CHAPTER 21 – A Friendly Face
The dirt bank flashed past only inches outside of the right windows of the big sedan. Trying to anticipate the road, ahead, Jason was only peripherally aware of the grassy slopes of the surrounding hillsides interspersed by gullies and ravines with dense ribbons of oaks and willows. Towering eucalyptus trees stood in shadowy groves and in long lines of windbreaks along ridges above open pastures and hayfields.
The hill on the left rose to crest far above them, and to the right the opposing hillside rose from the bed of a dry creek far below the road. The gully disappeared as the hills closed in on both sides, forming a narrow defile like the open throat of a funnel. Suddenly, the hills leveled out. They were surrounded by houses—and they were barreling into town at over eighty miles an hour.
The front of the car was trying to dart off in every direction when Jason removed one hand from the wheel long enough to drop the transmission into second. He pumped the brake pedal as hard and fast as he dared. With the transmission going into a whining howl, Nate gasped and pointed out the windshield about the time Jason realized the street ahead was blocked at the next fast approaching cross street by a car sitting diagonally across it.
“Oh, shit!” Jason yelled as his foot pressed harder on the brake pedal.
The car nosed down briefly before all four wheels locked up, and it was like the road had turned to ice. The pressure of deceleration that had pressed everyone forward disappeared at the onset of the skid.
The blockage loomed closer.
The screech of smoking tires on dry pavement echoed among the houses lining the street. The nose of the car drifted left as the tail end came around, aligning it, door to door, with the one blocking the street. They were about to hit it at better than sixty miles per hour, smashing everyone inside against the shattering windows and rending metal, crushing bones and organs in grizzly death.
With little more than a hundred feet separating the cars, Jason did his best to ignore whatever it was up front that was repeatedly clunking in time with the wheel trying to jerk the wheel out of his hands as he wrenched it wheel back to the right, into the skid and toward the fast approaching barrier, and then popped off the brake just enough to allow the wheels to begin to rotate. Once again able to roll, the front tires regained their grip on the road, and the back end veered back to the left. As soon as he felt the positive resistance, he snapped the wheel hard to the left, then hard right, again standing on the brake for just an instant, completing the controlled skid. The swaying, heavy car whipped over to the left side of the road, straightened up, and slipped between the nose of the other car and the telephone pole at the curb. Whatever was clunking hadn’t affected the maneuver. As far as Jason knew—and as surprised as he was that it had even worked—it might even have helped.
Just past the front end of the other car, a child’s tricycle lay turned on its side. As Jason’s right front wheel struck it, the curved and bent steel twisted even more under the smashing weight of the car into a shapeless tangle of metal. But in so doing, one hooked end of the handlebar snapped up, neatly hooked over the loop of a sagging brake line. Held firmly to the ground by the wheel rolling over it, it ripped the line apart.
Brake fluid sprayed out in full streams with each subsequent pump of the brake pedal, and none of the hydraulic force made it to the wheel cylinders to push the brake pads against the rotors.
Another cross street blinked past with not a sign of other traffic. Most of the homes and yards streaming past showed at least some damage from recent fires that had swept through the area. Some were only scorched by the intensity of the heat from a neighboring inferno. Many had burned to the ground and even yet sent up curls of smoke from the embers. Others had been gutted, but for whatever reasons, the fires had extinguished themselves before total destruction.
The front end still took every opportunity to try to take off in a direction different from what Jason struggled to maintain.
They passed several cars left on the roadway at odd angles, but none blocked their passage. A few had crashed and burned. Many had simply been stopped and abandoned.
As the car barreled down the street, with its gradually diminishing speed still holding the speedometer needle at nearly sixty, the last of the brake fluid sprayed onto the pavement. Beneath Jason’s foot, the pedal flopped to the floor without resistance other than that of the return spring. With a good portion of his attention taken by swerving around other abandoned cars in the street, by the time it occurred to him that the brakes were not working at all, they had gone another block. He stomped the pedal for the parking brake, and a steel cable rather than hydraulic pressure locked up the rear wheels. It was like dropping an anchor chained to the back bumper. But the big car carried a tremendous amount of momentum, and the inefficient drum brakes on the rear merely slowed them.
When the figure of a man raced across the street a half a block ahead, Jason didn’t, at first, in the moment before his conscious mind assessed the situation, assign much significance to it. After all, they weren’t really close enough to have posed a serious threat to the man. Then another figure ran into the street behind the man, and the second figure was not a man—roughly humanoid but not human. The second figure stopped and pointed something at the running man.
Still traveling at nearly forty miles per hour, the car had drawn much closer by the time Jason realized the strangeness of the creature. It had stopped halfway across the street before looking back over its shoulder at the mass of metal hurtling toward it. On reflex, Jason cranked the wheel to the left, but the movement was too abrupt. All it accomplished was to put the car into another broadside skid. The big car now moved down the street on the oblique, almost its full length eating up the paved space between curbs like a snowplow.
The alien creature turned back to its original course and started to sprint for the side of the street, but it was too slow. Just before the car reached it, the creature turned back to face it again, its weapon tossed aside and its strangely shaped hands reaching out to hold off death.
The right side of the car just forward of the windshield struck it, and the thing slammed across the hood with a solid thud. But its right leg caught beneath the right front fender just behind the wheel prevented it from going on across. Stretching across the hood, it clawed at the windshield and those behind it. With a lurch, it wrenched its body upward and smashed a hand through the center of the windshield.
Nate ducked to the side and grabbed onto the creature’s hand with his own two preventing it from reaching farther into the car.
The body spread across the hood of the car was human in general size and its arm configuration, although not the leg, but it could never be mistaken for a human being. Its grotesque face loomed just beyond the windshield. Two deep-set, slanted eyes peered out from under radically protruding brow ridges that extended to form points at the extreme outer corners almost like the horns of Satan. A narrow tuft of black hair ran down the crown of its scalp, and two large, club ears added to the ogreish look. Heavy black lips lined its gaping mouth, turning down at the corners. Its free hand, gnarled with short, talon-like nails grasped at Jason’s face beyond the windshield, clutched and clawed at the air, scraped across the paint of the hood.
Jason’s white knuckled fists were powerless to maneuver the big car. He could do nothing but grip the steering wheel, stand on the useless brake pedal, and gaze through the windshield at the creature.
Still skidding broadside and drifting left, the front end began brushing the curb in a screeching howl of metal against concrete. This caused the back end to swing around until, just as they passed an ancient, half-dead pair of trees growing between the curb and sidewalk, it bounced over the curb, then bounced and slewed backwards across the lawn of the next yard in front of a big house on the corner.
The alien’s body started sliding back off the hood with the sudden deceleration and bouncing jar of the first impact of the car against the curb, but its arm was firmly snagged in the windshield. Then the force of the tire rolling over its leg tore the other foot loose from where it had been wedged, and the thing flopped over the side. Its hand wrenched back out of the windshield, partially dragging Nate’s hand through the hole before losing its grip.
By the time the back bumper touched the twisted and gnarled bole of a huge pepper tree in the middle of the expansive lawn, the speed was low enough for the car to simply bounce, rock a couple of times on its springs, and settle.
The long seconds it had taken them to travel the last half a mile, and especially the last couple of hundred feet, and all the events occurring during that passage seemed to have stretched out, as though experienced in slow motion, so that every instant and every action was clearly lived. And then, it was over. Everyone sat for a moment afraid to believe the terrifying ride was really ended. Then, all at once, they all began asking each other if they were okay, was anyone injured and “are you sure?” when the response was “no, I’m okay.” Except for Nate gashing his hand when he jerked it out of the hole in the windshield, they had all come through unscathed.
They got out, not sure what to expect as they gathered near the front bumper and gazed back the way they had come at the form sprawled on the grass. They gathered around it noting that not all the angles and bends of its strangely shaped limbs were due to broken bones. The thing wore something like an abbreviated jumpsuit, cut off at the upper arms and mid-thighs, and with a variety of pockets and hard pouches. Beneath that, it was covered with a wrinkled hide with folds like a rhinoceros. A four-inch wide, red sash that seemed to have no function other than decoration draped across its chest like a bandoleer.
“Never saw anything like it.” Nate mumbled.
Jason stood up and brushed the hair out of his eyes and sweat from his brow. “No, I’m sure you haven’t. The question is, are there any more around?”
A series of distant shots rang out, three close together, then two more. They appeared to be only a block or so away and were the only sounds to be heard in the strangely silent town for long seconds. Before anyone had a chance to remark, another shot sounded from another direction. After a moment or two, more shots sounded from various directions and distances. It was like they had been set down in the middle of a battleground. As Jason focused on the sounds of shots, he became aware of many more far off in the distance, half way across town or more.
“Sounds like there are, and more than a few,” Nate said.
A muffled squeal from Emmie standing at Jason’s elbow brought him around with a jerk. Joining the others to peer back in the direction of approaching, running footfalls, he almost forgot to breathe, certain that another horror was about to appear.
The figure coming down the sidewalk in halting sprints towards them while glancing over his shoulder and to both sides was large and ran in a crouched posture, but it was clearly a man. When he came nearer and away from the cover of the thick shrubbery lining the sidewalk, Jason realized he was the man who ran across the street just ahead of the alien.
“Everyone all right? Anyone hurt?” The man panted hard as he drew up to their group and glanced at each one.
“I think we’re all okay.” Jason responded. “Nothing serious, anyway. What about you? That thing was chasing you.”
“No, I’m okay. But, why were you driving hell-bent like that? You’d have better luck sneaking out of town if you went slow and quiet. Anyway, you were going the wrong way for the quickest way out.”
Jason looked into the man’s eyes as he spoke, blue eyes that seemed to smoke in their intensity. The man was taller, maybe six-one or so, and younger than Jason, thirty at the most. He had a muscular, athletic build and short blond hair. The loose shirt worn outside his pants waist revealed little of his build, but the corded muscles that bound his forearms below impressive biceps suggested power. Jason recalled how the man had moved with an animal’s quick grace. He didn’t look familiar, but.... “We just got in town. From the coast. But what—”
“Hold on,” the man said as he held up his hand. Then as he looked around, he said, “Let’s get into cover. That thing wasn’t alone, you know.” He turned and ran to the house. “Come on, move it!” he ordered over his shoulder in a harsh whisper in a tone that suggested giving orders that were obeyed was not something new to him. He disappeared into the darkness beyond the double doors.
Nate was the last one in and closed the door quietly by turning the knob. As he did so, he left a red smear from his bleeding hand.
Without moving the curtain, the stranger peered out a window for a bit before turning to address the group. “We should be okay here for a few minutes. Can’t stay long, though, not with that body out there. My name’s Adam, by the way. Adam Rainger.”
Jason stepped forward and said, “I’m Jason Wolfe. This is Erin, Nate and Emmie, my daughter. Look, like I said, we just got into town from out at the coast. We have a pretty good idea of what’s happened. I mean—those things out there. That’s the first one I’ve seen in the flesh, but, believe me, I do know what they can do. Emmie and I had front row seats when they destroyed San Francisco.”
Jason’s description of the invader’s ship hovering in the now smoke-filled sky above the bay caught Adam’s attention. He just nodded when he heard how it spewed out squadrons of planes.
Jason went on, “I still have a hard time comprehending the...the extent of the destruction. My God—the deaths! Thousands upon thousands. We may be the only two people that got away alive out of the entire metropolitan area. I’m just glad we were on this side of the bridge. I don’t think many made it across alive. I was kinda hoping Petaluma had been missed.”
Adam closed his eyes briefly, before speaking with a voice that quivered from fear or rage or maybe both. “Their planes got here a little before noon day before yesterday. When I realized they weren’t from Earth, I wondered how those little things had crossed space. I didn’t know about the mother ship.” He paused and took a deep breath before he went on. “Then I got knocked out, so I missed seeing a lot of what happened, but I understand after they got the town burning in a hundred different places, they just left. Moving farther afield, I suppose, finding more distant towns to burn. They started showing up on the ground yesterday afternoon. One of the men back at the house said he saw something come down near downtown, a flying saucer or UFO or something. Not like the little ones on the first day. He said this one was big and round and kind of floated down after it got over downtown. I haven’t been in that area to check it out. Doesn’t seem to be a good place to be.”
“How many are there?” Nate asked.
“Can’t say. They just roam around, alone or in pairs. I don’t think I’ve seen more than two or three together, but they’re scattered all over town. If they have a pattern of patrol, or whatever they are doing, I haven’t caught on to it. There could be a dozen or a hundred here in Petaluma. Hell, there could be a thousand. You said you saw San Francisco destroyed. Was it just the city, or did they go beyond that? How wide spread is this thing, anyway? There hasn’t been a thing on the air since they first hit. Not that there’s been any electricity, but we do have a couple of battery powered radios.”
Jason shook his head and said, “When I said San Francisco, I meant the Bay Area cities, too. All of ’em, as far as I know.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s world-wide.” Erin said.
Adam looked at her in disbelief. She had said it so easily, like she was talking about the weather or discourteous drivers or some similar banality, not an invasion of Earth.
Erin added, “I was told about it by someone who had listened to radio broadcasts from various parts of this country and several others on that first day. I’m pretty certain she was telling the truth…it’s a long story.”
“Jesus!” Adam said softly, in almost a whisper.
Jason said, “It wasn’t only the cities they burned. I saw dozens of our fighters burned out of the sky. Didn’t have a chance against their planes. And there’s probably more than one mother ship for so many places to be attacked in so short a time.”
“You mean we’ve already lost? The military of the United States combined with all the other countries couldn’t repel these...things?”
“Looks that way,” Jason answered. “But, look, we still don’t have very much to base this on. We’ve had a pretty limited view when you consider the entire earth. It may be better than we think in other areas.”
“Yeah,” Adam said as he eased onto the arm of a nearby easy chair. “Or worse.”
“What kind of weapons are the ground troops carrying?” asked Nate.
It took a moment for him to respond. He looked like someone had just landed a heavy fist in his gut. “Uh...same kind as on their planes, I think, only smaller, probably some kind of laser. They look like sticks with a couple of knobs or buttons. Shoots a beam about an inch wide, and it’ll burn a hole right through you about…” He snapped his fingers. “That quick. Only good thing is they don’t take any long-distance shots. If you can stay at least a hundred feet away from them, you might be okay. Problem is, once they see you, it’s about impossible to get away. That one out there was the second one for me. I finally managed to ditch the first one that jumped me. Not easy, but I did it, back before I checked my friends’ house. I don’t know if I could have gotten away from this one. They don’t run all that fast—about like a man. But they don’t stop. I think they could run all day.”
Nate asked, “Are there many people left? I mean, well, this house doesn’t look damaged. Where are the people that lived here?”
Adam glanced around at the expensive furnishings and shook his head. “Who knows? They either ran away, or they didn’t, in which case they could still be here, maybe even alive and hiding. This whole town is kind of a no-man’s land. Some places were hard hit, but not as bad as others. There’s pockets where nothing’s left—maybe because of all the older houses and lots of large trees. Once a fire got going, it could wipe out a whole block. And, now those things are prowling the area, killing anyone they find. A few folks are trying to fight back. You can hear the shots. But most don’t have any training or experience, and they don’t accomplish much more than getting themselves killed.”
“Sounds like you’ve been around the town a couple of times,” Jason said.
“I do get around, I guess. This is the first time I’ve been in this area since it all started, though. Our house is up in the hilly area the other side of Washington Street, uh...the downtown area.”
Jason looked at Adam and, again, wondered about the man. He said, “I know where Washington Street is. So why are you here, then? Looting?”
Adam returned Jason’s steady gaze as he took half a step forward and said, “That’s right, pal. Only I would call it more like scavenging. There’s not a lot of food left in this town that hasn’t been—shall we say overcooked?”
Jason took a step backward in the face of Adam’s passionate indignation. When Adam paused, Jason said, “Sorry. It was just reflex.”
Adam backed off, too. “Okay. Me too. Sorry.” He looked at Jason’s face again as if he had suddenly recognized him and said, “You’re a cop, aren’t you?”
Jason tensed at the question that was almost an accusation. Over the years, he had found it often disadvantageous in off-duty situations to let it be known too soon that he was a cop. Oftentimes, people that would have otherwise treated him like anyone else, either bludgeoned him with inane jokes and questions, or they grew cold and distant. Now, this man, even in the present circumstances, seemed to think it worthy of mention that Jason was, or had been, a cop. He waited to see where it would lead.
“Oh, hey, I didn’t mean anything,” Adam said at Jason’s hesitation. “You just started here in town within the past year, didn’t you? I’ve been home on leave for almost three weeks, and I remember seeing you around, but not the last time I was home. This is a small town, you know.”
Somewhat reassured, Jason replied, “I’ve been on the department a few months. Do I know you?”
Adam shook his head. “No. We’ve never met. I’ve just seen you around town. In a little place like Petaluma, a new cop stands out. Invites comments among the locals wondering what you’re gonna be like. Kind of touchy about it, aren’t you?”
Jason forced a smile. “Sorry. I’ve had a rough couple of days.”
“I know the feeling. Some of those things have staked out the shopping centers and food stores around town like hunters around water holes. They just wait for people to get hungry and come for food. There are still quite a few people scattered around town, hiding in basements, garages, burned out shells of houses, and a few even in unburned houses. You have to be careful about it, though. Undamaged houses tend to attract attention, unless there are a lot together. Then it’s probably only a matter of time before they get around to searching them all. My group is in a partially burned house in an area with mostly burned ones. We keep a lookout.”
He made a quick round to the windows facing out front, then returned to describing how to survive in changed Petaluma. “Meanwhile, we need food. It didn’t take very long for our numbers to deplete what little bit of food was already in the house, at least the kind that could be eaten without cooking. Cookouts aren’t a real good idea. And with power and gas out, not much gets cooked unless you happen to have a propane camp stove or something. But it would be suicide for all of them to go out, each one looking. I doubt if a tenth would make it back to cover, and then probably without anything to eat. Plus, most likely, they’d be tracked back by things that want to kill us. What food there is left in abandoned homes or stores, trucks and train cars or wherever is going to either rot before it’s used, or the survivors are going to be killing each other over it. I wouldn’t have come this far across town just to look for food, but there was someone that lives...or did, over in this part of town that I needed to check on.”
Erin said, “I take it you didn’t find them. I mean since you’re on your way back alone.”
An awkward moment passed before Adam answered. “Yes and no. I found the blackened remains of two people in the house that was a burned-out hulk. Four people lived there. I’m not sure which ones got out or if they are still alive somewhere.”
“I’m so sorry,” she muttered.
Adam stood and glanced out through the closed curtains again. “Okay, look, we’ve got to get away from this place. That body out there by your car won’t go unnoticed very long. It may even have sent out some kind of signal before it went down. Anyway, let’s make a quick grab from the pantry and head out. I’ll take you back to our hide-out.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Jason said. “I mean, if, like you say, your hide-out is overdue to be discovered... Why don’t you give me an idea which areas are safe, and we’ll find another hide-out?”
Adam shook his head. “There aren’t any safe areas. And the town isn’t like you left it. Probably wouldn’t be hard to get lost. Hell, half of it isn’t even there anymore. Just ashes. Besides,” he said with a grin after a moment when he seemed to be somewhere else that was full of pain, “you can help me carry the loot.”