He had a flat tyre. Today of all days; a flat tyre. He stood and looked at the car, hoping that he was mistaken, that it was a trick of the light, or soft ground or anything other than the obvious. But no. A flat tyre is a flat tyre, no matter how you look at it.
Paul Foster sighed and gave it a kick. After his two-hour workout along the banks of Loch Ailort he was pumped out. Sweat trickled from his forehead and ran down, searching its way through his thick chest hair before it was soaked by the smooth fabric of his jump suit. He wiped through his face and opened the jacket, throwing it on the bonnet. Dark stains covered his shirt which was sticking to his body, making him feel uncomfortable in the breeze. He took it off, flinging it on top of the jacket.
The autumn sun glistened on the damp skin of his broad shoulders as he stretched his arms, trying to get the tension out of his muscles. He felt exhausted, the flu from weeks ago still sticking in his bones. Sighing, he opened the boot of his vehicle and reached for a towel to dry his heated skin. He wrapped it around his neck and took a few swigs of water before he placed the bottle back. Leaning against the car, eyes closed, he rested for some minutes in the warm sun for to recover and getting back his energy.
Damn, the tyre. It wouldn’t change itself, so he should start with it, the sooner the better. Paul grabbed at his shirt and returned to the rear, pulling up the carpet for the spare wheel. Oh no. He groaned with frustration. The wheel was missing. His own fault – he had forgotten to get it back from the garage before he started the short holiday at his comrade’s cottage.
Today of all days; a flat tyre. As if the start of his weekend hadn’t been frustrating enough. First of all Thursday, when his girlfriend left him for an Italian colleague. Then Straker’s call yesterday, telling him that he expected Paul back at headquarters on Sunday afternoon instead of Monday morning. And finally Waterman’s message that he had been ordered to stay at the base for a meeting today. He wouldn’t join Paul until the next morning. So much for a restful fishing trip.
Paul shut the lid, angry with himself for his carelessness, and bent down beside the tyre. An inch-long rupture in the outer sidewall was the reason why it had lost nearly all of its air. No chance repairing it, no chance driving to the next village with a flat like this.
He arose and opened the gullwing door. Glad of having a mobile phone inside, he dialled Waterman’s number.
“Hi Lew. I’m at the Loch, near to the A 861 and I’ve got a flat tyre. Do you know someone I can call for help?”
“Flat tyre, oh my. Best bet might be McGoohan’s in Clachunan, I can give him a call for you.”
“Thanks. The tyre’s ruined; I’ll need a new one. Michelin 205.”
“Okay, I’ll call you back. Wait there.”
Paul made himself comfortable and switched on the radio, scanning through the stations while waiting for Lew’s response. The phone rang after a few minutes.
“Bad news. The service has to collect the tyre in Inverness and won’t meet you before tomorrow morning, okay? I’ve to hurry, I’m expected at the base.”
“Thanks. See you tomorrow. And don’t forget the fishing rods.”
Paul took his backpack out of the car before locking it. As far as he knew there were only two alternatives to get back to the cottage: ten miles over the moorland or fifteen to the next village, Inverailort. And both by foot.
After two hours of pounding the asphalt, Paul cursed the decision to take the way along the road. He had hoped to hitch a lift from a passing motorist, but except for an old man on a frail motor scooter and a lorry, which had accelerated after the driver saw Paul’s waving no other vehicle had passed. His feet hurt because of the unpleasant ground. The weather had changed within the last hour as it often did in this area, and the wind had freshened, bringing short, but cold showers from the west coast. He shivered and pulled the zip of his jump suit up to his chin.
He stopped and glanced along the road which looped down the hills. He knew he could take a short cut, but that meant leaving the path and jogging cross-country, meeting the A 861 near to Inverailort again. The growing fall of rain which dropped from the hair at the back of his neck into his collar finally made his decision; he left the lane, searching for a path through the coppice on his way home.
Half an hour later he had nearly finished his cross course. Along a few bushes, around some rocks, and he could already hear the engine noise of a car passing on the nearby road. He jumped over a protruding tree root, glad that he could leave the forest. But then one moment of inattention blasted his hopes. His foot snagged into a creeper, bringing him out of balance. Paul crashed down, his arms outstretched to cushion the heavy fall. Even so he couldn’t avoid his head smashing against a stone. For seconds he lay still, numb by the impact. He didn’t feel pain; didn’t feel much at all for a while.
He shifted a bit, trying to move his legs and arms. Finally he turned on his back. He felt dizzy and his right leg hurt, but he could twist it and he was glad that he hadn’t broken the bone. Gripping at a trunk he tried to steady himself while he stood up. A sharp pain shot through his ankle and, gasping for air, he fell back against the tree, waiting until the ache had receded. What a shit day! It was not just that his car stood somewhere with a damaged tyre, but in addition he was afflicted with a strained ankle now, miles away from the cottage.
He picked up a broken branch, using it as support while he started limping towards the road. The way took longer than expected and when Paul reached the roadside ditch his breath came in short intervals. His ankle hurt like hell and he could already feel an increasing swelling above the edge of his sports shoe. He hobbled to the lane and looked in both directions.
“Of course no traffic at all,” he murmured with a grim smile, “I shouldn’t forget – it’s my shit day today.”
The road remained deserted. No cars, no bikes, not even a bird flapping its wings in the bushes. Complete silence. A queasy feeling crept over him while he limped along the lane. The lack of any noise reminded him of Stone’s horse farm where SHADO had rescued the life of a young show jumper out of the hands of the aliens.
Paul stopped for a minute, leaning on the stick, trying to take the weight off his leg when a sound brushed his ears, scarcely audible. He held his breath, trying to locate the place where it had come from. At some distance he noticed a car in the middle of the lane, one door wide open, engine running. But this was not the noise he was after. He heard the sound again, out of the bushes, a bit louder now, more urgent, maybe a stifling sob of a person in trouble.
A man broke out of the woodland, tumbling on the road, trying to reach the car. A figure in a red space suit followed him, and in a flowing movement raising his gun, the chaser aimed, shot and reloaded his weapon, while the man dashed against the door of the vehicle and finally hit the ground.
Paul stood motionless, knowing all too well what drama had taken its course a few hundred yards in front of him. He reached down at his hip for his hunting knife, but at the same moment he realized that he had left it in Lew’s cottage this morning, convinced that he wouldn’t need it during his workout. Groaning, he ducked and crawled to the roadside, hoping he could get out of danger.
The alien froze and peered into his direction. Something had caught his attention, although Paul had moved in slow motion, without making a noise. The helmet visor reflected the light while the figure turned his head from one side to the other, searching for the human being, who was crawling through the bushes. His sight was disturbed by the earthly atmosphere, the visor even worsening it, but he could count on his extrasensory perception. He knew a human was waiting there, hidden beside the road. A human being with working organs, full of warm blood and assigned for saving an alien’s life by giving its own. Conducted by his senses he started walking along the road, shortening with each the distance between him and his next victim.
Paul clutched his stick, concealed behind a bush, waiting for the enemy. The steps came nearer, stopped in front of him. Paul jumped up, aiming his weapon like a spear at the head of the alien when a blow hit his neck from behind, sending him to the ground. The last thing he noticed were the strong hands of a second alien, turning him on his back. Then Paul’s world floated into darkness.
“UFO sighting on one-F-O-three-five. Area west Scotland.”
Keith Ford pressed several buttons while the red alert buzzed through the rooms of headquarters. Colonel Freeman rushed to Ford’s desk.
“A UFO over Scotland? Where the hell has it come from? Did the interceptors miss one during the last hours?” He furrowed his brow while his blue eyes were fixed on the screen, following the rising trajectory of the ship.
“No, sir. We had no reports. Seems to come from nowhere.”
“Don’t be daft, Keith. A UFO, taking off, must have landed earlier. Do we have a skydiver there around, James?”
Lt. Anderson turned to his computer, keying in some data in rapid sequences. He tore off the printout and shook his head. “No, sir, no Skydiver on patrol in the North Sea. Except…”
“Except what?” Freeman, the first-in-command when Commander Straker was off duty, darted an impatient gaze at him.
“Except the new diver in our naval base in Sandbank, sir. Do you want a connection to the base commander?”
“Of course I want. Let me in there.” Freeman shoved the lieutenant aside and grabbed at the microphone. “Colonel Flynn? Freeman. Do you have a skydiver in the loch, ready to launch the jet?”
“Yes and no, Alec. Actually the new diver is on experimental diving trip in the loch, Captain Waterman and two of our technicians aboard. There are still problems with the redocking system of the jet and …”
“Launch it, Colonel. We’ve got a UFO right in your area.”
“But it’s not fully tested, it might fail …”
“Order Captain Waterman to launch the jet. At once.”
“Affirmative – at your responsibility.“
Paul awoke to a strange humming. Peering through half-closed eyelids he scanned the surrounding. A changing play of colours made him wince; his hope that the attack at the road had only been a nightmare and he would rest half asleep on the settee in his apartment burst like a bubble. This was definitely the inside of an alien ship. And the situation was worse than a nightmare: he had been kidnapped by the enemy. Dismayed he tried to sit up, but his body was numb from shoulders to feet and he couldn’t even twitch his little finger. He was lying on a narrow stretcher, an IV canula connected to a silver square box.
Paul managed to calm his pounding heart by taking a few deep gasps. A smooth vibration ran through the ship and the lights inside the cabin changed into a deeper shade. The humming increased to a full-scale whirring and the pressure on his body told him that the UFO was getting airborne now, the red-clad pilot controlling it from his console in the middle of the spacecraft.
A movement from the other side of his stretcher let him turn his head. A man, obviously human, was struggling against a second alien who pressed him back on his seat while he tried to put a helmet over the fighting opponent at the same time. The man lashed out, hitting the alien with his clenched fists, but all he gained was a dry smash into his face and a bleeding nose. He cried out and doubled his efforts, kicking at the legs of the enemy.
The alien was unaffected by his captive’s struggles. He pinned the fighting man even harder against the seat and raised his free arm in a slow movement, ready to attack.
Paul caught a glimpse of the syringe hidden in the alien’s hand. He tried to warn the other man, but all he could manage was a croaked “Look out!”.
Both figures halted. The alien stared at Paul, his eyes piercing him through the visor like two sharp needles. This moment of abstraction was all the other man needed; with all of his strength he kicked at the alien where a human man would be hurt most. For a split second the alien’s body straightened, dropping the syringe out of his hand, striding stiffly one or two steps towards his attacker. He stopped, half-twisting to the second alien who had raised his head, peering at the hologram dancing above his desk. Paul, who had followed the gaze, held his breath. The 3D-picture showed one of SHADO’s sky-jets, cornering sharply and heading for the alien ship now.
“Jesus,” Paul muttered, when Sky’s nose pointed right into their direction. The jet was fast, very fast. Only a mile left, maybe even less, and then it began to shoot.
Capt. Waterman pressed the fire button. The beams left the cannon in two short intervals. His eyes followed their trajectory to the alien ship until they hit into the hull.
“Got you,” he murmured with a dry grin while he forced the jet in a sharp turn around the damaged enemy. The new Sky responded to the pilot’s touch on the control stick and raised its nose to gain altitude. Waterman gazed at the UFO while he reached his new position. Red smoke welled out of a small burst in the side of the ship while it staggered from one side to the other, circling around its own axes in unsteady spins.
“Waterman to headquarters. The UFO is hit but still airborne, going down now. Shall I finish it?”
“Freeman. Captain, do you think we can get the ship in one piece after the touchdown?”
“Then follow and observe. Stay in contact until the ship has landed.”
Lew Waterman touched a few buttons and accelerated to get more distance and a higher position to the aliens, but instead of the expected boost the lights of the control console flickered for a second before they went dark. A last beep and the computer shut down. Lew’s hand hit on the emergency for to restart the system, but the computer remained dead.
“No, come on,” he hissed while his fingers flipped switches in a desperate hurry. Total lack of power, that was the worst thing that could happen right now. Red warning lights above his head reminded him at what he knew anyway; one of the jets had died. Out of control the fighter toppled over one wing and began to plummet towards the alien ship, shortening the distance between Lew and the aliens in a rapid decline.
“Mayday, mayday, Sky 17-2. Loss of instrumentation, console and one jet dead. I’m going down. Mayday…“
The jet rolled, clouds and mountains appearing in fast turns outside the window. Although one of the engines was still working, Lew did not succeed in stopping the plane’s tumbling.
He gritted his teeth and in a desperate try his fist hit the emergency button again. The second engine started, sputtering and popping before reaching a smoother run, but this could not safe the fighter from a crash with the alien ship. The tip of the left wing touched the UFO, sending both machines in different directions. The ship turned into a tilted position and plunged towards the ground, unlike Lew’s jet that stopped rolling and tumbling and stabilized, curiously enough, in a horizontal position. Lew peered to the wing. The tip was bent but not broken as far as he could judge it. He pushed the cyclic stick about one degree, testing how the jet would react. The fighter yawed to one side, losing thrust and height again.
“Waterman to headquarters. The jet is still not under control, we hit the UFO and a wing is damaged. I’m losing velocity.”
“Affirmative. Can you return to the base?”
“Negative, I’ll try an emergency landing on a loch if I find a suitable one.”
“Okay, Lew, as far as I see, there’s a lake north-west from you, Ford will give you the exact coordinates. The rescue party is on the way.”
“Roger. Alec, I guess the UFO crashed a few miles behind me, I’m sorry.”
“We’ll take a look at it after we’ve picked you up. Good luck, Lew.”
The impact came harder than expected. Paul shut his eyes to protect them from the glass shower raining from the ceiling of the crashing UFO. The ship skidded over the ground, the screeching of metal scraping over a stone field numbing his ears. The propulsion had increased to a tremendous roaring because no one was there to reduce the power. Metal burst when the aircraft hit against solid rock and Paul’s stretcher was ripped from its stanchions, sending him face down into the rubble at his feet.
He tried to stay conscious, knowing that he had to get out before the UFO exploded, but whatever they had injected into his veins, still worked. He couldn’t move, his arms and legs feeling like dead appendages, useless for any attempt to escape. A console exploded at the other wall and Paul saw one of the aliens tumble and fall into the blazes. Pungent smoke crept over the ground and filled his lungs, making breathing difficult. He tried to move, rolling his body away from the danger, but the stretcher, still fixed around his waist, made the efforts useless. With dead hands and feet, running out of air, he would never escape.
A second detonation shook the damaged ship, followed by a gush of red liquid splashing out of the wall, soaking him from head to feet. A smell of decay escaped the fluid, and to his horror the fire started jumping over to the first puddles, dancing on the surface like light-blue firebugs. A few inches left and they would reach his feet. A stifling heat radiated from the flames and Paul watched groaning how the soles of his sports shoes blistered under the high temperature. Again he tried to roll away, the flames now creeping over the upper of one of his shoes and licking at the laces, the heat sending waves of pain through his foot. Was this the end? Would his life end in this ship as a carbonised body? He cried out, more in frustration than in agony, curling up for to get distance to the fire.
“Wait, let me help.“ A rasping voice near to his head stopped Paul’s struggles. He turned his head to the man behind him who now grasped at Paul’s arms and lifted him up.
“Out here, before the shit hits the fan. Can you walk?”
Paul shook his head. “No. Take us out; the exit is behind the console there. Use the lever on the right side under the screen.”
The man nodded and pulled Paul with him through the smoke-filled UFO, accompanied by the hissing of escaping gases and the penetrating smell of charring cables. He hit the lever and the exit panel in front of them swung open, the inrushing oxygen fanning the flames even more. The man pushed Paul out, jumping behind him to the ground, grapping him by the armpits again and dragging him away from the burning ship and the chasm, where the UFO had crashed.
“Don’t stop, it’s going to blow up,” Paul moaned while he tried to help moving. A slight prickling run through his body but all he could do was a twitch of his fingers.
They hadn’t reached safety yet when the UFO exploded in a glaring fireball. Both men were dashed to the ground, a shower of debris raining down on them. Paul’s companion rolled on top of him, protecting the helpless man with his own body against the pieces of metal that hit around them. Paul’s upper body was pressed down under the weight of his protector, his face lying flat against the moist floor. Beside the noise of the melting metal and the crackling of the fire he noticed another sound, grumbling, increasing, frightening him.
Before he could shout a warning, the world around collapsed in a jolting rumble and the chunk of hillside beneath them disappeared, taking him with it down the chasm. He fell in a pile of gravel and plants, hitting on a ledge, smashing it off and fell again, sliding along the embankment until the ice-cold water of the river caught him. He saw the splashing of the other man when he hit into the water, disappearing at once, torn away by the maelstrom which now grabbed at him and pulled him into the turbulences.
Above them at the escarpment, a figure stood motionless, staring down at the fight of the men in the river. His stabbing eyes followed the humans until he couldn’t see them anymore. Unfastening the clasp of his space helmet, he took it off. For a few moments his breathing became unsteady, absorbing the rest of the green liquid before the air could fill his lungs.
The metamorphose was done. Time to follow his enemies.
Paul crawled up the riverbank, exhausted, his breath coming in short intervals. The pebbles under his feet made it difficult to reach higher terrain. His clothes, soaked with water, were a lead weight and the last of the alien drug slowed him down like an amphibian in the arctic.
When he felt sand under his fingers he collapsed, facedown. For minutes he lay still, sick from his fight in the vortexes, shivering with cold and exhausted to the core. The roiling water of the river and the mumbling of the waves hitting on the pebbles lulled him almost to sleep.
Memories of the alien ship crossed his mind, the explosion and the human who had dragged him out. Hell, the other man … had he survived the heavy fall or had he been drowned in the maelstrom? Paul sat up and levered himself to his feet, not knowing if he could manage to hold his balance, if the narcotic had left his body. The pain in his ankle returned in the same instant when he tried to make the first steps along the bank. He moaned but decided to ignore the discomfort; he wanted to find his fellow traveller, help him if needed and find their way back to civilization.
He turned his head from one side to the other. The cliffs in the riverbed, reaching the surface close to the bank, gave way to a sandy shallow and the streaming around the curves allowed a safe climb out of the water. The gurgling rapids had dumped him here, so there was a chance that this had happened a second time to the other man.
Paul’s eyes searched the edge of the stream, looking for something crouched on the sand or drifting in the water that could be a person. Nothing. He cursed and lowered his head. Maybe he had hoped too much, maybe this man had also lost his life to the aliens like hundreds before.
A movement, noticed out of the tail of his eyes, let him freeze. The red sleeve of a spacesuit touched his arm from behind, resting there with an increasing pressure, followed by a slight groan.
“Nice to see you, comrade. So you’ve survived the disaster.”
Paul turned towards the man, heaving a sigh of relief. “Damn, you frightened me. I forgot that they had stuck you into one of their suits.” A dry smile crept over his face. “At least we both are alive. And…thanks.”
His vis-à-vis grinned. “Anytime.” He pointed to the sky. “Have always known that they exist. Never had a proof, but… Hey, you’re dripping.” He looked at Paul’s feet where the wet jumpsuit had left a puddle of water on the ground. “I don’t know why, but my suit has dried in an instant just after I came out of the river. Interesting fabric…” He groaned again, pressing his hands on his chest.
“So far, yes. I guess I broke some ribs in the fall. Nothing serious. Nothing, an air force pilot can’t handle…”
Paul cocked his eyebrow. “You serve in the air force?”
“Yes. U.S. Naval Air Force. Captain William Humphries. Hump, for you.”
Hump took the outstretched hand and shook it. “Howdy, Paul. Ouch.” He pulled his hand back, writhing in pain.
“Worse than thought, eh?” Paul gave him a look of commiseration. “Had that before, after a jet crash.” He halted, noticing Hump’s astonished glance, and then added, “RAF.”
His companion nodded in silence, obviously trying to get his breath back. “Do you know where we are?”
Paul sighed; a question he had already asked himself. Looking up and down the river and the rugged rocks that reached as far as the horizon he had to admit that he didn’t have the slightest idea where the river had belched them out.
“No. Not even if we are still in Scotland. After the short flight I would guess yes, but ….” He shrugged and pointed to the hills. “Sun is already setting and I don’t see a chance to get out of here before tomorrow. I saw a fishing lodge while drifting in the river. Maybe half a mile upstream.”
Hump nodded. “Okay. A warmer place to stay the night than here. Let’s go.” He squared his shoulders, twisting his face when his ribs protested, and set off through the bushes along the bank, Foster following him as fast as his injured ankle allowed.
It took almost one hour before they came near to the hut. Paul was losing pace, beginning to stumble and when they stopped by the warped door, he slumped on the weathered bench at the front. The door was locked, but without any further ado Hump smashed the shutter of the only window and climbed into the lodge. Seconds later Paul heard him rumbling inside and the door opened with a bang.
“Permission to enter. Not a first-class hotel, but there’s a stove in it and … Paul?”
The smile on Hump’s face died when he bent down to the other man on the bench. Foster was trembling like a leaf, hands clenched to fists, his face covered with a thin film of sweat.
“Jesus, what’s the matter with you?” Hump helped his comrade up and led him inside. The hut was barely furnished: two shaky chairs, a wooden table and an old couch, which had obviously seen better times.
“Sit here for a minute, I’ll clean that first.” Hump pulled a rotten blanket from the couch and dragged it with two fingers outside. “Okay, now lay down and rest.”
Paul nodded and stretched on the filthy couch, his head spinning like a merry-go-round. He felt as if he had passed a twelve hours workout; each bone in his body ached and his sickness increased from second to second.
“Got parasites in the river?”
“Damn, no.” Paul bit on his lips. “It’s not the Mississippi here, you know.” He retched and sat up. “Let me out…” He rushed out of the hut and vomited behind the next corner.
When he returned, Hump’s efforts of lighting a fire in the stove had been successful. Paul coughed because of the biting smoke inside the room and sank onto the dirty couch, arms folded over his stomach.
“Feeling better now?”
Paul nodded. “A bit. I guess it’s the drugs.” He fell silent again, looking across at the other man who had shut the stove door, now bending over a pile of garments. He picked out jeans and a shirt and handed them over to his comrade.
“I found those in a basket. Old, worn, but clean and dry.”
Paul sighed, sitting up again. “You’re right, I should get out of my wet jumper. What about you?”
Hump grinned. “Don’t bother. Didn’t find anything fitting.” Pointing at himself he added, “Always been a big black boy. And this suit is comfortable and warm.” He watched while Paul slipped into the washed-out jeans. “You’re in good trim. Bodybuilder?”
Paul snorted. “Nah. No time for that. Always been a strong white boy.”
Hump frowned then laughed out loud. “Touché. Sorry for asking. Bodybuilding is common practice in my unit. Pilots….” He stopped when he noticed Paul’s gaze.
“Hump, we need to talk. About the aliens.”
The American sank on one of the chairs that creaked under his weight. “Okay. Right. The aliens. Did I mention I always knew…. Okay, I did.”
Despite his size he looked almost embarrassed. “Somehow I’m glad that this happened. My superiors deny each report about unknown flying objects. You’re the first I dare to talk about aliens since I got a downgrading last year.”
“Sounds familiar,” Paul replied in a low voice. “I was working for a commercial airline when the first flying saucer crossed my way. Some years later on a test flight, I got into contact with an alien ship again. We took some photos, then a jetfighter intercepted and our plane was hit. My co-pilot died in the crash. I survived and joined SHADO.”
“The shadow of whom?”
“Not of whom, SHADO stands for Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation”.
Hump blew out his cheeks. “Bloody hell. Alien defence, that sounds good. Never heard of such an organisation. British, I guess?”
A dry smile kept over Paul’s face. “No, international. Actually the U.S. boys are one of a party.”
The American snorted with despite. “Doesn’t surprise me. Our politicians have their fingers stuck in every pie. But what’s your role in SHADO?”
A questioning look followed Paul while he walked to the stove and put on a kettle for hot water. “My rank is colonel. We have a submarine base at the Holy Loch and I was ordered to check the equipment. Just now I’m on vacation. Wanted to meet a good friend for a fishing-tour over the weekend when the aliens got me.”
“Base at the Holy Loch – I can’t believe.” Bewildered, Hump stared at him for a moment. “Sandbank, it is Sandbank, isn’t it? That’s where my father served in the early nineties. Our navy had a submarine base there and my father was the commanding officer. We lived at the Loch for three years, then we went back to the USA.”
“Right, that’s the base, SHADO acquired several years ago. Okay, now I see your connection to Scotland. But what are you doing here, a job for the navy?”
“Nah, visiting former neighbours. The son of that family and I became close friends back then and we’ve always stayed in touch. This morning we set off to Edinburgh when we were stopped by the attack of those aliens. Their ship was hovering over the road, stationary, whirring like a spintop. Lucius hit on the brake and that spared us the first shot of the aircraft. My friend isn’t a coward at all, but I guess he looked as terrified as me. I shouted to get out of the car and then we ran, both in opposite directions.”
“Your car, was it a dark-green Honda?”
Hump shot a puzzled gaze at Paul. “You aren’t a visionary, are you?”
“Not at all. But I saw the ambush. An alien hunting; shot a man before he could reach a green Honda. On the road to Inverailort.”
His companion swallowed. “That must’ve been Lucius. And… could you see if he was … alive?”
Shrugging his shoulders Paul answered, “Sorry, it didn’t look as if. He had slumped to the ground, hit by a bullet. And then the aliens trapped me.”
“Lousy bastards! I’ll kill them all, one by one, they’ll pay the bill for this. Asshats…”
“Calm down, it’s pointless. They’re dead, burned in their ship, remember?”
The whistling of the kettle distracted them and Paul hurried to pull it from the heat. Searching in various tin cans he finally found a handful of dried mint leaves which he tipped into the boiling water. Then he returned to his comrade, the kettle and two mugs in his hands.
“At least we won’t die of thirst.” He offered Hump a mug and sat down. “Listen, I’m sorry for your friend. Maybe he’s another victim of the aliens. I’ve seen so many of them since I’ve joined SHADO, but I never lost my ambition of fighting them back. They are our worst enemy and I’ll never give up until we’ve beat them.”
“So you’ve met them before? What do they want? And where do they come from?”
With a glittering gaze Paul answered, “They’re slaughterers. And we are their supplier of organs, their meat stock.” His breathing still ragged, he tried to get his burning rage under control again. “I’ve seen the victims. Gutted, ripped open, no longer human. Men, women, and kids.” After a short pause he added, almost soundless, “Kids are heartbreaking.”
While Paul spoke, Hump’s face had turned pale. With shivering hands he put his mug aside and stroked over his shaven skull. “Oh my God. That’s appalling. Aliens. Here on Earth. On our Earth, killing us.”
He took a deep breath. “Tell me more. Where do they come from? Which weapons do they have? Laser cannons? Missiles? How does SHADO combat them?”
Outside, hidden in the shadow of a tree, a figure stood in silence, watching his enemies through the broken window, listening to their conversation. He didn’t have to draw closer; his hearing was ten times as good as the humans’, and even if the shutter had been closed he could have used his infrared lenses to root them out.
He was patient. He knew the humans would sleep, later. And that was his chance to get what he needed. Their lives for his survival. His aircraft was destroyed, the other unit dead. No way to fly back to his homeplanet. But he could stay, transform, clone into a human. With their help, with their blood. His dark eyes glowed, and the light twitches in his green face showed that his pupation had just started. This was the point of no return, and nobody would stop him.
It was late after midnight when the two men retired. Paul wanted Hump to take the couch because of his cracked ribs, but the discussion about who got it and who the chair didn’t seem likely to stop and Hump finally ended it by pushing the other man gently but with a firm movement to the camp bed. Mumbling something about fresh air, he grabbed at a spare blanket and took it with him out to the bench in front of the cottage. It didn’t take long before Hump’s snores sounded over the veranda.
Paul smirked. Although he was not used to listening to a man who sounded like a freight train in his dreams he didn’t doubt that he would fall into a dead sleep himself after this strength-sapping day.
He emptied his mug and stretched on the couch, shifting from one side to the other until he found a comfortable position. His thoughts circled around the crashed UFO and the next day. Maybe they could find a trail from the cottage to a road; or the owner had left a canoe somewhere at the bankside. Paul’s eyes fell shut and he drifted into a dreamless sleep while listening to the gurgling of the river.
The door of the cottage opened with a faint squeak. The alien paused for a moment, but the man in the hut was asleep and didn’t move. The intruder was sure they hadn’t heard him reaching their refuge. Innocent humans. They didn’t know he had followed them after the crash. That he was here now, because he couldn’t get back into his own world.
He left the cottage, shutting the door without a noise, and stopped near the man who lay turned away from him on the bench. The alien had listened to their dialogue and decided to take the darker, stronger man. He would fit into his plans, if … No, not ‘if’. There was no ‘if’, only a ‘how’. The alien had never done this before, never had to do, but like all the entities of his kind he knew how to survive in a hostile world.
The alien’s hands shot forward and grasped around the man’s throat. Hump reacted in an instant, his military training kicking in, taking control over his brain and body. He grabbed at the fingers around his neck. A sharp jerk and he heard bones snapping, but the vice-like grip, which cut him from the air, didn’t relax. The alien’s thumbs dug into his throat, squeezing his carotid. Coloured lights exploded in Hump’s head and his body went limp.
The alien straightened. If he had been able to show emotions, he would have smiled at this point, but emotions were left to humans. Yet. As long as his metamorphose hadn’t accomplished the present state. As long as the motionless victim hadn’t given what the invader needed. The alien lifted the body over his shoulder and stole away in the shelter of the trees. He didn’t want to wait any longer. The muscle-twitching under his skin had increased during the last minutes and the next step had to be started.
He led Hump slip to the ground, positioning him on his back. Then he reached for a knife-like tool hidden in his boot and kneeled over the slack body. With a few cuts he opened the upper part of Hump’s suit and tugged it away. The human’s physique was not unlike his own; a few organs not at the common place and the senses underdeveloped, but all in all both species resembled like distant relatives sometimes do.
The alien’s gaze ran over Hump’s shoulders and chest and stopped at the ribs. There was something that disturbed the balance between the left and right side. The alien bent over the ribcage. Dark bruises covered the skin and the ribs seemed to be twisted at a certain point. He laid his fingers on the spot and pressed hard. The grinding of broken bones, shifting back into their position, confirmed his thoughts; the human was hurt. Could this destroy his plans? He was not sure how bad the injury was, but the examination would show if the organs were still intact.
A burning pain tore Hump out of his blackout. He felt a deep stab in his belly and screamed, his eyes staring into the darkness, trying to recognize the enemy, while he started flailing around, attacking the person above him with strong blows of his fists. He caught hold of the knife in his body and pulled on it, moaning when the slender blade cut through his flesh on its way out. A hand embraced Hump’s, the grip so tight that he cried out. Blood trickled through his squeezed fingers and dripped on his chest. He reared up, fighting against the unyielding clutch, but a strong blow in his face pushed him back. His fingers opened and the knife was wrested out of his hand. A knee pressed on his sternum, forcing his breath out of his lungs. The heavy weight of the other man rested on Hump’s chest and held him down when he bowed over his victim. The piercing gaze out of unhuman eyes let Hump freeze and he watched with horror how the facial features of his enemy altered in an unsteady rhythm, ripples moving the skin, giving him the sight of a grotesque mask. Hump doubled his efforts to get free, but the alien outclassed him in physical strength, and without any mercy he stabbed the razor-sharp tool between Hump’s ribs. A hoarse cry, then the American’s eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness.
Paul didn’t know how long he had slept; neither did he know what had woken him. He lay in the semi darkness of the cottage, the first rays of the morning sun creeping over the shelves. He yawned, uncertain if he should sleep some more minutes or better get up, knowing he and Hump soon had to find a way to an inhabited region. They both needed medical care and SHADO had to be informed about the ordeal and their presence aboard when Sky had brought the alien ship down.
He swung his feet to the floor and stood up. Heavy steps outside made him open the door latch.
“Morning Hump. So you’re …”
His words died and he recoiled, frightened by his comrade standing straight at the door, staring at him with glinting eyes, the ashen face covered with sweat.
“Heaven, what’s wrong? Got fever?”
The other man didn’t respond. His body, stiff as a poker, emitted heat and iciness at the same time. Paul shuddered and took a step backwards.
“Hump? What happened? Are you ill?”
As if torn out of a dream, the other’s face lost its blandness. Pointing to his throat he croaked, “Fever. River. Malade.”
Paul cocked his eyebrow. “Okay, maybe you’ve got some infection from the water. But what’s ‘malade’? Stands for ….?”
The alien froze. Did he use a wrong word? He switched to Hump’s brain patterns which were embedded as a one-to-one copy in a part of his own brain like two others of humans, whose organs he had taken on his first visit to Earth. He had picked up the word as an expression for discomfort, but obviously the man in front of him was not able to understand. Concentrating on Hump’s memory, he cleared his throat and mumbled, “Word for disease.”
Paul smiled. “Okay. So you are … malade and you need a doctor. One thing: you should get out of your spacesuit and dress in jeans and sweater, fitting or not. We can’t risk odd questions of curious natives about the alien fabric. Nevertheless we’ll take the suit with us for further investigation. Start in fifteen minutes?”
After the alien had changed his clothes they left the cottage. Paul decided to follow a small trail along the bushes, scrapping the alternative of returning upstream to the place where the UFO had exploded. Hump wasn’t up to climbing over rocks and boulders, his movements unsteady and his face a worrying shade of grey. Paul wondered what his comrade had caught over night, but he knew Hump would be in good hands as soon as they had reached SHADO and Dr. Jackson.
A few miles later the trail ended at a solid blockhouse. A dark blue jeep with searchlights on the roof was parked near a rubber boat jacked up on a trailer. Paul turned to Hump who was following him in a distance and waved at him.
“Hump, hurry up. I guess that’s a ranger station. We’ll get help there. And have a rest.”
He limped to the entry and knocked.
“Come in, it’s open.”
Paul opened the door. A man in a grey uniform was sitting at a desk, the pieces of a telephone in front of him.
“Dead. I hate this antiquated technique.” Dropping the screwdriver he arose and came to Paul. “McCade. Park ranger. How can I help?”
“Paul Foster. My friend and I had an accident with the canoe upstream yesterday and we need to get into contact with my office.” He glanced at the desk. “Is that the only phone? Or better… was?”
The ranger grinned. “Officially yes. Unofficially no. I’ve a private mobile phone. Unfortunately there’s no reception around the station. You had an accident?” McCade strolled to the coffee machine and took the glass pot. “Want a cup?”
Paul nodded. “Yes, thanks. Black, two sugars.”
While pouring another mug, the ranger added, “We had a landslide at the river a few miles away yesterday. Did the swell hit your boat?”
Paul took a sip of his coffee. So the explosion of the UFO hadn’t been noticed and he was not about to mentioning it either. “Yes. It keeled over and we were knocked out of the canoe when it hit a rock. Lost all our stuff. Just glad we didn’t drown.”
“I see. You’re not from here, aren’t you? You mentioned a friend. Where is he?”
“Hump’s waiting outside. Would you mind taking us to the nearest place with a phone?”
McCade opened a drawer and took his mobile out. “I’m sorry, the motor of my van packed up this morning and I’m waiting for the serviceman. Take my mobile and walk to the next junction, only a quarter of a mile away. Phoning should be possible there, you should be able to get help. Please return the mobile afterwards.”
The ranger handed Paul the phone and followed him outside where Hump was standing near the jeep. McCade shot a glance at him and turned to Paul. “This friend of yours, is he okay? Looks a bit … strange.”
Paul shrugged. “Maybe. Perhaps he picked an illness in the river. Needs a doctor when we get back. Anyway, thanks for your help.” He took the outstretched hand and shook it.
“One thing, just for the record. What’s your comrade’s name?”
“William Humphries. He’s a captain of the U.S. Naval Airforce.”
“Okay, Mr. Foster. Good luck. And don’t let Captain Humphries call his friends in America with my mobile.” Grinning, McCade watched both men when they started limping along the forest road.
A few minutes later, Paul stopped and held up the mobile. “Okay, I’ve got a signal. I hope it will last.” Hump nodded and sat on a trunk while Foster was dialling.
“Hello, Miss Ealand. Put me through to the commander, please …. Ed? It’s Paul. I was aboard the alien ship, Sky destroyed yesterday… Yes, Scotland I guess…” In short words he described the incidents. “Yes, I’m okay. Capt. Humphries needs medical care… Who? Alec? All right, he’ll find us at the coordinates of this mobile… Yes. Hello Ford, you see my coordi… Okay… Thirty minutes? Affirmative.” He closed the connection and turned to Hump.
“Colonel Freeman is checking the crash site at the river right now. SHADO had observed the explosion on their radar screen and sent him with a search party by aerocopter. He’ll collect us within the next hour.”
Hump nodded. Good news, really good news. A colonel of SHADO would come and take them with him. One step forward to his aim. An evil grin played on his lips. “Alright. Give me the phone, I’ll take it back to the ranger.”
“Okay, but I’m going with you.”
Hump shook his head. “No need, thanks.” He tightened his shoulders. “I’m feeling much better, see? And you should give your leg a rest. I’m a strong black boy, remember?”
He started walking, trying to coordinate his steps, falling in a slow trot like a human jogger would have done. Breathing in and out in a steady rhythm, his lungs filled with fresh air and he began enjoying his metamorphosis into the body of William Humphries. Things would turn out well. The other entity, Paul, had mentioned headquarters and SHADO. Hated SHADO. The worst enemy of his homeworld. And now, by accident, he would get the chance to destroy it, killing his enemies, helping his kind to a new life on this planet.
He reached the blockhouse and found the ranger bent over the motor of his jeep.
“Oh, it’s you. Brought my mobile? Lay it on the …”
The rest of his words died in a gurgling noise when Hump squashed McCade’s larynx from behind. The ranger rattled, his hands shooting to his throat to escape Hump’s vice-like grip, but in vain. The alien squeezed with no mercy; a sharp snap and McCade’s head rolled back. A dry smile crept over Hump’s face. Innocent humans. He grabbed the slack body and pulled it into the garage, hiding it behind a pile of old tyres. Then he set off, on his way back to the human who would get him into the core of SHADO.