Chapter Seven
An Entirely Alien Approach


Swamp Rat

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1576 [Ref. No. D1174-466]

...... I don't know what woke me, some odd sound or a change in the light. Yawning, I opened my eyes and squirmed around more comfortably in the passenger-side seat. It was rare to have a co-driver.
...... "Sorry about that," she laughed. "The traffic engineer who marked this road must have owned a sports car." A bit of sunlight flickered on her sunglasses frames as she turned her head.
...... "No matter." I let the seat upright and leaned back again to watch the altering patterns of sunlight through the trees, as they moved past the window on my side. According to the dash clock, I'd slept for nearly an hour.
...... "Look!" Lynn demanded. "That sign says 45."
...... "On back roads like this, they don't post limits," I chuckled. "That's a goal."
...... "That I believe!" She slowed for a curve sign, negotiated it, and pushed resume on the Cruise Control. The Jeep downshifted and surged forward, coming back up to setpoint speed. A tiny jerk signified the engagement of the overdrive clutch. "We just past Debret township. If the directions are right, we'll be at the turn-off in twenty minutes."
...... "It shouldn't take long." I adjusted an air conditioning vent. "Just long enough to take one look and scribble down some notes." The greenery of thick forest gave way to a blackened, burnt area. The fire must have been some time back -- green weeds dotted the terrain. Another moment, and it was gone, the forest back again. "Verification runs are quick and easy," I added.
...... "It seems such a long way to come just for a few minutes look at something." She concentrated her attention on a car stopped at the intersection. It pulled out and crossed the road.
...... "Fodder for the filing cabinet and the computer data base. If we ever do crack this problem, I'm willing to bet it'll be through accumulation of small checks and not through a major investigation."
...... "Not a view I'd dare bring up to the Headquarter's committee." She switched grip on the steering wheel and changed the air temperature control again. "Down there, they still believe in large expensive miracles. It makes me even happier to be located at the field office instead of there. So after you collect your dab of Pureena File Chow, how much farther? It's impossible to cut the humidity in here without freezing my legs. I should've worn jeans."
...... "Hour and a half. I'll take the wheel. It isn't far, but it's all country roads, and I know the landmarks. Seems a pity we only can stay one night. Up early tomorrow and on the Interstate south. Aren't you glad you saved that week of vacation for this trip?"
...... She made a face without turning. "The deep South in the middle of July? Why can't you get an assignment to the Sault?"
...... "I did receive a task in Sault Sainte Marie." I opened both hands and smiled. "Last February!"
...... She slowed to check a mass of route signs, then accelerated back to speed. Ours was the only vehicle at the junction. Even the dilapidated wood grocery store was closed up, its sheet-steel roof a mass of rust stains.
...... "I sent a complaint to the Administrator's office," I teased. "No answer yet."
...... "Oh, it's in the files somewhere. I'll dig it out and have my secretary send you a form letter." She airily waved her free hand. "Seriously though, I'm glad I'm here. With that part-time auditor scheduled at the office, I expected to be even more behind on my paperwork. But over the last six-seven months, Irwin has made so many useful suggestions, that I've actually had a little less to do."
...... "Well, you always wanted a Florida vacation. This is the best I've been able to manage to date."
...... "With you anywhere is vacation land." She changed the air vent, then pushed at an errant wisp of hair. "I think that's the junction coming up. Six and a quarter miles now." She pushed the button on the trip odometer.
...... Six miles of bushes and fence posts, trees and utility poles. Only the occasional dirt track, cut among the trees, suggested current human habitation. An old microwave relay station sat in one clearing -- a windowless white concrete block building with its tall red and white tower behind it, four big microwave lenses perched on top and a smaller parabolic mounted on a corner. Ahead, a series of high tension towers marched across the road along their own carefully trimmed pathway.
...... "Six and a quarter exactly," Lynn announced and pulled in next to an open gate, where a man in a hardhat lounged against the bumper of a white Jeep.
...... I zipped down the window. "Telephone company? You called Special Investigations?"
...... "That's right." The man climbed into his own vehicle. "Follow me."
...... "Aren't you going to take over?" Lynn requested, her hand on the seatbelt release. I simply ran up the window, tightened my seat harness, and pulled up the 4x4 handle on the console. "You need to learn sometime. Now's good enough."
...... She pursed her lips. "When I agreed to learn to drive, I didn't bargain for this."
...... "Tilt your seat full up, and tighten your seatbelt." I reached down to pull the shift selector back to D. "Ease on the gas, and start your turn."
...... She did as instructed, both hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. The other Jeep had started down the well-used ruts alongside the high voltage towers.
...... "It's not that hard!" I gestured toward the windshield. "Tallyho the Wrangler."
...... Nor that far. Two minutes later, we pulled in next to a boom truck, painted in telephone company colors and set up beside a utility pole.
...... "So soon?" She shoved the selector into Park and clicked off the ignition. "I was just getting the hang of it."
...... "So you can drive back, too." I climbed out. "You called Special Investigations? I'm Driver. What have you got here?"
...... The operator maneuvered his twin-bucket rig to the ground. "Climb in, and I'll show you."
...... While climbing in, I looked up at the telephone pole. Three heavy black cables on shiny steel wire supports were bolted to it -- two continuous, and one with a rectangular junction box. A galvanized wire rope brace ran to an eyelet protruding from the weed-covered ground. In this very humid climate, a thick green multi-strand vine had climbed the brace and wound itself along the lowest cable and its junction box.
...... The operator moved the bucket in a fast series of arcs to the junction box. "Normally, we'd just clean up this mess, and repair any damage. But this one's a little different." He shone a light into the jumble of splices in the opened box and pried at one with a screwdriver. "What do you see?"
...... "It looks like the vine tips have penetrated the insulation."
...... He nodded. "JoAnn checked with a meter. The vines are conductive, one stem to a circuit. Inside. The bark's acting like insulation. I've worked with party lines before, but never one as a vegetable."
...... "Sap's conductive. And animal nerves are electrochemical." I hunched down for a better look at the topmost layer. "I suppose a vine could tap into a wire. Low-level signals could be stimulating."
...... "Not in any handbook I ever read. But there is signal loss happening." He tapped the cable with the screwdriver.
...... "What are your instructions?"
...... "Weed killer, and repair the damage. Unless your people have some other request." He clicked off the light.
...... I shook my head. "Go ahead. I've seen it. I'll write up a report for my group. Thanks for waiting for me."
...... He smiled acknowledgement as he reached for the boom controls. The bucket landed on the dirt with a small thump, and I climbed out, ducking under the molded safety rail. Lynn was already in the driver's seat and had the engine running, before I opened the door on the passenger side.
...... She had so much fun bouncing back along the ruts that I didn't have the heart to mention that the Wrangler driver hadn't even bothered to lock in 4-wheel.
...... Traffic picked up after we'd reached the State Route. Several cars had passed us, and I'd passed a trash truck and then a heating oil truck -- its rear-mounted hose like a big tentacle. Lynn fiddled with the radio, but gave up after a news broadcast, and sorted through the CD collection. By the end of the second album, I'd turned left onto a crushed-shell drive, then right into a parkinglot delineated by splintered logs. Just beyond was an old converted mansion, which Lynn eyed with a slight frown.
...... "Expense account, remember?" I tapped the switch to push up the locks.
...... "Well, I'm not!" She stepped out, her sandals crunching on the shell fragments. She unlatched the rear gate, ducking the window and pulling the big door out of the way.
...... I clicked down the locks and went around to help her unload luggage.
...... "I assume it's nicer than it looks from here," she remarked tartly, picking up a suitcase and two soft bags.
...... With another two suitcases and a lap-top bag, I led the way along the shrub-edged brick walk, up the squeaking wood steps between white-peeling columns, and edged the dark warped door open with one shoulder. She brushed past and stopped three paces in.
...... The carpet in front of the long mahogany registration desk was Persian. The stone fireplace was decorated with the best set of copperware I'd ever seen. The chandelier probably was as old as the building and should have been in a museum. The antiques used to furnish the lobby were better than my ability to appreciate, and they were second class. The best were in the rooms. "Evenin', Jacob," I called to the small man bending over papers on the desk.
...... "Good evening, Mr. Driver," he offered, hurrying forward. "And Mrs. Driver! So good to see you." He relieved Lynn of her burden, almost seeming to vanish behind the load. "This way please. I have number eleven as you asked. Cannot you stay for more than one night?" He bounced up the polished spiral staircase like a twenty year old, suitcases and all.
...... "Not this trip. It's still business." I trudged after them, admiring the hustle of a man at least thirty years my senior. "Dinner at seven, if that's okay. We'll have the House Special, whatever it is tonight."
...... "Very good." He unlocked the door with a big warded key, put down the luggage, and puttered around the room fixing the air conditioning and adjusting the lights. The tip I offered him was accepted, but he tucked it under a tray by the door for whoever would clean the room tomorrow. Stepping out on the small carved-rail balcony, I crooked a finger at Lynn.
...... She stopped in the doorway. "Oh, my!"
...... The entire valley lay spread out below us, the setting sun turning the loops of the river to molten gold. A succession of rolling hills beyond montaged into the diffuse mistiness. In a few shadows the first lights of the night were twinkling.
...... "I thought you'd like it."
...... She sighed, her shoulders sagging. "And I have to waste time doing something as mundane as washing my hair."
...... "It'll still be there when you've finished. The building has been here since the Civil War. And the dining room is one floor up on this same side."
...... To the pleasant sound of splashing water from behind the wall, I dragged out the lap-top and ran an extension cord from the dock to the nearest plug -- blank report forms and scribbled notes from the attache case. I was still at it, computer on my lap and field notebook balanced on the chair arm, when she looked out of the bathroom doorway.
...... "Work already?" She pulled her dark cascade of hair forward over her shoulders and began to brush at it.
...... "If I don't keep at it, I'll never keep up. Just finishing." I tapped in the last few lines and ordered print. "With two people out in this region, everyone's busy."
...... "I can't blame Higgins for quitting for a desk job. It's no life for a married man." She sat on the edge of the bed. "When you've finished, I'll borrow the extension cord for my hair drier. I sometimes wonder how we survive this job."
...... "Sheer desperation. A man my age can't afford to lose a good woman." Putting the cover back on, I unplugged the docking-station and flicked the cord over. "All yours. I'm still waiting for the summer work slump."
...... She fished around in a suitcase. "The caseload's increased two percent for the past six months. Two percent each month, I mean. I don't think there's going to be a summer slump this year." She unlooped the drier cord and plugged it in. "If this goes on, we'll have to hire another five people before the end of the year. If we can find them. I don't know if it's an increase in actual incidents, or if it's just that people are more aware and the communication's working better." She waved the drier in an arc. "We've got to come back here again sometime."
...... "I've got a list of a dozen places like this I want to return to." Tucking the report into the briefcase, I put it and the lap-top out of the way in the corner. "Whatever's causing the increase, it's also increasing the number of false alarm investigations. That's partially why we're so busy. And why I'm doing routine checks as well as trying to supervise. Max is going to have to be promoted in the very near future. He doesn't think he has the experience, but he does."
...... "I think I'll put it through as soon as I'm back at the office," she decided, switching on the hair drier.
...... "I'm going to take a shower myself," I stated above the noise.
...... She nodded, pushing her hair around in the stream of warm air.

* * *

...... "That can't be the alarm clock."
...... I reached out, caught the thing, and clicked it off. "Time to rise and shine, Lover. Or at least, glow feebly in the darkness." Sitting up, I kicked off the single sheet. "You're welcome to stay here today."
...... "No. I came to be with you, not with some motel room." She yawned, then reached for the bedside lamp. "Not to disparage your choice in hotels after that hilltop inn, day before yesterday."
...... "The chain outfits, like this one, do have some advantages. Like government employee rates. And dependably thick towels."
...... "You can have first crack at the bath." She pushed her pillow into a different shape. "Then I'll get up."
...... "Look at the good side." I padded to the curtain and looked out past the edge to see what the weather might be -- halos around the parkinglot lights, but nothing condensed on the windshields. "You can get up, wash, dress, have a leisurely breakfast, and still be on the road in time for a magnificent sunrise."
...... She screeched and pulled the sheet over her head, and I retreated to the safety of the bathroom.
...... "I thought we were meeting that Ranger for breakfast," she hollered.
...... "He's already out on his rounds for the Forestry Service by now. What he said was that he'd meet us for coffee around seven-thirty at Aunt Sarah's." I looked around the doorway. "If it's the same regional restaurant chain I know by that name, you'll get a bang out of it."
...... "Any chance they'll have Toad-in-a-Hole?" The springs squeaked, as she sat up and kicked the sheet off. "I think I'm hungry. Must have been all that exercise last night."
...... "Maybe I kept you up too late." I leaned against the doorjamb. "I wouldn't advise ordering that down here. They'd most likely think it was frog legs in a doughnut. Try Pigs-in-Blankets." I turned up one hand. "Actually, you'd probably like their Belgian Waffles."
...... She gestured that away, and I ducked back into the bath.
...... When I'd turned the water off, I could hear the sound of the television. I hung my towel out of the way and looked out the doorway. "What's the weather?"
...... "Two more minutes yet. I think I'm becoming a news-aholic. I keep up with it to find out if any of our kind of incident has hit the news. But I keep wondering if sometime I'll see a photo of our building and hear a commentary on Special Investigations' operations."
...... "Now that would cause a wholesale panic everywhere. And two new religions in California."
...... She twisted around, her expression that of mock anger. "You and Lee!"
...... I gestured it away. "Here's the weather forecast now."
......

* * *

...... We were there early enough that immediate seating in the restaurant was available. They put us in a booth along the wall on a large dais, built to resemble a covered porch and complete with downspouts for indoor rain. The lighting fixture above our table was fake Tiffany glass with the name Aunt Sarah's worked into the colored mosaic.
...... Her waffles must have been good, considering the speed with which they'd vanished. I enjoyed my steak and eggs, hash browns included, in spite of Lynn's remarks about my cholesterol level. She was fascinated by the antique nickelodeon in the corner, although she'd jumped six inches when the timer turned it on for its stock number -- drums banging, cymbals clattering, autoharp-like melody.
...... Our waitress looked as sleepy as I felt, and when she came by to refill our coffee cups, I idly remarked on it.
...... "It's not morning until the sun rises," she declared with a tired smile. "But I like the breakfast customers."
...... "I'm convinced my biological clock was set for Hawaii." I stirred the fresh coffee. "Some administrative error plunked me down here."
...... "Just what are we going to do today?" Melynnda requested, neatly stacking her silverware.
...... "I'm going to spend all day looking through binoculars at a fishing boat. And feeding the mosquitoes. I don't know what you'll be doing, other than fidgeting. Take along a good book. Better yet, several good books."
...... "They don't publish them that good!" she complained, finishing the last of the buttered toast.
...... "So take a pencil and paper, and write your own." I was watching a tractor-trailer combination, its diesel engine chugging away at idle in the parkinglot, when the view was blocked suddenly by a green four-by pulling in, a red light mounted on its roof. "I think our guest has just arrived." I slid across the black vinyl seat and out of the booth.
...... "Your guest," she corrected, standing also. "After a short trip down the hall, I'm looking over the gift shop. Pick me up when you're through."
...... I met him at the lobby entrance and shepherded him to the table -- a tall rangy man, a bit ill at ease. He accepted coffee, and we exchanged small talk before approaching the real subject.
...... "I'm afraid I stirred up a bees' nest over nothing important," he admitted.
...... "Not really. If people like you didn't bring oddities to our attention, I'd be out of a job. All you need do is tell me about it, then forget about it yourself."
...... He glanced out the window at the idling semi. "There's this boat with two fishermen in it, which I seem unable to come to grips with. I see them often enough, but whenever I try to catch up to them for license check, I never seem to be able to. They slip away, and I can't see how they do it. It's not that important, so I haven't pushed at it. I just casually mentioned it to my superior, and he called you in. I hope it's not a waste of time."
...... "Most of what I do is," I allowed. "Are these your personal specters, or do you share them with other observers?"
...... He laughed, as I'd hoped. "Everybody around here has seen them, but I've not met anyone who's spoken to them. They must get their supplies and gas from somewhere outside this area. You know how a small place like this is about strangers."
...... I nodded. "Give me a rundown of the geography and timetable. Then you can go back to work, and leave this particular problem with me."
...... He unfolded a map he'd brought and started a well-organized briefing. Within twenty minutes, I knew as much about this locality as any stranger could.
......
* * *

...... It wasn't much of a day -- staying back in the brush, watching through field glasses; jumping in the vehicle, racing over to the next concealed vantage point; dodging snakes, mosquitoes, flies, gnats, spiders, and sundry other creatures who resented our invasion of their domain. Breakfast this morning was the unquestionable high point of today.
...... It wasn't much of a boat either -- a beat-up aluminum fishing craft with flat bow, slat seats, shipped oars, and a trolling motor clamped to the transom. Two old men sat facing forward, drowning worms at the end of plain fiberglass fishing rods. Their patience far exceeded my own.
...... And it wasn't much of a success for any of us. They didn't catch a thing, Lynn sprained an ankle retreating from a small log which slithered away in its own fright, and I accumulated enough mosquito bites to have feasted most of the state's insect population. Finally, I let the fishing optimists drift on into the sunset and drove back to our functional but air-conditioned motel room.
...... "Well, hello," I remarked above the sound of splashing water. "I thought your feet hurt too much to take a shower right now." She nudged me out of the way with a well directed elbow.
...... "Clean triumphed over tired." She changed the faucet settings. "This feels good. Hand me the soap."
...... I unwrapped the tiny bar. "Push up the shower head. All I'm getting back here is moisture, and I had enough steaming today. Did you turn the air conditioning colder?"
...... "Of course." She adjusted the stream of water. "I think I want pizza for dinner."
...... "Is that related to the fact that the closest restaurant is Pizza Hut across the road?"
...... "That sounds good." She glanced over her shoulder. "I might be able to wrap myself around half a pizza . . . but only if it's a large one. Here's the soap. Now do my back."
...... I sudsed my hands and rubbed her back. "Chasing alligators must have stimulated your appetite."
...... "Make that plural, and you'll be right." She ducked under the water stream. "But I'd just as soon meet the wildlife on the opposite side of a zoo railing. Even the small wildlife. It may have been a baby, but three feet long is a good two feet too much. Did we accomplish anything today?"
...... "We know definitely that there's a boat, occupied by two fishermen who aren't doing any fishing. They don't land, they don't nose into good fishing spots, they don't drink or eat lunch, they don't haul in any catch. I can say absolutely that to all appearances, something out there is weird."
...... She handed me the soap again and ducked out. "At this rate, how many years do we have to stay here?" Her muffled voice trailed over the top of the shower doors.
...... "You've forgotten what field work is like. Too much time with those handsome powerful gentlemen at Headquarters."
...... "Pot bellied, balding, middle-level, envious, self-aggrandizing bureaucrats in the worst sense of the word. I wish you had reason to be jealous. It'd liven up those interminable days away from the field office which I have to spend down there." She added a deep sigh. "I'll be happy when this thing ends."
...... I shut off the water. "When it does, do we retire to your world or mine?"
...... "We retire to a normal life in our world. Where we are now."
...... "I still don't understand that first time."
...... She stopped in the doorway, tilting her head. "I know. It's complicated . . . and irrelevant. There's nothing you don't know which could help. If I started answering your questions, you'd have two or three for every one I could answer. We'd still be standing here next month, you'd still have questions, and neither of us would be much the wiser."
...... "So let's go to dinner instead," I offered, reaching for a towel. "It wasn't meant as criticism. I'm merely curious. I know you well enough to know you're not hiding anything."
...... "You ought to," she laughed, heading toward the suitcases. "It's not that hard to sum up. There's quite a few people who want to see this Alien problem ended. Only, they're not in a position to do anything. We are." She paused to glance back. "And I'm here because I love you. For no other reason. `Til forever."
...... "Not me, Precious. I'm signed up for only the next hundred years. After that, you're on your own." I hung up both towels over the rack.
...... "That's enough. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, in reality and in bureaucracy. Until one of us is recalled by the Management."
...... "I'll reach a hundred five," I stated, leaving damp tracks on the carpet. "Only the good die young, so I'm okay. I was born to be hung, and I'm safe if I stay out of Utah."

* * *

...... Today was a repeat of yesterday -- the same rutted trails for roads, the same dashing from bush to bush to watch our quarry, the same swarms of probably the same insects. A musty odor of swamp drifted in the minor swirls of humidity which passed for a breeze. Unmoving tall grass edged the overgrown waterway. Excluding ourselves, this environment hadn't changed since Nebuchadnezzar was weeding the hanging gardens in his home town.
...... "Typical men. They don't change their shirts." She lowered the binoculars and mopped at the sweat on her face, using a big checkered handkerchief.
...... "Or their positions in the boat. They're so much like yesterday, they could be a photograph." I finished off a cold bottle of soda pop and dropped the empty in the litter bag.
...... "Is there some reason why we're not skulking behind the trees to watch them?" She raised the glasses again.
...... "It's fine if they see us." I reached for the field glasses, and she handed them over. "What I would like most is for them to pull into shore and demand to know why we're dogging them. They pay no more attention to us than to the other animals . . . or the fish they're not catching." I carefully studied them again -- no change which I could see. "You know, they're drifting toward the bridge. Why don't you take the Jeep, drive over the bridge, turn around, drive back, and wave at them."
...... "Aye, aye, sir."
...... I slammed the rear gate and shoved closed the window, while she started the engine.
...... "At least I can use the air conditioning." She stopped with the window halfway up. "What if I can't find my way back?"
...... "No problem. Just look for the hovering flock of mosquitoes. They're so big they can be seen for miles."
...... Her timing couldn't have been better. The vehicle was over the bridge and turning the farther corner, when the fishingboat cleared the short stretch of water weed which had obscured their view -- if they had one. A minute and a half later, the Jeep reappeared around the corner, moving at about twenty miles an hour, and drove onto the asphalt decking of the old riveted-girder bridge.
...... Coming nearly to a stop in the middle of the span, Lynn smiled and waved cheerfully from the already open window. I moved the binoculars' field to the boat.
...... The men's response was rather subdued, considering that a pretty woman was waving at them. The man in front turned his head slightly, looked her way for five seconds with no change of expression, then turned back. The man in the stern didn't move at all.
...... A few minutes later, the vehicle bounced up the ruts and stopped. She ran down the window. "Need a ride, Stranger? What next?"
...... "Not half as strange as those guys in the boat." I described what I'd seen.
...... "I'd have thought I rated more interest than that!" She folded her arms on the window ledge and rested her chin on them.
...... Wrapping the strap around the glasses, I gestured her out. "We're going across the bridge again, over to Vantage Point. They'll be in view there in ten minutes." I climbed into the driver's side and twisted the key.
...... Down the ruts, onto the gravel road, turning at the intersection onto the concrete, over the girder bridge, the tires buzzing on the drainage grids set in the decking. Right again a short distance ahead, into the small recreational park, along the narrow, twisting park roads, and out onto the spit of land.
...... There were two vehicles already there -- a car and a van, and four very anxious men. They slammed the trunk lid, which they crowded around, and turned to stare at us.
...... As we pulled into the parking area, I turned the Jeep sideways. "You guys seen a fifteen foot boat? Gray, trolling motor beside the thirty-five horse, green accent stripe, state number 29246781." I turned a palm up. "Somebody stole my boat. Trailer and all!"
...... They appeared to relax. "No, man," one of them yelled. "There hasn't been no boat around here."
...... "Damn!" I let the vehicle idle forward, then hit the brakes again. "Hey. If you see it, call the cops, will you? It's been reported, but you know how they are. They got some traffic crash at the other end of the county, and they're all over there."
...... "Sure will," the spokesman allowed with a grin. "I'll do that."
...... I gunned in a sharp U-turn, waved once, and shot off down the access road, stray gravel pattering the mudflaps.
...... "I don't know what was going on back there," she stated. "And I'm not sure I really want to know." She leaned back and sighed. "I think I'll nominate you for an Academy Award."
...... "Guns or narcotics." I concentrated on the twisting road, watching the drainage gutters on both sides. "I've only bumped into that sort of thing once before. Which is doing good, considering all the odd places I've been. I think I'll accept the nomination."
...... Across the road from the park entrance was a quick-trip store, and it had a telephone on its side wall. I slid to a halt, tripped on the curb getting out, called the police, and gave them all the information I had, such as it was.
...... Three police cruisers silently converged on the park entrance, while I was shopping in the tiny market. I paid for the purchases, exchanged pleasantries with the storekeeper, unlocked the rear gate, and put everything away in the coldchest and lunch basket. Lynn reached past me and pulled out a cold bottle of diet ginger ale.
...... "What now?" She twisted off the top and gulped a large swallow.
...... "Our job isn't done yet. Back across the bridge, and try to pick up our target again."
...... But that was not possible.
...... I first tried the place where they should have been, then searched farther south, in case they'd moved faster than I'd estimated. Finally, I retraced my route and tried again farther north. The fishingboat simply was not there to be found. After three hours, with the sun throwing long shadows across the roads, I gave up and drove back to the motel.
...... Lynn had showered and was curled up in a blue bathrobe by the air conditioner, when I'd finished checking the fluids and so on in the vehicle. She looked up from a magazine as I stepped in.
...... "Before you sit down," she announced. "I think I'm too tired to go anywhere for a meal. Didn't I see you pack some groceries?"
...... I made a U-turn, unlocked the back, collected a meal's worth, and returned. By the time I'd showered and changed, a cold buffet was set out on the table next to the window.
...... "This is how I survive on per-diem," I remarked, reaching for a hardroll and a knife. "So many times, it just isn't worth the effort to go out to a restaurant."
...... "Cooking for one isn't much fun either." She pushed over a jar of pickle chips. "We go boat-chasing again tomorrow, I assume."
...... "I still don't see quite how we lost them. But the Ranger had the same problem." I checked my watch. "News broadcast should be on."
...... She nodded, and I fumbled with the remote control until I caught the right channel. The local news sounded like a rerun of past days, and the national highlights seemed like happenings reported from another planet, for all the impact on my own life.

* * *

...... Another carbon copy of a hot summer day.
...... I found the fishingboat on the second try, just north of Vantage Point. We trailed them, parked first at one shoreline then at another, as the boat and its occupants drifted slowly south along the motionless waterway.
...... Lynn was fanning herself with a torn scrap of cardboard box. "Somehow, I don't think I'm going to be a nature lover."
...... "This isn't exactly the kind of nature people think about, when they discuss the glories of scenic vistas." I gestured toward the swamp. "Myself, I've been waiting for the water to stir with the rising of the Monster That Ate Chicago." I used the binoculars to check on our quarry once again -- as usual, no change.
...... "This would be a great setting for a monster movie." She adjusted the clasp which held her hair in a tail. "Except that the film company couldn't get its trucks in here. At least, the alligators have gone elsewhere."
...... "Probably worked their way into the suburban sewer systems, where the living conditions are better. Last month, Max was trying to convince me that the strips of rubber from wrecked retreads, which are along most of the Interstates these days, actually are the shed skins of diamond-treaded pancake snakes. After all I've seen, I'd almost believe him."
...... "After reading the investigations reports, I'm ready to believe anything at all." She tugged at a sweat-soaked leg. "It's either be sauted in pants, or desiccated by mosquitoes while in shorts. I think we should have brought along a few of those insectivorous highway barrels for here."
...... "And I think we may have them this time." I shoved the binoculars back in the case. "The way they're drifting, they're going to have to pass under the bridge on Route 75. In another minute, they'll be caught in the flow from the main branch of the river and won't be able to move north, unless they finally unship those oars and get to work."
...... In four and a half minutes, we were at the gray concrete highway bridge which connected our nominal island with the mainland. Parking on the approach shoulder, I trotted out on the span, binoculars in hand. The minutes ticked by, as we waited for the fishingboat to drift out of the small inlet and into the main stream.
...... Five minutes, seven, eight, nine, ten.
...... "They had to have come this way!" I put down the glasses. "There isn't any other way out. I can't believe that after all this time, they've suddenly decided to go ashore. I guess we go back and see what happened to them."
...... "Jay?" She touched my arm and pointed behind us. "Look there."
...... I twisted around. Downstream, on the other side of the bridge, a gray fishingboat with two invariable fishermen was drifting on south, fishing poles outlined against the sky.
...... "They couldn't have ported over in this length of time. I sure didn't see them go under the bridge. I would have seen them, even if they flew over! How did they get where they are? Submerged? Teleportation? Zero-probability locus point?"
...... She merely shook her head and started walking back to the vehicle. After addressing a few less-than-lauditory words to the Great Beyond, I followed.
...... The afternoon wore on much like the morning, merely a few miles farther downstream. We watched, changed areas, watched some more, changed areas again, and watched more on top of that.
...... The sun was on the low side, the humidity had become worse as impossible as that seemed, I was sipping a bottle of beer and hoping the mosquitoes would get too drunk to fly, and Lynn had commandeered the binoculars.
...... "What in the . . . ?" She lowered the glasses, then immediately put them up again.
...... "Is that apropos to anything in particular?"
...... "Don't laugh," she warned.
...... "At this point, I'm ready for anything."
...... "I'll swear I saw that boat eat a duck!"
...... Putting the beer down, I walked over beside her and peered over the shoreline grass. "A duck? Or a tern or another species of waterbird?"
...... "Don't get technical. If it floats, it's a duck! A goose is what I married." She waved that away and handed over the glasses. "The boat was drifting along as usual. Then it suddenly surged forward, there was a flurry of water foam, and the duck, which was there before, was gone. Then the boat drifted on like before."
...... "Our Ranger friend thinks there's a poacher in this area which he can't catch. The tagged duck population has been decreasing slowly."
...... "But two fishermen in a boat?" She tossed up both hands. "A carnivorous thing?"
...... "If you can't believe it, how would you rate it as camouflage?" There was nothing more to see through the binoculars -- just the same innocuous fishingboat. "A similacrum of a small fishingboat is well within the capabilities of the Alien, as I've seen its work."
...... "But why now? After all the time we've spent here?" She waved a hand to stir the air and the insects.
...... "Because we haven't been trying to hide. Probably, it's gotten used to our presence, and just ignores us as a natural species. It may have seen the Jeep so often that it's decided we're actually a small herd of blue trucks, which graze the grass along here and are indigenous to this swampland." Tossing her the binoculars, I ran back to the truck for another item of equipment.
...... "Jay?" She provided a grim frown to go with her voice tone.
...... "I'm not going to hurt anything," I soothed, pulling the .303 out of its carrier. "I made Marksman, and I sure haven't lost my touch." Dropping down on the soggy ground, I shoved the magazine into place, flicked the bolt, and adjusted the telescopic sight. Gently moving the rifle, I could see the two men and approximate the space right between them. The entire field of the sight was clear.
...... The report of the gun echoed slightly. The frogs stopped their noise, and two birds took off for better places.
...... "What did they do?" I could see only a limited area in the sight.
...... "Nothing! They didn't move. Didn't even seem startled."
...... "I put the bullet right between them. If someone shot two feet from me, I'd at least turn around for a look." I stood up to sheath the weapon. "It's time to knock off. If someone else heard the shot, I'd just as soon not be here to be investigated right now."
...... In two minutes we were on our way back, the truck tires throwing clots of mud across the green foliage which delineated the road. When we reached the town limits, I slowed. "There's some errands for me to run. Do you want to come along, or wait in the room?"
...... "If you don't mind, I'll go inside. I've had enough for today." She stuck out the tip of her tongue. "And I can't stand the smell of insect repellent one minute more!"
...... My errands didn't take more than an hour -- five phone calls and three stops provided all I needed in the way of tools and parts. The assembly work would wait until after dinner, because we were going to a fancy fish restaurant in the next town.
...... By eight that night, I was putting together my infernal machine.
...... "Jalapeno duck." She sat on the bed, fingering a paperback and obviously not altogether happy about my small chore.
...... I leaned back to admire the hollow duck decoy, which I'd fitted with a radio remote control relay, battery, blasting cap, and two sticks of industrial explosive. The final connection was left open, its wires bent back and temporarily held with tape.
...... "If that thing swallows this, it'll take more than a couple Rolaids. And if I'm wrong, I can retrieve it, or set it off somewhere safe and empty." I pressed the lid into place. "But if that fishingboat really is an animal with colorful, fisherman-shaped appendages, there won't be anything left but Pureena Crab Chow."
...... "I hope it does work." She sounded dubious.
...... "So do I. If it does, then we'll have a couple days of real vacation and sightseeing before I run you over to the airport and send you off for home."
...... "That'd be nice." She twisted her smile and sighed, before opening her book. "And I suppose we get up before the birds again!"

* * *

...... "I love your idea of morning," she remarked, her attention on the slicing of an apple while we waited at the only traffic light in town.
...... "I keep telling you, my day usually ends with the farm report. I hope that'll improve sometime."
...... The sun was only a pink reflection on the clouds which masked the horizon; the air felt damp and comparatively chill. The only other vehicle on the street at this hour was a loaded farm truck, its headlights still on. In ten minutes, we turned onto the dirt road leading to the shoreline at the edge of the marshy area.
...... The roadblock was unexpected -- two State police cruisers with their code lights flashing, a County car next to a white van with several antennae, three or four plain sedans. The red warning flares were superfluous, unless they kept the insects away.
...... "License and registration, please." A uniformed State police officer was at the window.
...... "License in my billfold and the registration's on the visor." I reached for my wallet first, to shuffle out the State's plastic-laminated driver's license from among a dozen other similar cards, then pulled down the visor and removed the registration form from its hand-done leather carrier.
...... He glanced at both, before passing them to a plainclothes officer with Federal identification clipped to his pocket. "Would you mind stepping out for a moment, sir?" He moved back out of the door's path.
...... I complied without comment. The click of the other door advised that Lynn had decided to join the crowd.
...... "Long way from home." The Federal man handed back the documents and motioned the other officer away. "Business or pleasure?" He was a small man, well dressed, young-looking until one examined him more carefully.
...... "Combination." I tucked the items into my shirt pocket. "I'm doing environmental sampling, and my wife and I are trying to slip a little vacation time into the work schedule."
...... He nodded and gestured at the vehicle. "Nice Jeep. I'd like to have one myself, but it's out of my price class. Would you mind if we looked through it? Just a routine check." He hesitated a second. "I don't have a warrant. But I could get one soon enough."
...... "Help yourself. The doors are unlocked." It would be a waste of time to ask why, but undoubtedly our ferreting around in the shrubbery had been noticed by somebody somewhere. I'd known it to happen before.
...... They were thorough enough in the search, including one man in coveralls who studied the undercarriage with a flashlight. I was tempted to ask if he saw any oil leaks while he was down there, but it wouldn't have been appreciated. In due time one of the searchers brought out the rifle.
...... The Federal man looked it over with obvious knowledge. "Hunter? Nice model. I've never hunted much myself."
...... "Game hunting, I presume. I don't hunt. Unluckily, some of the wildlife haven't gotten the word that I'm on their side. They dislike my intrusion. It's licensed, if you want to see that paper."
...... "Environmental specialist," he remarked as he pulled the zipper closed on the gun case. "What specifically are you sampling?" He handed the weapon to another officer.
...... "Water and soil samples as required by various State specifications." I smiled as someone carried over the decoy duck, its top removed.
...... "Not what I'd expect for environmental work." He studied the wiring from several angles. "Would you be able to explain this device?"
...... "You must be desperate for clues, if you're examining the insides of decoys. Yes, I can explain it. But no, I won't at this time. I have my own boss to answer to." I took out the leather folder which I always carried, extracted a blank index card, and pulled the cap off my pen. "Mr. J. Smith?" I read from his name tag.
...... He turned slightly to bring his badge forward into the dim light. "Agent John Smith, Narcotics Division. Be sure to note the badge number. There are a lot of us John Smiths."
...... "Thank you, Mr. Smith. I have to justify this to my own hierarchy." I let the folder fall open and held it out to him.
...... He glanced at it, then ducked his head to look closer at the heavily engraved green card. Finally, he cleared his throat. "I'll have to confirm this with my own superiors, Mr. Driver. Just a minute." He fished out his own notebook and pen.
...... "Just take it, Mr. Smith." I motioned with the folder. "The rules and regs are to protect the honest citizens. Not fellow bureaucrats."
...... He almost succeeded in suppressing his laugh, accepted the folder, and hurried to the white van. His team of searchers were carefully repacking everything they had disturbed.
...... "Is that document adequate for this mess?" Lynn asked in a quiet voice.
...... "I was warned not to use that particular identification card, unless absolutely necessary. According to the clerk who issued it, that pretty bit of engraving could get me into the White House, unescorted and unquestioned, wearing a ski mask and a bandolier of grenades."
...... Smith was back in three minutes, holding out the folder. "My superiors accept this, Mr. Driver. Sorry to have detained you."
...... "All part of our jobs, Mr. Smith." I allowed a grin and held out my hand. "Good luck on your assignment."
...... He shook it. "Nice to have met you. You wouldn't want to say what your task is?"
...... "My boss would have apoplexy on the spot. Sorry."
...... He shrugged. "Well, if you need some help, you know where we are."
...... One of the State officers motioned us through the barricade, the Jeep creeping along in first gear. He saluted as we drove by, and I waved in answer.
...... The time we'd lost wasn't significant. The fishingboat was drifting along the waterway about where I'd expected it to be. I circled back one inlet south and set up our operation there.
...... "That was a good throw," she allowed, walking carefully on the dry spots of land.
...... "It had to be," I replied, focusing the binoculars. "If it hadn't been, I'd have had to pump up the rubber boat and go after it. For the same reason, I hope it takes the bait."
...... The radio transmitter was working. I'd checked it, along with the relay and the receiver's battery before twisting together the final connections. My work wasn't the best, but it should have survived the throw into the water.
...... "I think it's coming," she warned, her voice sharp with excitement.
...... Tightly gripping the transmitter, I concentrated on the mouth of the inlet.
...... The fishingboat drifted into view, moving very slowly. It seemed to veer slightly and drift directly toward the decoy. With a surge of water which left a curving wake, it appeared to jump forward. There was activity at the waterline, then the decoy was gone from sight.
...... I took one last long look at the occupants, hoped I was right, and pushed the transmitter button.
...... The water burst into a geyser, and fragments of gray material splattered in all directions. No wood, no metal, no blood, no artifacts. Just floating bits of gray material which slowly sank as if nothing had ever been there.
...... "We were right." I put down the glasses and wiped my forehead. "That entire thing looked like some strange variation of government-gray foam rubber." I let out a long sigh. "Now it's Pureena Fish Chow. For whenever the marine life recovers from the shock."
...... "It didn't make as much noise as I expected." She turned away from the last of the lapping disturbance.
...... "It made enough." I waved the transmitter at the truck. "Time to vacate the premises. Before the upholders of law and order arrive."
...... We were on the main road, cruising sedately along, before the first police car came barreling around the curve ahead. I wished them luck and continued on.


chapter six CHAPTER SEVEN chapter eight

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PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)

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