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CHAPTER 11 – Cat and Mouse

The weight of the axe was reassuring. In the gloom that consumed the details of the depot’s interior with the day’s end, Matti peered at the half-inch wide strip of shiny metal along the edge. It wasn’t honed to a razor’s edge, but it ought to split a skull. Then she wondered if the invaders had skulls … or brains.

“Of course, they have brains,” she muttered. “Everything has a brain.”

Trees don’t.

“But trees don’t move around. Even bugs have brains.”

What about bacteria ... germs? Do they need brains? Yeah, but viruses don’t; they’re not complete beings. I wonder if viruses are even native to Earth. Maybe they’re from out there, too. Maybe they were the first invaders. Yeah, and now, their big brothers have come.

“I’m going wacko in here.”

She had found the fire-axe shortly after she began checking out her prison and had lugged it around all during the rest of her exploration, never moving more than a couple of feet from it when she did set it down. She might not get a chance to use it, might not even need it at all … but she might. Anyway, its heft was comforting.

The head was painted all red with that half-inch wide exception that must be covered with a film of some kind to keep it from rusting for as long as it must have hung there mounted on the wall within easy reach in case of emergency. Looking at it now in the waning light, she wondered what the last occupants of the old building would have considered an emergency requiring the application of a heavy, red painted axe.

Maybe a fire in the back room, or a fallen wall caused by an earthquake? Wonder how they would have rated an invasion of aliens from outer-space?

She was in what appeared to be a combination ticket and shipping office. Three desks behind a counter shared floor space with a floor scale large enough for crates and such, and a couple of long tables. Boxes and crates were stacked everywhere. The first two she poked into contained stacks of files and yellowed records. Another contained gallon cans of paint; although, none of it was red. One was full of rusty brackets of some kind that she figured must go on trains since she didn’t recognize them and that this was a train place. Made sense.

She got a trickle of water from a sink faucet in a tiny restroom in one corner. She was pretty sure there was no more running water, so this was just what had been left in the pipes. How many years had it been in those pipes, she wondered. With her raging thirst, though, it tasted pretty good. She had found a bag of peanuts at the house where she spent the previous night, and she had washed down that breakfast with a can of unsweetened cranberry juice. She wondered, now, how long before she would eat again. Would she die before she got to taste food again, sweetened or otherwise?

Every time she wandered close to a window, she peered out. It usually didn’t take long before an invader came into view as it made its way to or from their base in the shopping center parking lot just over in the next block. She would have been able to see the back of the supermarket she and Woody had hidden in if a couple of boxcars weren’t in the way; she was that close. She was pretty sure she could probably even throw a baseball that far with a couple of bounces, and that didn’t make her feel any better at all.

With the light going, she moved slower about the congested room. She knew she should just sit and wait until it was good and dark rather than take a chance on stumbling over something and making a noise. But she couldn’t take the chance of getting caught off guard if one of the invaders came to check out the place. At least by the time full dark arrived, she was confident that she knew the place well enough to move about safely.

She had placed chairs beneath the knobs on the one east door and the two on the west side, plus they all had slide bolts. One of the west doors was a Dutch door, though, and the top half was attached to the bottom only by a single, small slide bolt, but it didn’t latch to the frame. She didn’t like it, but she didn’t have any way to make it better without tools and considerable noisy effort. The public entrance at the north end had a heavy dead bolt plus a metal bar set in brackets across the inside of the door. But she still didn’t feel safe. How could she? For all she knew, they could see through walls. No, they couldn’t do that; if they could, she’d already be dead.

She had no idea of the time, only that it was dark and had been for a long time. Specific clock-time, that marvelous invention that had ruled the world now past, didn’t really matter. Not any more. Only periods of time mattered: time enough to do this; not enough time to do that; and the all-important and currently relevant, “this is taking too damned much time.”

She checked long and carefully at each window, two on the east side on either side of the door, two on the west side between the two doors, and one large one with bars on the outside at the north end beside the customer entrance. Nothing moved. Nothing had moved for a long time. Maybe they all slept at night. She made another round of the windows. Still, nothing moved out there.

With her pulse pounding in her ears like a couple of kettledrums, she eased the chair from beneath the knob of the east door. Her hand found the slide bolt in the dark and eased it back. She gripped the knob and twisted slowly until it wouldn’t twist any farther. With one hand braced against the door to slam it closed in an instant if necessary, she inched it open. The hinges made a noise, and she almost slammed the door as instant panic threatened to destroy what little resolve she had managed to scrape up. But, then she reasoned that she had heard the minute squeak next to her only because she was so intently focused on any noise. It was doubtful that anyone or anything, except maybe a bat, could have heard it from more than a few feet away. She continued to widen the gap until she was able to squeeze through. She stood there, gripping the axe in one hand while she held onto the still open door with the other.

The scene before her seemed changed. Everything was as it had been when she had hidden from the invaders back in the almost sunlit afternoon: blackened, crumbled, ruined. But, under the smoke altered, blood-red light of the gibbous moon, shadows seemed even more menacing. It felt like certain death awaited her wherever she looked. Inside, she had found safety. Why in the world did she want to go out there? But, of course, intellectually, she had not forgotten why. It was only her illogical emotions that pushed the argument, loudly and persistently. She forced herself to take a couple of deep breaths, hold each one for a moment, and slowly release it. It helped … some.

She moved on kitten feet from the security of the dark shadows behind the arches out into what, in her present state, felt like glaringly revealing, bright moonlight. But the feeling of being a helpless fawn caught in approaching headlights lasted for only a moment. Confidence flooded back like a warm wave washing over her. She had outlasted them. She had outsmarted them. She had out-patienced them.

Suddenly, her re-acquired, warm confidence shattered into crystals of ice at a sight just a hundred feet to the north. The grotesque figure of an alien had stepped from the deep shadow of a ruined fast-food place on the east side of Lakeville Street and faced her, its bandoleer appearing the color of bricks in the reddish light. It began walking toward her and raised its weapon.

Without hesitation, and without thinking, Matti spun and dove for the black doorway. But the long axe banged against the doorpost and she lost her grip on it. She spun down to pick it up just as a violet beam flashed, singeing the doorframe where she had been. Abandoning the axe, she rolled inside and kicked the door closed. Bounding up, she searched frantically until she found and closed the slide bolt, and then did the same with the chair until it was, again, securely wedged beneath the knob. Only then, clenching her now empty hands, did she realize she had entered, not a place of safety, a haven, but a trap. Before, she had been safe because they didn’t know she was here. Now, they did. And she didn’t even have the stupid axe, anymore!

Terror that had reigned over her body back during her endless flight in the afternoon surged back with a fury. As fear washed over her, cold and sour acid seemed to fill her stomach, and she felt like she was going to vomit at any moment. Her nerves began jumping from an overload of adrenalin, but, at the same time, her legs began to go rubbery. She raged at herself for jumping into the nearest hole in her instinctive reaction to danger. Even if she couldn’t outrun its laser, she might have been able to dodge enough to make it miss. She was rested, now, and could probably have easily outrun this one, lone invader. Surely, there weren’t still hordes lurking at every corner like there were earlier. She could have gotten away if it hadn’t shot her. And, now, she was going to get shot, anyway, like a stupid tin duck running back and forth in a carnival shooting gallery, and with about as many brains.

She backed away from the door until a desk stopped her. She leaned back on its limited clutter-free surface and peered in the dark at the door. A heartbeat later, the window to the left of the door shattered.

Before all the glass had hit the floor, she was crouched in the dark with the desk between her and the vague silhouette in the window. She peeked around the corner of the desk while she prayed that the invaders couldn’t see in the dark any better than humans. The thing at the window moved its head back and forth as though scanning the room, but it didn’t act like it could see her.

After a bit, it moved from the window toward the door, and Matti almost screamed at the thought of it bursting in. But nothing happened. If it had stopped at the door, it didn’t even try to open it. Her tense muscles began to quiver from forced inaction. She glanced over her shoulder at the two west-facing doors to confirm that the chairs, which she could just make out in the little bit of reflected moonlight that made it through the windows, were still in place. Then, as she looked back around at the window on the right side of the east door, it shattered.

Her position beside the desk was wrong. There was nothing between her and the hideous silhouette at the window, and her stomach lurched as she watched the thing swing its weapon around and through the window.

By the time the laser flashed, she had squirted around and ducked behind the other end of the desk, then around a stack of boxes. An odor of scorched wood wafted about the room, but she saw no flicker of firelight. From her new position, she dared a glimpse over the top of one box where the smaller one on top of it would help to shield her. The alien remained in the window for a few moments longer, and then moved off to the right. It would be smashing one of the west windows in a moment or two, just long enough for it to get around the south end of the building.

In her mind, she pictured the layout of the place. From either of the west windows, she would be concealed if she crouched behind the end of the other desk on the east side. Plus, she would have an avenue of escape along one of the tables if it spotted her.

As predicted, the first west-facing window exploded in a shower of glass, but she was already hidden in her new hole and offered no target. It stayed in the window for only a moment before moving to the other western window. When it shattered, the silhouette didn’t appear there but back at the one it had just left. A ploy. But she didn’t fall for it. She remained hidden in the dark.

She could see it as it backed slowly away from the window and moved off to the right, past the door just behind the customer counter, which it rattled, then on toward the north end of the building and the barred door. After that door rattled briefly, the barred window next to it shattered, and the silhouette stood there pensively testing the bars. It continued around the building until it was back at the first window again. Anticipating it, Matti eased around so she was hidden from that direction.

Would it give up and go away, knowing she was inside? If only. Would it call for help in flushing her out? Maybe, since time was on its side, and since she presented no danger to the aliens’ mission, it would scheme a way to do it by itself. It hadn’t tried to force open a door, yet. Could it? Up close, it certainly looked strong enough. Would it try?

After a few, very long and raw minutes, the thing moved to its left. When the door between the east windows began rattling, it was almost enough to bring Matti screaming to her feet. But, it only rattled; it didn’t open.

Soon, it was back at the window north of the door, just standing there and peering into the dark interior, thinking … what? Matti wondered what kind of things they thought. Were they thoughts humans could even comprehend?

It circled around to the west side, again. It rattled the first door, the Dutch door, then moved on down to the second one and rattled it, then back to the Dutch door. The rattles, this time, were soft, testing. Suddenly the upper half of the door slammed open.

The laser flashed half a dozen times into the dark, hitting desks, tables, and the wall on the far side of the room. Fortunately, the wood didn’t ignite under the brief contact with the thin beams and none of the cardboard boxes were hit, but the room still stank of smoldering wood. Matti wondered how many more hits the room could take before becoming a paper, cardboard and old wood fueled inferno. Was that the plan? Was it going to burn her out, or just burn her up?

She looked over her shoulder at the east door and wondered how long it would take her to jerk the chair away, open the slide bolt, open the door, and then go through it. No way could she do all of that before the invader got off a point-blank range shot at her.

The thing stayed there at the open upper half of the door, peering into the darkness. For several minutes, it alternated from there to one or the other of the broken windows, remaining at each place for eternally long moments. Each time it returned to the door, it rattled it again, but still hadn’t reached inside to open it. Maybe it didn’t know it could. Or maybe it was just having fun, like a cat with a mouse trapped in a box, knowing it could have its prize when it was ready.

* * *

With an arrow nocked but the bow not drawn, Adam led the way up through the ice-plant on the sloped bank behind the supermarket. Fully expecting to encounter a patrol at any moment, he and fellow survivor, Jason Wolfe, made their way across the dirt and gravel parking area for the large trucks and trailers from nearby feed mills. Beyond the truck lot was the railroad-switching yard where several boxcars and tankers sat on spurs, appearing larger in the dark. Beneath the blood-colored moon, they crept across the gravelly, pebbly ground.

It was only through Jason’s unexpected intervention that Adam had escaped the invader that had pursued him from the rose-arbor park earlier in the day, after which he had led Jason and his three companions to The Judge’s Victorian. With the dark of this night for cover, the two had ventured out to determine how easily the alien invaders could be killed. They had encountered no patrolling aliens, but they did locate the invaders’ base camp in the parking lot of the shopping center now behind them. Foregoing a suicidal attack on the aliens’ base, they continued their search for a lone soldier on which to test their weapon, a powerful hunting bow and a quiver of broad head-tipped arrows.

Creeping from shadow to shadow, they used the bulk of parked trucks, trailers and railroad cars to traverse the otherwise open expanse between the river-side shopping center and the next nearest building to the east, the train depot.

* * *

Matti steeled herself to action. She couldn’t just stay there, hiding in the dark until the boogieman decided to come in. She had to make her escape while she still had the advantage of the thing not knowing just where she was. Once it was inside, she was dead. The only way would be to slip out another door as it came in the one it would probably use, the Dutch door.

The east door wouldn’t work; the thing would be able to see it opening the instant it came in, even before it was in. The barred door would be too awkward to open in a hurry. But the other west door, the one near the customer counter, had a low stack of boxes next to it that blocked view of it from the inside of the Dutch door. It was the only way.

* * *

Adam had just stepped around the corner of the last tanker car, still a good forty feet from the depot, when he froze. Jason barely caught himself in time from bumping into him. Adam glided backwards a step into the shadow of the tanker, and at the same time, he 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 this right. He placed these two beneath the fingers of his left hand where they curled around the grip. Before he moved his right hand back to the string, he motioned for Jason to look toward the shadow-shrouded depot with its mission arches beneath a tiled roof.

A shape moved there. An alien blended with the exterior shadows and with the darker shadow of an open top half of a Dutch door. The creature’s total attention seemed to be focused on something inside. After a moment, it turned and hurried to a smashed window halfway to the left corner, just before another, closed, door. It again assumed a pose of intense concentration. After close to a full minute of this, it suddenly rushed back to the half door, and, again, froze.

* * *

The next time the creature moved from the window to the door, Matti scooted across to the customer counter and along it to the door.

All she had to do was judge the timing with absolute precision. It wouldn’t do to slip outside while that thing was still out there. With luck, by the time it searched around in the dark, cluttered room and discovered this other door standing open, she would be a block away. If she could ease it shut again after she went through it, she could gain even more time.

She reached up and eased the bolt open. Then, with a quick prayer to whatever god might be watching, she moved the chair from beneath the knob. If the creature decided to rattle this door again …. Without the axe, she’d have no chance.

So far, the thing was still at the Dutch door, and every few seconds, it gently rattled it. Did it really expect her to jump up and run around in circles just because it did that? Maybe it did. After all, what did those things know about humans? Probably not a damned thing. Even if they’ve been intercepting earth’s television and radio signals for the past fifty years, what could they really learn of human beings’ actual motivations and thought processes from watching I Love Lucy reruns or Saturday Night Live?

She couldn’t see the Dutch door from her new position squatting behind the stack of boxes, but she listened carefully to the movements…the rattling…the pauses. So, when the thing did reach in and slide the bolt open, she recognized the sound and was ready for the next one, the chair scraping across the floor. When she heard the click of the knob turning, then the faint squeak of the hinges, she was ready.

* * *

Adam watched the alien reach inside. It must have unlocked the half door, as it began to slowly move it open and closed, squeaking the hinges, making noises that, perhaps to someone inside, would sound as though the creature was going in.

* * *

In her mind’s eye, Matti pictured the progress of the monster at the door pushing it slowly open in short stages to lessen the intermittent sounds of its mildly protesting hinges, then after a momentary pause, taking the first step inside. Its head would swivel back and forth, probing into the darkness, searching for the earth mouse hiding there. When she judged it had time to be fully inside, she eased her door inward just enough to accommodate her slim figure and moved into the opening.

Once past the threshold, she was committed. Even if she had misinterpreted the sounds of the invader making its entrance, she was still committed. Even if the thing was out there waiting for her, it was too late to turn around and go back inside. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. As she exploded into a full sprint, she glanced over her left shoulder back in the direction of the other door where the thing had worked its way in – she had clearly heard it working its way in – and saw the damned thing still outside and watching her!

* * *

Adam watched the closed door to the left swung silently inward, and a shadowy figure burst out into the shadowy area beneath the overhang. It was small like a woman, but it could have been a man, or even a large child. With a brief glance at the creature outside the other door, it ducked and tore away from its would-be assassin as well as from Adam and Jason.

* * *

With legs pumping, she raced for the west end of the building. At the same time, she bobbed and swerved like she had watched Woody do so many times during games. But she knew, even as she expended every bit of energy she could muster, that only a miracle would see her around the corner and out of harm’s way. She had seen how fast and accurately those things could shoot, and she fully expected to feel the burn of the laser into her back with each thud of her pounding heart. It was only ten, maybe twelve feet from the door to the corner, one, maybe two seconds at most. Each thrust of her driving legs put her closer, but still ….

* * *

The alien appeared to expect such a move and swung up its weapon for the easy kill.

But Adam was quicker. The fluid motion of his draw and the instinctively timed release of the deadly, broad bladed missile was faster than the leisurely flicker of the laser.

The instant Adam’s thumb touched his cheek, his fingers released the rapidly drawn string, and the next shaft swiveled down to his reaching hand. Twice more the twang of the bowstring was almost simultaneous with the flex of his quickly drawn arm.

* * *

As Matti’s right shoulder swept past the corner, her left foot slammed into the ground. She threw her weight to the right as she straightened her left leg, and, in that instant, she was safe.

It hadn’t fired, not even a miss. She was certain. She would have seen the beam. As much as she was expecting it, she wouldn’t have missed seeing it. It hadn’t fired. Why?

By the time she asked herself this question, her feet were pounding across the rails of the main line, then another stride carried her over the curb and onto Lakeville Street. Within three, oxygen-sucking breaths, Lakeville Street and the train depot were history, and East Washington Street stretched eastward into reddish gloom.

But, how many monsters are out here, she wondered as she disappeared into the night, waiting on how many streets, around how many corners?

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