Chapter Fourteen
An Entirely Alien Approach


Competitor

...... "I saw it, thanks." The heavy baritone voice echoed down the hallway, followed by the sound of a shutting door. Boot heels clicked on the floor tile.
...... Irwin looked up from his typed notes at the empty doorway. The office door opposite was shut.
...... "Hey! Did you see the newspaper this morning?" a slightly higher voice demanded.
...... "Yes, Lee. Thanks. I read the article," the heavy baritone acknowledged, sounding closer.
...... Driver stalked in and sat down in the visitor's chair, stretching out his legs. "Good morning, Dave," he offered.
...... "Good morning," Irwin agreed. He picked up his pen and went back to editing his sheaf of notes.
...... There was silence in the office -- until Driver chuckled. "Yes, I saw the news story," he remarked.
...... Irwin joined in the laugh. "I didn't want to say anything."
...... "Well, Dave. It does answer your question," he continued, "about whether the phenomenon occurs in other countries. There's one case in point."
...... "Although it might or might not be the Alien at work," Irwin countered. "I'm beginning to understand the problem." He motioned with one hand, remembered the pen, and put it down.
...... "Quite true. It could be the Alien, or it might be something different. Possibly something even brand-new to us. There's no way to tell from the news story. There might not be any way to tell, even on the spot." He thumbed at the doorway. "I'm waiting a few minutes until Lynn's free."
...... Irwin nodded once and smiled.
...... Arms folded, he leaned back to inspect the ceiling. "There's a large amount of this planet which isn't covered by the news services. I doubt that an African nomad or Eastern peasant would notice anything unusual going on." Glancing down, he added: "This world is two-thirds seas. Is the Alien at work right now somewhere on the sea bottom? Who's there to notice? Or on the ice caps? Or in the farthest depths of the deserts?"
...... "Or underground," Irwin said, gesturing to the floor. "Or in downtown New York, for that matter," he laughed. "I'll stick to accounting, and let you handle the field work."
...... "Smart man!" Driver agreed. "Let me pose you one more premise. What if there's an Alien mode of action . . . ."
...... "Jay?" a high crystalline voice called.
...... He stood up. "Coming!" he answered, then lowered his voice. "What if there's an Alien action so subtle that no one has yet recognized it as an Alien action. Something which still looks random and which causes events that we don't yet recognize as directed happenings. What then?" He offered a departing wave of one hand. "Duty calls. See you later."
...... Irwin nodded in answer, started once more on his notes editing, stopped again, and just sat thinking.

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1985 [Ref. No. D1174-556]

...... No one wanted the air conditioning on, but, with the breeze through the open windows pushed by the truck's motion, it was comfortable enough. Only when we stopped, did the humidity become oppressive.
...... "This is the last spot where the vandals hit," the Security man announced, pointing a large forefinger out the window. He had a map spread out in his lap, but he didn't use it. "They dug right across and chopped the pipeline in two."
...... "There hasn't been an incident in a week," the Supervisor added from his place on the back seat. "I think the problem's over with. But it's put us four and a half days behind schedule." He paused to light his pipe. "In addition to the costs not covered by insurance."
...... I had stopped at the construction office, right after lunch, and picked up the two men before driving out to the lake. It'd grown considerably, since I'd seen it last, nearly to full volume. The ring road had been completed, and picnic shelters built -- but the decorative rocks in the spillway channel were bright, clean, and still mostly dry.
...... Starting at the base of the dam, where the water supply pipeline was tapped into the gate tower of the reservoir, I had followed the narrow cutting previously used by the construction equipment -- bouncing over the dry earth and compacting it a little more. If it hadn't been for the bare ground and minimal greenery, the buried pipeline would have been invisible.
...... Both my passengers were outdoor workers and preferred the breeze to the air conditioning. They were used to the heat, and I agreed with the advantages of open windows.
...... "Still, it's been an easy job, so far," the Supervisor continued, puffing on his pipe. "I have enough margin to cover it, but another incident would eat that up."
...... "We're using a fixed guard pair at the working front," Security explained, "plus two roving men, each in a four-by, to cover the rest of the cutting." Irritation crept into his voice. "They haven't seen a thing, though. Four times now, just at daybreak, one or the other of them would stumble across a new ditch and a broken section of pipeline." He folded the map in quarters. "But I have to agree with Jim. It's been over a week now. I think it's finished."
...... I looked across the landscape to the rusted jumble of the abandoned refinery, half a mile away. "Why come this far west from a straight line?"
...... "The river loops too much," the Supervisor replied. "It was a tradeoff between the extra cost of doing a dogleg up here, or going under the river five times in the length of the run. It was cheaper to go this far west, and turn back south again." He waved his pipe stem. "The elbow, where it turns south, is a couple hundred feet ahead. If you follow this for another five miles, you'll end up at the front, where we're doing the fitting this afternoon."
...... "We investigated all four sites right after the damage," Security continued. "There wasn't anything to see. Now that the repairs are in, there's even less. I still don't have any ideas. I'm just glad it's over with."
...... I had to agree with nothing to see -- only a long scar in the brush which itself would be gone in another season. Slipping the parking brake, I pushed the selector into Drive. "I can agree with that. Shall I drop you two off at the construction office?"
...... I followed the narrow track for another two miles, where a fenced yard and two trailers were stationed. My passengers apologized for not knowing to call someone sooner, and I provided the usual assurances that speed wouldn't have helped anyway. In this case, it was true, most likely. I advised them that I'd cover the ground more today and tomorrow, before filing my report and moving on. That seemed to please them.
...... When the setting sun called an end to my workday, I decided not to go into Williamsville, but instead rented a camping site at the park by the lake. My intention of gulping a sandwich for supper was forestalled when a harassed troop leader of a big group of small scouts offered to trade dinner for my help in manning the barbecue grill.
...... Sitting up late on the redwood deck built onto the Visitors Center, and listening to the kids shouting down by the water, I reread the back reports from this area. Williamsville valley seemed to be having an epidemic of odd problems. I tried to link the antenna by the lake with the streetlamp on the rock outcropping which overlooked the valley with the damage to the water supply pipeline which I'd just heard about this afternoon. None of it made any sense. That the vandalism should cease as soon as the pipeline's direction moved away from the abandoned refinery, seemed an irrelevant coincidence.
...... When the waterside racket quieted for the night, I put away my papers, climbed into the back of my Jeep, and sacked out.

* * *

...... The padlock was rusted beyond hope, but the piece of chain which held the two sections of the gate together would've required less than five minutes with a good hacksaw. Universal Synthetics, according to the peeling enameled sign mounted on one gate post. I did have an excellent hacksaw in the toolbox in the back, but there was no need to go inside. Instead, I turned left, off of the last traces of the driveway, into the brush which bordered the chain-link fence.
...... Today had not been a success. I wasted all morning driving down small rural roads, looking for the unusual, for anything which might provide a clue to what was going on in this little isolated valley. All I found was a dilapidated trash truck, making its rounds which crisscrossed my own search pattern. I didn't find enough to qualify for a footnote in an assignment report.
...... An hour was spent at the trucking firm, talking to the Dispatcher in his tiny office in the all-glass building in front of the warehouse. He knew a lot of local gossip, but nothing which would help my problem.
...... The paint company took longer. An interview with the general manager of the plant, a long discussion with the woman who handled security for the plant installation, and finally a lengthy chat with the daytime guard, who sat in a small booth by the open factory gate and watched the traffic go by. He was very observant, but there was nothing to observe. So all I had to show for the time spent was an interesting hour-long conversation inside the little guard shack, while, visible through the open building door, a high-speed dispersor howled away on a batch of latex paint and spread the smell of hot glycol-ethers on the gusts of wind.
...... This long-abandoned chemical works was the last visit before I left the area for other duties.
...... The fence had lost the last of its zinc coating at least a decade ago -- now, only a long stretch of pitted chain-linked wire. Beyond it, was a single-story sheet metal building, streaked with dirt and rust, and surrounded by hardy weeds. Towering above that was a mass of pipes which once fed the many vertical and horizontal reaction vessels.
...... Driving along the back of the fenced area, moving at walking speed over the uneven ground, the mass of piping looked even more confusing -- a metal jungle of large pipes festooned with smaller conduits, the many humps of compressors and pumps huddled together at the bottom. Here also, persistent weeds had sprung up, trying to reclaim the lost land from the metal wilderness. In time, the structures would succumb to corrosion and weathering and be lost to the ever-renewing plant life.
...... Reaching the front gate again after a full circle, I turned back onto the rutted remnant of the gravel driveway and left the deserted refinery to its silent lost-cause struggle with the elements.


chapter thirteen CHAPTER FOURTEEN chapter fifteen

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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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