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CHAPTER 10 – Close Encounters

“You could die, you know.”

Adam looked up at Vonnie and saw real concern in her eyes. “I know. But, we all could – at any time.”

“But you have a concussion. You need to remain as inactive as possible for a few days, at least.”

“Vonnie, I appreciate all you’ve done for me. I really do. But I can’t just lie around here, waiting for things to get better. Most likely, they’re not going to. In fact, now they’re back, things will probably get a lot worse. I’ve got to be able to get up and move around. If I’m bed ridden when they come calling –”

“They might not even come here. You said yourself when we did the smoke thing that we’d just blend in with the rest of the destruction.”

“Yeah, but not forever. We don’t know how long they’ll be here, or even if they are going to leave, at all. They’re probably here for good, to colonize the earth.”

“But, if you –”

“I know. I promise I’ll sit down and rest if I feel dizzy. But, I haven’t felt dizzy all morning, and my headache is almost gone.”

“All morning? It’s the crack of dawn.”

Adam glanced out the east-facing window at the brown disk of a sun well above the eastern hills and smiled at Vonnie’s persistence, knowing it was his welfare that concerned her. “Not quite. But I’ll be okay, promise. Besides, I’m hoping our visitors aren’t early risers.”

“Leaving us, are you?” The Judge asked from the door to the room. At this early hour, he had not yet put on his tie and suit coat.

As Adam finished buttoning his shirt, a donation from The Judge since the one he wore when they brought him in was a bloody mess, he replied, “No, just an outing. We’ve got to know what they’re up to. I doubt if they’re here just to destroy whatever they missed yesterday, not with ground troops. If that were their goal, they’d just bring back their air force. But, they may be checking all the houses and buildings still standing. If so, we’ve got to know how fast they’re moving, how thorough they are, how much time we have. Also, there are some people I need to check on. I shouldn’t be gone too long.”

“Judge,” Vonnie interjected, “he shouldn’t be going out at all. He has a concussion, and that could be very serious.”

The Judge nodded and encircled Vonnie’s shoulders with both arms, pulling her in close for a reassuring hug. “Yes, I know. But, I’m afraid many things are very serious now, deadly serious. And, he’s right. We have to know what the invaders are doing or are going to do. If we have to move everyone, we’ll need as much time as we can get. I’ve got a feeling that Mister Rainger, here, is the best possible person available to us for our needs. And, I can understand his need to check on his friends.” Releasing Vonnie, he turned back to Adam who was tying his shoes and said, “I hope your friends are okay. And, I hope to see you again.”

The piercing gaze that accompanied The Judge’s remarks let Adam know that The Judge wasn’t all that sure that Adam intended to return. Adam just hoped he was able to. He had no idea what he might encounter in the next few hours. “Me, too, Judge.”

He went out the same way Charlie and The Judge had come in the day before, through the neighborhoods to the west and circling around the downtown area. First chance he got, he smeared some readily available charcoal beneath his eyes to reduce any glare, just in case the sun emerged enough to produce it. This was a situation where he really had to see them before they saw him. And while he was at it, he blackened his cheeks and forehead, too. He just felt more confident, thus more comfortable, wearing the stuff. Most of the invaders he saw were at least a block away, and he managed to remain hidden until they were either out of sight or moving away from him before he went on. He spotted several as he worked his way through occasional neighborhoods that were less damaged, something like the one where The Judge’s Victorian was located, and they did appear to be checking houses that looked habitable. But, it wasn’t like finding the hideouts of survivors was their sole mission; more like they’d check a house if it was close but wouldn’t go a block out of their way if it wasn’t. Not yet, anyway. Mostly, they just seemed to roam about.

He found no sweeping searches or mass raids. In fact, he found no groups of aliens numbering more than four; most were alone or in pairs as they roamed about in no particular pattern. They looked more like tourists, each going whatever way looked promising until they flushed a human, which they promptly killed.

It appeared the invaders were simply involved in a loose, mop-up operation of an area they apparently considered sufficiently suppressed. However, although he didn’t see the shooters or their targets, he heard many gunshots – earthly gunshots. At least the invaders were paying a price. But, then he wondered how effective those bullets were. How easy were the aliens to kill? Could they be killed? That would be something to work on. But, first ….

He dreaded what was probably waiting for him. The chances that the Raven family had survived were slim, at best. He was no stranger to the ravages of war and the sights of horribly maimed and killed civilians – collateral damage they called it – but he had never been confronted with them being people that he loved.

Petaluma looked so different, now. He had grown up here, but this was not the town he knew. Entire blocks had been obliterated, with nothing left but black shells of houses amid black stumps that had been trees. Several bodies littered the area around the bandstand in Walnut Park. When he reached another park a couple of blocks farther south with a pair of long rose arbors still covered with dense foliage out in the middle, he knew he was nearing his destination. This was one of the parks Jamal liked to hang out in when he was younger, back before he discovered there were more girls at Walnut Park.

Slipping past on the west side of the park, he crept along the house fronts, moving silently from cover to cover. He hadn’t seen any aliens for a couple of blocks, and that was good, because he had gotten dizzy and stumbled more than once. He knew his progress was not as stealthy as it should have been with his skill. Once, he even fell out of the cover he hid behind.

Looking out across the park and through the twenty-foot gap where a path crossed the north-south running arbors, he saw a figure skulking along the houses on the east side of the park, slipping from cover to cover just as he was doing, but heading in the opposite direction. From that distance, he couldn’t even tell if it was a woman or a small man, but at least it was a human.

He was tempted to go across the park to tell the poor soul how easily he had been spotted, maybe give him some advice on how to skulk.

But, if I did that for this one, what about the next one, and the one after that? Such a futile diversion could literally take the rest of my life. And, if I don’t, that guy will probably be killed. How will I live with myself, knowing I could have done something and didn’t? Even if I never know his fate, I’ll know what it probably was. Oh, well, it’s not like I’m on a time schedule.

He glanced around the area to assure himself no invaders were nearby. And, if there are, they’re better skulkers than I’m used to. And then Adam stood up.

* * *

Matti crouched behind the limited cover of the scorched bush and gazed through the gap between the rose arbors at the figure skulking past the houses over on the west side of the park. He was too far away to make out his face with all the smears of ash on it, but that wasn’t necessary to know he was neither Woody nor Jamal; he was too big, and she was pretty sure he was white. He seemed to be looking over in her direction.

I hope I’m not as easy to spot as he is. I wonder if he has any idea what he’s doing, or if he’s just sneaking around like me. Maybe I oughta go over there and tell him how to sneak. He’s gonna get nailed, for sure.

She had ventured back to what was left of her neighborhood after dark the previous evening. She had hopes that Woody, or even Jamal, would have gone there, figuring it was a natural place for them to get back together. After a brief reconnoiter around the outside of the blackened ruins of her house, she spent a long and lonely night in a partly burned house just over a block away from it. She even swung by Woody’s house on the way, but it had burned down, too. Still, he might have gone there. He hadn’t.

This morning, with a dull brown sun perched on the crest of the eastern hills, she had returned to stand on the sidewalk in front of her house. But she couldn’t bear to go closer and turned around. From there, she had gone on to the southern edge of town with the idea of getting out, up into the wooded hills, but the invaders’ patrols were there. From hiding, which she was getting plenty of practice at, she had spotted a trio of them spread out and just loitering along the abrupt interface of developed neighborhoods and grassy, oak forest-edged pastureland in the area of Up-The-Hill. Now headed back into town, she thought how it was like the invaders wanted to keep the humans from leaving so they could just hunt them all down and kill them at their leisure.

If that guy over there is gonna try to get out of town down that way, he’s dead. I can’t let him just walk into ’em.

Matti glanced about once more then stood up straight. At the same time, the man across the park also stood and looked at her from behind a bush at the front of a burned house that he must have thought concealed him.

Sorry, pal, but I can see you. And, if I can, then so can – shit!

The first things that caught her eye were the bright red sashes on the two aliens that emerged from concealment between the twin arbors. One turned towards the man on the far side, and the other faced Matti, and both raised their weapons.

The last she saw of the other human, he was diving toward the space between houses where he might have found concealment. Matti hoped so, because that was exactly what she did just as a pencil-thin beam blinked through the bush she had been behind.

When she hit the ground, she rolled to the side and sprang back to her feet. Three steps took her through the gate and into the back yard. Without pausing, she ran to the back fence, a six-foot high wooden affair with clumps of Rosemary growing in front of it. She aimed for a space between two bushes and sprang for the top of the fence. Catching it with both hands on rigid arms, she let her momentum carry her top half over then bent at the waist, flipped her legs up and over her tucked head, kicking out to carry her beyond the fence and anything close to it on the other side. Grateful that no rose bushes or cactuses were there to greet her landing, she hit the ground running.

She had seen several of the invaders chasing other people and knew they weren’t all that fast. Of course, she had not been the person chased, to whom, she was sure it must have seemed the creatures were damned fast. But she was confident that she could outrun the one behind if she could keep an open path ahead of her. To get trapped in a blind alley or back yard without another way out would finish the race with a wholly unsatisfactory ending. When another beam flashed beside her head as she ducked around the front corner of the house facing the next street, she told herself that she also had to keep to a minimum the amount of open path behind her … that could be tricky.

The race proceeded, zigzagging back towards the center of town, not a direction she would have chosen. A couple of times she just knew she was going to be able to outdistance the thing behind her enough to lose it. But, each time she had to slow and divert to another course when she spotted other invaders lurking ahead.

Approaching the downtown area, she marveled that she still lived. But she knew she wouldn’t for very long if she allowed herself to be herded there. The hiding places were too limited, and the river on the east side of the area would restrict her choices of directions too much. Swimming the river was out. Even with its mere forty or fifty-foot width in some places, there was too great a chance of being caught in midstream or slipping and sliding up the steep bank on the other side and getting used for laser practice. But, the thing that concerned her most was the invaders’ base just on the other side of the river, like a hornet’s nest from which help to corner her could be summoned too easily.

At “D” Street, she turned east and crossed the river before she got into downtown. Now she had the entire east side in which to hide, and she was still a good four blocks from the invaders’ base. She stretched out her stride and began adding to the distance between her and her pursuer that had just turned a corner a block back. All she had to do was make it through the open space of the train-switching yard with its track spurs and lines of parked boxcars that, along with the river and the freeway a few blocks eastward, separated the open and flat, newer, east side from the hill-enclosed, older, west side of town.

She crossed the main rail line that ran next to Lakeville Street and formed the east boundary of the train yard. Beyond Lakeville Street, East “D” Street passed between two buildings, now burned shells, and entered another badly damaged residential area. At the next cross street, she turned right and opened it up, knowing it was almost a straight shot to open, rural land southeast of town. But she got no farther than the next street south when she spotted another invader with his red sash prowling about a couple of blocks ahead of her. She turned left and headed east again. Maybe she could make it to the freeway and across to the maze of homes beyond it. Maybe the invaders aren’t even over there … sure, and maybe the sky isn’t brown.

With the original thing still two blocks behind her and one just two blocks to her right, a pair, a big one and a small one, appeared three blocks east and forced her to turn left again—north. At the next corner, she had to make another left when she saw one two blocks ahead and another three blocks to the right, just standing there looking at her. At least it didn’t come after her.

Now she was on East Washington Street, and she was heading west again, right back toward the invaders’ base. So, one block before Lakeville Street, she turned left, hoping her original course out of town was now open.

It wasn’t. As she approached East “D” Street, the red sash of an invader starting toward her from two blocks ahead killed that idea. She peered left, but the pair of invaders still prowling three blocks that way, even though they were going away from her, settled it. She glanced over her shoulder and saw her original pursuer just rounding the corner from East Washington. She turned right and headed back toward the train-switching yard on the other side of Lakeville Street. She had accomplished no more than run in a big circle.

She skidded to a stop just as she was crossing back over the rails of the main line. Ahead of her, an invader, another of those damned red sashes, was coming over the river bridge. She glanced back at the two east of her. They were still going away from her. Neither the one chasing her nor the one that cut off her flight to the southeast had made it to East “D” Street … yet.

She ran north between the rails, quickly becoming blocked from the view of the invader crossing the river by a couple of boxcars parked near the street on switching tracks. She was now out of sight of all of them, just so long as another one didn’t pop up somewhere. If only she could find a hole to hide in – an old packing crate, or maybe in the shadows beneath one of the parked boxcars strewn about – they would probably assume she had continued on northward past the depot and turned either east or west on East Washington and they would carry on that way like a pack of baying hounds after a wily, out-of-view fox.

A thought flashed through her mind. Can they sniff my trail like a pack of hounds? That caused her to mentally flinch along with a flutter in her belly. If they can, I’m dead, whatever I do.

She swerved back over to the paved surface of Lakeville Street where the footing was better than trying to negotiate the railroad ties of the main line. She had almost made it past the old depot at about mid-block when she spotted it, a dark strip along one side of a door back in the shadow of the wide overhang. The extended roof of the Spanish mission styled depot shaded a wide space between the building and the series of arches beneath the eaves, and shadows were deep there. After a couple more steps, she realized the dark strip was the dark interior of the old, abandoned building – the door was ajar! Passenger rail service had long since been discontinued, but the depot building was still used for storage of mainly forgotten items. She didn’t bother to dwell on what series of events had left one door open in an abandoned – and better, yet, abandoned-looking – building. She was just grateful to whatever gods might be looking down and taking pity on one lone, young human in very big trouble.

A quick glance over her shoulder reassured her that she was still unobserved. She pushed the door open, slipped inside and closed it behind her until it latched. She found a slide bolt on the inside of the door and slid it closed. Then, just to be sure her plan worked, she went over to a closed window facing Lakeville Street that was so dirty she could hardly see daylight through it. But she could see enough to spot the red sashes, one possibly the original chaser and the other probably the one she saw coming from the direction of the river. They joined up and ran north on Lakeville Street.

And just why would they see this depot as empty, dummy? Do you think they have Spanish Mission style train depots on their world that sometimes get closed and abandoned? If you go forgetting they aren’t from Earth, you won’t live long enough to say Oh, Shit! Holding her breath in case they had phenomenal hearing – she just hoped they couldn’t hear the thunder of her pounding heart – she watched them pass the depot without slowing. Back at the intersection with East “D” Street she saw another alien emerge from the east, stop there and look after the others for a few moments, then turn and go back the way it had come.

Picking her way carefully across the dimly lit room, she found another window from which she could see to the north. The aliens stood in the middle of the intersection of Lakeville and East Washington, looking east, west and north. They appeared to confer for a moment and then split up. One continued north, and the other went east.

After they were out of sight, she waited another few minutes before even trying to leave. But, when she checked if the way was clear, from one of the west windows she saw another invader walking through the train yard at an angle. It didn’t approach the depot, but it would have easily seen her if she left the building.

She waited, again.

In less than a minute, three invaders came strolling eastbound on East Washington Street and turned north onto Lakeville.

She waited some more.

A couple of minutes later, she saw two invaders westbound on East “D” Street, then two more westbound on East Washington. It dawned on her just how lucky she had been to make it to the depot during what must have been a rare period of no alien presence within sight of the building.

So, how the hell am I going to get out of here?

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