Chapter Fifteen
An Entirely Alien Approach

One Man's Meat

(General Adminstration Archives - Case 2041 [Ref. No. D1174-569])

...... The rain had stopped just as we crested the ridge. The sun inched out from behind the thunderheads, and its heat made the pavement steam. I left the wipers on the lowest increment against the road splatter and adjusted the panel vents.
...... "Back to work," I remarked over the tire whine. "It was fun while it lasted."
...... "It was fun though," Melynnda agreed. She edged her window down an inch, peering through the rain-streaked glass at what little could be seen through the trees of the valley below. "Do you have any idea at all why Max sounded so anxious?"
...... I shook my head without looking away from the road. The asphalt was patchy slick from the oil raised by the rain shower, and the curve ahead was sharp. I prefer to look down into drainage ditches, not up out of them.
...... "At least, it isn't much out of our way," she added with a tiny shrug.
...... "I trust Max's judgment. If he wants my presence . . . our presence, that is . . . it's for a very good reason."
...... "Oh, I agree. Max does do a good job. Which is why I'm wondering just what's involved this time." She moved the sun visor out of the way, then changed her mind and pulled it down again.
...... "Another half hour, and we'll both find out." I braked hard at the beginning of the next curve and coasted around it. "You mentioned you were going to make room reservations for the night. Did you?" The shake of three rumble strips on the pavement announced a stop sign at an intersection which wasn't visible yet.
...... She nodded while checking her appearance in the visor mirror. "Williamsville Inn. I have directions. It seems to be on the outskirts of town."
...... Something in the luggage shifted as I halted at the stop sign. "I know exactly where it is. And you'll like it there."
...... My left turn brought the sunset straight ahead, and I scooped a pair of sunglasses off the dash. "It's located right at the base of the ridge with trees all around and a brook running through the front yard."
...... The first of the decreasing speed limit signs came into view, half hidden by tree branches, and I let the Jeep coast down. In another few minutes, the town popped up on both sides of the road -- small houses on big lots with lawns blending into the surrounding farm fields. The official city limits sign was posted outside of an old stone farmhouse which acted as the home of the local Historical Association.
...... "Is that the fastfood place?" She pointed toward the center of the windshield.
...... A moment later, turning in under the Big Burger sign, I slotted into the first parking spot I saw. This time, the largest rain puddle was on my side.
...... "And over there is Max's new van." I gestured toward a dark red RV, parked in the corner next to the trash bin. The streetlight above it clicked and began its slow startup cycle.
...... "And over there is Max," she countered, motioning over her shoulder to the door of the building.
...... He stood waiting beside the double door, scrunched up against the wall to avoid the last of the drips coming down from the roof. The advertising sign above him came on, and his head jerked up in obvious surprise.
...... "I like your new truck," I offered, stepping up on the low curb.
...... His frown changed to a tired smile. "It's been a long time coming." After a second's hesitation, he started his explanation.
...... "Sorry to interrupt your vacation, but I knew you'd want to be here. Thanks for coming. I couldn't say too much on the telephone. Didn't want anything to get out. Lee knows what's going on, so that's covered." He moved slightly and bumped into the trashcan by the doors. "I've got two problems. A long one which I don't know how to handle, and short one which looks like blowing right up."
...... "So what's the short term one?" Lynn requested. She moved to dodge a persistent drip from the overhead gutter.
...... He gestured in my direction. "Remember the last time we talked? About some clever somebody sometime picking up a single thread and finally hauling in the whole tuna? Charlene Whitcomb just managed to find that thread."
...... I couldn't keep from chuckling. "Since I didn't hear anything about it on the news an hour ago, I suppose I can assume that you've got the situation under control."
...... "But for how long, I don't know." He yanked on his carved belt to adjust the position of the big buckle. "You know about Charli. I had to supply some real info to keep the flights of imagination under control too. I hope I've done it right."
...... "As Jay said, it's not on the news," Lynn pointed out. "That's good enough for the moment."
...... He motioned with both hands, then looked over his shoulder at the glass panels of the door. "I guess we'd better go in before she starts on some conspiracy theme. But the long term problem may be worse. If what Charli's seen is right, and my work seems to confirm that, then the Alien for the first time is trying to set up a partnership. A symbiotic relationship." He turned but hesitated. "You know that old saw, if you can't beat 'em. That's what the Alien looks like it's doing, using another of those crazy constructs."
...... Opening the door, I motioned inward. "So let's go talk it over."
...... Having stopped at the serving counter for a tray-load of drinks, the introductions were over by the time I arrived at the corner table.
...... "So that big pipe thing by the lake was an Alien's gizmo," Charlene stated.
...... "Perhaps," I countered, setting out the coffee and soda pop before squeezing into a seat.
...... "If that's your position, you're in for real trouble," she warned, her tone decidedly cool.
...... "I'll listen to your opinion." I busied myself in unsheathing a straw and poking a hole in the plastic cup top. "For me, I'm still in the question-asking stage." The ice cubes made a rattling background noise. "I don't put labels on individual cases."
...... "Okay. I'll accept that," she decided after a long silent hesitation. "And don't worry about Maxy's consternation. This is the Williamsville Daily, not the Washington Post. If I took a story like this to my editor, I'd be on the cooking column by the next edition."
...... "But if it breaks, you wouldn't mind having a few crumbs to sell," I added quickly.
...... "That's the business I'm in," she laughed, waving one finger. "But I'll let someone else start the nationwide panic."
...... "I think we can appreciate that," I suggested after a quick glance at Lynn.
...... "With what I've seen in supermarkets lately, I think it'll take a lot to start any kind of panic." She brushed aside a loose strand of red hair. "I doubt anyone would even notice anything this kooky."
...... "And you've seen something very kooky," I answered as encouragement.
...... "Yes." She looked out the large window at the last tiny glow of twilight, then looked back. "Very." After a pause to stir her coffee, she continued: "These past couple weeks, I've been doing real trashy work. A story about trash disposal and landfills and hazardous waste and that kind of thing. And this funny thing happened. It's hard to explain without it sounding completely idiotic." She glanced toward Max.
...... He looked up from absently making pleats in his paper napkin. "You go ahead and tell it. I'll chime in afterward."
...... "There's not all that much to tell," she apologized. "I was doing the section on industrial waste. There's only one outfit around here which handles that kind of work. You know, those big dumpsters and that special truck with the two-prong lift on the front. You can see those things anywhere these days."
...... I nodded agreement and waited.
...... She grimaced. "Well, I was in the manager's office of the place that does that work, and I happened to mention that while the industries liked the after-hours service, the apartment building residents weren't too happy about a truck roaring in and crashing around in the middle of the night."
...... "I know the problem," Max remarked, half to himself.
...... "And he said his company never did night pickups, because of that." She shifted position restlessly before continuing. "Of course, I questioned that, and he admitted that they'd do a special pickup, if a customer specifically requested it, and if it was out of the way from anyone it'd bother. They discourage it, because of the extra costs and the community relations problem."
...... She paused to gesture absently to a group passing by our table, a quick greeting to one of the townspeople. Max was watching the traffic on the street outside the big window, obviously mulling his own thoughts. Lynn was listening with the stillness which characterized her own form of interest -- she rarely missed anything.
...... "I didn't argue," she began again. "That night, I staked out the big apartment complex at the south end of town. Nothing happened that night, but the next night, a trash truck pulled in at three in the morning and dumped the bins. But it was painted dull gray, and there wasn't any company name or address on it, the way there usually is. So I just took down the license number and other data, and called it a night."
...... Max chuckled. "Sounds like one of my type assignments."
...... She sipped at the coffee in front of her before continuing. "The next morning, I called the State vehicle people and traced the number to a trash hauler in the southern part of the state. They agreed that the truck belonged to them, but it was assigned to local pickups and shouldn't have been up our way. They checked up and called me back. No go."
...... "Where was it on the night you thought you saw it?" Lynn requested.
...... She gestured, both hands open. "In the garage! It was having its alternator replaced, and it couldn't have moved. There was absolutely no way what I saw could have been that truck."
...... One of the Big Burger's employees was hovering at my side, and I handed over the empty tray -- he said thank you and moved on. "So you tried again," I suggested to her.
...... She nodded again, her red hair swinging in tiny waves. "I had to wait for the bins at the apartment complex to fill up again. And then, the regular contractor emptied them in the afternoon. So three days later, they were full . . . and I was out in the parkinglot once more. No luck that time, but on the next night, the truck was back! The same truck." Her small fist thumped the table. "I thought about going up to the driver and demanding an explanation . . . but that late at night, a quarter after one, in a poorly lit parkinglot with no one else around. That truck looked so big and so . . . strange." Her expression shifted to a clown-like grimace. "So I let it go. If I could have seen the driver, I might have tried it, but the windows were coated with that silver sun-control coating, and I couldn't see even an outline inside. The next morning, I called your office. See? I'd kept your business card."
...... "And I was in the area," Max started, squirming around in his chair. "Lee phoned me the assignment. I showed up here day before yesterday and verified all that Charli's just said." He pulled a group of crinkled photographs from his back pocket. "For once, I had some luck and caught the truck at work the first night. At first, I thought it might be an illegal dumping, and that was what all the secrecy was about. I tailed the truck out of town, and all it did was park in the bushes. I stuck with it there all night, dozing on and off in the van." He picked up one photograph, shook his head at it, and dropped it back on the table. "It stayed parked there all day too. Late that night, it started off on its rounds again. I'll swear it was full when it'd parked, and it never dumped its load. Yet, there it was, picking up more trash. When that magic trick showed up, I put in a call for you. Sorry about the vacation."
...... I looked through the stack of photographs. "You never saw anything of the driver?"
...... He shook his head. "One man on long-range surveillance. Still, I was on the driver's side, and no one came in or went out through the driver's side door . . . which is very screwy."
...... The rattle and thud of the serving counter provided a backdrop to our own silence -- employees and customers going about their usual concerns. Counter persons were calling special orders to the cooks, and one young man was dumping trash containers, pulling out the filled plastic bag and fitting in an empty one. In due time, he'd drag the bags out back to the dumpster, and later on, a trash truck would dump the bin.
...... Lynn was the first to stir. "I do have to admit that I was wondering what a trash truck could have to do with the Alien." She spared a quick glance at the busy janitor. "But the more I think about it, the more I realize what perfect camouflage it is. No one pays any attention to those trucks. If you find one on the road ahead of you, you always either drop way back, or speed up and pass. A trash truck is something no one ever questions."
...... "One sees them everywhere these days," I agreed, shuffling around the photographs. "Rural, suburban, industrial, city. And at all times of the day and night. Personally, I'd never thought to question it. Every place has trash to be picked up." I found the photograph I was looking for -- an angled side view. "This one does remind me of something, though."
...... "Such as?" Lynn requested.
...... I waved the photo at Max. "Remember when I was here last? I ran a search pattern through the valley, just looking at random. Several times, I crossed paths with a trash truck which looked exactly like this. At the time, I thought I was merely criss-crossing its normal collection route." I dropped the photograph with a small flourish. "Now I wonder if it might have been trying to follow me. The way I ducked down side roads then, nobody could have successfully tailed me all the time."
...... Charlene pushed the photographs aside and mopped at a few drops of spilled coffee. "So what exactly are we going to do about this . . . whatever it is?"
...... "More investigation," I laughed. "What else?"
...... "You can count me in on that," Max announced. "I'm ready for . . . whatever."
...... "How are you on sleep?" I countered.
...... He waved one open hand. "Okay. No problem."
...... "Can you tail this truck again tonight?"
...... "Sure." He twisted to look at the clock behind the serving counter. "I think I know where I can pick it up for the next couple hours anyway."
...... "I'll do a general area search again," I advised.
...... "After we check in at the Inn," Lynn added, scooting out of her chair. "This is going to require more manpower, so I have some phone calls to make."
...... "Better you than me," I acknowledged. "You're the boss, so they can't swear at you. Everyone's in for a hard night then." I gathered up trash from my end of the table, while Max cleaned up the other half. "I'll probably see you off and on tonight," I told him, then included the others. "The last time I was here, it was daylight. I might see something around the area in the dark, which I missed in daylight . . . odd as that sounds."
...... "This entire thing sounds decidedly odd," Charlene stated. "I'll leave you all to it, but expect a phone call tomorrow morning for an update."
...... At the doorway, I stepped aside for three other customers, waiting for Charli to catch up. "Now that I think about it, didn't you once say something about a ghost in some old plant around here?"
...... She stepped to one side to let Max through. "I sure did. At that old chemical works just north of town. You must know the place I mean. That rusty pile of pipes and pole buildings." She waved one hand in the general direction. "People in the area claim to have seen faint lights out there from time to time. The police have investigated, and so have I. There's nothing there but moonlight reflections. Or at least that's what I thought before now."
...... "Wasn't there some trouble with a pipeline near there?" Lynn asked. "I vaguely remember a report."
...... "The town's big water line was cut several times," I explained. "But only on the approach to the refinery. Not on the way away."
...... Charlene nodded agreement. "And nothing since."
...... "Curiouser and curiouser," I quoted, holding the door for them.
...... Our party broke up, each dodging puddles in a fast walk through the rain to our respective vehicles. It seemed a fitting night for a ghost hunt.

* * *

...... "Wheelwright ought to be getting in about now. Meyer will be here about daybreak, and Chang shortly after that." I had pulled across the road and stopped right next to Max's van, so we could talk through open windows. There seemed to be no traffic at all anywhere in the area -- just the two of us, the last scattered showers, and the rising wind. "They'll all have their phones, so we'll have some decent communications."
...... Max paused in his attempt to wipe the condensation off the inside of his windshield.
...... "That'll be a break. There's been no chance so far for me to phone in to Melynnda. Tower's too far away." He glanced again at his mirrors, as he put the rag away. "Lucky coincidence you spotted me here. At least you know I'm still on the trail . . . I hope."
...... "I've been along the main street here four times already," I admitted. "And I haven't seen a thing on any of my search sweeps in spite of boxing the compass. The trash truck you're following seems to be the only oddity."
...... Although I could see up the street to the next corner, he continued to watch his mirrors. From behind him, the murmur of a news broadcast on his radio drifted out.
...... He ran a finger down his windshield and scowled at the result. "The thing is there's two entrances to this apartment complex. This is the place where Charli ran her investigation. I can't go farther in without that thing spotting me. Yet, it may go out either way. Fifty-fifty that it comes out this way."
...... "That's the breaks of this game, as you well know by now." I started the engine and slipped the selector into Drive. "Good luck."
...... "I think I'll be able to pick up its trail again, anyway," he allowed, rolling up his window. "Same for you."
...... Making a sharp right turn and just missing the curb opposite, I circled back into my own lane, turned right at the intersection, and headed north for one more sweep of the area -- not that there seemed to be much hope left for me. It'd been a blank so far, and the town was as dead as the environs around it. The trucking company had been using a tiny night crew to load two trailers under a bank of brilliant mercury-vapor lamps, while the paint manufacturer was only a single bright light over an empty guard's shelter and the roaring of the pebble mills tearing up the quiet of the night.
...... My own radio accompanied my meanderings. Nothing about the Department or the various strange happenings, so Charlene must have kept quiet so far -- the only news was political, as the Special Governor's Election went for a very close count.
...... The rain storm had blown itself out, and the low, fast-moving clouds allowed snatches of a quarter-moon to show itself. Droplets of water still dripped from the overhead electric and telephone cables, and the darkness of the tree-covered slopes finished the illusion of entrapment.
...... The signal strenth was low but I could ring Lynn. No news from her activities, either. I went back to my search, but after another hour, I gave it up, swung southward, and headed back to town.
...... The flash of moonlight on a flat piece of metal or glass, when the angles are just right. Or was it?
...... It wasn't more than a mile away, and I wasn't in any hurry anyway, so I nosed the Jeep down the gravel remains of the truck road, which once served as a driveway, and stopped at the sagging gate.
...... It looked exactly the same as before. The evergrowing weeds had erased all traces of my previous journey around the perimeter fence. The weathered enameled sign had come loose from the gatepost and now dangled downward, held by one last metal ring. In the glare of my headlights, the low metal building was a mass of reflections, crouching low before its metal jungle of pipes and conduits -- a fitting habitat for Charli's technological ghost.
...... Pulling up the handle for the four-wheel drive, I turned sharply left off of the ruts of the driveway -- a repeat of my circular journey of months ago. My vehicle rocked along the soggy ground, shoving aside the weeds and small bushes which couldn't begin to bar its progress. To the left at the edge of my headlight beam, some small animal dove for cover and safety in the brush. To the right a rotating rooftop ventilator, shoved by a gust of wind, threw a moment-long flash of reflected moonlight.
...... Around the corner and along the back part of the fence -- nothing visible but shadows and bits of reflected moon. The tree branches beckoned with almost human gestures to the blackness of the shrubbery. No activity and no discoveries -- the only news was from the radio with twenty-nine of the voting precincts reported in. The rusty chain-link of the fence was silvered by the wetness.
...... A big puddle -- almost a lake -- had formed at the next corner. I eased my vehicle though it, slithering from side to side as the heavy tread of the truck tires dug into the mud at the bottom.
...... Along the last section of fence, some of the clamps had failed, and thirty feet of chain-link mesh drooped half-horizontal. Tumbleweeds, those skeletal remains of long-dead bushes, had caught and lay heaped there, waiting for the freedom which would come with the winter storms.
...... A bounce over a shallow drainage ditch, around the last corner, through a patch of slick mud, fifty feet more, and it'd be a left turn onto the rutted driveway. This trip had been a waste of time, but no more than the previous several hours. So much of this type of work was lucky and totally unpredictable breaks -- the election candidates must be thinking along the same lines right now, as the next few precincts were announced on the radio.
...... Bright light and night-shattering sound and the dull gray silhouette of a massive lifting prong. Thousands of hours of rush-hour driving made me react instantly, turning very sharply left and using the power of the low gear and racing engine to drive my way out of the collision.
...... In a shallow-curved U-turn, over the weeds and brush, I regained that perimeter path I'd just left -- the gray-painted trash truck roaring behind in close pursuit, its two massive drop-forged dumpster brackets held at side-panel level.
...... That large rain pool was just ahead, an indistinct blackness in the bouncing headlight beams. With luck, I'd go through without the backsplash bothering the engine. With more luck, that ominous gray-painted monster wouldn't -- either from engine failure, if it had an engine, or from sinking into the mud under its own huge weight.
...... But I had only half the luck. I was through the water hazard and bouncing over the roughness of plowed field, but the trash truck had slowed and maneuvered out around the pool. Still, that did open up several hundred feet of gap and made it very easy for me to reach the county road at the opposite end of the farm field.
...... Incongruously, the radio announcer was counting out the number of voting precincts which hadn't yet reported. In my wing mirror, in the far distance, another set of headlights was on that gravel driveway. I hoped that it was Max, still hanging on to his shadowing assignment, because, if it wasn't, then there were two identical trash trucks -- an idea which did not make me at all comfortable.
...... In my mirrors the trash truck wasn't gaining any ground in this race -- nor did it seem to be losing any. However, my reconnaissance of this valley was going to pay off in the very near future. On this road, two miles ahead, was a branch of the river -- usually dry, but possibly full from the rain storm. And on the farther bank was a very steep slope, up a hundred feet of moderately solid dirt to the rural road at the crest of the tiny ridge.
...... I moved the windshield-mounted mirror to reduce the glare of the headlights behind me. The steel-beam prongs on that truck could shear right through the sides of my vehicle without the least noticeable resistance. And I was very much attached to this particular Jeep Liberty -- at least as much as my insurance company was.
...... Between the darkness and the rushed view, I nearly missed the turnoff through the trees -- but only almost. Down the shallow grade, following the ruts made by Utility Company trucks, and down again into the water. There was running water now, but only a few inches on a rocky bottom -- the real test started where the water stopped on the other side.
...... Slithering and bouncing as the tires gained and lost traction, the tools in the tool box rattling, the elastic tie-downs adding their own twanging counterpoint, the engine's deep roar through the exhaust pipe as the tachometer needle swung nervously from one numeral to the next. Only a four-wheel drive vehicle could have made this ascent, and I personally was much relieved when I could turn at right-angles and look down at the river from the safety of my natural rampart.
...... The trash truck had stopped at the river's edge, its front wheels down in the water. After a minute of deep-toned idling, it reversed, pulling its front out of the stream, and continued that way back through the trees -- and presumably back to the county route.
...... Putting the selector into Drive again and revving my own engine, I bounced my way through the weeds to the back road three-hundred feet away. My route back to town would be a long sweep to the west -- one encounter with a truck that size would be sufficient for tonight. The election candidates weren't doing any better -- according to the radio, everyone was going to have to wait until the absentee ballots were counted.

* * *

...... The scraping sound of the porch chair caused me to jump and skid around, my back to the warm front of my truck -- it had been that hard a night.
...... "Another half hour, and I'd have called the police," Max announced, sauntering into the light from the lantern which was mounted at gutter level on the side of the Inn. "You okay? I never knew the Alien to take out after someone like that."
...... "No real damage," I admitted, leaning back against the radiator grill, one boot against the the bumper. "It wasn't that hard to get away. And it's a first for me, too. But then, this may be something extra special in the Alien's plans." The gusts of wind brought drifts of hot air out the grillwork, as the engine and radiator cooled. "What happened from your viewpoint? I assume that was you I saw on the driveway to the rusty refinery."
...... "I was tailing that thing as asked, when it suddenly put down a bin it'd just picked up. It turned around and took off, with me following along, out to that old chemical plant." He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. "I saw your Jeep moving away with that thing right after it. I tried to follow, but I got caught by the big rain puddle at the corner." He sighed and shrugged. "Took me ten minutes to work my way out of it, and by then, you were long gone. Good thing my van has rear wheel drive. Otherwise, I'd still be there now."
...... We both turned at the sound of a door opening. Then Melynnda was there, dressed in a heavy robe and shivering anyway.
...... "You're back then," she remarked. "Anything new?"
...... "I think I know what that trash truck is for." That caught both their attentions. "I think it's a sort of watchdog for the abandoned refinery, and the Alien is involved in something extra special at that place. And, if that mass of rusty pipe is that important to the Alien, we need to have the entire structure torn down, as soon as we can manage it."
...... "I suppose so," she agreed past a yawn. "Back to the telephone then. I'll get Lee again, and we'll get some demolition crews out there, today if possible."
...... "In that case, I'll go warn the night staff," Max offered. "Maybe, I can round up some coffee and rolls at the same time."
...... "Where will you be?" Lynn demanded.
...... "There's another short trip I have to make," I explained, pulling out my key case again. "I have to see a man about a dog."

* * *

...... Rose and orange and purple -- the sun was putting out its first shoots into a deep blue and cloudless sky, as I led my six person contingent and their two vans up the rutted almost-gravel driveway of the deserted refinery. Another colorful sunrise, but this time my workday was just continuing endlessly.
...... While they set up their equipment, I sat in my vehicle and nursed a box of doughnuts and a thermos of coffee. The mutt I mentioned to Lynn was spelled D.O.G.G. -- an acronym for a device which put me on more equal terms with several tons of trash truck. They thought the task was an exciting break in their daily routine -- I was only trying to stay awake.
...... To my surprise, an hour later, a big flatbed truck showed up and started unloading a caterpillar tractor. A small fleet of pickups arrived just behind it. A few minutes later, a small mobile crane rumbled up the road and stopped while someone cut the locking chain and opened the gates.
...... The demolition work was well under way, by the time Max's van pulled in behind my vehicle. He stopped to study the woods in the distance before climbing into my passenger's seat.
...... "Called out the Army?" He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder. "Seen anything of the trash truck?"
...... I nudged the doughnut box in his direction. "When did you start suffering from insomnia? And you know this is a strictly civilian organization. Our charter says so."
...... "I see. I guess it was my twenty in the Navy which misled me." He gingerly handled a glazed raised doughnut. "Just exactly when were they mustered out? And likewise what are those gunlike gadgets they're handling?"
...... "We're still waiting for the ink to dry," I chuckled, shaking the thermos bottle. There was some coffee left, but he shook his head at the offer.
...... "And the weapons?" he requested.
...... "Those are telescopic sights which can spot a laser beam on target."
...... He grabbed a tissue from the box to wipe his fingers. "A laser beam isn't going to do much to a vehicle the size of that Alien thing."
...... "True. But the antitank missile which hits the targeted spot ten seconds later ought to be adequate . . . for anything." I paused to yawn. "Excuse me. However, the trash truck hasn't been seen anywhere around. I think it's intended only to chase away small snoops, not to tackle anything the size of construction equipment armadas."
...... One of the demolition crew supervisors was trotting over, and I ran the window down on my side.
...... "We were told that all the utilities were turned off long ago." He stopped to sneeze. "Sorry. But my crew has found a live high-tension utility line coming in underground. I don't want anyone working in that mass of pipes with the electricity still on."
...... "I can certainly see that," I agreed. "Can you get a cable guillotine?"
...... He adjusted his hard hat and glanced around. "There ought to be one at the branch warehouse. I can send for it."
...... "Have it flown in, if necessary," I requested.
...... He hurried away, and I zipped the window back up against the chilly breeze. The forecast for today was clear and cold -- which accounted for the pretty sky and the clearness of the ridges in the distance.
...... "And what is a cable guillotine?" Max inquired.
...... "It's a ceramic-coated frame and ceramic blade. The blade is driven closed by a small explosive charge. Those are used usually to cut the umbilical cable on a missile launch. It'll cut and seal the utility cable without shorting any of the conductors." I had an additional thought and ran the window down again. "Doris!"
...... She left her gunsight crew and trotted over. "Sir?"
...... "The work people have found an underground electrical cable. It probably goes over the ridge line. Would you borrow one or two of their crew to trace the cable, and send along a couple of your people as protection?"
...... "Certainly, sir." She trotted after the crew supervisor.
...... "Ink dry yet?" Max laughed. "I don't envy them that trip." He opened the door. "Come over and sit in my home on wheels. I'll fix some coffee, if you don't mind instant."
...... We sat at the small table and watched the others at work. Another flatbed truck pulled in and unloaded a backhoe. A few minutes later, a second mobile crane pulled in. Toward mid-morning, an old white Bronco II with service station markings pulled in and stopped several yards away. Melynnda was the first person out, and she went to talk to the chief supervisor of the demolition group. Charlene followed but ambled over to the van.
...... "Anything I ought to know?" she demanded, stepping inside. She held out a picnic basket. "This is brunch. Also, is there anything which I'd want to know but shouldn't?"
...... "You can try to answer that," I told Max.
...... Lynn arrived to the rescue. "We brought out a box with all kinds of warning labels on it. I handed it over to the foreman there."
...... "It's a cable cutter," I advised. A few minutes later, the sharp crack of its operation resounded across the open space over the noise of the engines. That was the end of the power line.
...... Just before lunchtime, long after the remnants of the picnic basket meal vanished, the supervisor leaned in the doorway. "They traced the underground cable for four and a half miles. Then it just ended. Cut clean off. There was no sign of where it'd been connected. They telephoned base, who called me."
...... It was more or less what I'd expected, but it was worth the try -- then again, I didn't have to hike four miles over rough terrain to find out.
...... At four o'clock, the supervisor brought another message -- Lynn was to phone Lee as soon as convenient. Leaving Max in charge and Charli still exploring, we went back to the Inn. It'd been a very long day for me, and a hot shower was what I was looking forward to. I didn't get it.
...... "Jay? Lee's got some very strange news." She held out the cellphone. "Have him tell you directly."
...... I accepted the phone. "Hi, Lee."
...... "Hey, Driver." His voice vibrated the speaker. "The craziest thing's been happening. When I got back from lunch, my desk was a foot deep in message slips from all over the country. Cases have been shutting down all over, things have been vanishing, the operatives are demanding instructions, Headquarters has somehow heard things, and a good third of the United States wants me to call them back first thing. What do I say?"
...... Now that was a question I didn't have an answer for either. Nor had I realized just how long I'd been silently thinking.
...... "Hey, Driver. Are you still there? What now?"
...... "Just when did you receive the first of these reports?"
...... He cleared his throat. "You know how it is here. I'd say I started getting these weird calls . . . oh, about eleven, or eleven-thirty. It just seemed like the start of a busy period, a normal day, 'til I got back from a sandwich at the place around the corner. The receptionist sent someone to call me back, and it's taken me this long to call everybody and get some idea of just what'd been happening. What now?"
...... "I need to think. I'll phone you in ten minutes."
...... "You do that, Driver. But after fifteen minutes, I'll be calling you, if you don't get me first. Meantime, I'll try to tell Headquarters to keep their suspenders on."
...... She was facing the window, looking out at the hillside and the forest, when I put down the phone. She turned slightly. "Do you think . . . ?"
...... "Yes." I stepped over and put an arm around her.
...... "It's over?"
...... "Yes." I mulled it for a few minutes. "Lee started receiving the telephone calls roughly an hour after the power line was cut at the old plant. That would seem about right, giving the operatives time to notice the change and call in." Another moment's thought. "I think the abandoned refinery had the master antenna concealed somewhere in that jumble of piping. That was what the Alien was trying so hard to protect."
...... "And now the antenna is gone." She tugged at a strand of long hair.
...... "And so is the Alien," I agreed. "It's given up. We succeeded. Maybe for our generation. Maybe forever. In any case, our problem finally is finished. Now, we can live like ordinary folks."
...... She shook her head. "It's been so long. I can't believe it . . . find it hard to believe. It's done!"
...... "After so many years . . . ."
...... The telephone rang shrilly. According to the clock it had been eleven minutes. I scooped it up. "All right, Lee. Listen up . . . ."

chapter fourteen Table of Contents epilog

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