Welcome to Chapter Three of this sequel to ‘Silent Apocalypse’.
Chapter Three: Beyond Soverton
Beyond Soverton the countryside seemed to open upon grander vistas. As far as the eye could see on such a grey, dismal day, rolling downland seemed to stretch across this tiny portion of the world like a huge wrinkled patchwork quilt. This effect was heightened by the low scudding clouds that passed overhead in the same direction in which we walked. It was almost as though we existed in an artificial reality: Like walking on some grand treadmill.
“A very wet one.” I said as I blinked the drizzle from my eyes.
“It looks a very long way to anywhere.” Tasman observed.
‘Should have borrowed a pair of the farm bicycles.’
This thought of the farm brought to mind something that had been troubling me. Although my memory had been reinstated, much of it remained patchy. I was still unclear how exactly I came to be an amnesiac. I brought up the subject with my partner.
“So why on earth did we go looking for trouble? Surely the last thing we wanted was any aliens poking their noses into our affairs?”
“We didn’t.” Tasman replied as he tried to tighten the neck of his waterproofs. “One of the little ones went missing. We sent out search parties. You and I were one of them. In our search we chanced upon a cottage industry soft drinks factory.”
He stopped talking for a moment; then he took my hand, and led me to a wooden stile that opened upon a footpath that led from the road, through a hedge, across a field; and finally into a wood.
Pointing to the rickety stile he said, “Sit your dainty buttocks down on the bit that people stand on to climb over it. There’s no point in telling you about it; when I can show you.”
“Right.” I said as I perched my rear end on the wobbly slab of wood. “I suppose you’ll want me to close my eyes.” Then closing my eyes, I added, “I don’t suppose there’s any berries nearby, is there? Okay – how about some mumbo-jumbo?”
Moments later I found myself walking along a deserted ‘B’ road beside Tasman upon a fine autumn day. We were dressed much as we were now, though without the haversacks, and we didn’t appear to be armed – though I guessed our Berettas were hidden somewhere close to hand.
I noticed a soft drinks factory a short way ahead. It comprised one large central building, which I assumed was either the drink production facility, or the bottling plant. Nearby several smaller buildings; offices; and a maintenance garage stood abandoned. It was surrounded by a chain link fence, and hidden from view on three sides by regimented lines of conifers. A dirt track appeared to run around those same three sides outside of the fence, but within the conifers. The fourth side opened upon the country ‘B’ road, but was kept secure by a tall chain link gate that was wide enough for articulated trucks to pass through.
As we approached along the lane I immediately dismissed the structure as a serious place in which to search for a missing child. The gate was closed and padlocked.
“But it’s a fizzy drink factory.” Tasman argued. “Beth hasn’t seen a glass of cola in months. This place would be a magnet for her.”
It was a long shot, and I think we both knew it; but as long as we were there, we should spare a few seconds to be certain.
“After all,” Tasman said, “just because the gate is closed, doesn’t mean that the fence isn’t broken.”
Of course he was right: Little Beth could have squeezed through the tiniest of gaps. It made perfect sense to investigate.
The establishment stood approximately one hundred metres square. As we studied the locale we both realised that the quickest way to circumnavigate the fence would be for each of us to take a side; then meet on the fourth side opposite where we now stood in the road. But in a world where nothing was certain any more, it was considered unwise for two people to separate. So together we set out upon the muddy track that would lead us around the left hand side of the fence.
Long grasses had sprung up during the intervening months since the factory had been forced to close by the death of its owner; his family; the entire work force; and every customer on its books. So it was several un-counted metres into our ‘ramble’ when we almost stumbled upon an abandoned four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was well-maintained, and was probably a top-of-the-range model, but someone had left the doors open, which had allowed the weather inside. As a result the interior was badly spoiled, and mould grew everywhere upon its leather upholstery.
Tasman discovered the key in the ignition switch. Turning it he was rewarded with silence.
“Door lights would have drained the battery in no time.” I informed him.
“I wonder where the driver went.” I added.
Tasman’s goat-like eyes surveyed the immediate area. His gaze alighted upon a set of bolt cutters lying amongst the weeds that ran along the length of the fence. He then pointed out the tear in the fence.
“I think we can guess.” He said.
“And maybe that’s where little Beth went too.” I said as I began pushing my way through the undergrowth towards the fence.
“Wait!” Tasman’s abrupt call stopped me short. “I can’t see any recent footprints. I think we should leave.”
His sudden change of heart surprised me.
“But we can’t leave without checking.” I argued. “In any case, there might be stuff in there that everyone would dearly kill for: Me – I’m hoping for ginger beer.”
Tasman shook his head adamantly. This worried me.
“Someone entered this place earlier: He or she did not come back out.” He said in the darkest tone I think I’d ever heard him use.
“You don’t know that for certain.” I replied. “Maybe the car wouldn’t start, and they left on foot.”
My argument sounded weak – even to me. Then my peripheral vision caught some movement amongst a tussock of grass.
“Beth?” I called, “Is that you? Beth – come here darling.”
In seeming response to my calling, the tussock moved again. Then the soil beneath it seemed to swell slightly – tipping the grasses over so that they leant at almost forty-five degrees. I grew instantly wary.
“Okay.” I heard myself say as the swelling soil appeared to move away from the tussock
I stared at the apparition because it looked for all the world like some sort of cartoon-based burrowing animal was heading directly towards me. It moved only slowly at first, but quickly gained speed. I wasn’t unduly concerned at this point because it was moving at no more than walking pace, and I was confident that I could outrun it if it continued on its current course.
“What sort of animal can burrow that quickly?” I asked Tasman, though why I thought he’d know the answer I had no idea. “That is seriously weird!”
I looked at Tasman. His head was cocked on to one side – as though listening for something.
“It’s strange,” He said almost absentmindedly, “I can’t seem to detect any thoughts.”
Then I heard him curse for the first time. I don’t know what the word meant, or from which planet it originated; but it was coarse and full of spite.
“Fel.” He then yelled. “Creeper Mine. Run! Run!”
Before I could gather my wits, Tasman was off and running towards the road with the athleticism of an Olympic hurdler.
As though on cue the strange upward-thrusting furrow altered trajectory, and began following Tasman – it’s speed increasing with every passing second.
Then I understood.
“No!” I yelled. Then I too was running.
Tasman was as fleet of foot as the animal his eyes resembled. He gained the road long before the ‘creeper mine’ that was pursuing him. As he turned about on the tarmac surface and looked back the way he’d come, he shouted out to me.
I stopped immediately. Then I saw the reason for his warning: The creeper mine was making an impossible curving turn to (what I assumed was to) avoid the hard artificial road surface. But I was wrong. After completing a one hundred and eighty degree turn it was now coming back in my direction.
“What do I do?” I screamed in horror.
“Stay still and quiet.” He replied. Then he began jumping up and down upon the spot. “It can detect vibrations.” He shouted. “Maybe I can confuse it.”
For a moment the subterranean device seemed to prevaricate. Clearly it was detecting the thumping of his feet: the clapping of his hands; and his loud alien oaths. It slowed; appeared to begin a manoeuvre that would take it back towards Tasman; then accelerated towards me once again.
‘If it detects vibrations, why is it ignoring Tasman?’
“Your heartbeat.” Tasman shouted even louder. “It seeks life-signs. Slow your heart rate: Stop breathing!”
I looked at Tasman as though he’d gone mad.
‘Maybe your people have those sorts of talents,” I shouted, “but I’m just an ordinary country Earth girl!’
“Get off the ground.” He yelled in desperation. “As high as you can get.”
I cast my gaze around in desperation. There was the fence of course, but it was protected by a wall of weeds and grasses that I simply didn’t have time to push through. My only hope was the four-wheel drive. I took off like a hare with a pack of greyhounds in pursuit. In those fleeting moments when your terrified brain seems to work at one thousand per cent efficiency I thought that a zigzag run would throw its sensors off. Nothing that burrows beneath the ground could possibly turn as fast as a scared seventeen-year-old. I was wrong. In moments it was almost upon me. My trainers were slipping and sliding upon the muddy track. I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to make it to my destination. The creeper mine meanwhile had no such issues: It could track me as though it was attached to my body with an invisible cord. I didn’t know it, but the device utilised a technology very similar to the one that brought the alien ships to Earth, and the projectiles to their inexhaustible hand guns: matter transmission. The mine didn’t need to push the soil aside; then force its way past: It merely moved the soil behind it; then propelled itself forward by thrusting against the spoil – at an incredible rate. And the faster it moved, the faster it could move.
Just two metres from my goal my peripheral vision detected the mine as it came alongside me; then began to vector towards me. I had one chance and one chance only. With an athleticism that can only be supplied in short bursts by the adrenal gland I jumped for the open driver’s door. This was to save my life. Because a nanosecond after my feet had left the ground, the mine exploded. Or – to be more precise – it released its energy. Had it been a mine of Earth origin I would have died in a mushroom of soil and flame. As it was, the more advanced weapon tried to kill me cleanly. Its concussion wave should have travelled up through my skeleton, where it would have encountered all my vital organs – turning them to mush. Finally it would have passed out through the top of my skull – but not before reducing my brain to liquid. But as it was, the gap between my feet and the ground isolated me slightly from its effect. The concussion wave travelled through the air well enough – but not with sufficient power to kill me: Merely to stun me, and strip me of my sentience.
The force of the release flung my body into the vehicle like a rag doll. It then threw the machine into the air, where it barrel-rolled – before landing once more upon its huge diameter wheels. As it juddered to a halt, and swung from side to side violently upon its long-travel suspension units, I was thrown from the interior – to land against a muddy front tyre.
Tasman didn’t respond initially. For several minutes he studied the area from afar. Then tentatively he made his way to the vehicle, where he found me unconscious – propped up by fate against the wheel of my refuge.
“Fel?” He dared ask as he nervously felt my body for broken bones.
My eyes fluttered open. I was once more sitting upon the hard wooden step of a country stile. I blinked the drizzle from my eyes.
“Am I to assume,” I said, “that my education is now complete?”
“Yes, I think it is.” He replied.
Soverton was a mere memory when next we spoke.
“Plans?” Tasman inquired as we walked and ate oat biscuits from the side pockets of our haversacks.
“Usual stuff.” I replied. “We find capable people: tell them the truth about the plague: invite those who want to join us: then, as Katherine might have said, we go kick some butt.”
Tasman grinned at this. “Usual stuff?” He queried. “To date our ‘usual stuff’ has constituted discovering a bunch of kids in a small hamlet; teaching them all about the cause of the pandemic that wiped out their parents and every other parent on the planet; and then start a co-operative in an abandoned farm museum. Is that what we’ll be doing from now on: starting a farming resistance?”
“Okay,” I replied – screwing up my face, “the ‘unusual’ stuff.”
Tasman nodded at this, but remained mute.
After a minute or two of walking he said “What we need is another Brambledown.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I’d told him the tale of how Lee, Katherine, and I had freed the inhabitants of that particular village from the mind control of an alien girl who called herself Martine. We gained a veritable army of volunteers in the process. But they were very much out of the picture now. In fact they were all safely ensconced in a vast safe house where in the invaders would never dream of seeking them: Beneath Olympus Mons – the largest extinct volcano in the Solar System – upon the planet Mars.
“Can we get that lucky a second time?” I asked.
It was a rhetorical question so Tasman merely shrugged his shoulders. But moments later he added, “I think you’ve proved you have the talent for it; and the experience to put that talent to work. Maybe it’s down to us to make our own luck.”
‘I’ve called upon lady luck a thousand times already: Maybe next time she won’t be listening.’
“True.” I replied.
Before long we entered a region that for us was uncharted territory. The familiar rolling downland had been flattening for some time, and now an area that could be vaguely described as a verdant plain stretched out before us. It was dotted here and there with villages and towns.
I’d never been a fan of flat countryside. For the most part I’d always found it rather dull. Today though might prove an exception, because quite nearby we could see a small town that seemed to squat beneath the leaden sky like a mouldering cadaver. The tell-tales of modern life seemed totally absent. No smoke – either from chimneys or open fires – climbed sullenly skyward. In short it appeared deserted.
Studying the conurbation through my binoculars I was unable to detect any kind of movement on the ground. Only the occasional crow flapped heavily between partially denuded trees. I cocked a sensitive ear, but the only sound that reached them was the tuneless ‘caw’ of the crows.
“Would they have upped sticks?” I asked.
Tasman didn’t understand my colloquialism.
“Moved out.” I explained.
He shook his head.
“The whole town?”
“Okay.” I tried again, “It’s siesta time.”
Tasman snorted contempt.
“Well you think of something.” I demanded.
As was often the case with Tasman he didn’t reply immediately. Instead he studied the town with a scrutinising eye.
“Fel.” He said suddenly. “Your binoculars: The church with the wooden spire: Check out the graveyard.”
It took a few seconds for me to adjust the focus. When the view cleared, a set of gallows swam into view.
“Gallows.” I said. “I don’t like the look of that.”
“It’s the reason that you started by-passing towns.” Tasman replied. “Reasonable people have a tendency to become unreasonable during times of hardship. They start making laws to suit themselves.”
“Yes,” I agreed readily, “and acting as judge; jury; and executioner. Might I suggest we by-pass this town too?”
Tasman shook his head. “We need capable people: Who are more capable than those who can take control of an entire town?”
I was shocked by Tasman’s suggestion.
“Are you mad?” I exclaimed. “What makes you think they’d care two hoots about what we want to do? They’d just liberate our technology, and quite possibly toss us into the fledgling slave market!”
As I’d been speaking Tasman had taken my binoculars, and was busy scrutinising the town with greater accuracy.
“Maybe you have a point there.” He said finally, “It would be a pity if our quest were to founder at the first hurdle.”
So relieved was I at his change of heart that I completely omitted to mention his mixed metaphor. Instead I merely turned my back upon the un-named town and opened my mouth to say, “Moving on…” but I stopped short when Tasman said:
Turning back I hesitatingly inquired, “But?”
“But if we don’t start doing something soon, the colonists will have arrived; set up home; and will be busy tending their rose gardens – or whatever it is that cat-eyed alien colonists do.”
“I know that.” I said, but couldn’t help giggling at the vision of conquering aliens doing battle with black fly, aphids, and mildew.
“I’m serious, Fel.” Tasman continued. “You yourself told me when we first met: You wanted to make this planet uninviting. ‘Not worth the effort’ I think you said. Even if you had to ruin it short-term – in order to save it for future generations.”
I sobered instantly. “I know I did.” I said as I recalled lying awake at night – hoping for either inspiration or divine intervention.
‘How does one ‘ruin’ a planet without actually doing it real harm? How does one ruin a planet anyway – especially when has only one nuclear device to hand?’
I was going to say something along those lines when I realised that Tasman had removed his contact lenses whilst he used the binoculars. His goat-like eyes were in full view, and the sight of their alien-ness caused me to think of a question that had never occurred to me before.
“You never mentioned how you got here.” I said in a tone that might have sounded demanding.
Tasman surprised me with his defensiveness.
“You never asked.” He said.
I allowed the demanding tone some breathing room.
“Well I’m asking you now.”
Tasman passed the binoculars back to me.
“Oh, you know – the usual way.”
I figured straight away that by ‘the usual way’ Tasman meant matter-transference. I recalled Colonel Cosgrove explaining the impracticability of ‘normal’ space travel – that is flying from point A to point B through the vacuum of outer space. Instead the invading aliens travelled via matter-transference. Effectively they would step outside of space/time, where distance had no meaning, and place devices at their intended destination – into which the alien vessels would materialise after having transferred in zero time from their point of origin. That way there was no time dilation problem, and everything took place in real time. Today upon Earth was the same ‘today’ upon the alien home world too. It shrunk the galaxy in an instant. We’d used that same technology to ‘transfer’ all the personnel of Crag Base to Olympus Mons. It was reasonable to assume that Tasman’s people did the same.
“Details.” I demanded.
I could tell that Tasman wasn’t keen.
“Well…” He began. Then he said, “Oh to hell with it: Close your eyes.”
This time I was ready for an abrupt change of locale. Or at least I thought I was. I’d assumed, as I closed my eyes and Tasman began to concentrate his telepathic ability upon me, that I’d likely watch his approach to Earth from space. Instead I found my incorporeal ‘self’ standing beside the slender alien boy inside…
We stood before a vast picture window, the view from which opened upon a world that looked uncannily like the Earth, but with one glaring difference. Instead of the dazzling blue of my world, this one had oceans of verdant green. It truly was a sight to behold, and I hoped fervently that the vision would take me low into the planet’s atmosphere so that I could see another world in close-up.
“Operative Tarre?” A male voice spoke behind me.
I turned as Tasman turned. Together we looked into the face of a middle-aged man. I was initially startled; this was the first ‘grown-up’ that I’d seen since making my farewell to Driver near Winston Crag all those months ago.
The owner of the voice wore a simple, but fabulously tailored uniform. The insignias upon the wide lapels meant nothing to me except, perhaps, to signify their owner’s high rank in some form of military or perhaps scientific organisation.
“Commander Jossaf.” Tasman replied whilst snapping off a millimetre perfect salute.
‘Military. Definitely, military.’
Several seconds passed in silence. I was confused initially, but quickly reasoned that for a telepathic species there would be times when words could be slow and cumbersome. Fortunately for me Tasman then chose to speak…
“So the Dissidents were right: the Felines do intend to attack Earth.”
More seconds passed as the two goat-eyed aliens communicated in silence.
‘Felines: what a great name. Why didn’t I think of calling them that? Short and sweet: Perfect for humanoids with vertical pupils and a propensity for viciousness.’
“How quickly can you prepare to leave?” Commander Jossaf inquired aloud – perhaps for the purposes of record-keeping?
“Kit already packed, Sir.” Tasman – or Tarre as he appeared to be called here – replied. “I can be at the jump point in…” Tasman appeared to make a mental calculation. “…time to meet sunrise on the starboard panel.”
This news elicited mixed emotions upon Jossaf’s face. At first he appeared impressed; possibly proud even. But the firmness of his mouth lessened as another thought crossed his mind.
I don’t think he intended to transmit this thought to Tasman, but the boy caught it anyway.
“Don’t worry, Dad.” Tasman said as he loosened the stiffness of his stance, and reached out a hand to the older man’s arm. “It’s not like I’m going in with all guns blazing: My mission is to lend assistance should the Earth humans organise any form of resistance after the attack. My weapons will be stealth and cunning. I don’t suppose I’ll go anywhere near a gun.”
Commander Jossaf placed a hand upon Tasman’s shoulder. Then, after checking that no one was within sight along the corridor, he pulled him close and hugged him as though possibly for the last time in his life.
“Dad.” Tasman had difficulty speaking through Jossaf’s chest. “I may have come top of my class; but I am mortal: I do have to breathe once in a while.”
Jossaf laughed lightly, and released his son.
“Be in and out quickly.” He ordered the slightly-built boy. “I don’t want you coming of age on that planet.”
“I promise.” Tasman assured his father. “No more than one Earth year on the ground.”
“See you stick to that promise.” Jossaf said sternly as he stepped away.
“Sir.” Tasman saluted smartly.
Commander Jossaf returned the salute; then turned upon his heel and marched away past the Picture window along the strange upwardly curving corridor that made it look as though he was climbing an ever-steepening hill.
‘Good grief – I’m aboard a huge circular space station. Shades of Kubrick’s ‘Two Thousand and One: A Space Odyssey’ or what!’
Then before I could come to terms completely with the idea that I was looking down upon a planet that orbited a star so far from my world that it might well be invisible to the most powerful telescopes on Earth, Tasman turned about, and marched off in the opposite direction. I, of course, had no choice but to follow.
I wasn’t surprised when linear time seemed to telescope. An apparent split second later I found myself riding inside a small space-going vehicle. There appeared to be barely enough room inside it for the pilot and his haversack. I, it appeared, now viewed events through Tasman’s eyes.
I assumed that both the space station and the planet now lay astern of the tiny vessel.
‘Where’s a rear-view mirror when you really need one?’
Although there was no sense of motion, I felt that we were headed into deeper space. Speed was immeasurable; there were no objects with which to compare our velocity. Then suddenly there were. Four of them – twinkling in a diamond formation – much like those I’d seen in an earlier vision – hidden behind the Moon.
‘The Jump Point.’
Motion only became apparent when the space vehicle passed through the gap between the four objects. Then just as Tasman was craning his neck in an attempt to watch them pass by through a roof window, the view was suddenly and dramatically altered. No more twinkling jump point: Now a great sphere of white incandescence almost blinded me.
‘The Sun perhaps?’
The vehicle made a lazy yaw to starboard. Seconds later I found myself looking down upon the lustrous blue planet that I knew as home. For a moment I understood why the ‘Felines’ wanted it so much. It shone like a precious jewel in the blackness of space. But these thoughts were cast aside as the vehicle accelerated towards the Earth with a velocity that looked suspiciously terminal. If I could have screamed, I swear I would have.
Somewhere over England (I couldn’t tell precisely because night had fallen) Tasman ejected from the cramped vessel. As he – and therefore I – were both whipped around violently in the airstream of a rapidly deploying parachute, I heard the sound of advanced alien technology disintegrating. I knew then that Tasman’s vessel had self-destructed in the same manner that the plague-carriers had earlier.
It was obvious when I thought about it. As handy as a space-going vehicle would be, firstly and fore mostly Tasman’s mission must remain secret. His presence, and by extension the planned interference by his people, could not be suspected by either Earth-dwellers or their alien conquerors. As to why they had sent a boy to do an adult’s job became equally obvious to me: Tasman wasn’t waiting until the air became safe once more for adults to breathe: He was coming in on the first wave, so-to-speak. He had some serious reconnoitring to do.
‘But Commander Jossaf’s own son?
Tasman alighted almost daintily upon the soft grass of open pasture. Somewhere nearby a cow lowed quietly in the darkness. Pulling his canopy towards him, I was astonished to discover how tiny Tasman was able to make it. By the time he’d finished pummelling it into his hand it had been condensed into a small sphere no larger than a tennis ball.
As he stuffed the ‘ball’ into a trouser pocket he whispered to himself, “Day one: The slaughter begins.”
I was snapped back into the here and now by Tasman man-handling me to the ground.
I found the wit to whisper, “What is it?”
Tasman nodded towards a knot of well-developed conifers about a hundred or so metres distant.
“A small group.” He answered. “Maybe six in all: apparently armed.”
As we remained prone in the long, damp grass I fumbled my binoculars to my eyes. It took a few seconds for me to focus them properly, but when I did I saw that Tasman had been correct. I counted six young people. They appeared to be engaged in a heated discussion. I also noted that they each wore an orange boiler suit-like outfit that reminded me of prison uniforms.
‘How did they not see us here – standing with our eyes shut like a pair of lemons?’ Too preoccupied with their own problems no doubt. They look as though they’ve just escaped from somewhere.’
Looking more closely I could see that the sexes were equal in numbers. Two of them appeared to be slightly older than the others – or at least bigger. One – a girl – looked tiny in comparison; yet she too carried a long-barrelled gun of some description.
One of the boys broke from the group, and made his way to the edge of the copse farthest from me. He appeared to be studying the nearest part of town. He indicated that the others should join him. Clearly he’d seen something, and he was not best pleased.
With the binoculars I followed his line of sight. Initially all I could see was an overgrown shrubbery that partially obscured my view of a building that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else: It was the town’s civic offices. Nothing appeared amiss, and I was about to realign the binoculars upon the children once more, when something inside the shrubbery made the foliage move. For a brief moment I expected to see a group of armed youths – presumably those who now ruled this unnamed town. Alternatively I wouldn’t have been surprised if a pack of feral alien dogs had emerged snarling; there were many such animals abroad in England these days. But what actually appeared from within the evergreen foliage concerned me much more, and explained the silence that had befallen the town. It was the sight of several clear domed helmets and skin-tight one-piece uniforms of Earth’s uninvited quests. Worse still they’d brought their cat-eyed tracking dogs with them. I counted seven aliens – six of which held the leash of a large, powerful dog. All carried the instantly recognisable side arms too – which fired sliver-like projectiles so sharp that they could slash bullet-proof vests to ribbons and even penetrate the alien’s otherwise impregnable ‘armour’.
Catching my breath I flicked my gaze back to the group of children hiding in the copse. They too had seen the advancing aliens, and although they were several hundred metres away, all six of them huddled low amongst the sparse shrubbery and brambles.
“Tasman.” I whispered. “Try to find a way to that thicket.”
My extra-terrestrial friend looked at me as though I’d gone mad.
“Our first recruits.” I explained. “They’re being hunted by Felines.”
I saw Tasman bristle at the slang name for his ancient enemies.
“You got it.” He said firmly.
It took several minutes for us to get close enough to call out to the youngsters hiding in the woods. Checking with my binoculars I noted that the aliens had made very little progress, and appeared almost bored with their task. They certainly hadn’t closed the gap by more than a few metres. They were clearly unfamiliar with the unevenness and randomness of the countryside.
“Hey.” I half called-half whispered across the short divide between us and the group of six youngsters.
Six heads snapped around and looked in different directions. I was flat upon my stomach, with only my face showing through a patch of tall, brown dock leaves that had long since gone to seed. I raised a hand, and made a gesture that I hoped appeared friendly. In short I waved manically.
A girl of about my age hissed at me, and in no uncertain manner told me to ‘pipe down’. Then in a hushed tone she explained that there were some ‘weird grown-ups’ who were hunting for them, and that they didn’t want to be found.
“So they haven’t waited until the colonists arrive.” Tasman observed. “They’ve started rounding up the work force already.”
“We know.” I hissed back to the girl. “Have they taken control of the whole town?”
“They’ve got everyone except us.” The girl replied. “They’re adults: I don’t get it. Who are they? I thought all the crusties were dead.”
I might have sniggered at the disrespectful term ‘crusty’ once upon a time; but no more.
“We’ll tell you all about them later.” I said. “But first we need to get everyone away from here. If their dogs don’t track you, their technology will.”
“So what hope do we have?” A boy of similar age asked miserably.
“Hope?” Tasman said with unexpected vehemence. “You can hope that we can even the score a little.”
To illustrate his point he held aloft his extra-terrestrial hand gun.
“Wow!” A second boy, slightly younger perhaps, stepped forward. “Where did you get that?”
“Let’s just say that my friend and I have crossed swords with these people before.” I replied. “Now lower your weapons; we’re coming in.”
In the distance we could hear the alien tracking dog’s excited ‘yaps’ as we introduced ourselves to the sextet. We discovered that the eldest couple were named Karen and Wayne. The other four, who could have been only fifteen at best, referred to themselves as Dexter, Kylie, Colin, and Shane – Shane being by far the smallest. ‘Elfin, even’.
It was Dexter who took the greatest interest in our alien weapons.
“Would you look at that!” He enthused, “They look like props from an alien invasion movie!”
I almost choked.
‘You don’t know how right you are.’
“No,” I said with a smile, “They’re the real thing I assure you.”
Karen cut to the chase:
“How effective are they against their bullet-proof suits?”
“Very.” Tasman replied.
“Good.” Karen showed her appreciation with a curt nod. Then, holding out her double barrelled shotgun, she said, “These things are useless against them.”
“Yeah.” Dexter agreed. “You hit ‘em at point blank range, they fall over. Then they just get back up again. If I hadn’t seen ‘em get real angry I’d think they were robots…ah…with humanish faces.”
“Androids.” Wayne found the word that Dexter sought.
Karen addressed me:
“You know these people? Who are they?”
“I really don’t think we have the time to chat right now.” I replied, and hoped that it didn’t sound like evasion. “We need to be elsewhere – like right now.”
“Easier said than done.” Karen almost scoffed. “We’ve been dodging them all night, and half the day. And those damned dogs…they just keep on coming.”
“Yeah.” Dexter agreed. “We even waded up the town river, but it didn’t do no good.”
“They’ve got hand-held thingies.” Shane, the smallest member of their group, spoke for the first time. “They can follow you anywhere.”
I looked at the diminutive girl: I’d misjudged her age earlier: Her single Barrelled shotgun seemed to dwarf her. And the bandolier of cartridges that she wore like a sash looked heavy enough to make her knees buckle.
‘I’d be surprised if she was even twelve.’
In my hurriedly-assembled plan I’d intended to kill only the tracking dogs. Dead aliens were harder to explain away. But with hand-held devices that presumably tracked their quarry, it seemed that the aliens themselves must become victims.
‘God, Fel – when did you learn to be this dispassionate?’
A quick re-think was in order, but before I could turn any thoughts towards it, Colin, who with Kylie had taken himself to the edge of the wood to watch the aliens, called back in an exaggerated stage whisper.
“Look, if you’re going to do something, I really think it should be done quickly.” He then added for the record, “They’re headed straight this way. I reckon they’re two minutes away.”
I noted that both Colin and Kylie wore automatic pistols in holsters attached to their belts. I wondered where they’d found them: They weren’t exactly commonplace in urban Britain.
‘Police station perhaps?’
“Right.” I said firmly. “These trees look good and thick: This is where the hunted become the hunters. This is where we make our stand.”
“What?” All six spoke as one.
“Are you crazy?” Karen almost exploded. Perhaps it was weariness of the pursuit; certainly I could sense her frustration. “We told you our guns are useless: We don’t stand a chance against them!”
“We’ve tried it before.” Wayne explained more calmly. “When they started taking over the town. I saw at least ten kids go down. Our score was exactly nil.”
Tasman stepped forward.
“Tell me,” he said urgently, “did they kill those who fought back?”
Wayne had to take a moment to think. “Well now you mention it – I guess they were only wounded. They got trucked away with everyone else.”
“Then we have an advantage.” Tasman said with a look of triumph upon his narrow features.
I called Kylie and Colin back from the wood’s edge. Once we were all assembled in the centre ‘glade’ I told them of my simple plan. It took only seconds.
“Just remember this.” I said as a final ‘pep’ talk, “They’re arrogant. They’re invincible. It makes them careless.”
“One final thought.” Tasman said as we broke up and sought shelter behind the sturdiest tree trunks, “You are their work force: You’re no good to them dead.”
Colin’s estimated time of arrival for the alien search party was absolutely spot-on. Exactly two minutes had elapsed when we spotted the first domed helmet pop up amongst the shrubbery at the wood’s edge.
The eight of us had hidden ourselves behind the boles of some ancient Yew trees. They were gnarled and flaky, and their branches drooped in sagging curves under their own weight so that they touched the ground in several places. They gave good shelter against the slivers that would spit from the maws of the alien guns – even if their tracking devices could see straight through them, which I was certain they could.
To my surprise I heard one of them call out to another. The words were unclear, but it was a female voice – made tinny by an artificial amplification system.
‘They may be arrogant, but they aren’t stupid: We couldn’t get so lucky that one of them would remove a helmet.’
I was further surprised when the same voice addressed us…
“Your number is eight.” She said matter-of-factly. “You are hiding behind four trees – two per tree. Each of you is armed with a weapon that can do us no harm. You must already be aware of this latter fact. The day lengthens: My patience wears thin: Give yourselves up now and you will receive minimal punishment.”
All the while that the alien female had been speaking I had been drawing a bead upon her head with my Heckler& Koch. Although I was utterly certain that my munitions couldn’t possibly penetrate her vastly more advanced technology, I felt that I should make some kind of statement – if only to goad them into releasing their dogs.
‘And what speak louder than words? Actions.’
I fired one well-aimed shot that caught her mid-visor. She was startled, and fell over backwards. I couldn’t help but smile as she staggered to her feet once more. Her breath was ragged, and I sensed that she was extremely annoyed at two of her subordinates who came to assist her.
But no sooner had she recovered her decorum, and opened her mouth to speak, when Tasman put her on her backside with a shot of his own.
The kids laughed loudly at this – particularly when the alien female lost her footing on a rotting branch that lay in the leaf litter, and tumbled into the nearest briar.
“Do not attempt to make a fool of me.” She fairly screeched as she was helped to her feet. “There are plenty more where you came from. None of you are indispensable.”
For the briefest moment I came close to losing my nerve. The loathing and contempt in her voice was truly scary. To her we must seem like backwater savages: she could easily down-grade our status to that of ‘vermin’.
But then my resolve returned. This was no time for faint heart. If my plan was to succeed, I must maintain the pressure upon her ego. I shot her down again.
“Release the dogs.” She screamed at her subordinates. “Release the dogs!”
‘Madam, you must have read my script.’
Moments later six massive cat-eyed hunting dogs poured into the glade from the adjoining shrubbery. I’d already flicked my MP7 for fully automatic. As I leapt from cover to confront the animals, so too did my seven comrades. Two pistols and five shotgun barrels erupted lead and flame. The leading four dogs went down in the volley. The remaining two skittered about uncertainly, and were in half a mind to depart the fray. I’d always loved animals, but these were no animals of Earth: these were their intended replacements. In my most merciless mood I opened fire. Not one dog would leave the glade alive.
A second later we were back behind the cover of the ancient Yews. And not a moment too soon: Shiny sliver-like projectiles filled the air – slicing through living wood; sending small branches cascading to the ground; kicking up the soaking-wet leaf litter; and embedding themselves deeply into the trunks behind which we hid.
Reloading my gun, I passed it to Karen. I said, “Quick lesson on how to use this. Point it in their direction; then pull the trigger until the magazine is empty.”
Karen ran an eye over the unfamiliar weapon. She nodded grimly.
The alien female was raging loudly to her subordinates. Although the language was unfamiliar to me, it sounded as though she was either lambasting them for their incompetence, or giving orders, before countermanding them. But whichever it was, she reminded me of Martine – the would-be ‘Empress’ of Brambledown. She too had carried the arrogance gene like a badge of honour. But more importantly she too grew angry with ease, and duly lost the power of reason. The last time I’d seen her she lay dead at my feet on the edge of a chasm, with a human-made bullet in her head.
I dared take a peek around the thick bole of the tree. In that brief moment I saw her – clearly giving instructions to her troops. One of them spotted me, and drew her attention to my presence. I waved pleasantly. Then to everyone’s consternation, and with much hilarity, Dexter jumped from cover; turned about; dropped his trousers; and exposed his backside to the alien party.
This must have been the metaphorical straw that broke the metaphysical camel’s back. The female alien merely pointed in our direction, and spoke one word. The word, I think, was ‘kill.’
The alien frontal attack was much as I’d expected. Safe within their impenetrable suits they simply walked through the brambles, and entered the glade.
Colin and Kylie opened fired upon the first to enter with their pistols. The male winced as he received multiple hits, but he was bigger and stronger than his commander, and did not fall. As he detached his weapon from the sling upon which it hung at his side Shane released her single barrel. Although she was thrown from her feet and flung backwards by the recoil, her aim had been true. And in doing so she’d found a weakness in the alien armoury. His gun disintegrated under the onslaught of several hundred high velocity shotgun pellets.
“Idiot!” The alien female growled at the embarrassed male.
On cue Dexter and Wayne released the content of both their weapon’s barrels. The subordinate to either side of their commanding officer were picked up by the blast and thrown backwards. Karen then let loose with my MP7 – until the magazine quickly clicked ‘empty’.
For a horrible moment I thought the remaining aliens were actually going to seek cover. Fortunately their commander saved my plan from ruin.
“What are you doing?” She shrieked as they prevaricated. “Get them.”
It was whilst the enemy hesitated that I did something that I hadn’t experienced since that day outside the café near Winston Crag. I took an alien weapon in my hand, and fired it with malice. Three wicked slivers sliced through the suit of the closest male, and turned his chest to ruin. I did the same to the first man to raise his weapon in my direction. Tasman then took down a third.
It was clear that these individuals were used to unequal battles: When faced with an enemy who could fight back they simple panicked. But my troops were made of sterner stuff; as the aliens sought shelter behind trees of their own, which in the centre of the glade were scarce, Wayne emptied Tasman’s MP7 into them. Colin and Kylie did likewise with their pistols. And Dexter let rip with both barrels.
Although none of this did the aliens any real harm, it sowed the seeds of confusion. The female ranted and raved, but was utterly unconvincing as a military leader. She merely fired her weapon haphazardly, and did no more damage than defoliate a considerable portion of the yew’s heavy boughs.
Then I did what I’d dreamed of many times since departing Crag Base for the final time. Heedless of the danger I stepped into view. Tasman must have read my mind because he did the same. Together we marched towards our enemy with our guns held straight out before us – spitting death with every stride. Despite the noise of my friend’s virtual artillery I could hear my every breath. They were deep and even. Then abruptly all sound ceased. Our ammunition was exhausted. Three aliens had gone down – and were almost certainly dead. Only the female remained; and she now hid behind a tree of her own. I felt the hand grip of my gun warm as it prepared to reload from that distant armoury. Then, just as abruptly as the arrival of the silence, I knew fear: The hand gripped cooled, but the weapon remained empty. I looked across at Tasman: He was staring at his gun with disbelief. My deep and even breathing became staccato and ragged as the alien female stepped into view – her weapon levelled at me.
“Hmmm,” she hummed nonchalantly, “Why I do believe that’s a Mark Seven you hold in your filthy Earther hand: Such a shame they’ve been superseded. No back-up, you see. Defunct. No reload capacity. Oh – and there you were – thinking that the ammunition would just keep on coming and coming. Oh well, that’s what happens when you put modern technology in the hands of savages.”
I could sense Tasman pressing the firing stud for all his worth; but nothing came spinning from the muzzle of his weapon.
The alien was continuing, “Whereas I have the Mark Eight. And oh look – it’s fully loaded.”
‘Just shut up, you oh so superior cow!’
I felt no sympathy for myself at that moment: It was I who had placed my mind and body in such an impossible position. I wasn’t going to spend my last moments with bitter self-regret. It was Tasman and the others I felt sorry for. I’d led them into this: Now my lack of real knowledge (and yes, arrogance too) was likely to get them killed. My ambush had become our place of execution. I just prayed that when she began firing, some of the others could make their escape.
She thought very little of the people she had conquered, so I decided to stand proudly: I would not fall at her feet meekly and beg for mercy. I’d met her kind before: I knew it would do no good.
‘Do your worst; we’ll get this planet back one day. Then the boot will be on the other foot!’
I actually opened my mouth to say those exact words, despite the fact that they were empty, and would probably entertain her cronies later in the day. But no one had noticed Shane after she had been flung backwards by the discharge of her too-powerful gun. Unbeknownst to everyone she had picked herself up; relocated her shoulder; reloaded her shotgun; and now pointed it at the female alien.
“Oi.” She shouted as the female took a bead upon me with her hand gun. “Eat lead, sucker!”
With that she was thrown off her feet again. But more importantly so was my executioner. I didn’t waste a second with logical thought: I simply reacted. I was on her like an angry she-cat attacking a surprised lurcher that that wandered too close in pursuit of its own nose. I crashed down upon her with all my weight, and a planet-full of hatred. I began yanking at her helmet – trying to rip her head from her shoulders if I could have. But she began to fight back, and soon the fight developed into a wrestling match. She was older than I by several years – and stronger too; but I had been hardened by months of toil, and adrenalin fuelled my sinuous muscles. I was the fitter of the two, and I knew that I could win.
The struggle continued for perhaps two minutes; three at the most. The others had crowded around, and were more than willing to club her to death with their otherwise useless weapons if she should prevail.
‘But she won’t: This one is mine!’
Then my fingers accidentally found the release mechanism for her visor. It flipped backwards – taking some skin from my hand in the process. Now I could see straight into her feline eyes. I wanted to claw them out. But then I saw the hatred in them: the hatred for a defeated species. I regained my senses, and tore myself free. Tasman must have caught my own hatred – and perhaps hers too. As Karen dragged me to my feet, Tasman snatched Dexter’s shotgun from his hands, swivelled it around, and brought the butt of the weapon straight down through the open visor – forcing the alien female’s shapely nose backwards into her cat-like eyes.
Tasman continued to smash the female’s face until he could see no detail of it through the copious blood that covered the interior of the transparent helmet.
The others had long since looked away from the horror of her ruined features. Tasman then came to his senses, and stopped. He looked utterly lost. Disgusted with himself he threw the gun aside. He then pushed through the knot of youngsters; and disappeared into the shrubbery. A wail of horror and inner-mortification soon followed.
Shane, meanwhile, had picked herself up once again, and was brushing wet leaf litter from her mackintosh when she arrived to cast a glance at the dead alien at her feet.
“Gross.” She said. “Wish I could’a done that.”
I was in a quandary, some unmeasured while later; once we’d all recovered from the shock and adrenalin rush of battle. Somewhat belatedly I realised that what I’d done ran exactly counter to my stated intentions. Contact with the enemy should be avoided at all costs: Now seven of them lay dead at my feet. It was certain that even if the aliens knew nothing of the skirmish right now, they would surely discover the truth sooner than later. It was now imperative that that time should be delayed to the latest possible.
‘Failing that – ‘never’ would be a good option.’
It was no longer a case of simply escaping the aliens: Now we must find a way of making this incident go away – or at least tamper with the evidence to the degree that the truth never be known.
“I think that’s what they call a tall order.” Karen opined when I told her.
Tasman appeared to agree with our new ally when he said, “I think it’s time to abandon your plan of silent resistance, Fel. Even if I was given a life time to ponder the subject I could think of no way to make this look like anything other than a fire fight: The evidence is overwhelming.”
Looking at the mess around me I found that I had to agree. But I couldn’t: If I allowed my plan to disintegrate at first contact with the enemy; I was abandoning any real hope of long-term success. And when the ‘Felines’ discovered the scene they would expend every effort to track us down, and would surely destroy us before we could hope to make any meaningful impact upon their plans for colonisation. But as I looked at the bodies that lay strew about the glade; and the jagged tears and imbedded munitions in the trees I felt forlorn. It was an impossible task.
“We could get some petrol, and burn ‘em all up.” Dexter suggested.
“I think someone might come running to look.” Kylie argued.
Colin took her side:
“And where would we get the petrol? The ‘council’ requisitioned it all months ago. Anyone who gets caught stashing it away gets beaten up and locked in the police cells without food for a week.”
Dexter wasn’t to be dissuaded so easily. “Okay, we could dig a big hole, and bury ‘em. We could disguise it with all these leaves and branches.”
I shook my head. “Thank you, Dexter, but it wouldn’t work: they’d find them in no time at all. No – what we need is something that completely convinces them that the search party are still on the case. That they’ve followed us right out into the countryside.”
Silence reigned for a moment. Wayne broke it with an abrupt change of subject:
“Who are they anyway? That woman sure had weird eyes.”
I looked at Tasman. Whether he detected my message to him I don’t know for certain; but he nodded. This was as good a time as any for them to learn the truth. Then they would know what they were really up against. So I told our new friends the story of the origins of the plague that had taken their parents from them. I told them how our conquerors now intended to colonise the planet, and utilise the plague survivors as a slave caste. But I said nothing of the dissidents who had helped the United Nations create a safe house off-world. And I remained mute concerning Tasman’s origins.
Naturally they wanted to know how I had learned all this, so I told them my story – but excluded everything about Crag Base, Mars, and Tasman’s special talent.
“Then we have a bigger problem that I thought.” Karen said matter-of-factly.
“I guess it won’t be long before their pals come looking.” Dexter added.
“Is there some way we can stage it to look like they had a major falling out, and fought each other?” Wayne suggested desperately.
“Hard to explain all the bullets and buckshot everywhere.” Colin said dully.
For a while no one made any suggestions. I looked into their faces one by one. Short of them giving themselves up to the first alien patrol they stumbled upon, and denying any knowledge of the incident, I could see no way that they could survive this incident for more than a few days at best. Tasman and I might have been able to slip away unsuspected – we were unknown to the enemy here after all. But not the local children: Their cards had been punched so-to-speak.
Tasman had remained silent for some while. Now he raised a small hand.
“Could be lay our hands on a vehicle?” He inquired.
Although I had no idea what Tasman planned I grasped on to his question like a drowning woman to a life belt.
“Yes – yes – I’m sure we could.” I blurted before I’d taken time to think. Then turning to Karen, whom I considered the sextet’s natural leader, I added, “Couldn’t we?”
“A big one.” Tasman added.
No one scoffed, for which I was grateful.
Wayne’s eyes narrowed. “How big?” He asked.
Tasman indicated the fallen aliens and their dogs. “Big enough to carry all of us and all of them.” He replied.
Karen sounded slightly incredulous when she said, “What – like a bus, you mean?”
“A single-decker version would probably suffice.” Tasman answered with the slightest trace of a nervous smile.
Kylie appeared warm on the idea. “It would mean going back into town.” She said in a manner that she was conducive to the idea of action, even if the words themselves weren’t. “I mean – there’s plenty more where this lot came from. There has to be thirty or forty at the football ground alone.”
I was surprised by this information.
“The football ground?” I said stupidly, “Are they having a kick about or something?”
Dexter sighed, then said, “Like duh. For a smart girl you sure can ask some dumb questions.”
“It’s where they’re rounding everybody up.” Kylie explained.
“Yes.” Karen agreed. “I think they must be conducting medical checks, and maybe some giving inoculations.”
‘That’d make sense: keep your work force fit and healthy.’
“Probably injecting subcutaneous transponders.” Tasman offered. “They like to keep tabs on people.”
“Very Orwellian.” Karen opined.
“Well if that’s the case,” I said in my most positive tone, “there won’t be many around to watch us steal a bus, will there!”
Wayne was less positive. “Assuming we can get one running.” He grumbled. “They won’t have been run since the service stopped due to lack of drivers.”
“Or passengers.” Colin’s downcast voice spoke from the edge of the wood where he kept watch upon the town.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” I said in a manner that I hoped would brook no further argument. “Would someone care to show me the way?”
©Paul Trevor Nolan
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