First Chapters

PROLOGUE

 

June 18th, 1952

High in the wilderness mountain of Idaho

 

The sound of his breathing. The sound of his feet tramping ground. Everything unnaturally still despite a fierce wind as chilly as Wilkes Land, Antarctica.

Sergeant Cooley led his team across scorched, brittle dirt and through trees with bright, white branches of electrical static shivering across its bark. The trees weren’t the only things strange. Once he neared the mysterious object he asked himself had he run of his own will or had he been lured.

Stumbling to the ground, the rifle flew from his hands. Making a reach for it, he saw he’d gripped handfuls of black-crusted iron, all of them with thumbprints as if God had touched them. Looking up he saw more of the rocks falling from the ship like beads of sweat down a chilled glass, except these rocks vibrated.

Gripping his Springfield and drawing it to him, he waved his hand to get the others’ attention and stop them from advancing.

Private Yates threw himself on the ground, crawling toward him with fear in his eyes. “What is it? It doesn’t look Russian.” His gaze on what could have only been a transport ship large enough to drop thousands of troops on the ground. “Is this real? This can’t be real.”

Chatfield and the others also threw themselves to the ground and crawled closer.

“It’s a goddamn German bunker!” Chatfield whispered with certainty. The expression on his face told Cooley no one could convince the young man otherwise.

The ship did look similar but at a much larger scale. It had an opening high up its center wider than the fields of Fort Hood where testing had taken place for destroyer tanks during the war.

Here it was broad daylight, but sunlight was unable to penetrate the opening’s darkness. Cooley thought he saw something move in the darkness. When he realized he did urine snaked down his leg.

It was that moment the ground hummed. The soldiers stumbled and fell over each other trying to flee. The ground shifted and cracked like a mirror. Deep lines. Complicated webs. The fissures transformed into gaping chasms. Coming to his senses, Cooley screamed. “Pull back!”

Only able to crawl they became blocked as trees toppled and lost their place on Earth. The ground then rumbled. Violently. More chasms were created. The ‘things’ crawling out of the opening touched ground and advanced at a rapid speed.

Private Menlo lost his grip on the ground, skidding on his belly and became lost in a chasm. Private Turnbull reached wildly for anything to grab when he began to slide. Before he could fall into the chasm the ‘things’ surrounded him; he could no longer be seen. Cooley abandoned his troop. Clawing and pushing against the ground with his feet, the rocks God had touched slid underneath him like a rolling river. The ground opened. He fell with his hands stretched in front of him and his feet suspended behind into a chasm ten feet wide.

A tree snapped, knocking Yates into the chasm like a baseball struck by a bat.

Chatfield cowered into the curve of a tree trunk. Short bursts of screams faded away as everyone else disappeared around him. His fingers trembled in front of his face as dozens of the ‘things’ flew at him like metal to a magnet.

The cold wind snatched his scream away as his body sailed through the air.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Present Day

October 17th, 2022

 

“Who’d think three of us will save the world?”

The words were spoken in a whisper and were out before she realized she would say them. It happened at times, the mysterious voice so similar to her own speaking through her things that always came true. Parapsychologists called it ‘intrinsic knowledge,’ the ability of knowing something without a physical explanation. Psychotherapists had once misdiagnosed her as having persecutory delusions. Now older she had been given an accurate diagnosis, and although it had a name, doctors around the world believed there was no known name that truly described her abilities. There was one thing the doctors agreed on. When Ericka Elise Martin spoke, shut up and pay attention regardless of how strange her words appeared.

‘Three people’ and ‘save the world’ were the words she focused on, but neither caused any alarm. The words were simply more pieces of a never-ending puzzle. More riddles to solve because often than not the words she spoke didn’t have transparent meanings.

She gave a guarded look at the man standing beside her unaware he had come closer after having gone off to look around. Somewhere not far from where they stood a family of five were lost in the forest. After a diligent search turned up nothing she had been asked to help in a second search in the hopes of finding clues as to what happened to them.

Farzad Emir’s aviator sunglasses prevented her from seeing his eyes, but still she knew they were trained intently on her. His arms were crossed over his chest. The hard muscles of his arms threatened to tear apart the seams of his jacket sleeves.

“I count seven,” he said not moving or averting his gaze. “Including you and me that makes nine. What do you mean three of us will save the world?”

Avoiding relationships had become a hard rule. One touch or the smell of cologne or perfume, one word spoken out of their mouths, one look into their eyes and most times than not she saw what people didn’t want her to see. The triggers were never the same and often occurred when she least expected it. Like kindred spirits, strangers attached themselves to her without knowing why. Farzad hadn’t been any different. From the moment they met he had become her shadow. Experience taught her that no one ever presented themselves as they truly were. This included her parents.

Disappointment was something she hadn’t gotten used to. Avoiding it meant keeping to herself at all times like she did now.

“I meant the nine of us is someone’s imagination of a highly skilled team.”

Not far from the Bell helicopter he’d flown to get them there a military Mi-17 touched ground, its rotors sending cold currents in sonar waves.

The mission was simple: find and rescue. What she’d whispered had been strange on its own. Farzad’s attire kicked strange up another notch: three-piece suit, expensive leather shoes, two long necklaces, the many gold and silver rings on his fingers, the watch on his wrist, the even-tone of his skin like rattan except closer to beige than bronze, the meticulously trimmed six o’clock shadow, the shapely mouth like a heart drawn flat, the top lip more prominent than the bottom. He looked more like he had come to provide lavish entertainment, but her senses told her there was something dangerous about him.

No one had been there to greet them. A small cabin sat behind them, but neither had bothered to go in and check it out. As if thinking the same thing, Ericka and Farzad looked at the mountain covered with a strange-looking forest. She heard nothing and didn’t have any new visions, but still she knew that what she was looking at had something to do with the words she had spoken.

The rotors on the Mi-17 increased. Each chopped, blended and whipped the atmosphere. Seven people struggled out of it bowels, then doubled in half or were forced to the ground as the helicopter lifted and flew away while the seven were still close.

“One of them almost came near the tail rotor blade.” His words were spoken in curiosity as they both watched the pilot lose control. The Mi-17 leaned hard on one side, its cockpit and landing skid threatening to crash against the ground. Farzad dropped his arms.

The Mi-17 made an abrupt recovery. Within seconds it looked no more than a spider running across an invisible web.

“You’re a fearless woman. That just scared the shit out of me. What do you think that was all about?”

Ericka didn’t know and didn’t answer. No matter where she looked she saw no areas of dirt, including on the airstrip. The grass she saw was the darkest shade of green. Beyond the grass spruce trees of every kind grew almost on top of each other. From this vantage the forest appeared impenetrable.

“Why are we here?” She asked herself in a whisper. No family in their right mind would enter what she saw even if they did believe diamonds were somewhere inside.

Ace Diamond Xiang reached them first. He stood no more than five-feet-five, had Japanese features, although his file listed him as Hmong. Dark skin, a thick helmet of black, spiky hair, full lips; he appeared a pretty boy with the eyes of a man twice his age. He, too, stopped to stare at the forest.

Grath Carver looked nothing like his file photo. Ripped muscles Ericka was sure he was proud of hung out of the sleeves of his tightly fitted black Tee. Dark hair. Sunburned skin. A shoulder and waist holster stuffed with large caliber pistols. His attire meticulous. His appearance like someone who had gone through extreme measures to present himself as a Hollywood version of a bad ass cop. He stood a distance back while performing a visual investigation she assumed he needed before he would join himself to anyone there.

Langdon Lincoln had dressed appropriately, although the bright yellow cap pulled snug onto her head was definitely overkill. Large round breasts protruded out of her thin long-sleeved red sweater like pillows a sleepy head could sink into. The boots she wore looked like they gave her the ability to run fast, climb a mountain, and kick ass all at the same time.

“And the strange keeps coming,” Ericka whispered.

Billie Boston looked exactly like her file photo, and Ericka wished like hell she hadn’t. Petite in stature, a round face, homely features, short hair purposely hacked, her overall appearance a schizophrenic hobo. A sweater hung loosely over her shoulders by a single button holding on by a thread. The closer she got the more she became uncertain. Her eyes darted at everyone, except Ericka and Farzad, as if she was waiting for a well-deserved beating.

Ericka slid her gaze surreptitiously toward Farzad to see if he’d noticed. He leaned in close.

“I’m getting the impression it’s already been decided that we’re the outsiders,” she whispered.

“I’m getting the impression Billie Boston assaulted an old lady for that sweater,” Farzad whispered back.

Ericka hated that she laughed, because laughing at someone was cruel.

James Burton appeared the model soldier. Medium brown skin. Handsome features. One look at his face and Ericka determined he lived, worked and ate the Army’s code of conduct.

Two more soldiers brought up the rear, both carrying special-made rifles far too large for a search and rescue. Ericka hadn’t been given files on these soldiers like she had the others. All she knew were their names: Paul Szwedko and Jeff Bagley. The two of them had been assigned the sole duty of protecting the group.

She was staring at these two men when the whispering voice inside her decided to speak again. “We’re unable to communicate with our satellites.”

Farzad held her gaze the same way he had before.

“In space,” she clarified when he continued to stare at her. “The space satellites are down.”

“I don’t remember hearing that on the news. Which ones?”

“All of them,” she answered and walked away.

Sergeant Szwedko bypassed everyone and pulled Ericka to the side. “I’m expecting pandemonium in the Pentagon and on every Air Force Base in America. You got something you want to tell me?”

His smile quickly put her at ease. It was a joke she got often. Blaming her for everything that happened in the world. This was their second time meeting and like before she sensed he was a friendly – a name she gave to those she sensed would stay friendly toward her regardless of what happened.

“I didn’t catch it all,” he said. “The pilot mentioned the loss of communication with our satellites. No contact whatsoever. We currently have no eyes into space. Before he dropped he was told to make it back fast.”

“Yeah,” she agreed.

His eyebrow rose and then he relaxed the rifle in his hand.

“I’m not surprised by the news,” he admitted. “I knew a little about the problem before I got here. Failures have been happening for weeks. Infantry on my base are on standby and ready to be sent to California in preparation for the worse. I’m surprised I’m even here. Harvey Gabriel must have more pull than I’d imagined. I’m surprised you’re here. I was sure I would get here and be told you were needed somewhere else.”

“I’ve been purposely unreachable,” she said. “When I feel I’m supposed to be somewhere, I let nothing or no one stop me from getting there.”

He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I’m glad to hear that. Not many soldiers can brag of doing a mission with the great Ericka Martin.”

The smile she gave was one she hadn’t given in a while. “I get that a lot. Wait until we’re knee-deep in it, then tell me how you feel.”

He gave agreeing nods because he believed the mission would have more negative results than favorable. “We’ll let whatever’s happening with the satellites work themselves out while we focus on the reason we’re here.”

He caught sight of Bagley and hurried away.

A shadow moved closer to her shoulder. She didn’t need to turn to know it was Farzad. “Are you purposely becoming my shadow?”

The way he threw back his head, as if dodging a punch, then laughed brought a half giggle out of her.

“I wanted to be nosy and find out what the two of you were talking about, especially after you mentioned our satellites going out.”

“You have an interest in outer space?”

“I have an interest in our country becoming involved in a surprise attack by our enemies. I used to be a soldier. Infantry. It’s one of the reasons I was included on the team.”

She held up her hands in the direction of his face and waited for his approval. “Do you mind?”

Szwedko had been readable from the moment she laid eyes on him. For two hours she had been alone with Farzad and had seen very little about him.

“It won’t hurt,” she promised. “I’m usually not curious about people, but I find myself very curious about you.”

The heart-shape of his mouth flared into a smile. “I like your come on line.”

It was her turn to laugh. She even threw back her head like he did without realizing it.

Faces were too personal to touch. Her palms reached for his shoulders. He leaned closer for her to reach them.

She touched him, drew back her hands and searched his eyes. What she’d seen had been a small glimpse of his future. In the vision he hadn’t been alone. A woman lay underneath him preventing Ericka from seeing what the woman looked like, but she had seen the woman’s hands and had recognized them. Sweat covered his body. He and the woman were kissing in the dark on top of an unmade bed.

Farzad held her gaze happy she couldn’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses and see that he was studying more than her face. And then he held up his hands. “May I?”

Another joke she was used to.

“Sure.”

He ignored the uncertainty in her tone and cupped both sides of her face. “More beautiful than art. I’ve never been more curious about anyone. I hope I haven’t made you uncomfortable by staying as close to you as I have.”

He turned and walked away.

She watched him go. One thought burned in her mind.

If she was the woman in the vision something had been wrong with her hands.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

The man sitting at a computer desk facing six separate monitors went by many names depending on who asked him.

Turning up the volume, he leaned closer. For weeks the monitors had been tuned to ABC, CNN, BBC, CCTV, Aaj Tak and Africa News and only now he saw what he’d been waiting for. CNN jumped before the others. That they did, in his eyes, made them the broadcasting leader of the world.

 

The U.S. Space Command has confirmed the outage of their last space satellite. SANDRA, America’s space satellite that replaced GEMINI four years ago, has suddenly stopped communicating. General Advisor Connor Shaw has assured that America is not under any form of threat whether global, intergalactic or otherwise. He has also confirmed what our government has suspected for some time. Russia has also lost their eyes on space. At this time no explanation has been given as to why these anomalies are occurring. The LEO has been scheduled for liftoff in the hopes that astronauts from NASA can get the SANDRA up and running again. Secretary of Defense Ashland Donner has issued a statement that no one should be alarmed. Before the outages everything in space looked as it should, reporting that there, in his words, are no other anomalies to report. Secretary of Defense Donner has promised to give a press conference, but only if one becomes necessary.

 

“Great-grandfather?”

The man turned and saw one of his grandson’s children standing in the door. All of his children and their offspring were hard to look at, except Zizi. That she looked more human the reason they had sent her rather than someone else.

“We have a problem,” she whispered.

This he already knew. He knew it as soon as she had come to the door.

He made a gesture with his hand to send her along, then pulled a cell phone out of his drawer and phoned a residence in San Antonio, Texas.

 

 

***

President Bleeker sat at the end of the table in a low chair that made him looked dwarfed by the many people around him. Secretary of Defense Ashland Donner also sat silently and looked bored while gazing at images being shown to them on the wall of the darkened Situations Room.

The images were of asteroids and meteors, pictures they had all seen before, and the last images captured by SANDRA before she went down. The news being given was also the same as it had been before. England’s Minister of Defense was holding on the phone. That call should have been more important, but his decision to take it now rather than later had been overridden by America’s commander-in-chief.

“There’s just no way.” Once again Jonah Yaeger from the NORAD/USNORTHCOM command center reiterated what he’d been saying all along. His voice spoke clearly and confidently out of the conference system that sat in the center of the conference table. “Our satellites are more advanced than ever. Had anything been coming our way we would have seen it days or weeks before now. An invasion is unrealistic…”

“It is not unrealistic,” President Bleeker cut in, then sat closer to the table, rested his elbows on top of it and folded his fingers. “I’m not convinced by the edicts I’ve reviewed. An invasion at any time should be seen as always imminent.”

“Sir?” Jonah Yaeger’s tone faltered when he tried to maintain the President’s calm. “Astronauts from ISS have already made contact with SANDRA. The news reported the LEO hasn’t lifted yet, but only because we wanted a little extra time. What eyes we do have supports…”

“Stop talking,” President Bleeker threatened, then leaned back into his chair because most of the people sitting around him didn’t know what he and Yaeger and only a few others with the highest level of clearance did. Choosing his words carefully he spoke in a low harsh tone. “That you are playing this all down to nothing convinces me you are the most ignorant man of our species or you have sided with a long-standing potential enemy. This can’t be a coincidence. Russia becoming blind the same moment we are. What are you not telling me, Jonah?”

“Sir…” Yaeger hesitated as he also grappled for the right words, because openly discussing aliens when those in the room weren’t certain of their existence would be the worst mistake he could ever make. “The words I’m speaking are the best I can offer of my certainty about the matter. We’ve always had failures, even more so once we redesigned our technology. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation…”

“There is no logical explanation!”

The roar of the President’s voice caused others to sit up straight and pay closer attention to a private conversation that had long become suspicious. This wouldn’t be the first, secrets spoken openly about but now shared and only understood between those that should have knowledge of them. The difference with this conversation is it wasn’t about political issues or contributions or embarrassing matters made public through the media. The conversation was about space, and this was the first time that space was being discussed so heatedly for most of them.

“Let’s get it out in the open once and for all. Code Blue Bethesda…,” the President began.

“Blue Bethesda?” Donner sat taller and stared at the President as if pain moved slowly throughout his body. “Are you saying from your perspective the outage of the satellites is cause enough to put Blue Bethesda into operation?”

After he asked the question he looked around the table to see if he was the only one concerned.

President Bleeker studied the faces peering at him and spoke as gently as he could. “You all need to know and now’s the time. Former Presidents from as far back as Truman in 1952 have signed favorable executive and administrative orders in regards to technological weapons development for all of our military branches. With those orders Blue Bethesda was organized. I fear we are now facing the possibility of following Blue Bethesda protocols for the sake of our country.”

“An alien invasion.” Donner spoke the words, but didn’t want to believe them. For years hypothetical scenarios had been spoken of and disproved by mathematical and science geniuses from every corner of the globe. This morning when he’d walked out of his home his thoughts had been about buying a gift for his wife. Their wedding anniversary was only two days away. Now the thought that there was a possibility of an invasion, he saw, had changed the room’s atmosphere. Making phone calls were all he could think about, and the response he would get when he said what no one truly expected to hear.

The awkward silence around him became unbearable the more he sat. Doomsday refused to plant seed in his brain.

“Jonah, is PACAF and SAC in the air?” The President asked.

“They are,” Yaeger affirmed.

More people in the room felt a sudden unease as the conversation happening between their President and the commander of America’s most important space observation program pulled more into the light. Those sitting at the table drew closer to someone. Whispered conversations began, and those conversations were solely about family and loved ones.

“Prepare the EWAs,” the President said. “All of them.”

Secretary of Energy, Ernesto Peña, stopped chewing the end of his pen and lowered it diplomatically. Not wanting to be the voice of panic he decided to become the voice of reason. “I estimate less than five EWAs becoming available immediately, the remaining becoming available over the next two weeks. The natural resources to operate them were contracted through private and publically owned energy companies. Firing up the EWAs will drive false spikes on the stock market. After the threat is over those spikes will crash. We’re talking large companies such as CleanAire Corporation in full collapse.”

“Do it,” President Bleeker said firmly. “If former presidents can bail out the auto industry I can certainly bail out our energy industry. I’ll take full responsibility for the fallout. I also want everyone in this room flown to FEMA as soon as possible.”

“This can’t be happening,” John Johnson spoke up. “I mean, come on, guys. We’re talking about an alien invasion.”

The Secretary of Homeland Security, Shawn Coleman, reared back in his chair. “You sound as if you’re certain Code Blue Bethesda is necessary, President Bleeker. If it is what are we going to tell the public? How will we tell the public?” He asked while staring around the table and waiting patiently for an answer.

“We tell them the truth,” the President began. “It’s a truth that most of you here don’t even know about. America discovered extraterrestrial life on our soil in 1952. Unlike the many myths, these life forms didn’t expire once they became exposed to our atmosphere. Many of the same extraterrestrials that were discovered in 1952 are still alive, and since then have given birth to more of their species here on Earth. Since 1952 these life forms have been secluded to Blue Trees Mountain.”

Chairs squeaked. Body positions changed. A few objects were repositioned on the long, polished wood conference table. Silence became as dense as space.

“Why was this kept a secret from the public?” Donner asked.

President Bleeker shared the answer. “I’m just as surprised as all of you are. All of you know I’ve just gotten in office. I only learned of this species a few months ago.”

“But the truth hasn’t been told since 1952,” Coleman debated. “What you’re asking us to do, Mr. President, is cause panic on the street. CNN has already reported the space satellites outages. Firing up the EWAs. PACAF and SAC in the sky. Cabinet members being whisked to safety…”

“A nightmare,” Donner concluded. “Of mass proportion when Yaeger is advising we have no proof to support your…suspicion, President Bleeker.” A stalwart expression appeared on his face. He had decided not to believe it, because he didn’t want to believe it.

“At least the public will be aware,” the President refuted. “Like you all are now aware. The type of attack we may be facing… I’ll gladly go down in history as the most ignorant President we ever had if what we warn the people of America about turns out not to be true. We have no eyes in space. What better time for them to come when we’re not looking and unprepared. Any news from Camp Blue Trees? General Felt, I expected you here with us and not where you.”

A strong voice lifted from the conference system.

“My intentions had been to be there, President Bleeker,” General Felt assured. “Nothing unusual is taking place here. Even still, I stand behind your call.”

“I just want to be clear,” John Johnson said, leaning closer to the table and folding his arms on top of it. “Alien life forms exist here in America, specifically in Blue Trees Mountain and, General Felt, you’re not seeing any strange activities although the loss of our satellites supports President Bleeker’s suspicion?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” General Felt answered. “And I’m also saying that perhaps Blue Bethesda should go live. I’ll do what I’ll have to here. The EWAs will make a difference if President Bleeker’s suspicion rings true. We fire them up then wait and see what happens. If nothing we lie to the public like we’ve always done.”

“My Lord,” House Speaker Nina Calloway whispered. “Telling us at a time like this doesn’t leave much time, does it?”

“I strongly feel like we’re jumping the gun here. My command center knows about space. It’s us here that have watched it many years. If there was something we’d have seen it. Twenty-four hours,” Yaeger begged. “If our astronauts can’t get SANDRA up and running by then I, too, stand by the President’s call.”

The President sat forward. “We don’t wait. I’m initiating Blue Bethesda in the meantime.”

“How certain are you, you can have SANDRA up and having sight by tomorrow?” Johnson asked.

“I’m not,” Yaeger answered honestly. “But considering what we’ve seen before she went down and what we’ll face on the ground if all of this is nothing it’s worth every try.”

“Your decision, Mr. President?” Peña asked. “Once the start of the EWAs has been initiated there’s no going back.”

“How long before they’ll be ready to fire?” The President asked.

“Two – three days tops depending on cooperation from our contractors.”

“Can the EWAs defend us from this species?” Calloway asked.

“In theory, yes,” General Felt answered.

“How powerful is this species?” Calloway asked.

“We don’t know,” President Bleeker responded. “We’ll wait twenty-four hours before we alert the public, because truthfully speaking, warning them now the only difference we’ll see is America killing ourselves before the species arrive. That former Presidents since ‘52 have kept such a secret from our population is beyond me regardless of what the payoff has been. Let’s just hope this is only a false alarm and our former leaders have made the right decisions in regards to our welfare and future.”

General Felt continued to listen carefully to the President as he sat in his office at Camp Blue Trees. He stayed connected to the conference until its very end. Only then did he hang up and stare blankly across his desk at three photos that hung on the wall. Rushing to his feet, he hurried out of his office and into the main hall. He took the elevator down to one of the Camp’s lower levels, then stepped out of it and hurried inside of the command room.

He had lied when he told those attending the conference that there had been no change in Blue Trees Mountain, and for good reason.

“Anything?” He asked.

Three soldiers stared at him over their shoulders with distressed faces and tightened mouths.

“Anything!” He roared in what they called his McEnroe voice.

“We have more trouble,” Sergeant Pakuk answered. “Maybe you want to come closer and take a look?”

General Felt stepped closer when suddenly all three soldiers turned and faced the monitors in front of them. Felt soon saw the same things they did. The helmet dashcams of the soldiers that had been sent to escort Ericka and her team to safety all had mangled, sharp teeth in them that dripped with blood before they made another dive for the blood sources.

“All of them are dead, sir,” Pakuk said.

“Then why are you sitting there?” Felt questioned.

“Sampson…”

“You get out there,” General Felt demanded. “I don’t care about the others, but make sure the three that I mentioned from the team make it back here alive.”

Sergeant Pakuk Nukusuk rose to his feet and crossed the room. Already suited he grabbed a large rifle from the wall and ran through the command room’s door.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

“Do you think we’ll find them?” The question came from Billie and was spoken as Ericka walked through the cabin door. Ericka saw the question for what it was: an invitation for anyone to talk to her, because just that quickly Billie had become faceless. Ericka noticed that the others purposely avoided talking to Billie and kept their distance from her.

The nine had chosen the cabin to go over the rescue plan.

The cabin seemed smaller on the inside than it appeared on the outside. A small open kitchen sat against one wall. The rest of the cabin formed a reception area. As promised, Harvey Gabriel had supplies brought up in advance and left on the floor alongside a number of light-weight sleds for each of them to pull.

A secondhand clock on the wall read 5:18. Since the hour was closer to two James looked behind the clock then alerted everyone the battery was a relic and of a brand that could no longer be purchased on the market. A rusted aluminum tea kettle sat on a single burner operated by propane. Ceramic owls with large eyes hung on the wall above. Someone had left an afghan on the seat of a red, leather chair. A strong scent of rotting wood, mold and dust warned the cabin had sat abandoned many years.

“Did you see that forest out there?” James had decided to take on Billie’s unspoken request since no one else did. “They couldn’t have gotten too far in that.”

“Why this team?” Ericka asked, then stopped herself from looking at Farzad. He sank into the chair next to hers and got far too comfortable. One of his arms hung over the back of her chair. She knew from his closeness that the others would believe the two of them had known each other long before today.

In the silence Farzad sensed Ericka wanted to look at him and was pleased she didn’t. Ericka had taken him off guard the moment they met. The photo in her file was of a ten-year-old girl. Other than her name the only other information the file contained was an Army brief on the subject of clairvoyance. The last thing he expected to see was a beautiful woman.

A daisy sat above one of her ears. She wore her hair natural. Wild curly locks framed her face. A gentle breeze from the open, sun-filled door pushed a tendril close to full lips that were painted a matte shade of a red plum. Nut-brown skin smelled of lotion as fragrant as perfume. Her eyes were black pools that would ripple if poked with a fingertip. Although she looked in her twenties, the expression she wore was of someone determined to make a difference in the world.

He chose to sit next to her because the others had annoyed him within minutes of shaking their hands. If he had to guess, the other seven were far too overly self-centered. Like Ericka he also wondered why this team had been assembled: a cop, three soldiers, two wilderness women and an Asian kid who looked around as if this was his first time out of the city. This seemed more than a rescue mission. He wondered if anyone other than him and Ericka had drawn this same conclusion. Another thing that bothered him was the hasty retreat of the Mi-17.

Sergeant Szwedko stood at the end of the table with both palms pressed against it. “Before we get into that, Ericka, I think it’ll be better if I introduce you to everyone.”

“Didn’t everyone receive a file on me?” Her eyes traveled around the table.

“Not exactly,” Szwedko answered.

Grath Carver laughed. “What I received could have been pasted on a postcard.”

“I didn’t get anything,” Ace said.

“Neither did I,” Langdon and Billie chimed in.

Private First Class Bagley started around the table, placing a single card from a deck in front of everyone except Ericka. The atmosphere quickly became that of a classroom.

“Can any of you tell me without looking what card you have?” Szwedko asked.

Eyes turned in Ericka’s direction.

“Is there a reason she doesn’t have a card?” Grath asked, nudging his head toward her.

Szwedko ignored the question and asked one of his own. “Do any of you want to take a guess?”

“If it was a new deck, depending on the number of shuffles the odds are increased by fifty-two,” Ace said.

“What if I told you Ericka can guess what cards you have?” Szwedko asked.

“If she’s a mathematician I’ll buy that she can probably guess one of ours,” Ace answered. “But not all of us. It’s impossible.”

“She’s not a mathematician, Ace,” Szwedko said. “Clairvoyance,” he continued, changing the subject and raising his voice as if the cabin stretched farther and was filled with students, and he wanted those in the back to hear him. “Studies indicate those claiming to have this gift can predict a future occurrence after seeing a vision, or having a dream, or touching something, smelling something, hearing something. Ericka falls out of every study known to man. From the age of six she’s been studied by experts around the world. Many names have been applied to her gift. Some of you may be familiar with them. Extrasensory perception also known as ESP. An esper. A precog. A retrocog. A psychic. There are many names. Ericka is one of only thirty-two people in the entire world who falls under each of the categories I mentioned. She also holds the highest number of public and private validations, and is the only winner of the Randolph Award.”

Ace stared at Ericka with tightened eyes.

“Are you saying she knows which card each of us has without looking at it?” Langdon asked when she saw Ace’s expression.

“Do any of you wish to volunteer?” Szwedko asked.

“I will,” Ace answered.

Szwedko made a gesture for Ace to stand.

Ace rose then shoved his hands in his pockets, refusing to touch his card.

“Do you think this is necessary?” Ericka asked, staring at Ace, then at the others.

“I’m actually curious,” Farzad admitted.

No one else said anything. Ericka sensed everyone was curious. She knew Szwedko was playing the others, and for some reason he wanted her to play along. It was only because she considered him a friendly that she stood, then walked around the table and stood behind Ace.

Ace smiled in front of her and waited, his eyes looking down on the card, and then at the others. After a few seconds and nothing happened, he looked over his shoulder and into her eyes.

Ericka’s eyes closed. Her neck snapped back. She heard chair legs scrape across the floor. It happened very quickly.

She returned to her chair, pulling it closer to the table by the seat before she sat again.

Szwedko’s eyebrows rose.

Ericka gave a small shake of her head.

Ace saw this and stared at Szwedko. “What just happened?”

“Apparently, Ericka saw something too personal to share with everyone else.”

“I don’t believe in clairvoyance,” Ace said, holding Ericka’s gaze. “The Randolph winner? I don’t buy that. Many people claim they have the gift, but can only give vague details or descriptions that hint at the truth. If you saw something then prove it.”

The more Ericka held his gaze the more she saw. “You spent last night with two women. You cried this morning after you discovered they were no longer in your apartment and had taken the money out of your wallet, and had stolen your favorite watch. The wallet is made of red leather and has some kind of stitching on the front. You stared into the wallet a long time, and then you said, ‘I thought they were really into me,’ and cried some more until you said, ‘Fuck it.’ And then you prepared to come here only to realize you had spent so much time crying you no longer had time to take a shower.”

Bagley gaped at Ace with pity. “Shit. Bummer.”

“Anyone else?” Szwedko asked.

Ace stared at her a moment, refusing to look away. No one had been in his apartment after the women left. The moment had been too embarrassing to share with anyone.

Farzad stared at the others then raised his hand.

The others saw Szwedko’s excitement that someone else was willing to have something personal about them shared with the group.

“I don’t want to do him,” Ericka said. “Pick someone else.”

Farzad leaned closer. “Why not? I didn’t sleep with two women last night.”

Ericka turned and studied his eyes, then stared down and touched her pinky to his. She kept it there a while, then closed her eyes. “You’ve never slept with a woman before. It’s against your…reli… No. Not religion. A law you live by. The law requires that you are only allowed to sleep with…” She opened her eyes, remembering what she’d seen briefly about him when they had been outside.

Everything’s connected.

The voice came to her suddenly. She stared at the others, then at the owls hanging on the walls, the single burning stove, the red chair, and had a feeling of déjà vu. This moment. It was almost as if she had lived it before.

“Go on,” Farzad encouraged.

“The woman you marry,” she said, then saw he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

“This can’t be real,” Billie said, smiling. “The two of them know each other.”

“We met only today,” Farzad assured them all.

“Is what she said true?” Langdon asked.

“Very true,” Farzad said with his eyes on Ericka.

“She’s the real thing,” Ace said and sat again.

“I don’t know which of you to feel sorry for then,” Grath said, his eyes darting from Farzad’s to Ace’s, his mouth pulling into a sneer.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ericka said and leaned back in her chair. “The person you feel sorry for most is yourself. You’ve never been married although you want to be, but women don’t like you. You used to have a girlfriend named Carlyle. She loved telling people she was named after the hotel her parents conceived her in. You struck her at the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day in front of her parents. She refused to press charges. She and her family refuse to have any contact with you. You were able to keep your job, but you’ve been drinking since, not because you feel remorseful, but because you can’t figure out how to get even with her without jeopardizing your career.”

Ace studied the hardened expression on Grath’s face, then stared at Ericka. “How do you do it? And what does this have to do with the cards?”

“I don’t know how I do it,” Ericka answered. “And it has nothing to do with the cards. I don’t know what cards any of you have. Even if I touch them what I will see or hear will mostly likely be something unrelated. And I don’t see everything. I don’t know everything. For some reason I can read a lot about one person and see very little about someone else.”

“But you can see something about all of us?” Langdon questioned.

“I usually see something about every person I meet, but nine times out of ten it’s something vague.” She stared at Ace. “The more I’m around someone and watch their behavior the more I see.” Ericka eyed Billie. “He didn’t leave you. He left the house and went to work like he always did. The police were waiting for him. His trial is over and he’s been sent to prison. He hasn’t contacted you because he’s ashamed to tell you where he is and what he did to get there.” She stared at James. “The kid’s yours.” She stared at Ace. “Your father is a professional gambler. You were named after the suits he loves best.” She stared at Grath. “I don’t like anything I see about you.” She turned to Farzad. “You have never met your mother. You often wonder what she looks like.”

She glanced around the table. “I can’t explain what makes me the way I am. If I could shut it off, I would. If I had mentioned something insignificant the rest of you would have asked questions, and I wanted to avoid that. Lots of questions coming at me from a group make me feel like a freak. Sharing something personal lets you know I’m real. People usually stay away from me. It’s okay if you want to stay away from me, too. I’m used to it. I’m used to being alone.”

Billie captured Ericka’s attention. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Now that you know about Ericka, let’s get back to the mission,” Szwedko said. “Two weeks. We do what we can and then we leave this place, return to our lives, and put this place behind us.”

Farzad leaned closer and whispered in Ericka’s ear. “Are you all right?”

Ericka heard him, but couldn’t stop staring at Szwedko.

Run!

A sword edged with diamonds lifted into the air. A gray writhing tongue as thick as an arm became severed and leaked blood similar to tree sap.

She stood to her feet and waited to see more, because if she did she had no intentions of staying where she was.

“Ericka?” Szwedko whispered as he stood upright and stared at her with apprehension.

For reasons she couldn’t explain, she stared at Farzad after Szwedko had spoken. The vision she saw was his hand cupping her naked breast as tears rolled down her cheek. In the corner, not too far from where he stood, two slippery, red tentacles writhed across the floor to reach her.

She pressed a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes. The same vision repeated itself, but this time she saw more. She and Farzad were in a room with cement floor and walls. An unusual bed sat in one corner. I’ll keep you safe no matter the cost, Farzad assured.

She opened her eyes and saw that the others were staring at her. One by one she looked into their eyes. She stared into the corner where there was nothing, then fell back from the table.

Farzad stood and grabbed her hand. Szwedko also came around the table.

Langdon and Billie sat up in their chairs. James looked tense, his eyes taut and holding her gaze.

Ericka saw an image of the fuel line on Farzad’s helicopter. It sat in the red.

“Sit down,” Farzad whispered.

Szwedko walked back to the end of the table. “Ace might not look like much, but he’s a five time champion of the Marsden Award. His I.Q. is one-hundred-and-ninety. He earned his first Ph.D. at the age of twelve. There’s not a subject he doesn’t know something about. If we come across any forest plants or animals that none of us are familiar with we’re hoping he can tell us what it is and if it’s dangerous. I’m actually glad he’s with us. Blue Trees Mountain is one of the least altered wildernesses in America. Don’t be surprised if we see things out there we won’t see anywhere else. So let’s suit up and get moving. The sooner we find them the better chance they have surviving whatever it is that’s kept them from coming out of those trees.”

 

CHAPTER 4

 

“Are you sure that’s what you saw?” Szwedko asked. The two of them stood away from the others. “Ruined cities all over the world? Military jets falling from the sky?”

“When I looked in the corner I saw the world,” she stressed again, hoping this time he would believe her.

“How many jets?”

“Hundreds. The sky was filled with them. And they were falling, but none of them were damaged or smoking or anything like that. Just dropping like flies. And the cities, they were in complete ruin worse than any war photos you’ve ever seen. And the thing I saw you kill wasn’t a snake. It was something that wasn’t human, and it’s waiting for us in the wilderness.”

His eyes focused heavily on hers. Fear. He sensed it in her body language and the alarmed look in her eyes. He had read every report he’d been given on her. According to those reports everything she saw in visions eventually came true.

“I’m telling you something is wrong with this place,” she said. “Look at the trees. I can even see they’re different. And there are people out there in the wilderness. You told them to run. You were trying to help them. The loss of our space satellites. Jets falling from the sky. Ruined cities. And there’s something else. The helicopter outside has no fuel, which means we’re stuck here until someone comes for us.”

He rubbed vigorously at his mouth. She saw his need to doubt everything he’d heard.

“Radios don’t work out here,” he said. “We knew this coming in.”

He grabbed her hand and led her to Farzad.

Farzad saw them approaching and stopped digging in his supplies for clothes to change into.

“Are you black on fuel?” Szwedko asked.

“Of course,” Farzad said, staring from Szwedko to Ericka. “Are we calling this off already?”

“Show me how much fuel you have,” Szwedko said.

The three of them walked out of the cabin to the Bell. Farzad quickly climbed in, put the headset over his ears, and fired it up. Szwedko and Ericka leaned far over him. The fuel needle refused to lift out of the red zone just like she saw it in her vision.

“That can’t be right.” Farzad tapped the meter with his finger and thumb. “I would have noticed on the way here.”

Szwedko stared at Ericka.

Farzad stared at Szwedko and Ericka. “I checked the BuNo myself before I left. There has to be some juice in this helo.”

“Radio headquarters,” Szwedko began.

Ericka gripped his arm, then pulled out of the helicopter and stared around at the trees. “I’m getting a strange feeling like we should be here and not to leave.”

“But what you said!” Szwedko spoke heatedly.

Ericka faced him. “I know what I said and I’m telling you being here is going to be better than being down there. I’m staying.”

Farzad cut the engine when both of them climbed out, then climbed out after them.

“If you saw that many jets, Ericka, it means a lot of bases are following procedures for an impending attack.”

“You didn’t see the cities the way I saw them,” she argued. “My gut is telling me to stay here and stick to the mission. I’m asking you to trust me on this. Never try and change the future. Bad things happen whenever someone tries.”

“Shit!” Szwedko raged.

Ericka touched his shoulder. “All of us are safer here.”

He stared at her a long while. “How certain are you of that?”

“Just as much as everything else.”

Szwedko thought for a moment about his family and friends on the ground, and how what Ericka had seen will affect them. With no radio and no fuel in the helo, he had no way of communicating with anyone other than those at the cabin.

Ericka turned and walked away. Halfway to the cabin she saw that just that quickly Szwedko no longer believed what she’d told him. And she couldn’t blame him. It was hard for her to believe herself.

Farzad stepped inside of the cabin with her, then followed her to the other side where the last of the supplies had been left.

The others were either on the other side of the cabin going through backpacks, boxes and their portions of supplies or were outside looking to see where the best place was to start.

Farzad removed the aviator sunglasses and held her gaze. “What were you two talking about back at the Bell?”

She lowered to go through the supplies, because suddenly it became urgent to have as much as she needed before going inside the forest. She even grabbed more than she needed, and changes of clothing in various sizes. What the hell am I doing?

Farzad lowered beside her. His voice softened. “Talk to me, Ericka. What was Szwedko talking about?”

“I don’t think Szwedko believed something I told him. I’m sure you won’t either.”

His hand pressed on top of hers, stopping her from filling a box with more supplies. “I have never been with a woman. No one knew that. I have never met my mother. I think about her all the time. If you saw that I’ll believe whatever it is you have to say.”

She studied his eyes, then bit down on her lip. “I think something will soon happen in cities all over the world. And I think something not human is waiting for us in the forest.”

He gave a nod that was hardly noticeable. “Not human. An animal?”

She took a chance, because what she saw was too large to keep to herself but too frightening to share with everyone else. “Aliens. And I know how crazy it sounds. And even though I saw what I saw I’m getting a strong feeling it will be safer in the forest than in the city.”

He held her gaze a moment longer, then stared back at the door. Szwedko stood outside it checking his rifle and making certain it was fully loaded. “I think he does believe you.”

Ericka gazed over her shoulder. Szwedko stared at her, racked the slide on his rifle, then walked away.

Farzad stood and walked away. She saw it very clearly.

She stood to her feet. “You’re one of the three!”

When he turned she saw he was confused.

“What I said earlier about three people saving the world. You’re one of the three,” she repeated, then lowered again and finished what she’d been doing.

Farzad stood where he was a long time.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Farzad’s three-piece suit had been switched to Army fatigues. The all-terrain boots on his feet revealed they had been worn on many occasions. Again sunglasses covered his eyes, and Ericka knew why he continued to wear them. His eyes were the palest shade of blue. In the cabin he squinted harshly against the sunlight after he’d taken them off.

Langdon and Billie stood close together sharing a map. Fingers pointed to several areas toward the forest, then down again.

Szwedko sipped bottled water, his eyes constantly finding hers.

Bagley waited patiently as he watched Langdon and Billie. James leaned against three black cases tied down to a single sled. Inside them were I.V. bags of glucose and needles to hydrate anyone they found.

Strapped to each sled were enough medical supplies to share with more than a dozen people.

As she watched everyone around her, she knew that Szwedko hadn’t shared with them the things she saw.

The cabin now sat empty. Everyone had their sleds. Ace left his a few feet behind and lowered to the grass, his fingers brushing across it like carpet.

Ericka pulled her sled closer when Farzad also fingered the grass. Ace heard her approaching, stared at her, then back at the others. “Look at this grass. Really look at it.”

It didn’t look like grass and more like lettuce. Each blade grew thick and closely together just like the trees.

Not far from them Grath also lowered to the grass, pushing his fingers through it.

Langdon and Billie stopped studying the map, saw that the others had lowered to the ground, and stepped closer to Grath. A small conversation took place and then everyone drew together.

“I agree with James. Neither family could have gotten far in that,” Billie said, nudging her head toward the forest. “It looks far too wild and uninhabited.”

“It’s on you, Ericka,” Szwedko said. “I think you should point us in the right direction.”

Ericka already knew where she was going. Even now the area pulled on her to get there in a rush. She stood and looked southeast, pointing in its direction. “I’m going over there.”

“We all are,” Szwedko corrected. He held her gaze. “Are you ready?” He looked down at the grass, indicating he also thought it looked beyond strange.

When they reached the trees they were tightly together just like they’d appeared from the distance. To get inside the forest, one by one each of them had to climb over tree roots while using both hands and using their legs and feet. Each made sure they kept their sleds with them. One step inside the forest and sunlight almost disappeared. Barely enough penetrated the treetops and gave the impression of early evening.

Ericka stopped walking and stared farther south, then walked in that direction.

Farzad saw her change directions and followed. To get on the other side of the trees that the two of them came to, he had to lift her to reach the top of the root that grew above ground. Ericka used her feet to climb up. Climbing down the other side was what she had expected.

The other side of the root was buried into a higher floor in the forest. It looked almost as if the ground had once shifted and had never righted itself. All she had to do was stand and walk, but not before she pulled her sled up behind her. While she did this the others talked below. Soon hands reached for the top of the root. Bodies climbed over. Once they were all standing they stared ahead of them, then turned and stared behind them.

Behind them lay a painstaking maze of upraised roots. In front of them grass carpeted the forest floor.

“Guys, this is… fucked up,” Ace concluded in a tone of awe. “I mean. There’s hardly any sunlight.” He stared at them to see if anyone was catching on to what he said. “Grass shouldn’t grow here, especially not like this.”

Ericka walked ahead, pulling her sled. The others saw Szwedko and Bagley following and also followed. After several steps the grass could no longer be seen, but it could still be felt.

“Oh, man,” Ace complained, staring down and watching each step he took.

Above the grass grew a garden of never-ending, knee-high fern.

“This is beyond fucked up,” he said.

“And I thought the grass was strange,” Langdon replied.

Ericka kept walking, only the uppermost part of her sled visible through the fern.

“Keep walking,” Szwedko said when he saw the others pausing to take in everything they saw.

Farzad pulled in front of the others and walked beside Ericka. “You have to admit it’s kind of beautiful. Strange but beautiful.”

And it was. Beautiful and wild.

It took almost an hour to walk out of the ferns. It stopped abruptly in front of soil sprouting tree seedlings in various stages of growth. In between the seedlings mature trees had grown high in the sky.

“I just saw something that meet my qualification of being highly suspicious,” Ace said.

Szwedko and Bagley kept a tight perimeter, both of them staring up at the trees.

“Like why we haven’t seen any birds?” James asked.

“That and the silence,” Billie answered as she attempted to look past the treetops to see the sky but couldn’t. “The more I walk the more I feel I’ve stepped into a cave with a disappearing door.”

“There’s no moss,” Langdon said, her eyes darting from tree to tree in search of moss to prove herself wrong.

“There’s nothing dead on the ground either,” Billie said. “Not even leaves.”

The others looked down in search of anything that can be classified as no longer living, except Ace.

“Are you guys stupid or something?” He asked. “Are you telling me none of you noticed that three trees are growing out of each other over there?”

Eyes darted to see the spectacle, and when they saw it they all stood silently.

A single large tree grew out of the ground. A second tree grew out of it just above the roots. Another began halfway up, its roots wrapped around the trunk until it became one. Branches didn’t grow out from the trunk until very high up, branches wide enough for three people to sit side by side and still have room left over. The leaves were large on all three trees, lustrously green and thick and wide enough to fold around one of them like a blanket.

“Guys, for this forest to grow like it has I’m talking advance metabolic growth. And for that growth to reach as far as the cabin, something is feeding it from underneath and above the ground.”

He started to point to another tree when James walked a short distance away and stopped; his eyes tight and narrow as he stared ahead.

Szwedko took a step closer to him.

“You saw something?” He whispered.

“A blue glow. Saw it from the corner of my eye, but can’t find it now.”

Grath stepped closer. “Small or large?”

James shook his head. “Don’t know, and I don’t think we’ve been told everything about this place.”

Up until that moment Bagley had taken every step with his rifle braced against his shoulder and aimed. It now lowered. “What do you mean they didn’t tell us everything?”

Szwedko’s eyes were narrow in thought. “This forest isn’t what we were told we would find. The last search team didn’t mention any of what we’re looking at.”

“Maybe the forest on the other side looks different,” Bagley suggested.

A sound similar to a startled cougar echoed between the trees.

A crackle sounded on their left and in the direction James claimed to have seen the blue glow.

Szwedko and Bagley raised their rifles and aimed. Their reaction released a collection of crackles, it seemed, from all directions. What frightened them was the crackles didn’t sound like dead twigs or branches snapping, and more like dry bones grinding against the other.

“Ericka,” Szwedko said. “Are you picking anything up on this?”

Their eyes met.

“You didn’t believe me back at the cabin.”

Szwedko tightened his hold on his weapon.

“What did she tell you earlier?” Bagley asked, his weapon visibly trembling as the crackling noises closed in. “What the hell are we listening to?”

Ericka’s shoulders deflated. Her chin lowered. A cool breeze closed in around her. On her left crackles sounded as the creature’s outer plates shifted and reset. A three-toed foot pressed heavy against the ground. For seconds she saw darkness, and then a small fire burning. Sitting in front of the fire sat a black, teenage boy hugging his legs. The floor of the forest covered his face and had lines running through it like those on a map. Something positioned just above his forehead refused to pull into focus.

She reached a hand out to the side of her as she struggled to keep the image in her mind, forcing it to stay where it was.

“Side pocket! Side pocket!” Szwedko yelled.

James reached into Szwedko’s side pocket and drew out a small notebook.

“Get the pen, too,” Szwedko said, “and put both in her hand.”

“What am I looking at?” Ace raged as he stared at Ericka. She stood still and as if she no longer drew breath, like a statue erected between the trees of someone long forgotten.

“Sh!” Farzad warned as his hand passed slowly in front of Ace’s face to get his attention. And then Farzad stared at Ericka and began to nod. “Okay. Okay,” he whispered to no one. “I see now why they brought you here.”

“What is she doing?” James screamed when Ericka began drawing a map on the paper while her eyes were still closed. “Make her stop!”

“I’ve read every report the government has on her,” Szwedko said. “She’s never been wrong in the past. Ever. Let’s hope she has some good news.”

Ericka’s lips parted. A sliver of air could be heard coming from between them.

“Oh, shit!” Ace muttered and fell back from her. “Is she possessed? I know about demon possession. I know some of everything!”

Ericka’s eyes opened; her mouth slowly closed. She held the map out to Langdon.

Langdon refused to reach for it.

“Guys, I’m getting really scared,” Billie cried, her face pinched in a pained expression as she continued to search where the crackling noises were coming from. Whatever was moving there were now many of them causing the crackles to sound like many bones popping into place one after the other and in a domino effect.

Langdon heard the noises getting closer and took a cautious step closer to Ericka, snatched the notebook, then took a quick step back.

“Talk to us, Ericka!” Szwedko yelled, his rifle aiming up, down, in one direction, and then another. “What are we listening to? What did you see just now?”

Ericka’s shoulders and chest rose and fell in a rapid rhythm.

Farzad lowered in front of her and held her gaze.

“Tell us what you saw,” he said softly, gently.

Ericka’s mouth tightened. “I think the light James saw was something trying to see him better.”

James turned in a circle nonstop aiming a pistol up at the trees.

“I think they want the black boxes. I saw one of the boxes fly into the air. I think we should give them to them instead of them taking them from us.”

“Them?” Bagley asked. “What are they?”

Ericka hesitated. “Aliens.”

“Did she say aliens?” Ace asked.

Bagley kept his eyes on her, waiting, the word aliens not registering.

“Is it people, Ericka?” Grath pressed. “The Gabriels?”

Farzad stayed lowered in front of her, and held her gaze.

“Wait,” Ericka warned and closed her eyes. They were closed for only a few seconds when she snapped them open. Her eyes became wide. “I just saw what they look like. And it’s real! I’m talking goddamn motherfucking aliens! Aliens! Aliens!”

The pitch of her voice sent them all running. All of the sleds pulled behind them, except the one that contained the black boxes. Through the trees. Darting through outreaching branches. Over tree roots that grew above ground. And grass that cushioned their feet. Arms pushing wildly at anything in the way. Hard breaths. Loud pants. The sound of nine sleds swishing like skis on ice. At times they separated. At other times they joined together. At all times one of them ran ahead.

And then the others stopped when they noticed Ericka had come to an abrupt stop, then hurried back to where she was.

“Listen to me,” Ericka said in between breaths, and then her eyes got large. “Oh, shit! This is not what I expected! I can only see bits and pieces. We’re running but some of them are outrunning us.” She looked up at the trees.

Someone groaned. She couldn’t be certain if it was one of the women or Ace.

“Why did we stop?” Bagley asked.

“I saw something travel over the trees. It moves fast. It dropped to the forest floor ahead of us. It’s waiting for us,” she answered.

“How do we get out?” Billie screamed at the top of her lungs.

James grabbed Billie by the shoulders and gave her a violent shake. “Shut up! Shut up! Did you not hear what we all just heard? We’re outnumbered. Didn’t you hear what sounded like large butterfly wings clapping together as we ran? We need to stay quiet.” He looked at Ericka, jagged breaths exhaling from his lungs. Fear in his eyes.

Szwedko searched the trees frustrated he couldn’t see anything.

“I don’t know what’s ahead,” Ericka said. “It hid behind a tree. Langdon needs to take us to the location on the map.”

“Fuck that! We go back!” Ace whispered heatedly, staring at the others, waiting for someone to side with him.

“We can’t go back,” Ericka warned. “Something is back at the cabin. If we go back we’ll startle it and all of us are dead. You don’t even want to see what I saw if we go back.”

“This can’t be real,” Billie said. “She’s talking about aliens! There has to be a logical explanation.”

The others stared at each other uncertain what to believe.

They were still staring at each other when a branch leaned to one side as something crashed into it. The object broke apart, then rolled onto the ground. It was one of the black boxes. Deep, sharp claw marks had torn it apart until it was hardly recognizable. The case was now empty.

“What are we waiting for?” Ace screamed.

“Ericka!” Szwedko yelled.

“I’m not moving until Langdon does,” Ericka answered.

Ace ran forward and pushed Langdon like a wrestler his opponent off the mat.

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Billie’s behavior left Farzad in awe. Twice the woman had to be restrained. Although she cried she was smart enough to do it silently. This told him that everyone now believed what Ericka said.

Szwedko looked over his shoulders, then pointed his rifle at nothing. “Something is moving. It almost looks like the trees are moving.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” James said. Aliens didn’t exist, he continued to tell himself, but until any of them saw what could make the noises he heard he could only imagine what the enemy looked like.

Bagley kept his eyes on the trees.

Ace often stared at the others and wondered if he should risk going back to the cabin alone. The cabin couldn’t have been worse than out here. Every step he took he saw something more and more wrong with the forest, and although he didn’t want to believe it, only something alien could be the cause of it.

Langdon gripped the notebook like a GPS system. Her eyes constantly glanced at it. What she feared was reading it wrong. The lines on it curved constantly. An ‘X’ had been drawn at the top. In her mind X marked the place of safety.

“How’re you doing with that map?” Bagley whispered.

“I don’t know.” She took careful steps as she looked down and up, down and up. “Let me concentrate.”

Farzad stole a glance at Ericka and saw that she was already looking at him. As soon as their eyes met she stopped as if she’d been waiting for them to make eye contact.

Szwedko reached her side. “Langdon, bring the notebook.”

The others realized the others had stopped, then hurried back until they formed a single group.

“Does she need an antenna to see more shit?” Ace asked, staring around.

Farzad reached for Ericka’s hand, because she suddenly began to breathe heavily. She held his gaze, her eyes wide. She gave a small shake of her head.

A crackle sounded behind them.

James and Grath aimed pistols in that direction.

Langdon held up the map, then pointed in a different direction than they’d been heading in. “I can’t read this map, but if I had to choose which way to go it’ll be that way. The trees are planted differently there.”

Ericka squeezed Farzad’s hand and gave a slight nod. He knew then she had seen this moment happening and had stopped everyone so it could take place.

“Is that the right direction, Ericka?” Szwedko asked.

“Yes.”

“How can you be sure?” James asked.

Billie pushed closer to Ericka. “I’m a better guide. Tell me where we need to go and I’ll get us out of here.”

“Stay calm, little woman,” Farzad warned. “Now is not the time to lose your head.”

“I’m curious to know why it has to be Langdon,” James said.

“That’s a good damn question,” Ace reiterated.

“There’s a kid alive somewhere near here,” Ericka said. “Langdon finds the kid. Langdon needs to lead us out because I heard what she told him when she finds him.”

“What?” James asked.

“The others scattered and are dead,” Ericka answered.

“Langdon,” Szwedko encouraged. “Get us out of here. Hurry.”

“I say we go that way,” she said. “It’s the way I’d go if I’d been alone.”

She didn’t wait for anyone to agree with her. She lowered the notebook and hurried in the direction she mentioned.

Ace noticed that Farzad held Ericka’s hand, then ran to catch up with Langdon to hold hers.

Langdon snatched her hand away without looking at him.

Ace stopped walking a moment, then walked alongside Grath wondering if Grath would be offended if he held his hand.

If Langdon felt any fear it couldn’t be seen. Szwedko watched as she searched between the trees with hard, acute gazes. Each step she took was done as if sneaking up on a finish line. This woman had strength and for his sake he hoped the others had an equal amount as well.

Grath looked over his shoulder. For minutes he sensed something following. The crackle he heard had been small, but this time much closer than any of the others.

Another crackle.

“There’s a clearing up ahead!” Langdon shouted with excitement.

Ericka squeezed Farzad’s hand. He stared down at her. She held his gaze then gave another small shake of her head.

The trees up ahead came to a sudden end. The closer they got a row of dilapidated, dark wood cabins could be seen. One of the roofs had caved in.

Ace and Grath heard it at the same time. Ace didn’t turn to see what it was and kept his pace. Grath stayed where he was.

“Keep walking!” Ericka hissed in warning, but didn’t stop. She’d learned long ago that some of the things she saw no one could stop them from happening. “Don’t look. Come on. Keep walking,” she said.

Grath felt as if he had to look. Not once had any of them seen anything between the trees. He knew from experience it was hard to kill the enemy when you didn’t know who the enemy was or what the enemy looked like.

Where he stood was just outside the trees. He took a moment to search again. Now that they were out of the forest it surprised him to see what they had trekked through. In front of him looked more like a sea than a forest, with many waves that reached different heights. Most of the tree roots grew above ground, twisting above the dirt as tightly as string around a ball. Some of the leaves hung low and were bluish in color, giving an appearance of thickly woven spider webs or scattered condensations of fog.

His eyes narrowed on one of these areas, then locked on one in particular. In the center of it he saw a white and pink head of alien proportion. A chin was nonexistent. The head was larger at the crown, then narrowed at the ears and formed with the neck and chest. It had eyes larger than humans’ that rested flat against a skull that had no skin or protective covering. What could have been cheeks but looked closer to gills flared underneath the eyes and close to a fleshy slit shaped like a Y. Intricately shaped bones marked the area below similar to the way Native Americans painted their faces for war. It wasn’t until the smell of a decomposing corpse permeated his nostrils did he realize that whatever he was looking at perched on long arms and smaller legs, its face only an inch from his.

Bagley looked over his shoulder, saw what was standing face to face with Grath, aimed his rifle and squeezed the trigger while running toward it. The fear he felt rushed out of his mouth in both a yell and a groan.

The fleshy part of the creature’s face opened. Ka ka ka ka ka. The noise started slow then became faster than the buzz of a chainsaw without losing its sound.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Ace screamed, his feet moving under him in no particular direction.

Szwedko had been waiting for this moment – the chance to see something to shoot at. Now that he saw it – for a moment – he had forgotten he was a soldier. It wasn’t until the creature’s body began to swell when he took calculated shots. Scope to his eye. His feet taking large advancing steps. He aimed only for the head.

Langdon’s jaw opened wide enough for something to crawl out of it as she lowered to the ground with equally large eyes.

Ericka screamed with her mouth opened wide and her hands waving frantically in front of her face, because the creature she was looking at was different from the one she saw in her vision. There’s more than one kind of them!

Farzad stood next to her covering his mouth with both hands.

The creature’s body made slow mechanical-like movements. With each its many bones popped making a sound similar to tubes pulled away from pressured gas. As its torso lowered to the ground its outer shell of a million bones rubbed against each other causing the crackling noises they’d heard. Once on all fours its jaw lowered in quick speed all the way to the ground. Its mouth a cavernous hole a foot wide. A rope like tongue with fleshy barb like hooks darted out in instantaneous speed.

James unloaded his pistol watching in awe as he saw the rounds bounce off of the creature’s bones with no effect. He ejected the empty magazine, slammed in another, and kept shooting while frustration released out of him in piercing screams.

The sound of a thousand butterfly wings clapped together out of the forest. The ground underneath everyone gave small vibrations as heavier creatures ran in their direction. The last shot fired when behind the smaller creature the trees parted on both sides. What stepped out sent them all running in separation directions. All except Billie. Crouched on the ground with her hands trembling in front of her face, she became paralyzed by what she saw. The thing in front of her couldn’t be real. None of this is real is what she told herself as, “Ah! Ah! Ah!” rushed out of her mouth.

Bagley ran in an arc to reach her, his rifle aimed and firing.

“No!” Ericka yelled and tried to run after him. Farzad wrapped his arms around her waist and held her back. Her feet kicked as she continued to scream. “No! No! No!”

Szwedko saw his team scatter and remembered Ericka’s warning.

“Follow Langdon!” He yelled. “Fall back! Fall back!”

Ace hugged the tree he was behind with his eyes closed, tears streaming down his face. Grath saw what was behind Ace, reached him, grabbed him by the hand, and fled across the clearing toward Langdon without realizing he was dragging Ace on the ground.

James, Szwedko and Bagley laid down fire.

Farzad yanked Langdon up from the ground with his free hand. “Get us out of here.”

Langdon stumbled to her feet then looked left and right, then over Farzad’s shoulder at the trees. Her eyes became wide.

Farzad turned to see what could have frightened her even more.

The bones on the larger creature were hard and smooth and burned in a blue glow. The glow turned the bones into mirrors that reflected the forest. As the creature took a step it looked as if the forest moved with it, but all of them saw that this wasn’t true. Each individual bone had become one solid mirror reflecting the forest in a three-hundred-and-sixty degree angle causing the creature to almost totally disappear. Four three-toed webbed muscular black hands and feet with razor sharp nails sliced through grass. A head slowly appeared out of its center where a stomach should have been. Four eyes encased in bone sat far on both sides of it. In the center of the eyes, overlapping bone separated created wing-like sounds as its jaw opened wide.

Langdon ran not knowing where she was running to.

Billie clawed the ground as she tried to scramble to her feet.

Bagley ran closer to her firing his weapon.

The smaller creature pounced.

The sound of a cougar’s yowl was made as two red, muscular tentacles shot from between its legs and coiled around Billie like snakes fastening tightly to prey. Billie’s eyes grew wide as her body curled and lifted into the air as the tentacles tightened. Bagley saw this and fell back. A rope-like tongue with even larger barbs darted out of the larger creature’s mouth and coiled around Bagley’s body with the strength of a boa constrictor. As the larger creature retreated into the forest, it pulled Bagley behind it on the ground. The last thing any of them saw was Bagley’s hands dragging on the ground then disappear between the trees.

“Come on!” Szwedko yelled as he, James, Ace and Grath ran past Ericka and Farzad hoping he would catch sight of Langdon and where she had disappeared.

The smaller creature hadn’t taken Billie with it. Her body lay on the grass. The creature pressed its face against hers peering deep into her eyes, then gave a single bounding leap toward the trees and disappeared.

Farzad looked to his left.

Everyone was gone except Ericka. She stared at him breathing hard, patiently waiting.

“Did you know that would happen?”

“What I saw hasn’t happened yet.”

“Can you get us out of here?”

“I need to get on the other side of the mountain. Can you come with me?”

“What about the others?”

“I didn’t see them where we’re going. I can’t change what I see. Please don’t question it.”

“Did you see me with you?”

“Yes.” She hesitated. “I saw you protecting me.”

 

CHAPTER 7

 

Langdon ran and screamed and couldn’t stop. The small wood cabins had steps to reach its doors. Not trusting her legs to climb anything at the moment, she cut in between two cabins that sat closely together. Pressing her back momentarily against its wall, she pushed on her feet and ran around to the back of the cabin and slid to a stop.

Sitting in front of a fire sat a teenage boy. Mud caked his face. He hugged his legs as he rocked with large eyes. As soon as she saw him she thought of Ericka. Ericka said she would find a boy and she had.

“What happened?” He asked.

“We scattered.” She looked behind her and didn’t see anyone or hear anything. She remembered what Ericka said and faced the kid as a tear rolled down her face. “I think the others are dead. Are we safe here?”

He shook his head.

“Should we go somewhere?”

“The trees aren’t safe. You can’t go near them.”

“What about the cabins?”

“I wouldn’t go inside them if I were you.”

“Why?”

“People are inside. Scared people. They’ll kill you if they think it will keep them alive.”

“So what do we do? We can’t just stay here.” She looked over her shoulder. Nothing moved or stirred.

The cabins sat on blocks of wood decayed by rain.

The boy stood and stared at her.

Langdon noticed the cracks in the mud on his face, closed her eyes, and covered her mouth with her hands. The same lines from the map were on the boy’s face. His arms were also covered in mud, as were his feet.

The boy looked down the front of him, then up at her again. “There’s something about the mud. But it has to be dry. The others didn’t believe me when I told them the creatures can’t see me because of the mud.”

“How many others are there?”

“I don’t know the number anymore.” He pointed in the direction of the forest. “I haven’t seen the larger ones hurt anyone unless one of the smaller ones are in danger. There are two kinds of smaller ones. I don’t know which one you saw, but I can imagine which one it was from the look on your face. The uglier ones are the ones you have to be careful about. The sun does something to them, so they usually don’t come out often during the day, especially if it’s hot. It’s evening time when they come out in large numbers. They don’t kill all of us. Usually if they can get one of us they leave the rest of us alone.”

She took a cautious step back from him. “If they come out at night and you aren’t in one of the cabins why haven’t they taken you?”

“The mud, remember?” He stared down at the fire. “And the fire. They go right past me like they don’t see me.”

“Are you one of the Gabriels?”

He pointed toward a cabin farther up. “I think there’s a Gabriel in that last one. I hear the name mentioned at times.”

“Who are you?”

“Callum Horn from Billings, Montana.”

She stared down the front of him. He was barely clothed, each part of him including what he wore covered heavily in mud. “How old are you?”

“I should be seventeen now. My birthday was only a few months away when I got here.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I came with a family looking for diamonds.”

“And then what happened?”

He stepped away from her and pointed in the distance where she suspected the Gabriels had entered the forest. “We parked somewhere down in that. There’s a road there that leads to an old mine shaft. As soon as we stepped into the mine, we heard it. A lot of them. We ran not knowing what it was and into the trees to hide only to find there were more outside. My friend died. The things took him. The rest of us ran, but we must have run in the wrong direction because we ran to them instead of away from them. That’s when my friend Adrian’s daddy got took. Me, his mother and sister almost got away but the ‘others’ captured them and then I was alone. I kept running and found this place. I’ve been here since.”

“The others?”

“You don’t even want to know,” he said, his eyes narrowing on hers.

“How long ago was that?”

“I don’t know to tell you the truth. A lot of months. I do know that. I’m thinking about five or six.”

“We have to find the others.”

“I can’t leave this spot.” He sat again on the ground.

“But I need to know if my friends are alive,” she pleaded.

She saw that he refused to go with her, turned from him, and ran back into the direction she had come from to see what had happened to the rest of her team.

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