Chapter Four
An Entirely Alien Approach

An Endless Barrier

...... Irwin gulped down the last swallow of coffee and jostled his file folders into a stack. "An invasion by extraterrestrials. If I didn't know this was a legitimate government office, I'd swear it was a hoax. Even after reading those case files, it's still unbelievable."
...... "Colonization attempt rather than invasion," Melynnda corrected, waving a slim hand. "And we don't know yet if it's one creature or several." She softly shrugged. "Or if that question has any true significance. If you want to know more about the technicalities, you'll have to catch my husband, next time he's here. He's the resident specialist on this whatever-it-is. Resident being a very relative term."
...... "The man everyone here calls Driver?" He pushed the folder edges into alignment.
...... She nodded. "And who I call Jay. He was the first field investigator, and now is a sort of field senior supervisor. We started this operation before it was an office and before it was involved with the government. Now he works in the field, and I'm temporary administrator here. I liked it better when we both were on the road in the very beginning."
...... "It all seems so low key." He glanced out of the window for a moment. "Battling an alien invasion . . . colonization effort, with weed killers and road graders."
...... "There have been some high points." She brushed an errant strand of long hair out of the way. "There even have been some shots fired. But not in Jay's direction, as he likes to laugh. I personally can remember two sticks of explosives. But for the most part, it is at a very low key. The Quiet War, as Jay often refers to it."

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1461 [Ref. No. D1174-463]

...... Coming this way wasn't intentional -- merely, it was the shortest way into town. Just another highway like so many others: Grass greening in the median, trees struggling up along the interchanges, a weed farm at each drainage culvert, very few other vehicles strung out along the road in single file at this late hour, amber lights lining the shoulder beyond a large orange sign, construction next seventeen miles.
...... A big red and brown pickup truck came dashing down the acceleration ramp, and I slowed to save it the trouble of going around me. The speedometer hovered at forty-eight miles an hour -- my best speed for economy. Besides, there was no hurry tonight.
...... In the back of the pickup nested a swarm of blinking amber lights, at least a dozen of those orange and white plastic barrels which were used for construction warning barriers. That was a curious situation, since the construction crew would have stopped work at sundown.
...... Clicking off the Cruise Control, I matched speed to stay about two hundred feet behind the pickup. Its chrome bumper glittered in the wash of my headlights, the roar of its engine sounding above the whine of my own. To the right of the license plate, the word diesel flickered in red capitals in the afterglow of a taillight. Two and a quarter miles down the highway, its brakelights came on, and it slowed and pulled off the road.
...... As I drifted by at about forty, I could spot the tread scars on the shoulder left by heavy truck traffic. Three seconds later, a fenced construction yard was visible over the embankment. Inside the fence the pickup was parked beside a trailer, apparently used as a field office. Stray lights from its windows illuminated three men in conversation near the trailer door.
...... I steered onto the shoulder, backed up to the other tread marks, and turned down the rough-graded access road. Obvious opportunities shall not be ignored -- a maxim of the per diem expense account.
...... The three men stopped to watch, when I drove through the open gate. As I parked next to the trailer, one of them strode over, his hand shoving at the white hardhat he wore.
...... "What do you need?" The man was heavyset in a muscular way, in work clothes, and in a hurry. His hands gestured extravagantly. "I'm Super here."
...... "How about a few minutes of your time?" I requested, stepping out and closing the door -- not hard enough, it only first-latched. I leaned on it to finish the job. "I've been told you've had some trouble out here."
...... The man grimaced. "Trouble! Police, Sheriff's Department, State Police, or Security Service?"
...... "None of the above. Insurance investigator. The construction company has filed a claim." I motioned to the sign painted on the side of the trailer, under the window, Whitside Construction Company."
...... "I know, I know." He gestured a bit more. "I'm Ernie Whitside. I wrote up the claim. Tell you what. Give me three minutes to take care of this bunch, and I'll be right with you. Go on inside. There's coffee makings next to the maker, and the air conditioning is on high. Have a doughnut or three, courtesy of the house. I'll be right with you." He turned to the pickup's crew but glanced over his shoulder. "Don't go away now."
...... The coffee barely had started to drip into the carafe, when he bustled in, flipped a chair around, and sat down. "Am I ever glad to meet you, my friend. I knew the insurance company would have to send out an investigator, but I never expected action this fast from somebody who had to pay out."
...... "Or expected a midnight visit," I agreed, reaching for a doughnut. "But I happened to be coming this way. Suppose you tell me what's happening to you here. This time, you won't be limited by the space on a claims form."
...... He tossed up both hands, stood, and poured coffee for himself into a ceramic mug, pausing to refill my styrofoam cup. "I'm not sure I know what's happening. It's totally screwball. Like nothing I've dealt with before. Vandals are stealing the construction markers and scattering them around the area. No other damage or theft loss." He picked up a frosted doughnut and waved it. "That pickup out there just brought in a batch from somebody's truck garden. Everyone's been out here, I mentioned the list, but nobody's seen any of the vandals. Much less caught anyone." He stopped to eat the doughnut in big bites.
...... "How did it begin?" I prompted, also between bites.
...... He dropped back into his chair, coffee mug in one hand and another doughnut in the other, his boots on the littered desk. "About three weeks ago, the Sheriff's Patrol called me up to say that eight of my construction barrier barrels were blocking a county road two miles south of here. I sent over a crew, and, sure enough, it was Whitside equipment. Had a big W.C.C. painted on the sides. They brought 'em back, found a ramp which wasn't marked any longer, and put them back in place. Big deal."
...... He paused for a swallow of coffee. "The next night, the guy I have on light-check duty stopped in to say he'd serviced the batteries on two more markers than before, and did I have any other new ones. I never had any new ones! I checked the records, sent a man out to do a count, checked the records again, and started pulling out some of my hair." He brushed a hand across the top of his head. "I had two extra barrels . . . marked with the W.C.C. logo."
...... "You keep that accurate a count?" I wiped sugared fingers on a scrap of paper towel.
...... "My friend, this job is bid so close, I can tell you exactly how much extra wear my trucks are putting on that concrete up there." He pushed the doughnut box over within reach. "Then a couple nights later, the County Police call me. Some of my marked barrels are blocking this guy's driveway. I send a crew to pick 'em up. Next night or so, the State Police are calling. There's a dozen of my markers lining a State Route just east of here, back over the hill there." He motioned to the far wall. "I get those picked up. And it's been like that ever since. Every two-three nights, a batch of marker barrels disappears and mostly turns up somewhere. I've had to hire two crews with trucks just to reclaim the equipment. It's vandalism, and I'm insured against vandals, so I filed the claim. Share the grief!"
...... "That's what insurance is for. And since I'm an investigator, I'll go out and investigate, then file a report for the company to start your claim going." I stood up. "Thanks for your hospitality. If you would, please let your people know I'm in the area."
...... He put down the coffee mug and reached for the telephone. "Right this very moment. I'll call all of the dispatchers, so they can tell their people as they call in. What's the number of that Jeep of yours?"
...... I wrote it at the bottom of one of my business cards -- the ones printed up for this case -- and handed it to him. The night was a dead loss anyway. If I couldn't find a motel at daybreak, there still were a couple of blankets in the back.

* * *

...... Oil spill in the Pacific, the President addresses a graduating class on the need for volunteerism, border clashes in the Middle East, tax rates going up along with inflation while actual revenues are going down, housing starts are down and no one knows why.
...... In the interim, one lonely and bored professional investigator from a government department no one knows, watches an empty stretch of concrete in the tiny sliver of light from a tiny sliver of moon, while listening to the news on the radio.
...... Blinking amber lights beyond count stretch off to the horizon, as seen through my binoculars. The usual nocturnal sounds click and chatter through the open windows. A car passes in the night, leaving a silence more profound than before. The world moves in darkness -- except for the slowly changing green digits on the dash clock.
...... Four more hours until dawn.
...... A brilliant amber light from behind, reflected on the dash trim, brightened the interior. It came from a single high-intensity flasher which washed out the softer white of the headlight beams. A small brown pickup truck had pulled in behind me, its image distorted in the curvature of the right wing mirror. Two small distorted figures of men in uniforms stepped from the vehicle. One reached back in through the open window for a microphone, while the other sauntered forward to the window on the passenger-side of my vehicle, where I was sitting slouched down in the seat.
...... "Can we help you with something, sir?" the man requested in a smooth bass voice.
...... "Not at present," I tossed back, putting aside the binoculars. "You haven't checked in with your base station lately."
...... He hesitated, then grinned. "As a matter of fact, we haven't. We go off duty for dinner break in a few minutes." He tilted his head to one side. "So who are you? Not local."
...... Anyone who thinks private security guards are dumb has been watching too many old reruns. He moved away from the side.
...... I opened the door and slid to the ground. "Insurance investigator. Come to join this mob of barrel keepers."
...... He nodded, still watchful. "At this rate, they won't need construction markers, they'll have so many of us lining the shoulder on this road." A horn beeped twice, and he waved a hand in answer without looking around. His partner was putting the microphone back inside. Apparently, my existence was officially allowed now.
...... A pair of headlights, moving up from behind, swerved over as two blue code lights came on. The white, full-size car had County police markings. It halted just behind the pickup.
...... "You guys caught one of your own, this time," the officer yelled from the open window. He still was chuckling, when he ambled forward to join us.
...... "We called in for some backup," the older Security man admitted. "The cancellation must not have come through in time." He pulled off his hat and rubbed his forehead.
...... "Wise precaution," I allowed, leaning against the Jeep's spare tire. The four of us tossed a few ideas around for a similar number of minutes, until another large car pulled in behind the County cruiser -- red bubbler in the center of its roof.
...... "I overheard the call," the Deputy Sheriff explained, strolling up to join the group. "Hoped it might be something."
...... "Just chasing our tails again," Security answered.
...... "We're getting just great at catching each other," County agreed. He turned, as another set of headlights pulled in -- red and blue double code lights on the roof.
...... "Anything up?" the State Police officer asked, joining the conversation.
...... "Informal coordination meeting," County remarked.
...... "And coordination is something we really do need here," the Deputy added.
...... "Breaks the monotony," Security offered.
...... "At least it's not raining," State allowed, gesturing with an open hand. "Not like last time."
...... "This is what I mean about not need the barrier markers," the younger of Security said to me.
...... "It's a good demonstration of how effective the coverage here is," I answered back. "We do have very good coverage," County added. "Everybody's here but the F.B.I." He looked over at the shoulder cutting. "And they're probably staked out in the bushes."
...... "The only ones we're missing are the vandals," the Deputy put in. He stifled a yawn.
...... "They sure won't be around here after this parade," County replied.
...... "They wouldn't be here tonight anyway," State added. "Not if they stick to their same pattern."
...... "There shouldn't be any action until tomorrow night or the night after," Security agreed. "And I suppose we'll all be out here again."
...... "Running into each other while seeing nobody else," County predicted. "It still pays the bills. I've got to get back to it. Bye, everybody." He turned and strode back to his cruiser.
...... As the informal session broke up, a dark-red recreational van slowed and pulled up in front of my Jeep. "I thought I recognized that never-washed four-by," the driver shouted, leaning out of the window. "If you guys don't know him, I can vouch for him." He climbed out with the interior lights showing up his freckled face and bright red hair.
...... "Hi, Max," I called in answer.
...... "Sure, Maxy! And who's going to vouch for you?" the County officer yelled down the row of vehicles over the sound of his engine starting.
...... State, Deputy, and Security all waved greetings as they each pulled out. Max returned the gestures before walking up to lean his back against the Jeep's grill. We stood there, watching the taillights fade in the distance, leaving only the chitter of the insects and the constant flickering of the amber construction barrier lights.
...... "Good group of guys," he finally commented. "They really have done just about everything possible to crack this one. Did you read my report?"
...... I nodded. "That's why I'm here."
...... He walked three paces to kick a bit of broken retread off the shoulder into the drainage ditch. "This one's real odd. That's why I asked for some help. Senior help! How do you want to go?"
...... I considered the possibilities for a minute, watching the taillights of Max's van flash their own hazard warning. "I think I'll snoop around alone for a couple days. See what I can turn up separately. Why don't you take the same time off, see the local sights. Just stay around somewhat close."
...... "That's why I keep a fishing rod in the van." He slowly paced back. "I'll keep nights at the place where I'm checked in now." He paused for a long moment. "If you don't have a place arranged for, there's plenty of vacancies there. It's a family business, not fancy but good, makes most of its cash during the height of the tourist season. I like it, but I don't know what you're used to."
...... "I'm on the same type of expense account," I laughed. "Lead the way. If you can talk them into accepting a stranger at this hour of the morning, I'll take it."

* * *

...... Water gurgled down the gutter spout, splashed onto the formed concrete basin, and swirled along the shallow curbing on its way to the tiny natural creek which bordered this unit of motel rooms. Sitting in an old but newly painted metal porch chair, protected from the downpour by a fiberglass roof set on wrought iron railings, I leisurely watched the raindrops bounce off the roof of Max's van. A week-old news magazine lay on the cement walkway beside me, its last page picturing the joys of the sunny Bahamas.
...... Within minutes, a last long line of silver rain fled from the reemerging sun, and I could with care pick my way through the many shallow puddles across the street to the postcard-size restaurant, housed in a very old stone building. This establishment also was a family business, distantly related to the proprietors of the motel. If it kept up the tradition, my meal would simple, subtle, and superb.
...... "Hey! Over here!" Max stood in front of a chair by a table in the corner.
...... I veered, ducked under an antique kettle being used as a planter, and took the chair across from him. "Good morning."
...... "I know exactly what you mean," he agreed, sitting again. "I actually had lunch today, believe it or not. I wasn't sure that custom was going on still. I always have hated working nights, and I don't know what makes me stay on this job. My son-in-law keeps after me to join his pizza operation."
...... "You keep this job for the same reason I do. Obstinacy, several bills to pay each month, and an over-forty age. Pension rights are hard to come by."
...... "And who ever heard of Irish pizza." He waved it away. "The expense money does pay the gasoline bills. Are you getting any better mileage than before?"
...... I turned over a palm in answer. A young waiter brought the menu, and I opened it for suggestions. The house special was written in longhand.
...... "Same here," he admitted. "We both have the same problem, pushing crackerboxes on wheels into the wind."
...... After giving the waiter my order, I settled back in my seat, sipping some water from my glass.
...... "Heard you got another job offer," he remarked, looking out the big picture window.
...... "You've got a very effective grapevine connection." I picked up a spoon for the bowl of onion soup the waiter had just served. "Melynnda doesn't know yet."
...... He grinned. "Friend of a friend of a friend in the company which made the offer. That same source said it's a big boost in the paycheck." He picked up a fork to toy with his salad. "And here I always thought government jobs were supposed to be high paying."
...... "It's like everywhere else." I spooned stringy cheese. "A few superstars get the bulk of the money, and the routine workers get what's left. Every time Lynn comes back from a Headquarters meeting, she says she'd like the Alien to win. It couldn't do any worse management."
...... "A big pay boost is quite a temptation," he allowed, spearing lettuce and tomato. "You and Melynnda, between the two of you, pull in one good salary. Are they ever going to fund a permanent career administrator's job?"
...... "Personally, I doubt it. Things are going well enough as the organization chart stands now. Lynn would have to quit to cause any action, and she wouldn't. We get by well enough." I paused to spoon soup. "We both were in at the beginning of this thing, when it was funded by grant and half volunteer work. She wants to see the end of it, and likewise, so do I. My Jeep's paid off, and so's her Mustang. Our apartment's small enough and plain enough that we can afford it. Maybe the savings account isn't growing very fast, and vacations are one-day trips, but that's okay for now." I finished the last spoonful of soup. "No, I'm not taking the job offer. Which is why I haven't mentioned it to Lynn yet."
...... "I didn't have the face to ask outright," he laughed, waving the salad fork. "A lot of us are going to be much happier knowing you'll still be available. By the by, an entomologist's report came today. Since I didn't request it, I assume you did."
...... "What's the conclusion?"
...... The waiter arrived to pick up dishes.
...... "Bad territory for a screen door salesman." He spread butter on a hard roll. A shower of crust flakes landed on the plate. "That's what I'd sure miss. You've a great talent for a second-guessing these things."
...... "It's only experience, Max."
...... "You going out on the road tonight?"
...... "I planned to. Know where I might find a transmission colorimeter?"
...... He glanced out the window again, and I followed his gaze. A thick lawn spread out beneath an old fruit tree and stopped at the brick edging of the little creek which flowed with captured rainwater -- a drenched and dripping apple tree.
...... "A sky grown clear and blue again after the storm," I murmured.
...... "It is that," he agreed. "We've had rain every afternoon for a week."
...... "Just a quotation I'd remembered from what I'd been reading last night," I explained in apology for the interruption.
...... "I don't think there'd be a colorimeter for a hundred miles." He chased a last bit of tomato around the salad plate. "The next best bet would be color photographic filters from the photo supply store up the road there, just past the junk shop. Pardon me, the Ye Olde Antiquey Shoppey."
...... "I'll give that a try."
...... The waiter arrived carrying a big black plastic serving tray and began setting out both our dinners.
...... "One last thing," I requested. "Do you have a map of where all those barrels were found?"
...... "Nope. But I do have a black marker and a county map in the van. Only take a few minutes to make one up. I know all the locations from having been out to look."
...... Work talk was avoided for the remainder of the meal, the only way to prevent ulcers. I asked about his family and the new pizza operation, while he asked about Melynnda and whether the pothole ever had been fixed in the field office driveway.
...... Two lonely travelers talking trivia to avoid discussing the state of the market in our own particular, peculiar line of goods.

* * *

...... Click.
...... One plastic rim slid into place on top of the last one, as I worked my way through the short stack of photo filters. Slide a new one into the make-shift holder on the binoculars and try again.
...... Once again, the vehicle cabin was dark, except for the slowly changing numerals on the dash clock. I worked by touch, sitting in the front passenger's seat and watching the uncountable points of blinking amber light which stretched in a smooth line to the horizon. Darkness with an overcast sliver of moon, hazy in the distance -- the flashing headlights of a rare passing car, the slow drone of a very few night insects, and the innumerable points of amber light were my only company.
...... Tonight would be mostly for luck. The photographic filters weren't showing anything interpretable, but it had been a tiny chance, only worth investigating with so little to do while the rain humidified the air and gloss-painted the grass in the median. A colorimeter could be ordered tomorrow, and I'd have to hang around for two or three days waiting for it to be delivered, seeing the local sights and thinking up more low probability chores for myself.
...... Far away, nearly at the end of the amber line, the string of blinking lights was becoming irregular -- very slowly, noticeable only to a stopped observer desperate for anything significant. Ever so slowly, as the clock digits flickered by, two gaps were forming to either side of one light. Perhaps not all luck had been washed away by the rain. One minute, two minutes, three, four . . . .
...... Then it was there -- another soft amber light, blinking in the darkness, its image blurred by the moisture-laden breeze.
...... Tossing the binoculars into the back seat, I scrambled out the passenger's door, ran around the front, and jumped into the driver's seat, clicking the seatbelt and twisting the ignition key at the same time. Drive, brake release snapped, steering wheel all the way to the left, foot hard on the throttle. A clatter of gravel against the mudflaps and a squeak of protest from the tires, as I pulled onto the concrete and accelerated up the highway along the string of warning lights.
...... Two minutes to cover the distance, the headlights on full beam to throw the scene into high relief as I sped by. Where there had been one barrel with its light flickering in the night, now there were two -- a foot and so apart. Each was orange-white-orange, each blinked its yellow color, and each carried the same W.C.C. logo.
...... A mile farther on, parked once more on the shoulder, I watched in the left wing mirror as the line of amber lights, each moving in minute steps, regularized their spacing.
...... Then they were still, as though nothing at all had happened in this depth of night.
...... Except that tomorrow, a workman would report an extra light he'd checked -- perhaps more than one. Unless later on this night, some of them decided to hike over to their favorite swamp where the insect swarms made for better feeding.

* * *

...... Max and sunrise both arrived too early -- the sun slipping through a gap in the curtains, and Max pounding on the door. "Get up, Driver! You won't guess where a set of the barrel markers showed up this time. Come on. We'll need your Jeep."
...... Highway to gravel road to dirt road to muddy track. Just around the bend, the road was blocked by the big red and brown pickup, now attached by tow rope to a police cruiser, its front wheels mired in squish. Two impatient Deputies stood next to the brush which edged the roadway, their trouser legs muddied to the knees.
...... "Get a horse," Max yelled, zipping down his window.
...... "What I needed was a Ram," one of them shouted back. "I should have stopped by the station and picked up my own."
...... "Need any help?" I asked the pickup driver, as I pulled up beside him.
...... "He had front wheel drive," the man laughed, thumbing over his shoulder. "I'll have it out in a minute. Go on. It's not deep, just slick. Be there in four minutes or so myself." I drove forward a few yards. "Backseat's empty," I offered.
...... The two men looked down at their pants legs.
...... "Won't be the first time," I added. "Nor most likely the last. It'll dry and vacuum out."
...... The Deputies quickly climbed in. "It's only a few hundred feet ahead," one of them advised. "We were going to walk it when that construction company pickup showed up."
...... A bit of slithering and one healthy bounce, and we were across the mudhole onto nominally solid ground. A straightaway, an S-curve, another straight short section, and a final turn brought us right to the edge of the water.
...... Fifty feet away on a small island in the center of the swamp sat five orange-and-white marker barrels in a neat orderly equally-spaced line. Only just visible in the bright sunlight, their five warning lights blinked soft amber.

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