear. Quietly he said, "Tell the girl to talk to the Bar None. You are all to go to Salina, Kansas. Remember that. Salina, Kansas." The stranger with the radio said something else. Zebidiah answered him and told me, "The main control for this hemisphere is there. Blow it." At some signal, the stranger shook our hands and moved on down the stream. We talked and fished until the sun neared the horizon. I told Zeb I had to leave and hoped to see him again. He told me possibly we'd meet sometime after spring when the fishing was good. As if I had little better to do, I gathered my things and the fish I caught and left the fishing area to walk along the road as if I was going to town or the cave. Shortly after I rounded a sharp bend, I came to the path where I'd hidden the bow and arrows. A good look revealed I was the only one around. I slipped between two bushes and ran some distance down the new trail. Several thick bushes offered shelter. I waited to see if anyone followed me. Nobody showed. I relaxed a bit and walked back to the mine, but I still kept a sharp eye out for surveillance devices and other people who traveled in the same direction. There was no way I wanted anyone to know we were back there. A look at my watch as I sneaked past Lucy told me it was almost seven o’clock. I knew Shelly and the rest would worry since they expected me to return before dark. Without a radio, I couldn't contact them either, but I had made it without a tail. As I climbed the ramp, I heard that they discussed whether they should go out to find me. "Why?" I asked from the entrance to the room. "There you are!" Shelly exclaimed. "We were getting worried about you." "Well, I didn't want to give our position away, so I took the long way back." "That's enough," John said a bit gruffly. His anger came from worry, also. "What did he say?" "Not much," I answered. "Where's the food? Mostly he talked about unimportant stuff. Things that don't matter." Randy handed me an MRTE, and between bites I said, "Thanks. I figure he didn't want any
information picked up by long distance microphones. Some guy came by with a loud radio. While the noise was with us, Zeb told me to have Shelly get in touch with the Bar None." "Oh, sure, that makes sense," Shelly said. "If anyone's out to get the Alnoutes, they are." "And just why is that?" John demanded. Shelly explained, "The Bar None is a large Dude ranch just outside Milner, which is next to the Routt National Forest, a place where city people go for a week or two to pretend they're cowboys. The owners always believed someone else could run the country better, and used to write letters to congress, and went to Washington for demonstrations many times. Yet they also said that for all its faults, America was the best country in the world." As I shoveled food into my mouth, I began to think about what Zeb had told me. "He also said we were, we were to blow up the main headquarters for this part of the world, no this, this, this hemisphere, in a place called Salina." "Salina! In Kansas!" Shelly cried. "It fits!" "Calm down," John ordered. "No, really," Shelly insisted less noisily. "They have a branch, a franchise sort of thing, just outside Salina, Kansas. My brother took me there one time when he was working for them." "Then you're familiar with the area?" Randy asked. "Not really, but they know me. One thing I do know," she paused while she let the suspense build, "if you look at a map of the continent, Salina is just about at the center." "Nicely trivial," John complained. I kept my mouth shut and waited. This was a perfect opportunity to get John, and I figured that for once I’d leave it for Randy. He seized the opportunity. "It does tell us why they picked it," Randy said importantly, "and you, John, should see it. Where was their command post while they took over?" "In space," John answered, thought a moment, and then groaned. "So when do I go?" Shelly asked. "He didn't say," I answered. "All he said was for you to go talk to
them. It's too late today. Why not try tomorrow." "They'll be watching for something," John reminded us. "Wait until Tuesday or Wednesday, then go. In the meantime, we have our hunting gear, and this is a good time of year. Let's see if we can find a deer, or something else that's near." I looked at John quizzically and asked, "Rhymes?" He returned my look. After a moment I shook my head and reminded him, "Anything we find'll be fairly scrawny. It's getting toward the end of winter." "Yeah? Well." John looked at his feet. "We can see what we find, John," Randy soothed. "Maybe we'll find something worth it." "Sure," I agreed. "A deer would still supply us with fresh meat, even if we left it outside to freeze. It just wouldn't be as fat. Not as much cholesterol, as if venison had a lot to begin with." "OK," John agreed. He still sounded depressed. "We need the fat in our diets, but I guess we get enough from the MRTEs." Then, when he realized he'd won, he brightened. "Yeah, sure, we'll have fun, but Ted shouldn't go." I sat there with my mouth open. Shelly stared at John. Randy was the one who had to ask, "Why not?" "Simple," John answered. "He was fishing today. They'll be watching for him. We'll just be hunters." That's how I got to spend another day alone with Shelly. *** John and Randy practiced with the bows and arrows on the upper level until a few minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon when they finally decided they were ready to go. Randy said he remembered he saw signs of a deer trail about an hour away and figured they would have time to reach the area before the animal moved to its feeding ground. They left on their mission with the guarantee of fresh meat when they returned. Shelly and I gabbed about old times, about people we both knew, about if there was a future, and what our plans were. I showed her how to use a bow and arrow, and she showed me some simple herbal
medicine. We were so involved with each other we lost track of time. Randy wandered into the room almost an hour and a half after dark. His coat covered in blood, he slumped by the fire, exhausted. Shelly exclaimed, "Where's John?" "Outside with the meat. Got a nice size buck. Butchered it where we brought it down. Packed the pieces home and laid them out to freeze. John's out there now." "He must be beat, too," I said. While I began to throw on my heavy coat, I suggested, "Shelly, why don't you take care of Randy while I go out to relieve John. Get some sleep and take over sometime after midnight." It was one o'clock the next morning when Shelly came out of the mine ready to protect our food. Believe me when I tell you I was ready to fall asleep. In the morning, we stuffed one of the canvas bags with frozen meat, and then hung the bag from a tree. After we were sure it would be safe, Shelly left for the Bar None Ranch, a good distance from the mine. It was far enough away that she would have to stay there overnight. Shelly returned about halfway through the next afternoon, this time in good condition. I handed her a cup of tea made from a mix she said would fill a person with energy. She sipped from the cup, and then told us about her trip, and what they said. "They told me they were tired of aliens destroying the world and were ready to do almost anything to help stop them. I told them that I had access to some subversives, and rumor said the ranch hands had information for them. They wouldn't tell me anything, though. All they talked about were explosions." I felt stupid. Here we had sent Shelly out to gather info for us, and hadn't given her the proper tools. Randy thought so too. "The password! We should have given you the password." "What password?" Shelly asked. "The password that would have told them you knew us," John told her. It sounded as if he was disgusted with himself also. "That's why they were talking about explosives. I'll bet they said, 'That would be a
whale of an explosion.'" Shelly looked at John quizzically as she said, "As a matter of fact, they did. Several times." "Then you should have said, 'That's for sure, but dynamite would be better.' It's the other half of the password, and without it, they won't give you any information. Man, I'm so stupid! Did they say anything else?" "They told me a way to come in without being seen, but I'm not allowed to tell anyone. And they said to come back on the twelfth." "Then that's what you'd better do," John said. *** February 13 was unseasonably warm; the temperature almost reached ten. Shelly returned through the drizzle that began early that morning, her clothes so soaked they offered little insulation. We knew the conditions and had a fire going from wood we had gathered the week before. She slipped out of her wet coat and gloves and stood near the fire. "This weather," she said as her clothes steamed, exhausted from her trip. "It's supposed to be the middle of winter, and outside it's almost as warm as this room. It feels like I'm standing well inside the mine, up on the upper level, when I'm walking down the road. It's almost warm enough for just a jacket, unless you're wet. What a morning." "Comes from the pollution and all," Randy said. "It's the greenhouse effect." He didn't know any more than I did. "How do you know?" I challenged. "It doesn't matter anyway," John said to stop the argument before it started. "What we need to know is what did they say?" Shelly sighed. "We have to take a trip. The headquarters is in Salina, just like your contact told you. We're part of a worldwide effort to wipe out the Alnoutes. We're supposed to be at the franchise Bar None by March fourth." "That's only three weeks away!" Randy cried. "We'll never make it out there." "Sure we will," Shelly replied. "They have a shipment scheduled to
go there on the first. Part of the load will be you three. I'm driving." "I, I, I, I ain't no load!" I protested. "That's downright, downright dangerous! I've heard of people, of people getting killed riding on the backs of trucks." "It has to be," Shelly insisted. "They gave me a list of what we should bring. They also told me to see if you could operate something called a Mufow, whatever that is. If you can't, I have to go back." "Can, or can not?" Randy asked. "I didn't quite hear you with all the echoes down here." "Can not," Shelly answered. John told her, "Randy can handle that one. It's a vehicle-mounted weapon. We don't have one, but Randy's been trained on a smaller version. Actually, it's MFOW but it spells the word Mufow. You know the military. What else did they say?" "We're going to go to the ranch on the last Friday of the month, packing only what they've told us to pack. They said to wait in a gully outside the main building complex until the day crew leaves. One of the people who lives there will come get us and lead us in under cover. They'll hide us, and pack the truck that night. It'll give the spies and busybodies time to satisfy their curiosity. Then, on the first, they'll reload to include us, and away we go to Salina. They said that even with the inspections we should get there before midnight. Salina'll hide us until it's time to attack." John said, "Sounds like they've got it well in hand. I just hope it works. What about the Government Complex here?" "They'll hit it about the same time we hit Salina," Shelly explained. "It's a coordinated, worldwide plan. Everything goes within minutes, almost at the same time." "If everyone gets the word, you mean," Randy said. "What happens if something happens and we miss a couple?" "From what I understand, as long as we hit the two main bases, we're OK. Ours is secondary. The main world base for the Alnoutes is over in a place called Baghian, Afghanistan. I imagine they have plans for that, but I have no idea what they are. That one is the main radio link with the Alnoute's fleet in space. The only other transmitter they have
built to talk to their fleet is in Salina. As long as we hit those two, then we cut the fleet off from their leader. The way I understand it, the leader is the only one who knows what's happening. Everyone else follows him blindly. They have no idea what's going on down here." Randy thought of a problem with what Shelly had said. "They could use any of the broadcast stations. Or the big dish antennas," he objected. "They'd have to be re-tuned," John explained. "Remember Zeb told us the Alnoutes breathe a different atmosphere? How are they going to get to any of those places, and since they can't do it, who will? Anyone with intelligence knows that would be a death warrant for the human race. No one who knows how to tune an antenna would even consider it. Shelly's right. Hit the two main bases and we cut them off from their leader. Hit most of them, and the small ones that we miss we can pick up later." "Thank you for your analysis," Randy said sarcastically. John ignored it. "Why don't we go up to the store room and start organizing what they want us to take?" We packed what they wanted us to carry, which didn't even last until dinner, and we had two weeks to wait. We decided to make another hunting trip the next day, even though the last one had been Monday. If nothing else, at least we'd be busy. I missed my books.
Friday, February 27, at nine, we were almost ready to leave. Everyone had a weapon or two to carry, along with the ammunition needed. I had my hand weapon, a G-57, the grenade launcher attachment, and enough ammunition to fight off the aliens by myself, yet I felt as if I had forgotten something. I looked at where we stored the bows and arrows, almost pulled there as if by an elastic band, or gravity. "You know, John," I called across the room. He looked up from his pack. "I feel kind of weaponless without my bow." "Yeah, right," he called back. "You look like a terrorist. Weaponless is one thing you're not." "I know how he feels, though," Randy said. "I kind of feel the same way." "But we can only take what they told us to bring," Shelly protested. "If we show up with anything else, they'll figure we can't follow orders." "Orders?" I asked. "I'm not in the army. I don't have to follow orders." "Same here," Randy said. "I agree," John said. "OK, we take the bows and a quiver of arrows each. They aren't that heavy, and they don't take up much room. I can't see a problem, but I am hungry again, so let's eat before we go." We finally started out around eleven o'clock, John in the lead. He followed the small animal trails through the trees at the edge of the mountain. After an hour, he turned toward the road. Shelly protested, "Where are you going?" "Come to think of it, I don't know," John told her, a slight chuckle in his voice. "Why don't you lead the way?" "All right," she agreed. She turned and followed the edge of the mountain for what seemed like forever, across two back roads, each one another chance for someone to see us and sound the alarm. She finally bore to the left until she came to the river. We followed the water until near dusk, when she called a halt.
"It's up here a couple of miles. If we cut cross-country, we can get to the ditch where we wait by eight o'clock. I thought we should wait until it gets a bit darker, but I don't know," "How far have we come?" Randy asked as he dropped his pack onto a mound of dirt. Shelly sank to the ground where she stood and answered, "Twentyfive miles, more or less. It's not much farther." John stretched out on the bank. "You said 'cross country'. Did you mean through woods, or are we going to be crossing fields?" "Some woods," Shelly answered. "Mostly fields from now on, though. We can pretty much keep to the valleys of the foothills. We'll have to watch out when we get close, though. It's easy to be seen." "Might be a good idea to wait for an hour then," John agreed. Half an hour later Shelly decided it was dark enough to go, and again John agreed with her decision. I managed to get my stiff joints to bend, and shrugged on my pack. We followed the river for about five minutes, and then cut inland through thinning trees and pastureland fenced in with barbed wire. We stayed below the top of the small rises and followed as straight a line as possible until Shelly motioned us to lie on the ground. "The main complex of buildings is just over the next rise," she told us. "If you look carefully between the two hills, you'll see a fence above a fire pond. Just outside the fence is the ditch. I don't think there's water in it. We can follow it to where we're supposed to wait." "Where's that?" I asked. "To the right about two or three hundred feet, by a storm drain pipe." "It's dark enough," John observed. "Let's go on to the pipe. Ted, why don't you nock your bow, just in case. Randy, you're good with your knife." "No better than anyone else," Randy objected, "but I see your point. No guns. They're too noisy." Years passed while Leo rose over the buildings in front of us and Virgo began to show. That told me we were in the ditch about two hours. A shadowy figure began to approach us from the complex, a
guard who looked for intruders. We tensed up, but the figure turned and walked along the fence line about four feet away. When he had turned the far corner and disappeared, we heard a sound from the drainpipe. A ranch hand stuck his head out and found Shelly. "Good, you're here." He scrutinized each of us as we sat there in the dark. After a few minutes he said, "Give me your clips." We handed over the ammunition in our weapons. I removed the arrow from the string, replaced it in my quiver, and began to hand it to him. He shook his head. "OK. Ready? Let's go," He said and disappeared into the drainpipe. Shelly followed him closely. She acted as if this was a normal way to travel. John gave Randy a look, and then followed her inside. Randy turned to me and shrugged, then crawled into the black opening. I followed, the last to enter the dark tunnel, almost as dark as the mine without a lantern. I followed the shuffling sounds of the people I couldn't see as they apparently turned toward the left, but I could hardly tell with all the echoes. When the sounds came from my left shoulder, I felt for the wall that wasn't there, and followed the sounds through the opening into a new tunnel. Soon I could see a light ahead that blacked out four times before I reached it, a manhole into a room. "Come on out, Ted," Shelly said as the cowboy gave me a hand up into the room. It was a small storage area with a single, low wattage bulb that hung from the ceiling. John and Randy piled their gear in a corner. I joined them and shed my bow and arrows, along with everything else I carried. When I finished, our escort said, "We have food in the fridge, along with drinks. Shower's over there; you all need one. Shelly, you'll have to ride in the back. We have new information that the Alnoutes know about you. Sorry about that." He referred to a note in his pocket. "John or Randy drives. Which one of you two is it?" "Why not Ted?" Randy asked. "Remember," John reminded him, "he was found out a couple of months ago." "Darn. That's right. You drive back east?" Randy asked. "Not much, and nothing this size. There's all the mass transit so there's no need. If you remember, Ted drove out and back when we
checked the fence line. You were the one who followed us while we walked. That means you drive." "Thanks," Randy said, a bit sarcastically. "At least I brought my ID." "What's the name on it?" the ranch hand asked. Randy pulled out his paper-filled wallet and looked at the license in it. "George Browne," he read. "Spell that last name," the hand said as he made a note of the name. "OK. You're a transfer from Salina if anyone asks out here. Otherwise, you're a new employee. We'll give you the route when you're ready to go. We packed the truck today to give the busybodies and the spy a chance to see what's in it tomorrow. Early in the morning we'll reload with a hole in the middle for you all, and George, here, will drive. The rest will have to stay in the back for the whole trip. I suggest you don't drink too much. Toilet's through that door. Hang tight until we're ready." He disappeared through a small, square access hole. We were all beat. Shower beat out hunger, which came before sleep, but not by much.
Sleep held me until late the next morning, but I wasn't the last to rise. For his first meal, John had lunch instead of breakfast. We sorted through what we brought, wrapped the weapons in blankets so they would not make noise, and otherwise managed to pack everything. Night had fallen and I was ready to bed down again when the ranch hand stuck his head in the access hole. "Let's go," he told us. "Stack what we hand you off to the side, then pass out what you brought except for two grenade launchers and ten of the larger grenades. We'll use them to take out that compound near Hayden. You'll use the rest, and some stuff they have out in K-A." Cardboard boxes with labels that stated they held souvenir ashtrays and specialty paper goods joined us. We slid our things to the other side of the hole. Shelly, John, and I relieved ourselves, the last time for hours to come, then slid through the hole into a warehouse size barn. Motorized equipment, hand tools, bags of feed, and bales of straw for bedding, each had their place in the large open area. A flatbed ten-wheel straight truck sat off to the side, its sides removed for the switch. One of the subversives from the ranch told us to climb on and arrange as small an area as possible to use during the trip. Someone handed our bows and arrows up, which we used to mark the room we would need. The ammunition and weapons became a wall around us. Ranch hands reloaded the rest of the truck. They built a wall of boxes and placed long cases crosswise to support a makeshift roof. Just before they filled the last hole, the cowboy we had first met said, "When you're stopped now, remember to keep still and silent. There are several checkpoints. They'll look at the load, but they won't want to dig into it. We hope. If they hear you though, they'll execute you as spies. Keep that in mind. Oh, and keep this. It's a list of what we loaded and where. They'll need it on the other end to repack. Good luck." They left us in darkness with only the breathing of my companions
to tell me I was not alone. I knew I was tired since I hadn't slept yet, so I took a nap. Tingles that threatened to explode my arm woke me sometime later. When Shelly decided to doze off, she used my shoulder as a pillow and cut off the blood supply. I carefully lifted her head and pulled my arm out from under it. That jostled her enough to act as an alarm clock. She started to say something in the darkness, but voices outside silenced her. I quietly shook my arm and flexed my fingers to get the blood to flow again while we listened. Someone talked to Randy, a muffled voice that gave last minute instructions. The truck shifted as Randy climbed into the cab. We felt the vibrations as the fuel cell pumps and other electrical devices started. The transmission clicked as he shifted into first. The truck began to roll smoothly, but potholes and ruts in the long gravel driveway made the load sway above us. I wondered if the roof would last until we made it off the ranch. I was nervous, as was Shelly who squeezed my hand, until we turned onto the main road and the ride smoothed. "We turned left," John observed. I didn't realize he was awake. "We should have turned right." "It's possible we have to stop at the compound to be inspected," I said. "We do," Shelly informed us. "I remember being told that when they thought I would be driving. There are five inspections if I remember right." I felt Randy slow and told the others to be quiet as we turned off the road. The truck swayed to a stop after several turns, and shifted slightly when Randy climbed out of the cab. Footsteps faded, a door closed, and I knew this was the first obstacle of many. Anything could happen to delay or terminate our mission, not only at an inspection or fueling stop, but also along the road. Even a flat tire could be fatal. A short time later we heard several muted voices approach as they discussed something, then circled our truck, the words indistinguishable because of the boxes around us. We felt Randy get in the truck, close the door, back around, and head out onto the road. I breathed again. "That wasn't bad," Shelly said as we picked up speed.
Not bad? I thought. I was sure we'd had it. "I just hope they're all like that," John said. Apparently, he agreed with Shelly. "Wish we had some food. I'm hungry." "I'm thirsty," Shelly told us. "I could go for a nice big mug of coffee." "And where do you take a leak?" I asked, possibly a bit more severely than I should have. I was still nervous after our brush with danger. "Just be glad we don't have the wind whistling through here. We'd be frozen in no time." That's when we felt the truck slow. The electric motors labored until Randy changed to a lower gear. "Here we go up the mountain," I told them unnecessarily. Randy constantly shifted up and down as we climbed the mountains, flew along the flats, and coasted down into the valleys. Apparently, I fell asleep, for when I woke, instead of a fairly smooth ride, we stopped for short times and made an occasional turn. That, and our slow speed, along with the sound of many people, cars, and trucks, led me to reckon we were in a fairly large city, possibly Denver. I was glad there was noise outside. My stomach growled because I was hungry, and I was afraid someone would hear it. We turned slowly to the right and bumped over a curb. Again, the load shifted above us, and again I wondered where we were. After the truck stopped, I heard Randy talk to someone, but I couldn't make out the words. Metallic noises came from under the truck bed. When I heard the hiss of gas, I decided that Randy fueled us with hydrogen, another dangerous time, but not nearly as bad as inspections. I didn't worry too much until I found out this stop was also for an inspection. Shelly silently grabbed my hand when we heard a box move. I tightened up unsure of what to do if the inspector found us, but I guess he saw nothing out of the ordinary. He replaced the box as Randy disconnected the fuel hose and talked some more. We pulled away a few minutes after I heard the fuel fill cover replaced. After we turned corners and stopped at lights while totally blind, we began to pick up speed. By the sound of the tire's whine, I knew we had reached the interstate toward Kansas, and that Randy tried to make up
time. The long sweeping curves and easy grades are normal when you can see, but when you have no vision to guide you, it can be scarier than a roller coaster. At any time we could drift into oncoming traffic, or roll off the edge, or over a cliff, and we'd have no warning at all until the moment of impact. As thrill rides go, this one seemed to last forever. After what seemed like days, we slowed again. I had been awake the whole time though, Shelly's hand in mine, so it must have been just a couple of hours. We pulled into something off the highway; I couldn't guess what or where. Again, we heard indistinct voices outside the truck. This time the inspectors took Randy at his word, and shortly we were on our way. Not too long after that, we again left the highway. I finally worked out that we had crossed into Kansas, with inspections on both sides of the state border. This time we went farther off the highway. Shelly still held my hand. We rocked into a parking area again and stopped, a situation that happened much too often for my sanity. I just wanted the trip to finish. I could hear Randy talk to someone without leaving his seat. We moved a bit farther, and again I heard the hiss of hydrogen as the tank filled. The voices continued from near the cab. They slowly grew louder until they moved behind the truck. Someone removed the safety gate and several boxes from the back. A strange voice called for help. Shortly a new voice joined them. More boxes came off the truck. They were going to unload us. Shelly squeezed my hand harder. Another layer of protection left the load. I felt my heart pound. I didn't know how much farther they had to go. I didn't know what to do if they found us. Did I attack, or run, or what? Another layer left the load. I thought I saw light. I heard Randy plainly when he yelled, "Hey! Cut that out! You're damaging the goods!" Should I attack? Burst out while Randy had them distracted? What would I use as a weapon? How many others were there close by? A box was replaced, then another one. The chink of light disappeared. I breathed again. I knew Shelly felt the same way; her hand relaxed. After more highway travel we left the interstate again, inspectors checked us out and let us fuel, and this time there was no hassle. Shelly
gently snored as we traveled the interstate some more. I thought that I could use this opportunity to explore her body, but refrained. Dad, a fullblooded Cherokee on the Nation’s Council, always said the only thing that one man cannot take from another is his honor. A person is the only one who can throw that away, and without it, you cannot be a man. To take advantage of someone while they were helpless would not be honorable. I would not throw my honor away. Finally, after what seemed like forever, we turned off the interstate for the last time. Rougher roads and slower speeds prevailed until we turned into what sounded like a gravel drive. Shortly the sounds began to echo as if we had entered a large building. Randy slammed the truck door and talked to someone. Boxes slid from the truck. Light showed through a couple of cracks, and then blinding brightness enveloped us. I looked up and blinked as a stranger in a flannel shirt and jeans pulled out more boxes. "We're here?" I asked. Of course we were here, but I didn't know where here was, and I was too tired to ask that question. "Howdy," the stranger said as he ignored our condition, but his welcoming speech answered my question, and several others. "Welcome to Kansas. It's ten-thirty in the evening. You're just in time to help us reload and then you can hit the sack." Reload? He was kidding of course. We'd just spent years cooped up in a rolling coffin. I was in no condition to do anything except sleep. But to sleep I would first have to get off the truck, so I stood up and grabbed an offered hand as I climbed over the boxes and down to the ground. Shelly followed, then John. As John reached the floor, my legs gave out from under me. "How long you been in there, kid," Flannel Shirt asked. "Since about eleven-thirty last night." "No wonder. Even a couple hours of lying down slows your heart enough so that when you stand up, your brain doesn't get enough blood. You're lucky you stayed conscience. See that small hole?" I nodded. Shelly and John did, too. "Go through there and pass out what we tell you. Then we'll pass in the weapons and ammo." He turned his head to the top of the truck when one of his friends
asked a question. Flannel Shirt answered, "Bows and arrows? Not that I know of." "They're ours," John told him. "They belong to the kids," he told the person on the truck. "Check it good up there, Hank. One stray arrow does us in. I'll be back." He helped us stagger across the floor and slide into the hidden room, a carbon copy of the room where we had hidden back in Colorado. Flannel Shirt explained, "We built this place the same way as the Bar None in Milner, so you should know where everything is. We'll have breakfast for you about six in the morning. There are snacks over there, cookies and cakes and stuff. They'll give you some quick sugar so your body can recuperate. Make sure you eat some of the bananas, too. "OK, to business. The inspector gets here around seven to watch us unload the truck. Other than that, you have three days before you go to work. There's plenty of time to plan, and we have good maps and drawings. See you in the morning." He ducked out the opening and started to call for some of the boxes in the room. We passed things out for fifteen minutes, most of which looked like what the people in Salina had removed to make room for us. Then they handed our weapons in, including the bows and arrows. Finally, Randy slid in and fastened the access door behind him. "Thought we were done for in Kanarado," he told us. "When that guy wanted to run my documents under an ultraviolet scanner I worried, but when he started to unload the truck, I almost had a fit! If he had found you." He paused, his eyes wide from the recent scare. He continued, "Then he made me load it back onto the truck. He even knew which box went where. I'll tell you, that place scared me." "How did you get past the first inspection?" John asked. I was curious, too. "I told them I was returning here. They just stamped the papers without looking at them." "At least we're safe," Shelly said. "How safe are we?" Randy asked through a yawn. "Here we are, in hiding, waiting to blow up an official building. I'll bet the Alnoutes would call us terrorists."
"I like to think of us as patriot soldiers since we're defending our country," I told him. "Yeah," he answered, "me, too. I'm tired. Let me sleep." He lay his head down, and almost immediately he was breathing heavily. We joined him a minute later.
Flannel Shirt used the smell of food as an alarm clock. We woke slowly to the aroma of coffee, bacon, ham, eggs, and hash browns. Once we'd stood, he told us, "Government Inspector's due in forty-five minutes. Outside workers in half an hour. I'd suggest you eat and climb down into the storm drain for a while." He closed the access cover and left us to ourselves. *** The next few days we prepared for our mission. We very carefully tested the electrical systems of explosive devices and placed them in special cases. We cleaned and inspected all our weapons carefully, including the bows, three and four times. We counted ammunition, packed it for easy carrying, and stacked it next to the appropriate weapon. The day before the coordinated missions, Flannel Shirt brought in a map of the area, with a drawing of the complex placed at the appropriate coordinates. After he spread it out across the floor, he explained what it showed. "The road is up here. You have a guard shack, here, a good forty feet back from the road. The building is another fifty-four feet back. Over to the right, here, you'll see the tank farm, well, two large storage tanks next to the three dish antennas and the antenna tower. That's where they store the stuff they breathe, in one of those tanks. The other is LP Gas they use for heat. You might want to use that to add some extra power to your hit, and if you blow that up it'll take out those antennas. Unfortunately, we don't really know which tank holds what, so just go ahead and hit both tanks and you'll have it covered. They don't drink water. They don't even have anything to fight fire in there. The normal temperature they keep would set off any fire system made for us. Keep that in mind. It may be helpful. "Now over on this side is a railroad with a siding just outside the
fence and off this map. The road runs alongside it for a good ways. Sometimes they store tank wagons of their breathing gas there, shipped in from the refinery and waiting to be loaded into the tank. If any tank cars are there, they need to be taken out so there are no reserves. "That's about all the information we have right now. Tomorrow we'll learn more when you blow it up, but by then, of course, it'll be too late. We load the truck tonight, no tomorrow morning at two AM, with you in the middle. That's four hours from now. Be ready. It's going to be another hidden load, but no inspections this time, and no roof so you can stand up and shoot when the time comes. See you then." Flannel Shirt slid out through the access hole. We tried to catch a nap, but I found it nearly impossible to do more than doze. Just before two o'clock in the morning, Flannel Shirt woke us and said we should pass the weapons out to him, except the bows and arrows. We slid the items out, then followed and protested we should take the bows just in case. Flannel Shirt said our favorite weapons would be safe, and if they were with us, they'd just get in the way and possibly lost. I didn't see how, but we stopped arguing. The stake body truck we had used to come east was being loaded. The loaders had left several holes to the outside as if they had loaded it carelessly, or hurriedly. One of the holes already had the muzzle of a weapon pointed through it. Randy jumped up onto the truck. "What's this?" he asked. "That's a Mufow. A Multiple Frequency Optical Weapon. I have information one of you knows how to operate it? That is why your group was transferred here, you know. We had people who could have done this, except for that prototype weapon." "I trained on the Rapid Fire Anti Vehicle Weapon, and I've heard that's supposed to be close. I've never seen one of these before. It's a prototype. No wonder. Let me see." Randy carefully examined the new weapon. "It looks the same. I can use it." "Good. Load up. That thing runs off the truck current. We put in an oversized fuel cell to handle the extra load. As long as it's running you should be OK. We put an out-of-state plate on the truck, and the name of a company in Michigan, so Ted, if you stop and open the hood you'll
give the three in the back time to aim at their targets." Flannel Shirt opened a map and pointed to a large area off one of the side roads. "As soon as they fire, jump in and head for here. It's the back entrance to the old Smoky Hill National Guard Base, out of service for thirty years. They have a shielded bunker underground that you can use as your hideout. If you make it there before pursuit gets organized you'll be OK. If you're really lucky, and good, pursuit will never get organized." Someone or something scratched on the people door of the barn. Everyone froze. I knew it would happen. Someone had found us. We were caught. Death by hanging would be too good for us. A cowhand next to a bank of monitors whispered, "Slim." "Lights," Flannel Shirt called. Darkness engulfed the barn as someone threw a large switch. The faint outline of the people door showed. A thin person slipped in through the narrow opening. When the door clicked quietly shut, the lights began to brighten. Slim hurried across the open warehouse to where we stood. He grabbed the sleeve of Flannel Shirt's flannel shirt and pulled him away, out of hearing. I listened closely, but only caught the words "found" and "dangerous". Something had him spooked. His eyes were huge, and that wasn't due to lack of light. Flannel Shirt tried to calm him down, then returned to where we waited. He looked more serious than before. "They found out about us. They're organizing an arrest party for us now. Slim said they're planning to hit us at five forty-five in the morning, which means you'll have to leave earlier. It takes fifteen minutes to get from the base to here, so if you hit them at six o'clock they'll be too busy here to follow you. Don't worry. We'll keep them busy." Flannel Shirt turned to the newcomer. "Slim, will anyone miss you?" "I don't think so. I'm not due on watch until twelve. They'll just think I'm in my quarters. I should be OK." "Then get in the cubby. When they hit, go in the drains. You know how. And thanks for the heads up and all your help." "Hey, I can fight!" "I know, Slim, but if they recognize you then you won't be any use
to us if we fail. You'll probably be dead. Just go ahead and hide, and hopefully you'll be helping clean up this mess. Now get." Flannel Shirt motioned to John and Shelly that they should join Randy in the back of the truck. "You two get inside." I helped load boxes until the back looked loosely loaded. Since I had to leave earlier than planned, Flannel Shirt gave me directions how to get to the base by a circuitous route. I hoped I would remember them, along with the directions to the hideout. As I climbed into the truck I asked, "What happens to our bows while we're on this mission? We thought we would be coming back here." "Don't worry about it," Flannel Shirt told me. "We'll keep them, and you'll be back before you know it. Now you have about two hours before you have to leave. I'd suggest you take a nap." I lay back on the seat and closed my eyes. It was impossible to sleep with the lights, the noise, the confusion, and all. The adrenaline that continued to build up in my system from the excitement didn't help either. It surprised me when, just a few minutes later, Flannel Shirt told me it was time to go. I closed the door of the truck and turned on the battery power. The gauges read normal, so I told Flannel Shirt all was OK. He warned everybody and cut off the lights. I pressed the accelerator and let out the clutch. We didn't move. I put the truck in gear and hoped no one would notice. At least no one laughed that I could hear. The truck felt sluggish as I started, nothing like when Randy had driven it here. Gravel crunched under the tires while I slowly drifted through the work yard. The added power should have transferred to the drive train. Finally, I reached the macadam drive, and found the lack of power was not due to the added drag of loose gravel. The tire lugs bounced us as I slowly followed the darker black of the driveway. I did not have any power. Possibly, when they changed the fuel cell, they'd added resistance somewhere, which wouldn't do us much good on our mission. I could return, but after what seemed like forever, we reached the road. Flannel Shirt had told me to turn left, and when I did I hit the
lights, remembered I was on batteries and started the fuel cell, and checked the gearshift. That's when I put it in first and took off down the road. Just as Flannel Shirt had predicted, we came in sight of the main compound about six o'clock. I called to the back to get ready, and then began to play with the accelerator. The truck jerked to a stop just past the main entrance, well in sight of both the guard shack and what they called a tank farm. In case the guards watched, I hit the dash with the heel of my hand, slammed open the door, and stomped to the front to open the hood. The latch gave easily and I threw the metal cover back, climbed onto the front fender, and reached well into the engine compartment. A quick peek toward the guard shack showed one of the guards, who wore a blue T-shirt and blue jeans in place of a uniform, approached the truck. I was right to put on the angry act, and I'd have to continue if I didn't want to blow this mission. The guard slowly walked along the side of the truck and up to where I leaned into the engine compartment. I couldn't believe he didn't see anything. We had a large muzzle that pointed out a hole in the back, plus who knew what else they had ready back there. And you could probably see people if you looked through the cracks. He must be blind. When he finally reached me, he looked at the motor from near the driver's quarter panel and asked me what was wrong. I told him angrily I had no idea. He called back to his friend at the guard shack, "It's OK. Just broken down." Then to me, "Tell you what, though, you want to be careful." He indicated over his shoulder with his thumb. "One of them tanks blows up, that would be a whale of an explosion." I couldn't believe my ears. No wonder he hadn't said anything. He probably knew exactly what we had planned, and he didn't say a word. I almost relaxed, but then thought he might have just been lucky when he gave the password. I'd have to gauge his reaction as I answered. I said, "That's for sure, but dynamite would be better." "Yeah. Good. We're the only two left. Everyone else took off to arrest some rebel forces. Get in and switch on, then tell your friends in the back to go ahead."
He saw what was in the back, who was in the back, but we were lucky. Really lucky. We could have blown it right there. I could have blown it. As controlled as possible I walked to the driver's side and climbed behind the wheel. He moved to the front of the truck as if he looked for something, then circled his thumb and finger. I started the fuel cell, put the transmission in first gear, reached my arm through the open window, and hit the top of the cab. Three small hollow whoops sounded from the back. Then, as I watched the power gauge dip, a bright tight beam of dark red light spanned the distance between the truck and the first tank. Thick, yellow-orange smoke began to stream at high velocity from a hole that melted in the steel side. Before the fog had a chance to spread, the beam changed tanks and held still. The steel side of the second tank turned red. Bright white drips fell toward the ground. A small dark area appeared. A massive fireball grew out of the dark area and pushed glowing steel toward us in a wall of light and sound. A wall of searing hot wind blew choking smoke at us as it laid the fence on the ground. Chain link fencing and poles flew at us propelled by a wall of fire. My face felt sunburned from the heat. The truck rocked so severely the left tires left the ground. Boxes in the back fell, on what or who I don't know. The truck rocked as the tires hit the ground again. It was a wonder they didn't explode. The guard slammed the hood closed. He sprinted to the passenger's door while he ducked flying debris. He jumped into the cab straight from the ground as he yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" I hit the switch to engage the motors and floored the accelerator. We picked up speed much slower than I would have liked. I ground the gears in my hurry to shift into second, then third. The railroad siding was there on the left. A line of tank wagons stood waiting to move into the unloading area. I swerved over to the left lane to give the three in the back a better shot. Three more whoops came from the back of the truck. I slowed as two rail wagons exploded, along with the grass in front of the middle wagon. "Got to do better than that," I said to myself. Just then, the power died as a beam of dark red light slid along the
tank wagons. The intense heat raised the pressure of the contained gas. Valves blew like a line of giant firecrackers. Alnoute atmosphere roared through the blown valves to dissipate in the air. The power from the fuel cell came back as the beam disappeared. I down shifted and we began to accelerate again. Just after I shifted into third, I lost power. More of the massive firecrackers exploded on the left, the last much bigger than the others. When the beam reached the end of the line, the power came back. I downshifted to second again, hung a sharp right, and picked up speed until I leveled off in fifth gear at seventy miles per hour. I wanted to go faster, but I wasn't sure I could handle more since I hadn't driven this truck before. After all, I had friends in the back who I did not want to kill now that we had completed our mission. My passenger had other thoughts, however. He leaned forward and looked into the rear view mirror. With a sigh, he said. "You'll have to do better than this. We got company." As I floored the accelerator, I checked the mirror and saw a white pickup truck that quickly gained on us. My passenger took another look and informed me, "That looks like my partner. They brainwashed him, the bastards. He thinks the caterpillars are God or something. I hope you lose him. Otherwise, we're dead." I hit ninety and continued to accelerate as the truck rocked along the two-lane road. A weathered highway sign flashed by on the left. I saw just enough of it to know I had to turn ahead. A gravel road headed out into the fields on the right. I locked up the brakes as I saw the sign with the proper town name on it. I cut the wheel hard and floored the accelerator to push us onto the gravel as if I was in one of the dirt track race cars we had watched on occasion. The truck slid on three out of six wheels, but the side in the air found the ground again after I got straight. I'm surprised the outside tires of the dual wheels didn't blow. We rocked and bounced over the potholes and ruts faster than I dared to go, a cloud of dust behind us. Fear sent gallons of adrenaline through my veins. The guard leaned out the window and fired some shots from his revolver toward the back of the truck. A moment later, he slid back in
his seat and said, "I can't do it. We're bouncing too much for me to get good aim. It's up to you." I looked in the mirror to see a ghostly white vehicle on the edge of sight. It faded in and out of the dust cloud. The power died. I figured something had gone wrong and looked at the gauges. The pickup would get us for sure if we broke down. A sharp noise like an explosion from behind startled me. The mirrors showed only a cloud of dust as the power came back. That was the last I saw of the white truck. I didn't slow for at least two miles. A bit farther down the gravel road, my passenger told me to stop, which I was very willing to do. I wasn't sure I could handle more excitement, more adrenaline, and his calm indicated he thought we were safe for now. When the truck was still, he reached over and shook my hand. "Good luck to you, kid. I hope that did the trick. Tell me, did Slim make it to the ranch?" I nodded. "Excellent. Keep on going to where they told you to go. And good luck to you." He closed the door and loped off over a low hill. The road followed an almost straight line for what seemed like forever. We rolled over low hills as I looked for the old National Guard base, and on this road we'd find the back gate just as we'd been told. Behind us, in the mirrors, a narrow column of black smoke rose through the dust we had raised. Off to the side, farther away, a huge column of thick, orange black smoke climbed toward the clouds in the distance. A tall chain link fence began to parallel the road. We followed it almost a mile until we found a single person next to a gate, a rifle held at rest. I turned into the gate and eased to a stop. The rifle person climbed to the window and looked at me. "That must have been a whale of an explosion." I answered, "That's for sure, but dynamite would have been better." "Drive through. Stop when you clear the gate." He spoke quietly into his lapel as I moved into the complex. In the mirror, I saw him swing the gate closed, slide a thick chain through where the gates met, and slam a huge padlock home so no one would enter. He climbed into the passenger seat. "Down the road. Third left." Those directions were easy enough and
brought us into a small town of dilapidated buildings. "Any trouble?" he asked, and then said, "No, don't tell me. Save it for the colonel." I made the left between two faded gray wooden buildings. "Looks like you did it though. Should have seen the fireworks from here. Im-pres-sive." We passed several more streets. "OK, turn right here, then into that building," he pointed at a low, metal arch of a building that enclosed a large area. "Down the ramp on the left." An older person with a weapon stood by the door of the large Quonset hut. A flick of a switch shut down the fuel cell and turned on the batteries as we drove past him and down the ramp. I had to turn on the lights to see when we drove out of the sun into an area just brighter than night. The ramp curved down what seemed a mile, but I later learned was only 300 feet below ground level. A large room filled with people in and out of uniform opened in front of us. The middle of the room seemed clear, so I stopped and shut down the battery power. Forty or fifty people started to climb over the truck. I lost count of the number of times people clapped me on the back after they pulled me out of the cab. Finally someone said, "Make way for the colonel." A tall, well-built man with short blond hair and a full beard made his way through the small crowd. He seemed familiar, but with the beard, no, it couldn't be; he was dead. But it was. "Larry!" I cried and almost jumped in his arms. I shook his hand instead. "We thought you were dead! John! Randy! Come see!" They were already next to us ready to greet him. "What happened to you?" I asked. "Well, it's a long story, Ted," he laughed. "I'll tell you later. Charley, move the truck. Any word from the ranch?" The person the colonel--colonel?--told to move the truck said, "They're clear. We have preliminary reports coming in. Our area seems to be a complete success." "Radio!" Larry called. "What reports?" The radio operator in the corner never looked up from his microphone; he was too busy. "Picked up what's coming in. Seems like 'bout half the world's free, and more all the time. Only heard of two failed missions. Seems to be
workin' fairly good, sir." "Great," Colonel Singer told him. "Oh, by the way, meet the three kids who came up with the idea." The radio operator turned toward us and said, "Hey, cool. Good to--." He got a far away look in his eyes. "Got to answer this one. Should I tell our team to return? Nothing there to mop up." Someone yelled, "We did it!" A general cheer rose in the large room. Colonel Singer yelled, "Enough! Let's get back to work, people. Tell them to help at the ranch." He gathered the three of us together, and then noticed Shelly who still stood where the truck had been. "Who's your friend?" he asked. John said quickly, "That's Shelly. She contacted Zeb and the professor after we lost you. She also knew about the Bar None. She's been instrumental in the completion of our effort." "What was that you just came up with John?" I asked him. "Instrumental? Effort? Where'd you hear that one?" "Don't worry about it," John threw over his shoulder. "Colonel, Shelly and Ted like each other. She knew him years ago, and she knows about herbs and medicine. One of the alien's goons shot her, and Ted took care of her. She's been a lot of help." "That's good," the colonel said, his mind on other things. "Hey, Ted. Where's that stutter you had?" "What?" I hadn't even thought of it. "You haven't been stuttering. Sounds good. I have to get back to work. There's food through that door. Go to it." Colonel Singer turned away from us and called, "Radio!" We wandered through the door into the next room, which turned out to be a mess hall. Along the back wall someone had filled a long table with cold cuts and casseroles, everything needed for a quick meal. One of the resistance, who layered different meats onto a humongous sandwich, looked up at us and said, "You're new. Just call me Bob. I'm cook, and I figured with all this going on most folk would just eat and run, so I made it easy. Help yourself." "Shelly, Ted, Randy, and I'm John. We just got here."
"Oh." Bob placed lettuce carefully on top of onion slices. "You did the main complex. Heard that went well. Congrats. You met the colonel?" "Sure," John told him. "We knew him when this all was just starting and he was a captain." "Wait a minute," Bob held a piece of bread in the air while he stared at us. "You're not the John. You can't be. You have an uncle in Oklahoma?" "Yeah," John answered. "You three built the antenna?" "Yeah. And they took it down," John complained. "We had to, man, but we rebuilt it a couple of months ago." Bob put the sandwich down and shook each of our hands. "According to the colonel, you three are the ones who saved the world. It's an honor to meet you." To tell the truth that made me feel good, but I didn't really think that we deserved it. I asked, "Do you know what happened to Colonel Singer after he was captured?" "From what I understand, and it's only hearsay you know, but they took him to the local lockup and beat him severely, even though he gave them as much information as he could. That wasn't enough, so they brought him here and did the same thing. Then they were going to take him to the main base in Afghanistan. He grabbed a broom handle, broke it off, and used it like a spear. Then he found his way to the Bar None Ranch. They sent him out here to recover. He talked to General Kennedy who put him in charge of the operation here. Now we mop up." Randy yawned. "Well, I, for one, am going to sleep." He could sleep? My adrenaline was still at high levels. Randy continued, "That was a long night. And tell me something, Ted, where did you get your license?" "Yeah," John joined in, "that was one awful ride. I thought you were going to kill us." "He kept us alive," Shelly said. "If he hadn't been so crazy that guard would have shot and killed us. The one that didn't ride with us." "A guard rode with you?" Bob asked.
"Yeah. Why?" "Two of the guards were with us. Got us all our information. One reported in last night. I was hoping the other one would get away. He's a friend of mine. Look. I’ll see you four later. Take care." He left us to raid the food table.
Three hours later, almost everyone was at the major celebration that had started in the mess hall. Larry had just joined us with a plate piled high with sandwiches and potato salad when the radio officer called that he had a message. "New orders, Sir." "Put them on the two-way PA," he called. To us he said, "I've never received orders like this, but with new times and the confusion and all." "General Lawrence Singer, are you there?" a familiar voice called from the speaker system. The room immediately silenced. General Singer? I wondered. I thought he was a Colonel. Larry called back, "General Kennedy?" "That's Brigadier General to you. Everyone involved has received promotions for what good it will do. Your bars will be waiting at your next assignment. "I must congratulate you General. I understand your team was successful, that the main base on our side of the world is no more. That is good work, but it's time to move on. After the local ceremonies you are to move to a newly formed base in Oklahoma and take over operations." Oklahoma? A new base? Our dish was would be under military control from now on, and Larry would be in charge? Would we have a say in what happened this time? The ranch wouldn't suffer with what the government paid on leases, but I'm sure John's uncle wouldn't like that situation. *** In a ceremony conducted in Salina's town square a few days later, those at the ranch, and General Singer, were recognized as world patriots. John, Randy, and I were given gifts for our part in the war, the part that they knew. After the ceremonies we drove out of town, stayed the night in a hotel provided by appreciative innkeepers, and traveled
home in a convoy. Randy led our parade while he chauffeured John in his new hybrid car, a sleek model from before the attack given to him by the people of Salina. Shelly let me drive the all wheel drive hybrid they had given her, packed with our gear, which of course included the bows and arrows and the gifts the rest of us had received. A military desert Humvee followed us with a motor pool driver. General Singer and his aid rode in that monstrosity. Some towns we rode through gave us a police escort, and on three occasions the entire town's population, what was left of it, lined the streets to cheer us. Late that afternoon we found ourselves in a cloud of dust raised by Randy's car as we drove up John's Uncle Brandon's driveway. I stopped just before I hit the sports car, shut off the engine, and opened my door. Everybody was at the Taylor Ranch. My mom almost knocked me over as I climbed out. Tears streamed down her face. She tried to squeeze the life out of me as she cried on my shoulder. Dad had to fight through the crowd, shook my hand, looked at me as if I'd just graduated college, got a job as a CEO, and invented the wheel all at the same time, and then joined in the hug. His eyes were as bright as Mom's. It seemed as if the entire county and then some had turned out to greet us. Even the professors had come. When Mom and Dad let me go, I greeted people I knew, friends from school, and strangers who acted as if they'd known me all my life. Finally, we joined the rest of The Patriots as some people called us. Mr. Taylor saw Shelly and said, "John, you ought to introduce the lady." "Actually, Ted should do that," John answered, Julie O'Dell, the girl from the pharmacy who's boyfriend, probably ex, had caused us so much problem in town and later on the ranch, held his hand. Everyone looked at me, especially Mom and Dad. Dad had a look in his eye that said he knew more than me, though about what I wasn't sure. "Uh, this is Shelly Breckenridge," I told them. "We, um, well--." I could not say another word. I had been ready to tell them about all we'd been through, but I choked up at seeing them alive. I'd been more worried about them than about my safety, since I knew what we were doing, but didn't have a clue how they were. I knew I wouldn't leave home for
years. Well, maybe not until tomorrow. Shelly shook Dad's hand. "We met years ago when Ted visited his uncle, and we met again what seems like ages ago." Supper that night was a huge covered dish affair that stretched from the front of the house all the way through the alfalfa field to the road. All six churches in town and the school district had supplied tables and chairs. Everybody had brought something to eat, and three Woodward restaurants had supplied even more food. Larry gathered John, Shelly, Randy, and me to him, raised his voice so everyone could hear, and announced, "This is not just a celebration because these youngsters took out the main base for this hemisphere, the second most important target in the world. It's because of these four young people here that we can call ourselves free again." He had to wait for the cheers and applause to die down before he continued, "Their finding the invading force before they attacked, and their idea to organize the resistance before the attack started, saved the world. By the time the Alnoutes landed, we had reworked all the records, and they had no way of knowing for sure about the underground. Until it was too late." Raucous cheers sounded loud enough to be heard all the way down to Woodward. Under cover of the noise, he told us, "I've just learned the Alnoutes that are colonizing Venus have sent word their leaders called them back to spy. They arrived to see the situation changed, and have asked if we can carry on friendly relations. They say they have enough to do on Venus, and aren't interested in fighting us. In fact, they've asked for our help. Apparently, their instruments aren't that good. It seems the temperature's higher than they were counting on, along with the CO2 content of the air, and the atmospheric pressure, all because of the geology of the planet, and they need help bringing it down. We'll see what happens." I hate to say it, but this was all too good to be true. I figured it was time to wake up from the dream, except if I dreamed, my eyes wouldn't be so watery. I was home with those I loved, and with my good friends, both old and new. The effort to rebuild the world wouldn't be that bad, I hoped.
*** Over the past year the world has been peaceful, as if all the tribes and governments and people of the world knew their differences were small compared to what could happen. Most of the countries that were affected will recover. Big business finally understands what harm pollution can do now that huge tracts of forest and wilderness area have died off. But in some places where forests were ravaged, green shoots have appeared, and with help from everyone, those areas will survive. To battle the destruction is a major project, but the whole world understands they must work as hard as possible to make things better. I just wonder how long it will last.