CHAPTER 26 – Night Recon
Slight pressure on Jason’s shoulder startled him awake and looking about the room for new dangers. The sun nearing the altered skyline of collapsed rooftops in the west filtered its light through a smoke-filled sky, but enough diminished rays got through to allow recognition in the east-facing room. Adam quieted Jason with a finger to his own lips to avoid wakening the others.
At a sideways head-twerk gesture from Adam, Jason got up and followed him out into the hallway where Adam waited. “It’s only a short time until dark, and we still don’t have any idea what those things will do, if anything, when daylight is gone. Come on up to the tower and have a look.”
The third-floor of the turret on the southeast corner had windows facing every direction except northwest, which faced the main roof, and it offered a pretty good view of much of the town. Looking down, Jason saw two men holding guns standing amid high bushes in the front yard.
“Don’t show yourself too close to the window,” Adam cautioned and handed Jason some binoculars. “We don’t know how well they can see. These should help from back here.”
Jason took a step back from the window, adjusted the focus to his eyes and scanned the town below. The changed face of Petaluma he looked at had a bizarre familiarity. But he did recognize many of the buildings and streets, all empty of movement except for the occasional flash of lone persons running from one hole to another.
After searching for a couple of minutes, he saw two figures strolling down the middle of a street. At first startled at their carelessness, he quickly realized they weren’t men after all, but grotesque parodies of men, twins of the creature that had died on the hood of the car. The larger one carried a rod-like thing in its hands. He watched in fascination until they disappeared behind a building. He lowered the binoculars and turned to Adam.
Adam said, “That’s what they do, just walk around like tourists. If they flush anyone, they kill them and just keep right on walking.” He paused for a moment, then added, “There were a couple of times after they killed someone that they could have done that chest-skinning bit like we saw in the garage, but I couldn’t see well enough to be sure. They may have just been examining the bodies.”
Jason raised the binoculars back up to his eyes. In the next few minutes they spotted several more aliens, in pairs and solo, walking among the ruins of the town.
Adam said, “Most of the people here at the house are either injured in some way and not very able to get about, or they are too old to be able to do much. But there’s something I think we need to do. We don’t even know how vulnerable those things are. We know they can be killed—at least by running over them with a car—but that wouldn’t be a very practical way to wage a war. We’ve heard the shooting from all over town, but who knows if it’s doing any good? Are any of those shots killing them, or just pissing them off?” Adam paused for a moment before adding, “Now, I may get myself killed, but I’m gonna go out tonight to see just how hard it is to kill one. Care to join me?”
Jason dropped the binoculars to his waist and looked around at Adam. The rigid set of the man’s jaw, and the cold, steely look in his eyes assured Jason that he was serious. Jason glanced back out the window at the charred town and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I would. How soon?”
“Not until it’s good and dark. Let’s go down and find something to eat while we figure out the best way to go about it.”
Downstairs, Adam handed to Jason the weapon he planned to use: A Martin bow of beautiful, wood and fiberglass laminate, a fully working re-curve with a pull of sixty-five pounds. Already strung, the pistol grip fitting comfortably in his hand, the gracefully curving marriage of natural and man-made materials seemed more suited to a work of art than a weapon for killing. From a forward tilting quiver to be worn on the belt, Adam withdrew one of the six aluminum shafts it held and handed it to Jason, who gingerly touched the needle-sharp point of the broad arrowhead with its four, razor-edged, interlocking blades.
“I found them in the ruins of a nearby house I was searching for food a couple of hours ago. It got me to thinking about how best to put it to use.”
Jason hefted the bow and nodded. Then, with a raised eyebrow, he asked, “But can you hit anything with it? I doubt if I could, especially at night.”
With a nod and a lop-sided smile, Adam answered, “I’ve had some training. I think we’re good there.”
Three hours into their planning, Nate joined them and The Judge in the darkened, central hallway lit by a sole, shielded candle. Twenty minutes later, Erin and Emmie slipped in quietly and sat down.
When she learned of their intent, Erin protested, at first, at the thought of anyone going out into the night on a mission into what was now enemy occupied territory. But after they explained the reasoning behind it, she agreed and declared she wanted to go, too.
“No, now look,” Jason argued. “Adam and I both know the town. With two, we can watch each other’s backs. But more than two would just increase the chances of being spotted, in which case, we’d have to avoid coming back here and bringing them with us.”
“But, what if—”
“Jason’s right,” Adam said. “More than two is just asking for trouble.”
“Listen to them, hon,” Nate said. “I’d like to go, too, but their argument makes sense.”
Finally, she nodded and relented. Emmie simply didn’t want Jason to go, period. Erin and Nate took her into the kitchen to keep her occupied while Jason and Adam made their exits.
Dressed in dark clothing and with soot-blackened faces, they became part of the night. Adam had even smeared soot over the glossy finish of the bow and the arrow shafts. As shadows moving beneath a moonless sky, they made their way through adjoining backyards. At Penry Park, a small, hillside park between Kentucky and Main Street and featuring an old, bronzed, WWI cannon overlooking downtown from the north, they crouched behind the trunk of a fallen palm, sheared off at ground level when an out-of-control van hit it. Overhead, the brightest stars were visible, but only as faint points. Even with eyes accustomed to the night, Jason could see little beyond just a few yards. Within that range, nothing stirred.
Other than an occasional loose board creaking from the weight of a rat prowling amid the improved bounty of its territory, silence blanketed the destroyed town, a hushed absence awaiting a careless misstep. Otherwise blinded to any activity, they waited.
Another hour passed before the moon crept above the eastern hills far enough to shed ghastly illumination over the graveyard before them. Filtered through a sky full of smoke, its light was the color of old blood. In daylight, the devastation was stark and real; gore-tinged moonlight made it a surrealistic world of nightmares. Myriad swatches of red-gray gloom invited closer scrutiny among the wreckage, but a beginning would bring no end. Black pools, shadows among shadows, offered the potential of sudden death. Stimulated by the ever-present stench of decay, the gag-inducing perfume of flesh putrefying in summer heat and morphing back to the dust whence it came, an image formed in Jason’s mind of thousands of bodies scattered about the town as they had fallen, each with a miasma of unrelenting, swirling flies, tasty mounds to entice skulking feeders from their holes. Although unseen in the veil of night, he could feel their presence. The stench had ebbed as the night cooled, but its reek seemed to smear every surface with a smoky slime.
Main Street stretched away north to disappear into darkness. To the south, he could see Main for about half a block before it blended into the murkiness between the blackened corpses of downtown buildings. Just east of Main, Washington Street crossed the river and faded into the obscurity of the night as it neared the train yard. To the west, it passed through the downtown area and out of sight beyond the hulking remains of the old hotel on the corner of Kentucky Street a block west of Main.
With an arrow nocked and ready, Adam led the way down across Washington Street where they continued by hugging building fronts and taking advantage of recessed doorways. Following, Jason scanned left, right, and behind for anyone or anything as they crept from burned-out store to intact building to collapsed ruin.
It had been a normal, crowded day for shoppers when the invaders’ planes struck. Delivery trucks, double-parked on the streets and blocking alleys had contributed to the typical, normal daily congestion in the historical town center. When the attack began, they became deadly impediments to escape. Many of the shoppers on foot, and possibly even some in vehicles, had probably gotten away before gridlock doomed them after the first of many panicking drivers smashed into each other. Among the bodies littering the street and sidewalks were the blackened remains of vehicles that had melted the asphalt beneath them, and to which they were now permanently affixed in the re-hardened stuff, metal crypts for those doomed within.
Jason still had not seen any aliens by the time they reached Western Avenue at the end of the block. A collapsed building on the corner blocked them from exploring farther south. To the east, he could see past Main to the river area. He looked west toward the parking garage where they had escaped death just a few hours earlier.
“Look!” An urgent ring to Adam’s whispered voice jerked Jason back from his contemplation of doom. He followed Adam’s arm pointing eastward.
A faint white or yellow light was just discernible reflecting off the brick wall on the south side of Western Avenue Extension, a short stub of street between Main Street and Water Street, an alley-like road that ran between the rear of the buildings facing Main and the Petaluma River.
Jason followed Adam’s lead creeping from shadow to shadow across Main to Water Street and the river.
The historical river landing across the river, established in the early days of Petaluma on the east bank where the river made a sharp bend to the east going downstream, was now a shopping center. Just before the river jogged back to the south after the old landing, the north bank had been dredged out to create a circular, boat turning basin extending half way along the landing’s far side. This formed a peninsula the landing, and now by the shopping center, occupied. The southernmost end of the peninsula lay just about in line with Western Avenue.
Across the river from them, the smoky air glowed with a steady aura that gradually faded away with distance. Indistinct but sharp-edged shadows pointed back to the light’s source, a point somewhere behind the nearest buildings over there. The light’s color and the fact that it wasn’t flickering suggested a cause other than flames.
Jason recalled the shopping center’s layout. A single, long building ran along the riverbank from Washington Street, which went past the front of the property, to the end of the peninsula five hundred feet downstream and contained a variety of small shops. A single, square building housing a restaurant sat on the east corner of the turning basin with a hundred-foot gap between the two buildings. Two hundred feet from the restaurant another long building sat across the back of the turning basin with a larger building containing a supermarket between it and Washington Street. The large, “L” shaped space in the middle was the center’s parking lot. The surface of the center was about ten feet above the water’s level at high tide, and the bank on that side was a steep slope covered with ice plant and a variety of small shrubs and trees.
Jason nudged Adam and pointed to a footbridge that spanned the river to the corner of the peninsula just upstream from where they crouched. Adam’s first reaction to Jason’s unspoken suggestion was one of frowning, head-shaking shock. In hushed whispers, they discussed going up Main to Washington Street, across that bridge, and approaching the shopping center from the front where the entire parking lot was open to view. A more appealing route to Washington Street would be along Water Street, but a semi-truck had jack-knifed and burned between the buildings and the river fence. It appeared to completely block that way unless they could climb over it, a task that could prove noisy even if it turned out to be possible. They would be exposed while crossing the footbridge, but it was only about a hundred feet across. They’d try it.
Hugging the brick wall, they eased out of the shadows. Treading as softly as falling stardust, they crept across Water Street to the west end of the bridge where the low, chain-link fence along the edge of the river ended and the timbered railing of the bridge began. They crouched in the limited shadows there, watching…listening… A few feet below them, the turbid water moved in slow swirls and eddies, the beginnings of a current as the tide began its slow turn to ebb back to the upper end of San Francisco Bay a dozen miles downstream. In the frozen stillness, where all things had ceased movement, the constant, slow motion of the river seemed detached, like an intruder in a strange, rigid world of non-movement.
Jason looked back at Adam, nodded, and led out across the open span. When he had gone about ten feet, Adam followed. If they were spotted while on the bridge, they had little hope of escape other than, possibly, vaulting over the rail and into the river. Neither held much hope of that as an avenue of escape. Breathless in their anxiety, they reached the east bank where they hunkered among a deep bed of landscape greenery until their breathing returned and their pounding hearts quieted.
The light seemed to emanate from somewhere just around the corner of the building that ended at the top of the slope where the north bank curved to form the west bank of the turning basin. They could see it easily, now, reflected off the walls and broken windows in the small restaurant perched farther along the west bank.
They could move to the front corner of the building that blocked their view of the parking lot, or they could slip over the edge of the riverbank and work their way around the water’s edge to a position between the two buildings where they should be able to peer over the top. Deciding the latter would offer more opportunities to vary their view, they eased down the slope towards the water. Just before reaching the restaurant, they took a chance and peeked over the top.
In the middle of the parking lot and surrounded by overturned and piled-up cars that looked as though they had been bulldozed aside sat a large, circular dome perhaps a hundred feet across and about half as high. An elaborate pattern of external latticework covered the entire surface. It looked like a geodesic dome. No windows showed on the side they could see, but there did appear to be a ground level portal a little farther around its curve to the right. It was from this opening that glaring yellowish light shone upon the monochromic red world about them.
Jason whispered, “I don’t see any. You?”
“No, but the angle is wrong to see inside from here.”
They slipped back down to the landing dock below the restaurant and around to the other side of the building. Making no more noise than the slow swirl of the sluggish water below them, they eased back up to peer over the top of the bank.
The brightly lit, rectangular opening did appear to be a doorway. But it opened only to a small, brightly lit foyer, and the inner door was apparently closed.
Just then, three ambling figures emerged and walked toward the street on the far side of the dome. A minute later, two more came out and followed the first three. A couple of minutes after that, three came from the direction of the street and entered the dome. They could have been the same three that had just left, or three completely different individuals; they all looked alike except for the different colored sashes. Some were much smaller and wore multi-colored sashes, and they were always accompanied by larger ones. Jason wondered if they were children, taken into battle to learn the finer aspects of destroying a world.
“Damn!” Jason grumbled. “Looks like a busy place. I wonder how strong that thing is, or how hard it would be to disable or destroy it.”
“You’ll notice they don’t have any sentries out. Maybe they know they don’t need any. That thing may look fragile, but I wouldn’t count on it. And I really don’t feel like trying to bust my way in, anyway. You?”
“Huh uh. I’ll wait ‘til I’m hittin’ fifty-plus in a two-ton car. I know that works.”
“Yeah. So now what?”
Jason glanced around, evaluating their exposed position on the open riverbank. “Keep looking?”
They slid back down through the ice plant until they could rise to a crouch without being seen from the dome. Then, not wanting to risk another crossing of the footbridge, they crept eastward around the curve of the turning basin to where it turned to the south. With an arrow still nocked, Adam led the way up the bank near the rear of the supermarket. Fully expecting to encounter a patrol at any moment, they crept from truck shadow to trailer shadow to truck shadow across a dirt and gravel parking area for nearby feed mills. Immediately beyond that was the railroad switching yard where several boxcars and tankers, looming large in the dark, sat on spurs. Beneath the rust-colored moon, they soft-stepped across the gravelly, pebbly ground.
The train depot, the first building they came to, was similar in its Spanish mission design to many other small-town train depots west of the Mississippi. Except for a matching nearby storage building, it sat alone on the west side of the main rail line that paralleled Lakeville Street just beyond the tracks.
Adam had just stepped around the corner of the last tanker car, a hundred feet from the west side of the depot, when he froze in mid-step like a hunting tiger spotting its prey. Jason followed close behind and avoided knocking Adam forward only by reflexes honed by a couple of days of terror. Adam glided back into the shadow of the tanker, and at the same time, raised the bow to align the arrow with the middle portion of the long building. Holding the bow with the arrow in shooting position with his left hand, he withdrew two more from his quiver with his right. He placed these two beneath the fingers of his left hand where they curled around the grip, then moved his right hand to retake its position on the string.
Jason peered through the gloom to try to spot the danger confronting them.
A shadow moved.
An alien blended with the shadows of the building beneath a wide overhanging roof and next to the darker shadow of a recessed doorway. The top half of a Dutch door was open, and the creature’s attention seemed to be focused inside. After a moment, it spun and hurried to a smashed window halfway to the left corner, just beyond another, closed door. It again assumed a pose of intense concentration. After at least a minute of this, it suddenly rushed back to the half-door, and, again, it froze.
Jason thought of a cat with a mouse cornered in a space the cat either could not easily enter or chose not to.
After another eternally long minute, the alien gripped the half door and began softly jostling it, making noises that, perhaps to someone inside, would sound as though the creature was making its entry. The closed door half way to the north end of the building swung silently inward. With a suddenness that blossomed the entire static scene to life, a shadowy figure burst out into the ruddy moonlight. It was small like a woman, but it could have been a man, or even a large child. It came out at a full run toward the north end of the building, away from the predator.
The alien, apparently expecting such a move, raised its weapon for the easy kill, its target lit well enough and less than twenty feet away.
But Adam was quicker. The fluid motion of his draw of the deadly, broad-bladed missile to its full length, and the instant release bespoke a lethal familiarity with the weapon. The twang of the bowstring was almost simultaneous with the flex of his quickly drawn arm. The arrow flew true to its target, and even as the shaft buried deep into the strangely hunched back of the alien, Adam flipped another to the string and drew it.
The shadowy figure making its desperate escape ducked around the corner of the depot without looking back and disappeared into the darkness beneath the arched portico across the north end.
Nocked by unerring fingers, the second shaft flew as the alien dropped to its knees, balancing precariously as it tried in vain to reach the fletched stub jutting from its back. The second hit was higher and to the left of the first, the target having pivoted slightly as it dropped.
With the same easy motion, like a finely balanced machine, Adam sent a third arrow to bite deep into alien flesh, this one buried to the fletching in the creature’s neck. Its harmless looking weapon had dropped to the ground after the second strike, about the time the fleeing shadow had disappeared around the corner, probably never to know how close death had come. Bristling three deeply imbedded arrows, the creature toppled forward and lay still.
Before they broke cover, Adam and Jason waited for a few seconds on the chance that the alien was not alone. When no comrade appeared, the two men approached and knelt beside their kill.
They both made rushed cursory examinations of the strange body, eager to learn anything they could about the alien physiology. However, in these hurried circumstances, in light barely sufficient for getting about, the sparse knowledge they were able to put together in the moments they allowed themselves was negligible. An archer could kill one; it was true. But, which arrow was the fatal one? Was it a combination of two? Which two? Was it simply a cumulative effect of all three?
“If I had to pick just one, I’d say number three. It was still fighting the first two when this one hit, then it went down.” Adam reached out and tapped the shaft in the alien’s neck. “If I only had one shot, this is where I’d go for.”
Jason was about to make a substantial exploratory incision down the front of the torso with his dagger when Adam’s hand gripped his arm. He glanced up at Adam who nodded his head silently in the direction of the riverside shopping center beyond the scattering of train cars and trucks. Then, he, too, heard the sounds. At first, little more than the rustle of beetles among dry leaves, then there could be no question. They were sounds of running footfalls, and of more than one being.
Sheathing his knife, Jason followed Adam to the same corner of the building where the saved stranger had gone, and they slipped out of sight into the shadows.
They turned to catch the approach of the intruders just long enough to see the odd, ungraceful gait of three aliens step into the moonlight from behind the same tanker car where they had paused. Keeping the building between themselves and the trio, the men sprinted across the double set of tracks east of the depot, across Lakeville Street, and into the shadows at the end of a long driveway on the other side.
Beneath the low hanging foliage of a large tree, Jason and Adam knelt to catch their breaths and to listen for sounds of pursuit. Apparently, the newly arrived aliens had neither seen nor heard their flight.
Adam whispered, “Think that was coincidence? They couldn’t have seen me shoot. And I didn’t hear it cry out.”
“Me neither. But it sure looked like they were responding to one of their own going down. Had to be some sort of signal.”
“That’s my guess. Could even be automatic, activated when one of ’em dies.”
Jason peered out from beneath the screen of leaves, still half expecting pursuit. Satisfied they were still safe, he turned back and said, “Pretty good shooting. Three accurate shots in rapid fire, with the bad light and all—not something I’d expect from the normal sportsman.”
Adam smiled at Jason’s subtle inquiry. “Navy SEAL. You learn how to do lots of stuff.”
Jason waited for more explanation, war stories...something. When he saw nothing more was forthcoming, he shrugged. “Anyway, probably not a good idea to look for another one. They’re alerted now, and we might not hear the back-up squad coming next time.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go home.”