Chapter Three
An Entirely Alien Approach

The Restless Desert

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1402 [Ref. No. D1174-424]

...... The sheriff's deputy knew his clientele -- try the nearest bar. I did, and he was there, seated at the back beside a prosperously dressed local rancher. Small, thin, graying, weathered, and anxious, he didn't look much like a harbinger of catastrophe.
...... Someone had been there before me, when I'd inquired about bailing the old desert rat out of jail. Why the rancher had done so augmented the puzzle.
...... "Mr. Smith?" I inquired, standing before their table.
...... The old prospector looked up with fifty years of fear in his pale blue eyes, before glancing around like a mouse looking for a convenient bolthole. I hurried on before my audience escaped.
...... "I read about your story in the newspapers, Mr. Smith, and I'd like to hear more, if you have the time. There weren't too many details given. I don't represent anyone but myself, and I can pay you for your time."
...... That last phrase caught the old man's attention, as I thought it might. He stopped fidgeting. But the rancher answered instead.
...... "Newspaper reporter?" he suggested, looking me over. "Writer?"
...... "Neither," I answered quickly. "No publicity, no authority. I'm merely looking for another piece to a puzzle I'm interested in. But I can afford to buy information. As well as a round or two of drinks."
...... The rancher studied me, frowning for a moment, then grinned, the lines deepening in his tanned face. "Wouldn't be neighborly to refuse an offer like that." He gestured to the chair beside him, opposite the old prospector. "We can talk about it at least."
...... The old man shifted in his seat. "Not sure I wanna talk about it. Got in enough trouble talkin' 'bout it as it was." He looked up as the barkeeper hurried over for the new order.
...... "It can't hurt to tell me what you've already told others," I encouraged after the barkeeper had hurried away. It'd be very good service here -- we and one middle-aged lush were the only customers.
...... The old man narrowed his eyes. "What's it worth to you? I mean you said somethin' before." He pushed an empty glass out the way and folded his hands on the table. "I gotta git a hundred dollars 'fore I can go back to the land. Story sure aint worth that kinda money."
...... "How about twenty dollars on account, sort of?" the rancher suggested. "Then, if you think it's worth more than that, you can pay up the remainder."
...... The barkeeper returned with the drinks, a beer for me because I wasn't up to absorbing the local hooch. After paying him, I selected a crisp twenty from my dwindling supply and put it down on the table between us.
...... The old man sipped his drink, looked at the bill as its edge moved in the breeze from the fan, and looked back into his glass.
...... "It's entirely up to you, Charlie," the rancher remarked in a low voice.
...... The old man peered up at me. "Look here, son. I aint as crazy as these people 'round here make out. There's silver out there somewhere in that land. Ben, here, knows where I mean. The Indians used to use it for trinkets. Right now, I may not know exactly where it is, but I'll find it yet. If my years don't run out first."
...... He paused for comment, but I only nodded slightly and sipped beer from the bottle in front of me.
...... After a long gulp of his drink, he continued. "What I mean, son, is that I know the desert. Been 'round here a long time. Know what it's like winter and summer. Seen it rain half a dozen times, and it snowed once. Been here all my life. I know that place!" He paused to finish his drink, and I waved to the bartender for refills before quietly waiting him out.
...... He lifted a hand and dropped it back on the table. "What I mean is that it weren't no mirage. I saw those cactus plants move. Out there on that land. Ben knows where I mean. I really saw 'em do that. They vanish, and a minute later, they're back. But not at the same spot. Just a foot or so over. The moon was out real bright, and I was camped only a hundred feet away. Out there on that land, the cactus move at night when they think nobody's lookin'."
...... It was what I'd anticipated, half-wishing it had been a false lead. I would have to be around here for a while, which was why the plane ticket in my suitcase had no return date typed in. The barkeep put a second bottle next to my half-full one.
...... "Not much for all that money," the rancher commented, waving his glass at the bill.
...... "Guess it's not," the old man uncomfortably agreed. "All I ever told anybody 'round here. Ben, here, is the only one to know the rest. What I mean, son, is that the desert looks a lot alike even to old timers like me. So if I need to mark a spot, I just shove my spade into the sand. There's nobody but men like me out there. Nobody bothers a spade dug in that way. All these years I never lost a spade yet. I didn't lose the last one, either. Only I'd left it where those cactuses were rushin' 'round, and when I come back for it, it'd turned green and had needles all over the shank. I brought it back, but 'fore I could show anybody, it shriveled right up and turned to dust, blade and all. If you can explain that, son, I'd be right thankful." He finished his drink and stood up. "That's all there is to tell, the whole story. And I'd best be movin' 'long now. Still got some things to do."
...... He reached for the twenty, trying not to snatch it up -- his party manners. It represented one fifth of what he needed to go back to his desert and away from all these silly city people with their crazy new ways. Hoping my reluctance didn't show, I dug out my wallet once more and put four more twenties on the table. Sometimes, one has to fuel someone else's dream -- or else give up on the human race. Melynnda would understand, even though her Mustang needed new tires. It couldn't be an expense account item.
...... The old man just looked at them. I had to push them over to him before he'd pick them up.
...... "Thank you kindly, son. Don't know just what to say." His nod was deep enough to qualify as a bow. He clapped his dusty hat on his gray hair. "If there's somethin' else I can do, just let me know. When I'm off the land, everybody in town knows where I'm at." He nodded a second time and walked to the door, obviously trying not to hurry.
...... I let out the sigh I'd been suppressing and took a long swallow of beer.
...... "Now that was a really nice thing to do," the rancher offered. He poked at the last of the ice in his glass but shook his head when the bartender looked his way.
...... "I hope my wife agrees with you." I gestured, palm upward. "And I hope I didn't give him enough to drink himself to death."
...... "Not Charlie," he chuckled. "He only drinks when someone else is buying. He'll stop first at the grocery, then at the hardware, then at the gas station. Tonight, he'll have a tent pitched out on the sand." He stopped for a moment. "You're a government man."
...... Since it was a statement and not a question, I merely nodded and kept my attention on my beer bottle.
...... "Thought so." He grinned again. "Did they give you any identification?"
...... I fished out the folder with the scratched plastic card and put it on the table.
...... "Special Investigations," he read out loud. "J. W. Driver, Junior. I thought you had to be. I was a govie myself before I retired. Worked out of China Lake. Wouldn't happen to know anyone out there, would you?"
...... "None at all. I've been down to Dahlgren, but I've never worked out of there." I finished the beer and put the empty bottle aside.
...... "Good enough." He held out a callused hand. "I'm Ben Pritchard. I own a little land out here. Which is why I came here in retirement."
...... I shook hands. "Glad to meet you."
...... "You're on assignment out here. Car and per diem." He pushed the i.d. folder back. "And you'll be going out to see Charlie's land as soon as you find out where it is. Right?"
...... "So it would seem." His interest in itself interested me.
...... "Then you'll have to drive that little white Chevy I saw you in back to the airport over at the big town and pick up something more appropriate to the desert. That's the only way you'll get out there." He drank the small amount of ice water left in his glass. "Let me suggest this about your car and per diem. My wife's in California with the grandkids, and I don't like cookin' for one. You come out to my ranch and stay with me. We'll split on the chores and the groceries. I've got a nice four-by-four pickup, and we'll both go look at Charlie's land."
...... "What's your interest in this?" I requested bluntly.
...... "I'm curious. Something strange is happening out there, and I want to know just what it is." He toyed with the empty glass. "I don't particularly like looking into it without some help. Just in case. You must want to know what it is, too. Because on the surface, Charlie's story is downright preposterous. Unless you've seen something like it before . . . which I think you might have. So let's work together on this."
...... I considered it for a moment. "We can try it out and see what happens. No permanent commitment on either side."

* * *

...... The sun was a flat tire rolling along the cloud bank which paved the horizon, as we bounced through the desert in Ben's pickup truck. The land wasn't a true sand desert -- only a sandy wasteland, scribbled on by brush and punctuated by cacti which drew distorted shadows on the undulations of the land. The technicolor sky was fading into pastels. No one had mentioned, when I took on this work, that it was mostly night shift.
...... Likewise, Ben here, hadn't mentioned, when he made his most hospitable offer, that his little land here included most of the county. From the mineral rights, his family earned enough to leave the family fortune in the hands of professional money managers and to devote their time to government service and charitable organizations. His wife was in California with the grandkids, because his daughter and son-in-law were overseas, working for the Diplomatic Service at the moment. I carefully neglected to ask just what position Ben held at China lake -- the answer wouldn't do a thing for my peace of mind. His interest in Charlie Smith's adventure was legitimate, because Smith was doing his prospecting on Ben's land.
...... That two-room log cabin and wood-fired stove, implied by Ben's offer, turned out to be a rambling ranch-style presided over by a Spanish couple, who cooked, cleaned, shopped, and trimmed the golf-course size lawn. The grocery bill we split was the cost of a case of beer; the only chore was to drink it while lounging by the swimming pool and waiting for sundown.
...... The beer was imported -- Chinese. He had become acquainted with it on one of his officially sponsored trips to China and taught me how to pronounce the name properly -- nothing like the way it was spelled on the label.
...... So for once I did the duty which Melynnda so often laughingly accused me of. If I had known what Ben's offer of hospitality included, I would have refused it -- which was why he phrased it the way he did. Having accepted, I couldn't change my mind, because that would be far too tacky -- again something he obviously had judged. His work history must have included a long career in successful people-management.
...... "What do you drive, when you're not renting?" he requested idly, breaking into my thoughts.
...... His truck was a small pickup, green and tan, with bush grill, touch-drive, and overdrive automatic. He pulled the headlight knob, then flicked a switch which brought on the six bar-mounted overheads.
...... "Jeep Liberty, automatic, off-road package," I answered just to make conversation. "Do you see a big jump in gas mileage somewhere around ninety-one or two octane?" The desert night seemed less hostile with the sound of human voices over the engine growl.
...... He grinned and nodded, just visible in the dusk. "Nice vehicle, but I need an open bed. I tote around too much for a utility body." He gestured out the window. "Do you believe about Charlie's green spade? By the way, if you see an old International out here, off-white where there's any paint left, that's Charlie at work. Every dime you gave him, he'll put to food, water, and fuel. If he just happens to strike it rich this trip, he'll be lookin' you up to hand over your share. That's the type of old geezer he is. Strictly behind the current attitudes."
...... It also was typical of Ben to ask a crucial question, then change the subject, in case the question was an embarrassment. I could continue on with the new subject if I needed to.
...... "Let's just say I incline more to the green spade than to the Indian silver."
...... "That's what I hoped," he answered, then was silent for another bone-rattling mile. "When I first heard Charlie's story, I went out here and searched. That's when I decided to go back and bail him out. While I was here, I'd picked up somebody's old abandoned rocking chair." He paused a moment. "Had to wrap the roots in burlap." He glanced over in the last of the twilight.
...... "Green with needles," I added.
...... "I planted it out back in the vegetable garden, gave it fertilizer and water, but it died and withered away, just like Charlie's spade." He laughed quietly. "Didn't know whether to mention it. Don't like to sound foolish. But we ought to be in the area in the next couple minutes."
...... Four minutes later by the dash clock, he stamped on the brake pedal, slid to a stop, and backed up thirty feet. Picking up a long-cell flashlight and opening the door, he waved one hand in invitation.
...... It was dark green, seen in the center of the disk made by the flashlight beam -- a simple wood surveyor's stake, dotted with white bumps from which protruded stiff sharp spines. "You don't seem much surprised," he remarked, closely watching.
...... "One tends to lose the capacity." I stood again and stepped a pace away.
...... "Like to tell me what's goin' on?" he requested in a flat tone. He switched off the light.
...... "Not particularly." I looked around, but each direction seemed identical to the others. "You know too much already."
...... "That's a shame." He pushed at the soil with a boot toe. "My next passenger just might be the editor of the local newspaper."
...... "Not very likely," I laughed, "as we both well know. We'd best move back about a hundred yards. I can set up in the pickup bed, but I'd just as soon be outside of the action area, when those cacti start to shift."
...... Ben chuckled and slid into the driver's seat. "Those metal suitcases of yours good enough at that kind of range?"
...... I nodded as I slammed the passenger-side door. "And this is not the sort of land where I'd choose to put down roots. Not to mention that my wife would be a bit upset if I came home sporting a dark green skin."
...... "My own lady would be none too happy if I had to shave needles every day," he agreed, watching the wing mirror as he backed.
...... The odometer clicked over a tenth, and I gestured out the window toward an open area. "This looks good enough."
...... He leaned over the railing, arms loosely folded, watching as I hunkered down in the pickup bed to unpack the equipment. A set of typed instructions were pasted on one case top, but they couldn't have been read without the light from the control console, and the lights wouldn't come on until everything was hooked up according to the typed instructions. Fortunately, they were simple enough to remember.
...... "What did Airport Security have to say about that lot?" he requested with another dry chuckle, as he stepped away to let me clamp a camera mount right where he'd been leaning.
...... "It did cause a bit of flurry." I clamped the other camera to the opposite end of the bed and tightened the measurement cable between them. "But I had a letter in my pocket about it. After a quick hallway conference, they decided I was a mirage, and they hadn't really seen me. They did ask me to exchange my return ticket stub for a handful of bus passes." I snapped several cable connectors together. "I'll have to disappoint them, though. This thing has to be returned as soon as I can."
...... "To a warehouse in Virginia," he added. "That roll in the corner is a couple sleeping bags. It can get mighty cold out here at night. What I should have remembered to bring was another six-pack."
...... "Actually, this came from a building group just north of the District." I snapped the main switch, and the control console lit up like a small city. The backwash of the colored lights illuminated the set-up instructions perfectly.
...... "Looks pretty, but what's it do?" He climbed into the bed, causing it to rock slightly on the springs. The shocks squeaked.
...... The cameras turned under automatic control on their mounts, and the video console showed no motion effect at all. The gadgetry just might work, in spite of its experimental one-of-a-kind status. Its owners were more interested in having it used in the field than I was to use it.
...... "The cameras are image-intensifiers which will give a daylight-contrast picture on the video screen, even in diffuse starlight." I readjusted two of the image-control knobs. "Both feed into image analysis microcomputers which will detect motion."
...... "So we can get a good picture of those cacti when they start hikin' around," he added. He gestured toward the nearest camera. "But why the duplicates."
...... "Triangulation between the cameras is plotted out as a map on this little hardcopy unit." I tapped the featureless box.
...... He grunted. "Cute trick with a baseline the length of half a pickup. Know if this really works?"
...... "Now that is something you, I, a ten engineer design team in Florida, and a government procurement officer in Crystal City might just find out tonight." I rubbed my back and leaned against the wall of the cab. "If there's any activity to see tonight. What are you planning to do tomorrow night?"
...... He waved that away and leaned back against the cab, hands on his drawn-up knees. In silence, we both watched one small cloud drift across the brilliant ribbon of the Milky Way in the clear cool air.
...... I cleared my throat. "The function of my particular department is to counter what appears to be an attempt by an alien something to establish some sort of colony on Earth. Try repeating that to your local newspaper editor."
...... It was a good minute before he answered.
...... "And here I always thought alien invaders was a Saturday morning cartoon show." He waved outward. "How do you know that whatever's out there is an alien at work."
...... "I don't," I admitted. "But after so many similar tasks, I've developed a mission-feel. I think it very likely is the Alien at work. I could be wrong."
...... "Worse, you could be right." He paused for consideration. "But why would anything mess around with natural cactus plants in the middle of an uninhabited desert? What could it think it's doing out here?"
...... "I haven't the slightest idea," I admitted. "I can't understand much of what people do, much less the thought processes of some alien being. If thought is a term which can be applied to an alien creature."
...... A whirring sound from the plotter box caused both of us to look up. On the video screen, a dashed line showed where the image of a cactus plant used to be.
...... "That didn't take long to start happening," he observed.
...... "The alien must have been watching for us to leave," I agreed.
...... He shuddered slightly. "You mean that thing might have been watchin' us?"
...... "It, whatever it is, seems to be able to perceive something of this world. It may have different senses, but it does have awareness of what's happening at various locations."
...... He shifted uncomfortably. "Now that doesn't make me feel any too good. Like, a bit exposed, aren't we?"
...... "I've never experienced an actual attack," I offered. "Nor heard of one."
...... "Yet!" he added morosely. "Well, it must have some sort of intelligence. At least, it's not home watchin' television."
...... The plotter whirred again -- the cactus was back, but not in the same place. It had reappeared about two feet away from where it'd vanished. Half a minute later, another plant vanished.
...... "At least we know Charlie Smith was telling the truth," I suggested.
...... In slow procession, one after another, cactus plants vanished and reappeared. It continued uninterrupted for over an hour. Just as the moon appeared over the low hills, the phenomenon stopped as abruptly as it had started. The scene on the video display remained motionless, and the plotter stopped its characteristic whir.
...... "Looks like the show's over for tonight," I decided. "Nice of it. There's still time to get a good night's sleep yet." I crawled over to the control console and punched some buttons before starting to disconnect and pack the cameras.
...... "What's it doing now?" he requested, motioning toward the blinking indicator lights.
...... "Statistical analysis of the location data." I rolled a cable and put it under its clamps. "Given the location of the various cacti from tonight's run, it's determining if there's a closed boundary. If there is, it'll plot it on the map."
...... The plotter whirred to life once more, then pushed out a sheet of graph paper. The map was overdrawn with an ellipse, one side of which was dotted with the location points of the moving plants.
...... "Now doesn't that beat all," he commented and pointed to a grid line. "That's where I found the rocking chair, and right there is where Charlie claimed to have put his spade."
...... "Wouldn't happen to know where I could find a good spray helicopter, would you?" I requested, flipping the master switch to shut off the batteries.
...... He looked up from the map. "Around here, spraying takes a license. Don't tell me, I know." He grinned. "You just happen to have another letter."
...... Closing the last of the cases, I nodded.

* * *

...... Ben was in the passenger seat, chattering away like a hungry sparrow, as I drove my rental Chevy out to the airport. Traffic was just beginning to get underway for the morning rush hour, and it was easy to drive with half my attention on the road and the other half on Ben's conversation.
...... There had been a brief thunderstorm in the early hours of the morning, desert rain was rare, he'd been in California the last time it'd happened, he wanted to get the helicopter task done as soon as possible, he wanted to push me into his truck and tour the desert to see the blooms.
...... The spray helicopter was small, but with enough crowding, Ben and I could fit in with the pilot. The sound of the engine and rotors made conversation next to impossible, which was fine with me and the pilot, but inhibited Ben so much he kept shifting on the seat.
...... "Look at that up ahead!" the pilot yelled over the noise, jabbing his hand at the big windscreen.
...... Below on the desert floor was a vacant area -- no brush, no weeds, and most definitely no cactus plants. The shape of the void was a perfect ellipse. There was no need to check the map references, because under the circumstances there could be no other place.
...... "Land at the edge of it," I requested, shouting to be heard over the racket.
...... The three of us walked a few yards into the desolation, our boots slightly crunching the thin crust over the sandy earth. A few withered scraps of vegetation were fading away in the heat of the morning sun.
...... "Guess I shouldn't have watered my own specimen," Ben decided.
...... "Whatever that thing is, the one we're opposing, it does make mistakes," I remarked. "I don't know what those cacti were. But the one thing they most assuredly were not . . . they weren't waterproof."

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