Slamming the door behind him, Lieutenant Lopez sits behind the driver’s wheel and turns on the engine. Without looking up from the open cardboard box in his lap, Colonel Forrest asks, “What did you find out?”
Before replying, Lieutenant Lopez spins the wheel and quickly exits a partially-filled parking lot back onto the main road, “This was the right church, alright. It was rebuilt and expanded after a small fire eleven years ago. That’s why it looks different from the photos, sir.”
“I saw a crowd milling around just before you returned. Are they having services now?”
“Not anymore. The chapel was all set for a funeral; casket, pastor, a couple deacons, candles, and everything else you’d expect. The front doors opened just as I arrived to take a look around, and I was only a few people behind the first parishioner who entered; an elderly lady who must’ve gotten there early to get a pew closer to the altar. Since I wasn’t the only one in some kind of military uniform no one paid any attention to me.
My original plan was to make a quick circle around the room and leave. That is, before the old lady locked eyes with someone already sitting in the front row. She started screaming her lungs out and fainted. That’s when I decided to blend in with the crowd leaving before the local sheriff, and an ambulance, showed up.”
“For lack of a better word, was it ... him?”
“He was gone before I could see his face. But unless you know something else able to melt through two pews, and leave a hula hoop size hole in a door without making a sound, I’d say yes. There are far too many witnesses to keep this out of the news, Colonel.”
“I’ve seen worse. A well-placed cover story, and a lot of cash ‘donated’ to the town’s mayor for public charity, will make this incident vanish like just another ghost story. If not, something a lot more drastic is always a final option.”
“If the only other choice is a country-wide mass panic, they would. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.”
“You ... you ... didn’t!?”
“No. Let’s just say it wasn’t my job, and leave it at that. Okay?”
Lieutenant Lopez reaches into his pocket and hands over a small partially-melted brass plaque, “You might want to see this, sir. I picked it up on my way out.”
Colonel Forrest turns it around until he can read the inscription, ‘This pew donated by the family of the late Pastor Joseph Gabriel, and dedicated to the memory of John, Donna, Linda, and Susan Becker. May they find peace in HIS loving embrace for all eternity.’
“What’s next, sir? It won’t be long before telephone conversations about the church zero the NSA in on the DE’s general location. And it’s not like your car doesn’t stand out like a flame-red parade float.”
“Where we’re going isn’t that far. Take us to the place I circled.”
Colonel Forrest removes the last remaining aerial photo from a folder, and tosses it onto the dashboard in front of Lieutenant Lopez.
“A cemetery? Why?”
“It’s time to give our condolences to a dead man.”
“We’re here, sir.”
“Over there, park out of sight behind that backhoe.”
Without an enclosing brick or cement wall, around twenty acres of well-tendered grass stretch out before them. Except for a recently dug empty grave, and the funeral-home tent raised to shelter folding chair seated mourners from the heat of a rising early-morning Sun, there’s nothing blocking their view of a single figure standing motionlessly on the far side of the cemetery.
“No doubt about it! That’s him!”
“Are you sure, Colonel? That’s quite a distance.”
“Take a good look. The Sun is coming up right behind him. Do you see what’s missing?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
“There’s no shadow.”
“Damn, how could I miss that? What now, sir? Do you want me to go in with you?”
“Yes, but don’t get too close. I want you to maintain a good running distance. Here, take it.”
Colonel Forrest hands Lieutenant Lopez a sealed envelope.
“A signed confession absolving you of any responsibility for what I’ve done. If things ... go badly, or if I you don’t hear from me in a couple hours, I want you to take my car somewhere safe and turn yourself in; preferably someplace far away from here.”
“Am I in danger, sir?”
“Who knows? I just don’t want my car blown up if they decide to drop another nuke. Now grab the briefcase and let’s go!”
Rural cemeteries are quite different from their metropolitan counterparts. Instead of gleaming marble mausoleums, and elaborately carved gravestones, crafted to impress rarely visiting fellow city dwellers with a lavish display of transient wealth or family influence; far simpler stones proclaiming heartfelt affection is the general rule.
Rural cemeteries are intended for quiet reflection; a place where cherished memories are rejuvenated. And the passage of time is measured not by a single individual’s accomplishments in life, but by the generations of family and friends they rest in peace among.
John Becker is not at peace.
Only steps away from weathered tombstones bearing the names of his parents, and older generations going back far into the past, he repeatedly reads less timeworn grave markers inscribed with those of his wife, children ... and his own.
< [Lifeforms approaching / collect? / assimilate? / integrate? / Command]>
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but could I have a moment of your time?”
To say Becker spun around in surprise, and anger, to confront the unknown speaker would be a gross misinterpretation of what actually happened next. On a purely emotional level, he had every right to feel great hostility towards anyone possibly responsible for his current state, and for the mistreatment he’d suffered since ... awakening ... inside a metal box.
So it’s perfectly understandable that he could be driven by deep seething resentment, and justifiable ire, to inflict great harm on those who’d injured him.
The rage never comes.
Intellectually, when closely examined, every thought, emotion, and desire he’d experienced since being attacked in Potter’s milking shed felt both muted and unreal. More akin to an actor losing themselves within the life story of a character they’ve played for far too long.
Physically, he doesn’t actually turn at all. From one immeasurable moment to the next, as if his very existence is nothing more than a single slide in a projector, he’s no longer looking at his empty grave, but directly facing someone he’d meet once before.
< [collect? / assimilate? / integrate? / Command]>
‘YES!! YES!! YES!! DO ANYTHING YOU WANT!!’
Not really knowing what his approval will entail, Becker’s hands clinch tightly, and his arms raise straight up of their own accord as if preparing to deliver a massive blow ... ‘STOP!!’
To Becker’s surprise, the uniformed army officer isn’t retreating. Instead, the man lifts his right arm until a small cardboard box is clearly visible within his grasp, “I brought someone to see you. Someone you left behind.”
Once more in control, Becker lowers both arms and stretches his cupped palms outwards. He remains totally still as Colonel Forrest takes two steps closer, and places the open box gently into his hands, “It was a long drive. He just finished another grape.”
With his head bowed, Becker peeks inside and smiles. The mouse is sleeping comfortably.
< [collect? / assimilate? / integrate? / Command]>
“I won’t lie. I have no idea why this happened to you. Or even what you are. But, if you let me, I will tell everything I know from the very beginning ... LOPEZ!!”
From three or four yards away, and having instinctively placed four or five tombstones between himself and danger, Lieutenant Lopez replies, “SIR!?”
“Drop the briefcase and go back to the car. Keep in mind what I told you ... understood?”
His feet already moving, Lieutenant Lopez replies, “YES, SIR!!” and increases his pace even more.
Colonel Forrest retrieves the briefcase and unlocks it. One by one, he removes a half-dozen bulging bright-red plastic folders, and bends down to arrange them by date across the cement slab covering a nearby grave. Lifting and opening the oldest, he begins a quick and precise summary of its top secret contents.
Nearly an hour has gone by since Lieutenant Lopez climbed back into Colonel Forrest’s car. The adrenaline roller-coaster he’s been experiencing since this mess began is close to jumping the tracks. With little to distract his racing mind, he turns to the dashboard’s antiquated AM radio / 8-track player for something to pass the time.
The radio is a total bust. Far from any sizable city, there’s nothing but stock market livestock and grain prices quotes, and country western songs that were old before he was born. The 8-track is even worse. After several minutes of intense searching between, under, and behind the front seats, only two dusty cartridges of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits are to be found.
A fan of Grunge since high school, he’d rather the DE ate him than listen to either one.
Mumbling, “Damn those guys are slow! I heard that chopper fifteen minutes ago. Did they take the scenic route?”
Turning his head towards the open driver’s side window, in hopes of seeing Colonel Forrest on his way back, he finds the muzzle of an M-16 pointing straight at his nose.
“DON”T FUCKING MOVE!!”
“What are ... you ... doing here, Telly? I thought they’d send Patterson after us.”
“I said ... DON’T FUCKING ... CRAP!! JUST GIMME THE BRIEFCASE!!”
“Is that it? Not how ya’ doing? Why are you still alive?”
“WHERE ... IS ... IT!? DON’T MAKE ME GET ROUGH!!”
“Get rough? You wanna see ... rough!?” Lieutenant Lopez shows both 8-track cartridges to Corporal Telly, “If you don’t tell me what’s going on, I’m gonna play Blue Suede Shoes on the barrack’s PA system until you ears freakin’ bleed!”
Corporal Telly lowers his rifle and steps back from the car. Looking over the rooftop, he waves at two other soldiers aiming their weapons from behind the cover of the backhoe, “Stand down! It’s just Lieutenant Lopez.”
Neither one does. One, aiming a M249 light machine gun at Lopez’s skull through the front passenger window yells, “Like crap I will, Telly! I’m not letting any of those things eat my brain!”
“I said ... STAND DOWN!! Or I’m gonna tell Patterson yous guys can’t follow a simple freakin’ order! And, for the record Samuel, I’ve seen the magazines you’ve got stashed inside your footlocker. Any alien roach snackin’ on your brain is gonna die from food poisoning! And that goes double for you, Edwards!”
Both soldiers mumble something unintelligible, and drop out of sight behind the backhoe.
After tossing the music cartridges onto the dashboard, Lieutenant Lopez asks, “What’s going on, Corporal?”
“About what you’d expect, sir. With the last of the command staff gone, namely you and Colonel Forrest, the LDDS was left holding the bag. As the highest ranking noncom in the chain of command, Sergeant Patterson took over and sealed the place up tight ... that is, if you don’t count that huge hole in the vault room.
Except for lab coats asking weird questions on the Colonel’s phone, it stayed quiet until around oh five thirty. That’s when a bunch of M113A3 armored personnel carriers, and a whole shitload of AH-64 Apache helicopters, showed up from the Carlisle Army Garrison. They threatened to turn Building Three into gravel if we stuck our noses outside without permission, and started laying down enough concertina wire to reach Miami.”
“Someone actually followed a forty-year-old containment protocol manual!?”
“I know, shocked the shit out everyone; any idea why you didn’t … sir?”
“Obeying direct orders and I’ve got a signed letter from Colonel Forrest to prove it.”
“You wanna talk about direct orders, Lieutenant? How’s this? We’re under orders to stuff what’s left of you into a body bag if you refuse to hand over the briefcase. Or, and here’s the good part, if you’re acting outer spacey. What the heck is ... outer spacey ... suppose to mean anyhow?”
“Who are ... we?”
“Edwards, Samuel, and me ... and a couple Marine pilots wearing see-through plastic bio-hazard suits in the US-60A Black Hawk that brought us here. They’re parked about a half-mile over yonder behind that huge ass barn. We’re to bring back the briefcase, with, or without, both of you or else. Where ... is ... Colonel Forrest by the way?”
“Over there, at the other side of the cemetery. Doing officer stuff; like trying to convince the DE not to destroy the world.”
“Why are you acting so surprised? Weren’t you sent to check on it, too?”
“Hell and freakin’ no! Like I said ... grab the briefcase or go back. And, if it’s not too much trouble, bring both of you back breathin’. Otherwise, not-breathin’ is just as good.”
If you weren’t following the DE, how did you find us?”
“Don’t you know the Colonel’s car is like Big Foot? Everywhere it goes, day or night, teenagers with muscle car hard-ons posts photos and comments about it on the internet; and every Barney Fife with a squad car radio hopes to balance their small town’s budget if it does the speed limit plus a hundred. Next time you wanna drive around all quiet-like, take that junk pile of yours ah ... sir.”
“I’ll have you know my car is a classic too, Telly!”
“A seven year old rice-burner Hyundai Excel is many things, Lieutenant, but a classic ain’t one of them.”
“And, of course ... the Colonel has no idea ’cause he doesn’t go online.”
“That sounds about right. And few cops are gonna ticket a full-bird colonel in uniform anyway.”
“So, what happens now?”
“I’m kinda stuck, Lieutenant. Look up. See that little contrail? If I don’t return with that briefcase soon, those guys in the Black Bird are gonna call that pilot down to say hello. Personally, I’d rather not be on the receivin’ end of a napalm shampoo.”
“Sorry, I’m under orders to take care of the car. So, when are you three leaving to get it?”
It bears repeating ... cemeteries are places of quiet reflection. Where the wholesome comforting sounds of Nature hold sway, and the sobs of grieving family members and friends rarely rise above a muffled whisper . . . usually. Three loud full-throated groans, one in front of the Lieutenant, and two nearby behind a bright green backhoe, almost reach two figures standing face to face in the distance.