Chapter One
An Entirely Alien Approach

Not An Accident

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1278 [Ref. No. D1174-398]

...... It lay along the road, broken and crumpled. Even the glass had shattered and scattered in glittering shards across the shoulder. Only a streetlight which had succumbed to an accident.
...... The companion light lay broken alongside the ditch which bordered the road, slightly visible in the backwash of the headlights. Sometime, someone would notice the wreckage and notify the State authorities to have it hauled away.
...... It was over -- the job completed. I tossed my credentials card out the window. It landed in the dirty water of the ditch, a fitting epitaph which no one else would understand. Brake released and throttle pressed, the engine wound up with its aggressive rumble, and the Jeep nosed forward. Its heavy tires tossed gravel against the mudflaps, and once again I was on my way.
...... A moment from now, the crossroads would be nothing -- merely a glimmer of red taillights on the fragments of someone else's dream.

* * *

...... There were no hogs in Hog Wallow -- the wild boar which had provided the name were long gone from the area. So was most of everything else. The land was poor for farming -- eroded, hunted out, fished out, and peopled out. Nearly everyone had left the region, letting it return to its native brush and pines. All that was left were half a dozen tiny farms, two or three wrecks of hunter's shacks, and one alleged overworked representative of the State Environmental Protection Group.
...... It hadn't been hard to obtain the assignment here. There weren't many technologists willing to do field sampling and able to supply their own off-road vehicle at the princely reimbursement of twenty-four cents a mile. At least, not on the miserly salary the State was willing to pay for the three month temporary assignment. I wouldn't have been able to do it either, except for circumstances and requirements of my unmentioned own.
...... Field sampling of water sources wasn't hard work. It merely was that Hog Wallow was in the middle of nowhere in a county which itself was the middle of nowhere. The nearest city was a village, population 219, the county seat -- forty miles away by country roads last surveyed by Washington himself. It was truck country with four wheel drive mandatory, which was why the supervisor had hired one dark-blue Jeep Liberty with all equipment -- including one ambulatory, autonomous, sample bottle filling, accessory package. I had no illusions about what was considered most important.
...... The crossroads, the intersection of the only two intentionally fabricated roads in the county, exemplified the desolation of these pine-covered slopes. In the middle of absolutely nothing stood two bright modern streetlights, shining brilliantly down onto a gravel intersection which was kept muddy by the neighboring spring. That foresight undoubtedly was appreciated by the rusting manhole cover in the center, the straggly weeds along the shoulders, and the numerous white-winged moths which my vehicle sucked into its radiator grill by the handful, each time I had to transgress that tiny section of civilization. The crossroads were the only thing which had changed here in three hundred years -- the march of progress had strutted along a different route in some other valley. Nothing new came to Hog Wallow -- especially people.
* * *

...... "You move, and I'll load your head with buckshot!"
...... At least, that's what I thought he'd said, when I'd sorted out the local dialect. In places, the local language was more foreign than a foreign language other places. But I'd heard similar words many other times and for the same reason.
...... "It happens to be a five thousand dollar fine and three years in the State prison for interfering with the duties of a State Environmental employee," I advised, not moving. I carefully accented the State to disassociate myself from the other frequent visitors to the locality -- the Federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau. When that was accomplished, most of the inhabitants reclassified me into the natural flora and fauna.
...... "My land!" this local inhabitant announced. "Don't want nobody trespassing here. Now get out and don't come back!"
...... Apparently, this man was the exception, but he did lower his antique weapon. Back where I came from, people would have mugged him for his gun and left him his wallet -- if he had one. "I'm taking water samples for the Environmental Group," I continued, as I stood up with a filled bottle in one hand. Twisting the cap into place, I turned to look at my interviewer.
...... Only the usual version of patched local farmer, whose sideline was the chemical processing of poor quality feed corn by steam fluidization. I didn't recognize him or his manners. Usually, after realizing that no threat impended, the local hunter/trapper would offer a half-filled mason jar of his product, as a combination bribe and hospitality. Perhaps this man's day had been as bad as mine so far.
...... "You live up this way?" I asked, to seem idle curiosity.
...... "None of your business!" He gestured with the rusted shotgun. "Get out of here!"
...... I ignored him and sauntered back to my Jeep. He wasn't familiar, and I was sure I hadn't checked this section of land yet. His manners and attitude were very suspicious. Although that could have been from yesterday's extensive quality control duties on his merchandise, it did mean that I would be back -- very unobtrusively.
...... I watched him pick his way downhill, as I drove up the rutted cart track -- a shaky little man in a vibrating landscape in the left wing mirror.
...... The vehicle shifted gears smoothly, better than I could have done myself. Along the cart track to the dirt road, shifting to disengage four wheel drive, the breeze blowing humidity through the open windows, the gravel road, a left turn at the isolated crossroads while my Jeep gulped butterflies, and out onto the State Route, such as it was.
...... I needed supplies, including a few specialty items, and the village could provide them. One item was a good dinner. Life out of a lunchbox was even less entrancing than the continuously open suitcase.
...... After my trip to town, it was nearing sunset when I drove into the tiny clearing. Backing my way up the eroded hunter's trail wasn't easy, as several newly-scarred trees attested. Fortunately, no real damage was done. Nature was producing its usual silent symphony of colored light, as the sun hung out its closed for business sign. The darkening shadows began to dim the tree-lined hollow below -- its freely running spring, the unpainted few-room house, and the plastic-glazed greenhouse out back. The ancient remains of a split rail fence were merging into the forest, engulfed by the green and growing vines.
...... Stretched out on the carpet in the back, with the rear gate open and the courtesy light switched off, I looked at the idyllic sylvan scene with a cold sandwich in one hand and a pair of 7x35 binoculars in the other. I had made no attempt at a stealthy approach to this parking place, but I had dispensed with any fanfare.
...... The shadows in the hollow continued to deepen. There was no motion anywhere but for the slow soaring of a raven, wheeling in the sky -- except for the mosquitoes. Someone had passed the word that there was a new fastfood establishment in the area, one which featured lemon-flavored drinks, and they'd all come for the grand opening. If I'd tried the aerosol repellent, they'd probably have returned with shower caps and bath brushes. The sun switched off the last of the advertising, and then it was too dark to see anything at all.
...... Bedtime was a blanket in the back of the vehicle, the open rear gate providing a sort of roofed porch against the slight drizzle which had snuck in, chasing the sun. Since the insects had left to find umbrellas, I took the opportunity to install a bit of cord, a spring, and a black thread. Now any visitor, who came up the trail and broke the thread, would be welcomed by the headlights on and at full beam. No doubt, a wandering harmless animal would snap the thread sometime in the night -- but it was a big spool, and I didn't have much else to do until morning.
...... The dash clock read just after midnight, when the headlights had come on, and I'd ducked down to see what was on the trail. There was nothing there. I brushed away the dirt and pine needles from my pants and restrung the thread, taking the tension and turning the headlight switch off.
...... It was a restless night anyway, and a cold can of soda pop kept me company, as I sat on the back bumper, looking down into the silent hollow. This night was like any other night -- tree frogs and an owl, the rustle of small animals harvesting their dinner, the little burble of another spring somewhere in the distance, fireflies chasing the girls, and the fading whistle of the wind in the trees. The rain had stopped, but the moon was only a newspaper forecast. No observer would notice the slight glow in a corner of the clouds.
...... One collection of fireflies, nestled in the darkness, was putting on a very long display of signaling. With a redder than usual glow, they seemed to stay on much longer than one was used to. They also were inclined to swarm in only one place. Idly, I looked at them through the binoculars, but that group of tiny lights didn't seem to be all that much closer. The individual insects didn't move around the way fireflies normally did, and the points of light seemed diffuse, as though seen through plastic sheeting.
...... Almost as though they were perched inside the greenhouse down there. It looked like a good time for my own nocturnal reconnaissance.
...... A few minutes walk with the aid of a penlight, and the greenhouse door was there -- old timber construction, but a new hasp and padlock. However, it opened outward. The eight screws backed out readily enough, and now there was room between jamb and door edge to let me slide through into the small outbuilding.
...... Thin wood arches and closely spaced laths held plastic sheeting in place. There was the usual dank smell of wet rich soil. Long rough timber benches lined the walls, supporting a hundred or more standard clay plant pots, each draped with the dark green seed leaves of a plant. From each clump of leaves grew two slender green stalks, and from each stalk grew a single cantilevered branch. At the end of each branch was an oval bud, the lower half of which glowed with red-yellow light through a transparent membrane.
...... Protective coloration gone wildly aberrant -- each foot high stalk was a perfect miniature of a standard corner streetlight.
...... As they became aware of me, each of them twisted slightly to look at the man-creature through its pair of glowing eyes. I looked at them, while the shivers along my back traveled their own accustomed way. But my audience had found a new interest. A big moth had slipped inside through the opening I'd made and was fluttering around the room, followed by two-hundred eyes. It swooped and swirled, and finally swooped too low.
...... One pair of tiny streetlights swung out and swatted it in a pincer grasp. Broken, the moth dropped into the clump of seed leaves, never to be seen again. Having no other distraction, the two-hundred eyes watched me, as I searched the building. Fertilizer, insecticides, mulch, sphagnum moss, sand, charcoal, broken rock, more plant pots -- nothing useful to me.
...... Out in the refreshing night, I put back the hinge screws and brushed away the slight residue of my boot tracks. Back up the hill and into my truck, down the trail and out onto the dirt road -- another trip to the village for more supplies. I had all the next day available for my preparations, but I wasn't going to sleep another night in these hills.

* * *

...... A little past nine o'clock the next night, I hunkered down in my hiding place in the brush. Insects droned in the background, and the moon was out -- not that its light was needed this time. I'd traveled only the backroads to arrive here, avoiding all human contact, and anything else for that matter.
...... The spot-coated mongrel dog under my arm was fighting the muzzle, but it would be for only a few minutes more. The little thing had been for the chop anyway -- a member of the temporary community in the Animal Shelter. This way at least, it'd have a running chance.
...... Mixed in with the insect chatter was the breezy ticking of the Jeep's engine at idle, fifty feet back and off to my right. I knew that the 4x4 indicator light was bright amber, and that the transmission was in park with the brake on. I wasn't worried about who might come up from behind me, because I was very worried about what might come after me from the front.
...... Off with the leash and muzzle, I tossed the mongrel forward into that brightly lit intersection. The dog knew who its friends were -- it headed for the tall timber on the other side of the crossroads. As the little mutt made its break for freedom over the graveled pool of yellow illumination, the streetlights moved.
...... Both silver poles flexed and whipped downward, snatching at the dog in a pincer motion. The mongrel yelped, as it was picked up and carried sideways. The manhole cover slid open of its own accord, deep blackness beneath it.
...... But the active little dog wrenched itself loose. It landed a scant yard from the black opening and started to run in the same direction as before, toward the safety of the forest. The closest silver tentacle made a desperate swat at the animal, but it fell a foot short. The dog vanished into the depths of the woods and the night.
...... Swaying slightly, both silver poles straightened and stiffened. The light intensity increased back to the previous strength. The sounds of the night returned after the commotion. Once again, it was just two normal-looking streetlights, shining down on a deserted gravel crossroads in the middle of nowhere.
...... I crept slowly back to my vehicle, not wishing to attract any attention. It'd require still another trip to town for the chemicals, but the farm supply opened early, and they'd be sure to offer coffee and doughnuts while my order was filled. I already knew which watersheds fed those two springs, and the pollution control samples were at the regional lab. No one would notice a peak in water residue levels until next year.
...... Two leaking bags of herbicide falling into the groundwater sources -- just another of those meaningless accidents which happen.

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