April 26, 2003
So here it is: It's All True. I've got the proof now.
If you find this Journal, then it probably means I'm dead, or worse. I'm not writing this down for me, because there's no chance whatever that I'm ever going to forget any of this, but if you do find it, then know that we tried.
It's been building since the Blockade, maybe since a lot longer than that, but the endgame started last night. 2AM saw me sitting in my room, shoes on, jacket on, with Jess' camera in hand, ready to go. Sure enough, regular as clockwork, I heard my brother sneak out. He went down the trellis, just like I taught him, years ago.
I waited a few seconds and took off. I didn't follow my brother out the window, I went through the house. I know every creaky floorboard, every squeaky step. In a way, I had been training all my life for that chase. My brother knew exactly how to get his bedroom window open without making a sound. He knew how to scale the trellis on the wall beside the window, he knew the angles of mom and dad's bedroom window so he could get out and be invisible.
I knew where to hide my bike so that I could get to it quickly without him noticing, and I knew that Ben couldn't turn his head more than halfway while riding, or he'd wipe out. Ben knew every gravel path, every pothole he could jar, every grass patch that would crunch or hide the sound of his wheels.
A lifetime of living a normal life in this town made us both experts in how to travel silently through a town under curfew.
I followed him, but I knew where he was going. There was nowhere else it could be.
It was the same place Jess' parents vanished, the same place Ben went the first time I followed him, the same place I set up my telescope when this whole ridiculous nightmare began, at the cornfield where we found Dougie.
Ben went to the Bridge.
The whole way there, Jake was absolutely certain of where his brother was leading him. The feeling of things coming full circle was overwhelming.
He saw the Bridge from a long way away. His brother turned off the road to go into the cornfield, and Jake sped up, staying out of sight behind him. There was no chance that he was going to go unnoticed by his little brother on the edge of the cornfield. Instead, Jake went to the Bridge.
The Bridge was lit up brightly, with streetlights in the superstructure. The structure extended into the mist, still hovering where it had been for days.
The edge of my world. Jake thought grimly.
The Bridge was visible from a long distance, and Ben would be able to see it clearly from the valley, the edge of the cornfield clearly in sight. The second Jake hit the streetlights he changed his plan. There was no chance he would go unnoticed there. Instead, he left his bike at the end of the Bridge, leaning against the railing, and started to climb.
Being as quiet as he could, Jake managed to climb up to the top of the Bridgework. The lights were all below him, pointing downward at the road. Anyone looking up would have to look past the bright streetlights, so he was fairly invisible. He lay prone on the Bridge supports, as flat as he could, holding the camera ready.
His brother was waiting at the edge of the cornfield, about two hundred feet away. Jess' camera had resolution enough to zoom in that close and get a clear view of the kid's face. Ben didn't seem nervous to be out so late, he didn't seem worried about other people. His expression was a lot like the one he had when he was waiting for his favorite show to come on.
Jake scanned around a little, and got a look at the area. He could see the remains of the bonfire that he and his friends had set. Panning the camera the other way, he could see the exact spot he had set up his telescope, and almost out of sight in the opposite direction, the spot where he'd found Doug.
The corn was moving. A path was being drawn as something moved through the tall stalks of corn, pushing them aside. Jake felt sweat break out on his back. Whatever was going to happen, it was happening now.
Ben had heard the rustling, and rose a bit taller, turning to meet the newcomer.
And an Alien strolled out of the cornfield to join him.
It took a full ninety seconds for me to remember to lift the damn camera and take a picture.
It was the strangest feeling, like my brain wouldn't accept what my eyes were screaming. My little brother was showing off his comic books to an honest-to-God Little Grey Man. An Extra-terrestrial. An Alien from another world. I've written it four different ways and it still doesn't seem real on the page.
It was roughly four feet tall, with mottled grey skin. It's head was too big for its shoulders, and its arms were a lot longer than its legs. It moved like a chimpanzee, loping along on all fours, legs permanently bent. If it stood upright, it could be almost shoulder height on a man, but it seemed more comfortable sitting in a crouch.
It was wearing two silver wristbands, one on each wrist, and those were the only clothes or devices I saw it carrying. Two arms, two legs in the usual places, three fingers on each hand, and big black eyes.
For a long time, all I could see were the eyes. Eyes that black shouldn't... burn that way, but they did.
It took a ridiculous amount of seconds, but I finally remembered myself and started taking photos. Jess' camera was great. I got dozens of pictures, all exposures, close-up, ranged zoom. I got shots of it looking at Ben's comic book with interest and the two of them talking about whatever it is they talk about.
The one thing I couldn't get was different angles. I was lying flat on the top of a steel girder. The Bridge was twenty feet below me, and the valley another twenty feet below that, and I didn't want to move an inch if I could avoid it.
But then the Alien got bored with looking at a Spiderman comic and showed Ben his (Her? Its?) wristband. The small Alien device lit up brightly, and projected a hologram.
A hologram. An actual honest-to-God hologram floating in mid-air above the Greys' wrist. I got plenty of photos of that too.
The hologram was of Earth, and while I didn't get a good look at it from where I was, I think I saw shots of the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, I think the rainforest.
And that was when I got stupid.
See, I had all the shots I needed, but I didn't leave. I should have, but I wanted... needed to see more. So I inched forward, and unconsciously, I raised my head. With the Aurora behind me, my silhouette was visible, even with the bright lights below.
I was watching them through the camera, and noticed the Alien was practically posing for me. Another moment and I realized why. He (She? It?) was looking right at me.
It looked at me. It saw me.
Even from so far away, Jake could feel the weight of those burning black eyes. It was palpable, like the gaze was pressing coldly against his skin. Through the camera, he saw the Alien raise the other wrist device and point it in his direction. Jake saw the movement and scrambled backward against the girder quickly, flattening himself back down.
There was a gooey, sticky sound that Jake didn't understand, and he saw what looked like some kind of bluish goo splatter against the bridgework. A moment later the goo started to smoke and sizzle, before the metal beneath it suddenly warped.
Jake scrambled backward as fast as he could, hearing the metal under his body start to groan. He saw the crossbeam he had climbed getting closer and tried to lunge for it, when the world shook apart with the sound of rending steel, and suddenly he was falling.
Jake hit the surface of the road hard, and groaned in pain, suddenly unable to move. The shock of the impact burst the air from his lungs. He saw the camera a few feet away where it had hit. Sluggishly, he reached an aching arm out and collected it. The lens and the screen were destroyed by the drop, the cover snapped off... But the floppy disk was intact, and he pulled it out of the broken device quickly.
His head cleared, and he suddenly felt dangerously exposed. The Bridge was still lit up with the streetlights above, and it felt like a bright beacon pointing at him from every direction.
And in the distance, he could hear Ben laughing like it was a great game.
Jake limped toward his bicycle, with the vague notion of making a break for it.
This time he saw the impact. The strange blue goop was something that the Alien was shooting at him. It splattered against his bike, only a few feet in front of him, and Jake skidded to a halt. The bike warped and twisted, before imploding completely before his eyes. The whole process took only a few moments.
Jake stared blankly at what was left of his bike for a second and bolted in the opposite direction. The mists were visible ahead of him, and he shivered, trying to run for his life with nowhere to go.
And then in front of him, he saw something moving. Up from the edge of the Bridge, came a second Alien. It climbed the structure of the Bridge quickly, coming up over the side in front of him. Jake skidded to a terrified halt.
The sound came again, and Jake ducked instinctively, breathing hard in near panic. The shot from the second Alien struck the road beneath him, and he tried to get clear, as the sound of groaning metal came again.
It missed. A distant corner of Jake's mind thought clinically. They can miss.
And then the surface of the Bridge gave way beneath him and he was falling.
The landing was softer, the corn below breaking his fall somewhat. Jake groaned and rolled over onto his back, looking upward blearily. The torn segment of the Bridge that he'd fallen through was visible above.
The second Grey looked down at him, the streetlights making the movement all too obvious. They had a clear view of each other. Jake felt its eyes on him and shuddered. It was more than a mystery, its gaze was malevolent and cold.
The Grey moved and Jake's pain vanished under a wash of adrenaline, as he turned and bolted into the corn.
The shot splattered against Jake's legs as he dove into cover. Jake could feel it on his jeans, on his shoes, and he madly wriggled out of his clothes, pulling at them as the gooey mess started to sizzle. By the time he got his shoes off it had eaten through to his socks and he clawed at his clothes, just in time to escape injury himself.
Barefoot, almost stripped from the waist down, Jake found the darkest patch of corn he could find and froze, trying to get his breath back.
And over it all, he could hear Ben laughing like he was having the time of his life.
Of all the things running through my head at that moment, the one that kept coming back was the same thing I was thinking the last time I was in the middle of that cornfield. About how crop fields were great places for horror movies, because the crops are taller than eye level, and press in nice and close.
I taught my brother to play hide and seek, and there I was, playing a much scarier version of it.
I wanted to run faster than any human being has ever run. Certainly faster than any Grey can, but I knew that would be a disaster.
Jake tiptoed a few feet deeper into the crops and went into a crouch, straining his ears for clues. He knew there were at least two of them out there. One was last seen playing show-and-tell with his brother. They were both shooting at him.
Off to his left there came a trilling noise, somewhere between a bird and a cricket. Another answered from the opposite direction, and Jake hesitated, spooked. The Greys were talking to each other.
Are they hunting me? Are they trying to direct me into a trap? Are they...
Jake listened desperately and heard nothing. He inched forward another few feet and stopped as the rustling of the corn he passed got too loud. Terrified, but trying to think, he drew the map in his head. His bike was gone. Ben had one, and he knew which way to go if he wanted to find it, but there was a Grey there... or at least, there had been. By now it was probably in the corn hunting him.
There was a rustle behind him, and he moved again, heading away from the mists. Crouching as low as he could, with the sticks poking into his bare legs, and the green light above, Jake suddenly realized how close he was.
The edge of the cornfield was so close. He could see the valley had flattened out beyond it... Jake hunkered down again, trying to draw the map in his head. If the Bridge was to the left, and the road was visible, and the Mists were behind him...
There was a trilling sound. It was close. Jake felt his heart stop beating and he was glad for it, terrified that his Predators could hear his heat pounding.
There was a rustle of leaves moving, and a shape moving into reach.
Time stopped again, and Jake reacted. The Grey was close enough for him to smell it, but it wasn't looking at him. It was creeping too.
Are they tracking me by sound? Jake thought in a panic. Are they hunting by scent?
A sharp, almost angry sound of clicking, and the Alien spun around, seemingly as stunned as Jake was to find both of them so close together.
Jake didn't think, he just reacted. He lashed out with a fist, and cuffed the creature across the side of the head.
Spongy. The word filtered into his head, and Jake felt his stomach churn. He had just punched an alien, and his fist had almost sunk in.
The Grey reared back, hissing. He clearly wasn't hurt. Odd colors blossomed across its skin where Jake had make an impact; but if it affected the thing other than that, Jake could see no sign of it.
Either way, the young man wasn't sticking around to find out. He bolted for the edge of the corn as fast as he could, pushing through the plants faster than he ever thought possible.
And suddenly the stalks were gone. He emerged from the line of corn into open space. He felt more exposed here than he had in the lights on the Bridge. He cast about for a second, trying to get his bearings. The cold ashen remains of the bonfire he and his friends had set was right in front of him. This was the place where Marie had heard something creeping through the corn.
Ben's bike was parked two feet away, and there was no sign of anyone at all.
Jake cast about helplessly. He could hear rustling behind him, getting closer. He could hear clicking and whistling. Two 'voices' coming from opposite directions. They would have him cornered in seconds.
"Ben!" Jake grated, trying to scream without making a sound. "Ben? Where are you?!"
There was no answer, no sign of him...
The rustling got closer, and Jake had to give up, running for Ben's bicycle. There was no sign of its owner as Jake quickly climbed aboard, pushing off as fast as he could.
Jake tensed, hearing something splatter, but too far behind him to catch his bike, or his body. Jake got the bike moving faster than he'd ever ridden before. Fast enough that as the Grey loped into the road, watching him ride away, even Jake knew it'd never try for a second shot.
It missed. Jake thought, near-panicked. They can miss. They're not perfect. They can make mistakes... Ben! I left him there!
He poured all of his frantic emotions into the rhythm of riding the bike, slamming his feet down harder, pedaling faster and faster.
Jake was in a daze as he rode, all the way back to town. He pushed down on the pedals frantically, the words repeating themselves over and over in his head, timed to the rhythm of his feet. Little-Grey-Men. Can't-Be-Real. Just-A-Dream. Little-Grey-Men. Can't-Be-Real. Just-A-Dream. Little-Grey-Men. Can't-Be-Real. Just-A-Dream. Little-Grey-Men. Can't-Be-Real. Just-A-Dream. Little-Grey-Men. Can't-Be-Real. Just-A-Dream.
The litany in his head kept repeating, over and over, until he could see his house...
And the Sheriff's Truck parked out front.
Jake skidded the bike to a halt at the end of the street, hoping that the darkness would be enough to protect him. He checked the floppy disk from the camera. It was still in his pocket and it was intact... The lights were on in his house. He could see no sign of anyone in the building, but every light was switched on.
And Sheriff Tanner was sitting on the front porch with his gun drawn.
Jake couldn't move. The cold seeped into his mind slowly, and he became aware that he was sitting in the green twilight at the end of his street, half-stripped. The bike pedals were biting roughly into his bare feet, and the cold was making his legs ache. His house was lit up like a Christmas tree. At two in the morning, it was the only house in sight with the lights on and the windows and doors open. It was such a familiar sight, calling him like a lighthouse, but it fairly screamed of a trap.
Jake bit his lip.
I need clothes. He told himself. The Sheriff won't try anything with Mom and Dad home... right?
Jake strained his eyes, wishing the camera and it's viewfinder was still working. The house was more open than it usually was during the day, and there was no sign of anyone within. Just the Sheriff on the front step, waiting expectantly.
Jake waited in the dark for several seconds... before Sheriff Tanner moved. He reached for his belt with his free hand, and pulled out his radio. Jake heard a faint hiss of static.
The antennae working? Do our phones work now? Or just his radio?
The Sheriff had a brief conversation with whoever was on the other end, and moved toward his Jeep. A moment later, a bright light shone up the street toward Jake.
Jake froze like the proverbial deer-in-headlights. He'd seen a mounted spotlight like that on Pierce's Jeep too, and now it was shining directly at him.
Jake turned the bike and bolted, slamming the pedals down again.
He knew where to look. Jake thought frantically. Was it them on the other end of that radio? Who else are they talking to?
Zack's house was still dark. Jake checked four times from different angles, searching for any sign of life. All the lights were off, all the shades drawn shut.
Jake left the bike next door, behind the neighbors fence, out of sight, and snuck into Zack's backyard. He'd been over to his best friend's house enough times that he could draw the layout in his head, and he tapped on Zack's window.
There was no answer, and every few seconds made his heart beat that much faster. He knocked firmly on the glass.
The light went on in Zack's room, and Jake braced himself; ready to move. But sure enough, Zack pulled back the curtain, saw who it was, and opened his window. He was fully dressed. "Thank God." He hissed. "So? What's the verdict?"
"Zack, you wouldn't believe the verdict if I told you." Jake hissed. "It's real. It's all real!"
Zack paled. "Jake, you know I love you like family, but if you're conning me, I swear: I will kill you stone dead."
"It's not a joke! They've got my brother!" Jake insisted. "And before you ask, I have proof."
Zack looked around. "Get in here."
"No, I can't." Jake shook his head. "I'm blown. They know I saw them. The Sheriff is parked out the front of my house, he knows that I know!"
Zack paled. "If the Sheriff is looking for you and he knows you're not going home, this'll be the first place he looks!"
"I know." Jake nodded. "But if the Sheriff takes five minutes, the freakin' ALIENS won't. I'm marked remember!" He pointed at his own head. "They've got me already!"
Zack looked out his window, checking both ways, then finally looking up, as though expecting an attack any second. "What do you need?"
Jake pulled the floppy disk out of his pocket and pushed it at his friend. "Copy that. Fast. I can't be the only one who's got it. Copy it onto another floppy and stash it some place, then give the original back to me."
Zack took it and went to his laptop immediately. "Right. What else?"
"You wear my size, right?" Jake asked him. "I need pants."
Jake left Zack's place quickly, afraid to bring the nightmare crashing down on his best friends' house. He doubted Zack would sleep again, but if the Sheriff showed up, he wanted Zack to be able to deny everything. Jake had an Implant, Zack didn't. As long as the two of them didn't stay together, Zack might have a chance of escaping notice.
Neither of them had said it, but they both knew it wasn't going to be that easy. The Sheriff had tipped his hand, and they both knew he was involved. Zack and Jake had been side by side during their whole search for the truth, and The Sheriff knew it. And if the Greys could track Jake with the Implant, they already knew he'd been to Zack's house.
Jake was still freaking out about his brother, wondering if his sudden appearance had gotten Ben killed. Jess was the closest house after Zack, and he took off at top speed.
Jess has an Implant too. Jake thought worriedly, and sped up.
It took a few minutes to get to her house. It was dark, but Jake went anyway. She said she'd wait up for him. Jake left the bike behind the neighbors fence again, and went to her front door. He knocked on her door and she opened it instantly. "Well?" She demanded. "What happened?"
Jake looked over, and saw a pair of headlights appear at the end of the street. The town was under curfew... so there would only be one truck on the street tonight.
Jake moaned under his breath and pushed Jess back in the house. "Seconds count!" Jess yelped as Jake muscled his way in and locked the door shut behind him. "Where's your laptop?"
Jess led him to the living room quickly. The laptop was sitting on the table in stand-by mode. "Here."
Jake shoved the floppy into the machine and almost forced her to sit down. "Look fast! We gotta get moving!" Jake told her. "Grab your shoes. Sneakers. We gotta run." He ran into her kitchen and started turning out the cupboards and drawers.
Jess watched him, getting scared. "Jake, would you tell me what the hell is happening, please?"
"Look! Look!" Jake turned and pointed quickly at the computer, and spun back to the kitchen. He was snatching up batteries, flashlights... "I need a backpack."
"...oh my God." Jess breathed, her eyes boggling at the images on the laptop in front of her. "Oh My God!"
Jake yanked the cupboards open. "Food? I have no idea where we're going, but we need a backpack. We have to get out of this house!"
Jess was still staring at the screen, her eyes getting bigger and bigger with each passing image. "Oh my GAWHD!"
Jake ran to her side and pulled the floppy out of the drive. "Jess, listen to me. They know that I saw them, and in about ten seconds they're going to be kicking the door down."
"You brought them here?!" Jess shrieked.
Headlights played across the front of the house and the sound of an engine became obvious. Jess ducked automatically, as did Jake. Jess pulled him into the kitchen nook, out of view of the street.
"I gotta get my shoes." Jess whispered. "Where are we going?"
"I have no idea." Jake admitted. "I've spoken to Zack, he's seen the photos. But he doesn't have an Implant..."
"We do." Jess whispered. "So does Marie. Our next stop?"
BamBamBam! A fist pounded on the door, heavy enough to make them both jump, even from two rooms away.
"We have to get out of this house first." Jake whispered.
They heard the doorknob rattle as someone tried to get inside. Jess grabbed his hand and led him upstairs.
WHAM! The front door was kicked in as they reached the second floor. The two of them scampered down the hall, trying not to make a sound as they headed into her room.
Even under these circumstances, Jake couldn't help but glance around. He'd never been in her room before.
"Jake?" The Sheriff's voice called through the house. "I know you're here. I think you know that."
The stairs squeaked. Jess grabbed her boots and led the way over to her bedroom window.
"You got a bike?" Jake whispered.
"Got something better than that." Jess whispered back. "I got a copy of Pierce's keys." She smiled brilliantly as she slid the window open.
Jake gave her a quizzical look as she swung a leg over the windowsill. "I don't follow."
"You'll see." She promised and started climbing out.
"Jess?" A familiar voice called from downstairs. "Sweetheart?"
Jess froze, almost rooted to the spot, halfway out the window. "Dad!"
Jake pointed quickly. "Don't fall for that!"
Jess swung her legs back into the room and moved for the hallway. Jake lunged, and grabbed her before she could get there. One arm went around her waist, his other hand clapped over her mouth. "Don't fall for that!" He hissed in her ear. "Your dad doesn't kick the door in at two in the morning. Do not fall for that!"
Jess thrashed hard for a second, trying to get free, before she turned to stone in his arms. "...dad." She whispered, hot tears rolling down her face.
"Jess?" Her father's voice called. "I know Jake is up there with you. I'm not mad. Come downstairs, dear."
Jess almost dove out the window, Jake close behind her.
They ran down the side of the house, keeping their heads low, so that they couldn't be seen from inside.
A shape moved in the bay window, and Jess reached back, pushing him down. Jake hissed and felt the jeans he was wearing bite into his legs painfully. Zack wasn't exactly his size. His feet were already hurting like hell.
Nevertheless, he ducked down next to Jess, as the Sheriff appeared in the window above them. His radio was hissing softly as he spoke into it. "There's nobody here. How much of a margin for error is there on your readings? Well look, there are three entrances, two of them and only one of me. This is not incompetence, it's mathematics."
There was an answer, but neither Jake nor Jess could hear it from outside. Even Sheriff Tanner was barely audible. Tanner went back from the window, deeper into the house.
Jess inched her eyes up past the windowsill, and led the way to the Sheriff's truck. Jake didn't understand why she was waving him into the passenger seat, but he obeyed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the neighbors curtains twitching. People were noticing, but not doing anything.
Jess inched the driver's side door shut very slowly and pulled out her keyring. "Sometimes it's good to date the Sheriff's son."
"Pierce had his father's car keys?" Jake smothered a laugh. "And he gave you one?"
"Sometimes it's good to date a borderline criminal." Jess commented primly, and started the engine. "I might have the keys to Pierce's cell too."
The Sheriff came running out of Jess house, just in time to see them pull away in his own truck.
"Where are we going?" Jess asked, gripping the wheel tightly.
Jake set his jaw. "We get Marie. We get Zack. We get Pierce."
Jess nodded. "Jake?" She asked after a moment. "Did you see if he was there? I mean, I heard the Sheriff say there was only one of him, but I heard my dad's voice. Was my dad really in the house? I didn't dare look in the windows. Did you?"
"No." Jake admitted finally. "No, I didn't look."
Driving to Marie's house was easier than running or riding. They were there in minutes.
"Jake?" Jess said softly. "I think we should split up. One of us has to go get Zack, and based on what happened at my place, seconds count."
Jake nodded. "I thought that I could keep him out of it. I thought..." He rubbed his head. "God, I thought I could get away with it tonight, but that was a joke. I should have brought him with me when I came to your place."
Jess pulled the truck to a stop at the corner. "We're at Marie's place. I can go for Zack while you get her ready."
There was a knock at the back window of the truck and both of them let out high-pitched screams.
The back door opened, and Zack stuck his head in. "Hello." He was grinning at Jake. "You screamed like a little girl."
"Did not." Jake replied automatically, trying to get his heart to slow down.
The opposite back door opened, and Marie slipped into the vehicle, carrying a heavy backpack. "Okay. Where are we going?" She said brightly.
"How did you know?" Jess demanded.
Zack answered her. "What? You really thought there was a chance I was going to just go back to sleep?" He said, sounding like the thought was beyond ridiculous. "As soon as Jake left, I ran for Marie's place." He gestured as his girlfriend, proud of her. "She had her bag packed, ready to go at a moment's notice."
"You're kidding." Jake almost laughed. "You were already packed?"
"Have been for months." Marie nodded. "You live on the coast, you got to worry about hurricanes. You live in California, you gotta be ready for earthquakes. You live anywhere at all, you got to be prepared for house fires, accidents, terrorism, natural disaster..." She patted her backpack. "Water bottles, chocolate bars, flashlights, Swiss Army Knife... Everything a survivor needs."
Jess grinned. "Isn't she great?"
Zack nodded. "I love her."
Marie shrugged modestly. "Be Prepared. I like to be ready."
"The question is... ready for what?" Jake quipped.
"Speaking of that, where do we go from here?" Jess asked.
"I have to go home." Jake said. "Zack, I appreciate the loan, but your shoes don't fit me that well, and... My house was lit up like Times Square. I gotta tell my family."
"You don't honestly believe that they're still there?" Jess hissed.
"I don't know, but if they're there, I have to tell them."
"Tell them what?!" Jess demanded.
Jake looked at Jess, pained. "About Ben."
Jess looked at him tragically, then sent a glance to Marie, seeking help. Marie gave a tiny nod and leaned in. "Jake, I know you want to..." She shook her head. "It screams of an ambush."
"I know. But I have to try. He's my brother." Jake argued. "And if the Sheriff and the Aliens are working together, then maybe he... Maybe the Sheriff took him home."
"Or the Aliens did." Marie said tightly. "Want to risk it?"
They drove across town. Marie was provided a complete description of the photos taken, and the events that followed, first by Zack, and then Jess, and then Jake. She took it without blinking, as though she knew it all along. Being unflappable was her nature. It was something that Jake and Zack had both loved about her. Even when she was new in town, she didn't let any of her apprehension show.
They kept driving, until they came around the corner. At the end of the street, Jake's house was still lit up. Jess rolled the truck to a stop away from the streetlights and switched it off, engine and lights. The truck went dark and silent. Even from a distance, they could see the front door was wide open, and there was nobody in sight.
"Tell me you're smarter than that." Jess whispered to Jake.
"I just hope they're smarter than that." Jake answered. "If they think we're that stupid, we might be overestimating them. And if they don't, then the fact that they don't care might mean they're done with my house, and it's safe."
"Look, it only takes one of us to be sure, and it's my family, not yours." Jake said finally.
"That's not the point." Zack told him. "We're all in this together."
"I know we are, but I'm saying, it's my crazy idea and there's no reason to put all of us in danger." Jake insisted. "I can be in and out in two minutes. I know every creaky floorboard, every angle you can see from. I'm just gonna go in, grab a change of clothes, check for Ben, and get out. You guys stay far away from my house."
"Don't go, Jake." Jess begged. "Please?"
He squeezed her hand. "I have to." He said seriously. "Drop me at the end of the block, then go get Pierce out of his cell. If there's a way to get out of my own house safely... I'll meet you at the Library."
"I'm going with you." Zack said. He looked scared to death, but he sounded certain.
"No." Jess said. "I am."
"You're the one with the keys to the jail cell." Jake said.
"Right. I'm the only one able to use a key." Jess said with biting sarcasm. "I'm going with you."
Zack leaned forward. "How about we get there before we debate who's going?"
That worked for everyone, and Jess turned the ignition.
"Try it again." Jake said calmly.
Jess worked the ignition. Nothing.
"Are you doing it right?" Marie asked from the back, in a very small voice.
"Exactly how many ways are there to turn a key?" Jess snapped. She worked the ignition again. Nothing. Jake reached up and tried the interior light. It did not switch on at any setting. Marie reached into her backpack and pulled out a flashlight. It wouldn't switch on.
"They found us." Jess whispered.
"What do we do?"
"Lock the doors?" Zack offered.
Marie pointed at the other end of the street. The Sheriff had come around the corner, thumbs hooked into his belt. He strode down the street toward the truck, the streetlights gleaming off his reflective glasses. He was looking right at them.
"Run." Jake said, sounding weirdly certain. "Run for my house. We'll have a better chance getting around him there than we will in a truck that won't move."
This was true enough, and they all bailed out at the same moment, running toward the only brightly lit place in the night.
The Sheriff saw them move and broke into a run.
The four of them ran for it, not sure of what would happen if he caught them, certain it wouldn't be good. They made it to the front step of Jake's house, and every light in the building extinguished instantly, plunging them all into sudden, smothering darkness.
Zack was closest, and he hesitated when he saw the house go dark. Jess was right behind him, and she pushed him in, too close to do otherwise now. Jake was the last one in, and he spared a glance back to check, to see that the Sheriff had gained an awful lot of ground. He was already at the edge of the front yard, and the Lawman took the fence at a leap, charging for the front door.
Jake threw himself inside and hooked the door with his foot, a move he'd done millions of times in this house. The front door slammed shut, so hard that it quivered. An instant later it jerked as the Sheriff slammed into the other side of it. Jess was closest and threw the bolt, turned the lock, shoved the hall table in front of the door.
Sheriff Tanner hammered on the door for a moment, before going silent.
"Windows!" Jake barked, and he and his friends ran through the house, locking windows, barring them, pulling furniture and appliances and anything they could reach in front of every way in they could find.
They could see shadows moving outside, circling the house. Marie worked the light switch, but nothing happened.
"We've locked him out." Jess offered.
"And ourselves in." Zack responded. "Jake, get your shoes."
Jake ran upstairs, checking the dark bedrooms as he ran. The house was empty. No sign of his parents, no sign of his brother. Jake had expected it, but he still felt sick inside. He went into his room and changed, grabbing an older pair of sneakers.
"So." Jess said, hovering in his doorway. "This is your room."
The statement was so out of place given the night they were having, and he couldn't help the chuckle. Jess is in my room! "Yeah, this is it." He looked past her into the hallway.
She quickly divined what he was looking for. "They're downstairs. Making sure the windows stay shut and checking for things to take with us. Assuming we can get out again." She looked around, and Jake automatically swept some of his dirty clothes under the bed while she wasn't looking.
"Jake, where are we going with this?" Jess asked finally. "We locked the Sheriff out, but... How long is that going to work?"
"I don't know." Jake admitted. "I'm hoping until dawn. If we can tell everyone what we've seen... We've got the photos, we were even able to sneak a copy away from us..." Jake shivered. "The town is under Curfew for a reason. If we can make it till morning, we can-" He turned back around and found Jess had moved a great deal closer. "...we... um. I forgot what I was saying."
Jess looked at him awkwardly, and slowly rested her hand on his shoulders. "Jake, I... I just..."
Jake suddenly realized what was happening. This was it. This was the Right Moment. Even with the Enemy at the door, and only a few moments to gather their thoughts, it was the very definition of the Right Moment; and Jake doubted he'd get another chance later. He brought his hands up to her waist, heart racing, and to his delight, she didn't pull away. Very slowly, he leaned in, eyes closed...
And she shrieked.
It was a piercing high-pitched scream of pure horror. Jake leaped back from her like she'd burst into flames, tripping over and falling on his rear. Jess was shaking, eyes big as dinner plates. She was staring at the window, trembling.
Marie appeared in the doorway seconds later, and took a quick scan of the room. Jake was on the floor, startled out of his skin, and Jess was standing rigidly, like she'd turned to stone. "Jess?"
Jess very slowly raised one hand to point straight at Jake's bedroom window. They both looked, but there was nothing there. "It was there! I saw it! Ohmigod, it's not human! It's not human!" She was whimpering.
"Jess, we're on the second floor." Marie said carefully.
Jake was already on his feet, pulling both of them back to the hallway. "They can climb." He said shortly, and pulled his bedroom door shut hard, locking it.
"Did I hear that right?" Zack asked from the staircase, halfway between the ground floor and them. "Are they outside too?"
Jake led the way downstairs, shutting doors as he went, closing off every room with a window, until they were all assembled in the foyer. "Yup."
"Why are there two way locks on your bedroom doors?” Jess asked.
"Dad did some remodeling a few years back. The doors he got as a bulk sale. He said it would come in handy when one of us was grounded. Mom made the same crack about him, and-"
Smash! Somewhere above them, glass shattered.
"What was that?!" Everyone except Jake jumped. "Was that the Attic window?"
Jake nodded. He'd been expecting it, which is why he led them all downstairs. "They're in the house, but the Attic stairs are nailed shut. We had trouble with raccoons a few years ago, never got around to opening it back up again." He let out a breath between his teeth. "But it means the Sheriff has help this time."
They could hear light feet padding around above them. Zack and Marie looked up at the ceiling, following the sounds with their eyes. The tread was odd, and Jake could picture the Greys on all fours, strolling around his attic.
"What do we do?"
Jess reached behind her back, and from her waistband, she drew a big black handgun.
Jake's eyes boggled. "Where did you get that?"
"Well, it was the Sheriff's Truck we stole." Jess said quickly, flipping the safety off.
"Jess..." Marie said softly. "We don't want to cross that line. We shoot... they'll shoot back."
Jess' face was hard with fear and anger. "That's how the game works, Marie. Last one to shoot wins."
Jake reached out and carefully put his hand over hers. "Marie, I've seen them shoot. They were aiming at me. I've seen their weapons. Trust me, you don't want to trade bullets with these guys!"
"You got a better idea?" Jess hissed.
Knock. Knock. Two heavy knocks on the front door, and all four of them spun to face it, expecting the door itself to attack them any second. Someone was moaning, low in their throat.
"Jake?" The Sheriff called through. "Jake, I know you're in there. And Jess, I know you're with him. Jake, I know that you know about the Implants. Why do you think I was outside your house when you got back? There's no way out of this. Listen to me, we don't need to do this the hard way; but if we do, you lose. They don't want you hurt, they just need to make sure you don't mess things up."
Jess glared at the closed door and raised the gun, ready to fire straight through the wood.
"Wait." Jake said, an idea forming suddenly. "He's still wearing those sunglasses. Which means he didn't see us all!"
Jess looked over. "What?"
Jake looked to his best friend. "Zack, you heard him! When he was telling me that he knew I was in here, he didn't mention you or Marie. It was dark, he didn't see how many of us there were. Zack doesn't have an Implant, and he didn't mention Marie! He doesn't know you two are in here! You two can get away."
"I've got an Implant too, Jake; he knows I'm in here." Marie shook her head.
"Does he?" Jess hissed. "He didn't know Jake and I were outside the window back at my place. There's... I don't know, a delay, a range thing... I don't know, but he can't see through the walls. There's some margin for error."
"She's right." Jake nodded.
"I don't care, I'm not going with Zack if they can track me." Marie bit her lip. "What are the odds they won't search the house?"
Jake shook his head. "The house is empty. Mom, dad... Ben. They've already searched the place." He turned to Jess. "Did you bring the keys?"
Jess shook her head. "They're still in the truck's ignition."
Jake turned to Zack. "Hide. Under the stairs, there's a hall closet, you gotta hide. If you can get to the truck, get Jess keys, and you go get Pierce outta jail. Her keyring has a copy of the Sheriff's key to the jail cells, and Pierce doesn't have an Implant either."
Zack's eyes were hard, his nerves vanished under a stone wall of determination. "I'm not leaving without Marie."
Marie glared at Zack, and Zack glared at Jake, and Jake suddenly realized the problem. Zack and Marie were fighting, and Zack couldn't bring himself to leave her, not like this.
"Marie, you should go with Zack." Jake said suddenly, ending the stalemate. "Head for the back of the house, when the door opens, run for it. We'll draw Tanner to the front. And if anyone's with him, we'll try and keep them busy." He pulled the floppy disk out of his pocket. "Take this with you. We can't let Tanner get it."
"Jake!" Tanner called from outside. "Don't make this worse."
Marie took the disk and gave Jake a quick hug, which lasted for only a second. Zack held out a hand to Jake, who quickly slapped his palm. Message sent, message received. Zack and Marie headed for the back of the house, out of the foyer, leaving Jake and Jess alone, facing the front door
Jess and Jake looked at each other. There was no guarantee, no promise of survival. Tanner could easily decide to shoot them both on sight. "So." Jake said finally. "We have to make Tanner leave. Anyone else with him? We have to make them leave. Only way to do that?"
"Only way to do that is to convince them not to go looking through the whole house for us." Jess nodded.
"So... what? We surrender?"
THUD! From two levels above, something banged at the attic hatch, but the nails held firm, and whatever was in the attic stayed there, at least for the moment.
Jess gripped the gun tightly in her hand. "Or we make a break for it, let them chase us, make them work for it."
A bright red light shone on the front step, shining against the outside of the front door so brightly that a wide beam of red, brighter than a flashlight, came through the cracks around the door. The two of them jumped back from the entrance, expecting it to burst into flames.
Instead, the chain on the door started to move, sliding over to unlock itself. At the same time, the key to the front door, still in the lock, slowly began to turn. The bolt at the top of the door turned and slid open on its own. The untouched hall table started to slide out of the way.
Jess raised the gun, aiming for the door as it unlocked itself before them, the bright red glow shifting in intensity. "I don't know how they're doing that, but when I shoot, you run."
"We shoot... so will they." Jake hissed at her. "You haven't seen their weapons. I have."
The bright red light vanished instantly. Even indirectly, the glow had been bright enough that the sudden darkness blinded them for a moment.
And then the door opened silently, unlocked and moving slowly on it's hinges.
Jess had the gun held in both hands, aiming at the doorway, as Sheriff Tanner stepped into the house. If he even noticed the gun he didn't seem to care. "Evening." He said in his gravelly voice. "I'm going to need you to come with me."
Jess aimed. "Step away from the door, and give Jake your gun. My whole family has been taken hostage by creatures from another planet, and I've wanted to hurt someone for days now."
The Sheriff's silver sunglasses turned to look at her, his gaze drilling through her coldly. "I don't keep my spare loaded, young lady. You're pointing a useless weapon at me."
"Which is exactly what you'd say to someone pointing a gun at you. I'm not buying it." Jess didn't even blink. "I've been lied to by you, and your son, Sheriff. There's an easy way to test, and that's by pulling the trigger. Move."
Tanner stared her down. "No."
And then, flanking him either side, two Grey Aliens came into the house, loping in on all fours. Once inside, they rose up to stand on their feet, their full height still a foot below anyone's shoulders. But small as they were, their burning black eyes focused on the two teenagers, and Jake felt the now familiar malevolence, the weight and cold wrath of their eyes pressing on him.
Jess' hand was shaking. She almost dropped to her knees. Jake had seen them before, his friends had seen only photos. Being face to face with them was a shattering experience.
The Greys raised a hand each, the devices on their wrists pointing at her.
"Put it down, Jess." Jake said softly.
The Greys clicked and trilled in their own speech, and Tanner held out a hand to Jess, his other hand resting on his holster.
After an endless, hopeless moment... Jess handed over the gun.
So that you will understand what comes next, I should explain part of this. The Sheriff's Office is off Town Hall, and the three Jail Cells are there. It used to be only the one cell, but then the Sheriff's deputy left, and nobody else wanted the job. In response to a wild night by several drunken idiots, the town needed a larger cell for Tanner's 'guests' to dry out, and the Deputy's office was converted into another cell. It's not particularly bulletproof, but it's not like we can push our way through a solid wooden wall barehanded.
Pierce had the newer cell, the smallest one, since he was there alone. The other one, the original one, was stone walls and steel bars. It was a layout that let the prisoners see each other.
You asked for my testimony because you needed to know where to spend your resources. Your committee is investigating the actions of the Survivors, and what action you might need to take, based on the things we have seen and learned.
Senator, pay attention, because as far as you're concerned, this is the most important part.
The Sheriff only had one set of handcuffs, so he cuffed us together, and then he shoved us in the back of his truck.
Jess and I didn't say anything on the trip. The Greys split up. The two of them had a conversation while Sheriff Tanner marched us out to the truck... which was suddenly working again. One of the Aliens took off into the backyard of the house, the direction that Zack and Marie had gone, and the other went into the house.
I had seen curtains twitching from the neighbors. I know my neighbors. Part of me can't help but wonder what they saw. If they saw the Greys, how did they react? If this had been happening to the family next door... how would I have reacted? Would I have tried to help?
I still can't get the image out of my head, that feeling of the Big Black Eyes on me. I mean, I can feel those eyes on me.
I knew then that Jess was right. Whatever they were gearing up for, they weren't being subtle any more. Two of them marched out in the open, and came to my house, where the neighbors were watching.
Part of me was expecting Tanner to take us back to the Bridge and march us into the mist. Or to take us to the Creek and shoot us both in the back. Instead, he took us to the Town Hall, and to his Office. Pierce was still in his cell. Actually, now that I think of it, it had only been twelve hours since I spoke to him last.
Pierce was stunned when Jake and Jess were led in... in handcuffs. He sat up on the edge of his cot, before throwing himself at the bars. "What happened?"
Jess gave him a fierce glare that said to keep his mouth shut, and Pierce settled, as Jess and Jake were shoved into an opposite cell. Tanner allowed them to reach their hands through the bars so he could get the cuffs off.
The Sheriff glared hard at his new prisoners. "What were you trying to do? Save the world?"
"I'll settle for my parents." Jess shot back. "How about you? What are you trying to save?"
Tanner looked back at his son, almost unconsciously, before schooling his expression. He didn't answer right away. He produced Jess' camera, which Jake had left at the Bridge. Jess twitched. Tanner held up the wrecked camera to Jake. "Where's the floppy disk?"
Jake met his gaze. "Safe."
Tanner sighed. "Well. Seems my night just began then." He turned and stalked out without another word, letting the camera drop to the floor behind him.
"Did you get a photo of something?" Pierce called, looking at the wreckage of the camera.
"Jake did." Jess told him. "Pierce, you wouldn't believe it."
"It doesn't matter." Jake said, almost to himself.
"Of course it matters." Pierce told him. "Whatever happens, we need the proof. It's the one thing that we haven't had since the Plane."
Jake gave a bitter, mirthless cackle. "It doesn't matter." Jake scorned. "It wouldn't matter if we had a signed note from Planet X saying that the Plane was dry-cleaned by Marvin the Martian himself."
"What do you mean?" Jess asked him.
Jake pointed around at the Town Hall furiously. "If the radios and phones are only off the air temporarily because of a natural phenomenon, then why is the Mayor taking the time to build his own radio antennae? If there's nothing to worry about in the mists, then why is he putting nearly double the search teams in town and only a few outside town limits? And if the Implants are an oops on the X-Ray, then why doesn't he seem surprised to know that he has one? Grady was the only one we told about those X-Rays, so how does The Sheriff know that we know about the Implants? The same Implant that he was searching his son for after the Plane?"
Jake nodded, reading it on all their faces. "Mayor Grady knew everything we were going to tell him before we said anything. He already knew."
"Very good, Jake." A voice commented.
The young prisoners turned and found Mayor Grady coming in, calm and unhurried.
Jess let out a sick laugh that quickly turned into a sob. "You're part of this?"
Grady sighed. His voice was one of genuine regret. "You're surprised by that?"
Jake was the first to answer. "My kid brother has been sneaking out of the house every night to meet with a playmate from another planet. The things that surprise me are... different now." He said simply. "But deep down I never really believed that my brother would have kept something like that a secret." He glared, sadness giving way to anger. "Deep down, I always thought better of you as well. I thought you were one of the good guys."
For a moment, it seemed like Grady was going to argue the point with him. But he let out a world-weary sigh, like he had to tell the kids some hard truths about the world, and came over to stand near the cell door. "It's not that simple, Jake."
"Seems pretty damn simple to me." Pierce called over. "The town's been Blockaded, and you're helping the ones that do it, while denying all knowledge. That makes you a liar at best, a traitor at least."
There was a long silence, and Grady let go of the tension of the moment, trying to muster up a big smile for them. "So, I imagine you have questions." He said simply, like he did when he was judging a school bake sale. Earnest, welcoming, straightforward.
"Actually, I think I've got it figured." Jake said matter-of-factly. "You flew in the Vietnam war. You were off scope for seven minutes. That's a magic number; it's the same amount of time we lost on the Plane back from the football game."
"I think that in those seven minutes, they took you, did whatever the hell it is that they do, and you came back with a new mark on your X-Ray. Just out of curiosity, did the Air Force Doctors even try to guess what it was?"
"Not exactly. Every serious Pilot, civilian or military, has seen something in the sky they can't explain... More than a few of us probably have interesting X-Rays too." Grady admitted. "It's not something that fly-boys like to talk about."
Jake nodded and kept counting on his fingers. "I think you did your job over there, came home, put it behind you. Then suddenly it starts again. You announced you weren't going to run for Mayor a third time, just before Doug Gunn vanished. Suddenly you threw your hat back in the ring. Was that a coincidence? Because I think... I think they came back. I think they came back and told you that they had plans for this town. An isolated community that looks after its own needs with little outside supply. I think if they were building up to something, this'd be a great place for them to start. So they come to you... and you get interested in running this town again."
Grady shook his head. "It wasn't a power grab, Jake. I had no idea what their timetable was... I love this town. I love everyone in it. I know all of you by name. I couldn't just... leave you to fend for yourselves. I stayed on to minimize the damage." He actually chuckled. "They didn't expect things to change so fast in ten years. Suddenly everywhere in the country is plugged in. If this had happened ten years ago? I doubt anyone would have noticed for weeks."
"But they kept Doug." Jess took up the story, putting it together as she went. "They kept him, and people started asking questions. How much did Maggie know?"
"His Aunt? More than she let on." Grady conceded. "Doug's family knew. They saw a whole lot more than they put in their witness statements. His mother couldn't handle it, rest her soul. God only knows where his father went. Maggie... for all that everyone thinks of her as the town crazy, she's been better at dealing with the truth on this than most."
"Yeah, but she got smart and kept her mouth shut." Jake said, his voice hardening. "I think Sheriff Tanner came to you. He said the witness reports made no sense, and you should have played it differently. So you had to tell him."
Grady nodded. "It wasn't difficult to convince Doug's family not to tell, for all the same reasons I gave you the other day. They had lost their son, they didn't have a lot of credibility when it came to thinking straight."
"Sheriff Tanner took some more convincing than Maggie Gunn." Jake shot back. "His price was that his son had to be left out of it. That's why, out of everyone on the plane that day, Pierce was the only one without an Implant. Sheriff Tanner bought his son's protection through cooperation."
Pierce sat down very hard in his cell, stunned into silence.
Grady nodded. "I think it's easier for them to take people on planes. Already up in the air. Tanner was in a panic when the plane came back. He called in the FAA to go over the plane with a fine tooth comb, just in case we were wrong about what happened."
"That was a mistake." Jess told Tanner. "Pierce was awake the night The Sheriff snuck into his room with the metal detector. It tipped us off about the Implants. Without that, we might have given up the chase."
"So for more than ten years, you kept the secret." Jake finished.
"Well done, Jake. Really, excellent bit of deductive reasoning there. I'm genuinely impressed." Grady clapped his hands slowly, shaking his head in open admiration. "We keep a lot of secrets, Jake. Secrets happen. People like their privacy, but in a town this small, it's not really an option. Keeping each others secrets is the only way we can stand to live together."
Jess dove forward, and reached through the bars, clawing for Grady. He was just out of reach. She gave up. "Where the hell is my family?"
Grady looked at her sadly.
Jake didn't let it stand. "I want an answer to that too. Because wherever they took her family? I'm betting mine is there by now!"
Grady actually looked annoyed. "Your family? Jake, your family didn't have the Implants. They had no interest in your parents until you became a problem. They're not out to get us all, you know."
"No, only two thirds." Jake retorted.
"Less than half that."
"Eddie Sisko thought differently." Jess shot back.
"Eddie was wrong." Grady said simply.
"Maybe he was. If he was alive I'd ask him." Jake bit out. "Where the hell is my brother? He's been meeting with The Aliens for days. Maybe weeks, sneaking out to the Bridge every night. I wanna know why!"
Grady was silent a moment. "They... sometimes they take an interest. It shouldn't matter, but they have a hierarchy too. Sometimes, one of the more higher-ranked Greys can... Keep something."
"Like they did with Dougie Gunn?" Jess sneered. "They kept Dougie for ten years and threw him back... and now they seem to have replaced him with Ben Colbert. What? Did the Captain of the Flying Saucer want a pet?"
Jake's face hardened. So did Mayor Grady's.
"One more thing." Jake said, playing the story out. "Eddie knew the whole story. He was on the Town Council too. You brought him on board to keep your secret."
Grady's face fell. "Eddie... Could handle the truth. He just couldn't handle keeping it a secret from people. But I convinced him that for a while at least, that was the way it had to be. Then I made him part of the Town Council. I made him responsible for the town he wanted to protect. It straightened him out."
Jake started counting on his fingers. "Doug Gunn vanished eleven years ago, around the time Eddie started drinking. After you put him on the Town Council, he got sober, but when Doug came back and it all started up again, he fell off the wagon. We found his notes, and he was chasing this a long time."
Grady nodded. "He came to me just after Doug Gunn vanished. He was making connections, almost the same ones you were making ten years later, in fact."
"And so you killed him." Jake finished.
Grady looked at Jake, suddenly seeming a million years old. "I... I heard he was drinking again. Recent events... brought it all back. I went over to see him, and I discovered that he was questioning Pierce about what you kids were into. I confronted him, demanded to know why he was chasing you, and he admitted it was because he wanted to know if you had any pieces to the puzzle that he did not."
"I don't get it." Jess hissed. "When we came to you, you made us all look like idiots, and you knew we were right. You knew for sure and we didn't, and you made us look like idiots. Why didn't you just tell Eddie all the same things you told us? Why'd you lie to us, but give him the truth?"
Pierce spoke up from the opposite cells. "Because Eddie knew they were building to something. He wanted to warn people. And you... didn't."
Grady sighed, seeming very regretful. "For ten years we kept the secret, but Eddie... he was just waiting for his moment. Ten years we've been protecting this town, and he was lying to my face the whole time, pretending he was on board with us..."
"So you killed him. Before he could tell anyone, you ended him, and you let Pierce take the rap." Jake accused. "What I want to know is, how'd you get his prints all over everything?"
"Pierce was so wasted he probably would have confessed." Grady excused. "But it helps to have the Sheriff on your side. He wanted to keep his son immune from what was happening, and then the kid goes and gets into it up to his neck with the four of you anyway..."
"He was willing to lock his own son up for murder rather than let the Greys have him?" Jess hissed. "How bad is it gonna get for the rest of us?"
Jake shook his head, never taking his eyes off Grady. "Those charges will never stick. For one thing, the Judge is on the other side of the Bridge. For another... The only people who know Eddie's dead are all in this town. When this is done, they'll have other things on their mind."
Jess nodded. "Which brings us back to the question: Why are you helping them?"
Grady was silent a long moment. "They didn't come to me during the war." He confessed finally. "I was home from my tour. My family welcomed me back, my friends were relieved.... They'd heard enough horror stories coming out of Vietnam to be glad just to see me again. I was a pilot, I didn't beat through the jungle. But you see enough guys crack up and it starts to get to you. Dreaming about Greys and reacting to sudden bright lights... That wasn't nothing compared to the guys who actually saw the worst of it. I came home, I put it behind me. About two years later, the Mayor of the town retired... and he asked me to run, said he would endorse me. Mayor Pyncard. He'd been in office longer than I had, knew everyone by name... he loved this town as much as I do. He endorsed me, I got elected. He left town the day after the election was called, and didn't even send for his things. That night, they came to see me."
"How long have they been here?" Pierce asked, his voice sounding very small.
"I don't know, and I don't much care." Grady sighed. "I just need to protect my people. And I can't protect them all."
"That's a cheap excuse." Jess sneered. "You're a collaborator. You were in a war: What was the penalty for helping the enemy? For killing your own to make things easier for them?"
"Every movie I've seen, they shoot you for that." Jake nodded. "If you're lucky."
Grady's face turned to stone. "Ever hear of Arnaud Laurent? He was a trapper in the 1930's. In northern Canada, he and his son saw something bright and cylinder shaped in the sky heading toward the area of Lake Anjikuni. On that lake was a small Inuit village. Another trapper named Joe Labelle went there, and found the whole town was abandoned. Cooking pots left on the fire, their contents burned away to nothing. All the provisions were left untouched, all the animals had starved to death from neglect. The sleds and kayaks were still there... and the town graveyard had been emptied. Despite the frozen ground, the graves had been opened and the bodies removed." Grady let that sink in. "It was the dead of winter. About thirty years later, some author published the unsolved mystery in a book, the numbers of the town inflated from fifty people to a thousand, and the world wrote it off as a hoax."
"Was it them?"
"How the hell should I know?" Grady scoffed. "Hell, it may in fact be a hoax. It was the 1930's, who knows what happened in the smallest corner of northern Canada back there and back then? But my point is, you try and find out? More than half the information says it's a mystery, the rest say it's a hoax. The whole town just... evaporated after a UFO sighting, and nobody cared. Most of the planet failed to notice. And if Curtis Creek vanishes... nobody will notice that either. People will hear about it on the internet and scratch their heads, and then they will turn back to the TV and worry about which show they'll watch next, and problems that actually concern them."
The kids were silent, because they knew it was true.
"The world is full of mysteries and nobody cares." Grady said softly. "I've seen them. The Greys? I've seen the heart of them. There is... nothing that can be done to stop them. I highly doubt we can even slow them down. They don't want to conquer the world. They could do it any time they wanted, and they haven't. Whatever they do want... They're gonna get it, one way or another. Kids, you've lived in this town all your life. These people aren't strangers. They're your neighbors, your friends, your school-mates. They're the man who sold you your first ice-cream and the girl who first teased you about having cooties. They're the one that-"
"No. NO!" Pierce shouted from behind them. "That's the Campaign speech! You don't get to do the whole aw-shucks-we're-all-in-this-together routine with us! Not on this!"
Jake shook off the spell that their Mayor was casting. "He's right. I don't doubt you care about this town, Mayor Grady, but you're... you could have said something when we came to you with what we knew. If you had, maybe my brother wouldn't have been sneaking out every night. You could have told my family that I was right, and instead you told them I was insane. They threatened to have me committed, and my brother snuck out of the house to go play patty-cake with ALIENS!" Jake got himself under control with difficulty, but didn't even pause for breath. "Tell me what they want! What are they up to? You tell me right now!"
"When this all started, I thought they were just... observing, but they're taking a more active role now." Grady admitted.
"Escalation." Jess quoted. "They don't let you see anything, until it doesn't matter what you see."
"Well, that's not what this is." Grady said firmly. "I've seen plenty. They've never refused me any information that I asked them for."
"What about the questions you don't ask?"
"I don't know, I never ask them." Grady said lightly. "Kids, if we make these people our enemies, we don't last long. If we make them friends... who knows? There's no stopping them, all we can do is get out of their way, and clean up the mess. Understand?"
The teenagers said nothing.
"Where is the disk from the camera?" Grady asked finally. "I know it wasn't film."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Jake said finally.
"Jake, you tell me where it is, or I'm going to let Them ask you." Grady said seriously.
Jake said nothing.
Grady turned. "Jess? Do you have it?"
Jess said nothing.
Grady smirked. "Zack or Marie." He glanced over at Jake. "Shouldn't have introduced me to your whole team that day, Jake."
"You won't catch them." Pierce said smugly. "Zack's a natural coward, there's nobody who runs faster or hides better. And Marie's way too smart for you."
"Found her!" Tanner called from the entrance.
Jake and Jess turned to the door, and saw Tanner pushing Marie into the Jail... And a Grey loping along as escort. "Step back."
"...sweet mother!" Pierce choked out, with his jaw halfway to the floor; staring at the small Grey Alien. He squeezed his eyes shut and counted to three silently, before looking again. "I mean..." His mouth opened and closed several times, and he dropped back onto his bunk like someone had shot out his knees.
Resigned, Jess and Jake stepped to the wall, and let Tanner open the bars, pushing Marie in to join them. She had a split lip and dirt all over her clothes. "Are you okay?"
Marie nodded thickly, touching her fingers to her split lip. "Now I know where Pierce got his tackling skills." She said with a glare at the Lawman.
Tanner slammed the cell door shut. "She led us on quite the chase." He said tightly. He looked quietly furious.
Marie smirked grimly. "I realized that Tanner wasn't tracking me himself. Whoever was on the other end of the radio was giving him directions. He only asked about you and Jess." She jerked a thumb at the Grey. "The short one over there decided Tanner must have known about me being in the house. Took them a while to sort it out and figure out where my Implant went."
The Grey trilled at her. Jake had no idea what that meant, but the thing seemed furious.
"Yeah, I'm lookin' at you!" Marie glared right back, not understanding it, but not letting that intimidate her any longer.
The Grey turned those awful eyes on Grady, who didn't seem a bit put off. It clicked and trilled some instructions, and Grady nodded. "They're my mess. I'll handle it."
The Grey tilted its head at that, and dropped back to a crouch, moving quickly again out the door.
Grady looked them over, and after a moment, his gaze became frankly admiring. "You worked it out." He said finally. "In ten years, twenty years, thirty years... Only three people have ever worked it out from the clues left behind. The ones that did? Eventually, they all came to understand the... realities of the situation. You sure you want to risk it?"
The teenagers said nothing, glaring at the Mayor with barely disguised loathing.
Grady nodded. "The last one to work it out was Eddie, and he'd been working a lot longer to put it together. They were impressed by him."
Jake scoffed. "Yeah, right."
"They were." Grady insisted. "They don't think like we do. If you can't figure out how a human will react to something, what hope do you have of understanding them?"
Jake said nothing to that, though silently he conceded that point.
"In fact, their reaction to Eddie was to recruit him." Grady added.
Jess gave him a look. "Do I really have to tell you how ridiculous that suggestion is?"
"Probably not." Grady chuckled. "But if you have to pick sides... why not the winning side? Why not the side that has your family? Why not the side that has no problem with you? The side that just wants to do their thing and go home?"
Jess stared at him. "They have my parents?" Her voice quavered. "They're alive?"
"Of course they are." Grady promised her. "The Greys aren't what you think, Jess. They just have a job to do. They're looking for something. Something to do with us." He looked at Jake carefully. "They need something, they'll find it. The only question left is... what happens after that?" His voice dropped again, becoming more personal. "I wanted to fight them once. I didn't know anything about them, and you know as well as I do, the most terrifying thing is the unknown. But then I saw what happened to Doug's family. That kid knew where he was going ten years ago. His family found out too late and went nuts. They just... came apart. They looked into the unknown, and they didn't come out the other side. Maggie Gunn is the town crazy, and she held it together better than all the rest of her kin put together."
"And from that you decided to join them?" Pierce said incredulously. "My father decided to join them?"
"Yes." Grady said simply. "Because if what happened to Doug's family happens to the rest of this town, then we lose everything. I can't stop them, nobody can. Nobody will even consider the possibility that they might be real until it's too late to... to spare them the knowledge that's already destroyed one family. I knew then that I had to keep my town away from that most terrible truth. I work with them to protect as many as I can."
"You are such a politician. You've been talking for ten minutes, and haven't answered the one question I've asked you." Jake's voice dropped so that he spoke slowly and clearly. "What. Do. They. Want?"
"Us." Grady confessed finally. "I don't know why, but I do know it won't be that many. The time is set. The numbers have been agreed on. There'll be a cover story: A massive fire at a Town Hall Meeting. Most of the town will not attend, because with the town cut off from its supply line, they'll be largely staying at home. A solar flare knocked the town communications out, so the majority of the townsfolk failed to hear the invitation. When the authorities ask, I will tell them that I called the meeting to explain why the town supplies had stopped coming in. It will be a clerical error, since only a few warehouses were needed to keep the General Store and the Gas Station supplied. The authorities will check at the warehouse and discover that this is true. The warehouse will insist it was a simple mistake, since they never got a phone call, fax, email... The rest of the town will report that the sky lit up all week with Aurora, and that will explain the communications disruption."
Jake nodded, playing it out. "It'll be one simple mistake, coming at an inconvenient moment. But country towns know how to look after themselves and there'll be no hunger. Supplies will be tight, but the trucks will come rolling in... after the Town Hall burns and the people within are dead. And if they happen to be snatched out of the Hall before the fire and teleported onto a spaceship; well... Who in their right mind would believe that?"
"How many?" Jess asked, in a small voice. "What was the number?"
"Yes, what was the number?" Marie asked Grady with a sneer. "How many of the town did you agree to let them take without a fight?"
"Look, you kids are my responsibility." Grady put his foot down. "I'm still the Mayor of this town. None of you have done anything wrong, and there's nothing you've done that have affected them or their plans in any way. Nothing's on the line here."
Jake and Marie traded a bleak look because they believed that. After days of fear and worry and effort, all their effort counted for nothing.
"You know the truth, and there's nothing you can do about it." Grady said seriously. "The school is closed, the Diner is closed, the town is under curfew... Nobody will miss any of you for a few days. All we have to do is wait it out."
He waited for a response that did not come, and finally pulled away, leaving them to themselves. The second he closed the door behind him, Jake turned to Marie. "Zack?"
"Alive, last time I saw him." Marie promised. "He's got the disk of photos. One of them anyway, he made more than one copy... though I guess that doesn't matter any more."
Jake sighed in slight relief. There was a long silence as everyone tried to catch their breath after the revelations of the last few minutes.
"So what's the plan, Jake?" Pierce said finally.
Jake blinked. "Why are you asking me?"
Pierce shrugged. "I don't know, I just know that every time we've asked ourselves: 'What do we do?', you were always the one with the answer."
"Well I don't have a clue."
"Well that doesn't help us very much, Jake." Pierce said seriously. "Don't be a dork."
"Geek, not dork." Jake corrected absently. "I don't know, Pierce. We've got alien tracking devices in our heads, which we can't remove… My parents are missing, my brother is missing and last seen having fun with Aliens that are shooting at us, my best friend is out there somewhere on the run, the authorities I was hoping to convince are collaborators, and we're all in jail… I honestly can't think why you'd want to follow one of my plans again, but I'm out of ideas."
Jess slipped over Marie. "How about you? Any ideas?"
"I got nothing." Marie confessed.
Silence. It was the lowest point they'd been at. Knowledge had done little to ease the fear. Knowing had just made it worse, made them see how powerless they really were against the storm.
"Jake?" A voice whispered.
Jake looked up. "Did… anyone else hear that?"
"Jake?" The whisper came back, hissing from somewhere out of sight of the cells.
Jake was up instantly. "Zack!"
Sure enough, Zack Washington crept into the room, coming in sight of both jail cells. He was covered in enough dirt and small cuts that he looked like he'd been through a war, but he was alive.
"Zack, I don't think I've ever seen a more gorgeous sight." Jake said without shame.
Zack grinned, glad to have found his friends. Marie's hands flashed out through the bars and yanked him up against the cell door for a kiss, which he had no problem returning.
"How did you get in here?" Pierce demanded once they broke for air, sounding suspicious.
"The Sheriff was out hunting me, and there was a Grey…" Zack rubbed the back of his neck. "But without their trackers, I managed to lose them in the dark... and in Lawrence Ross' rose bushes. I doubled back, and found a window that wasn't guarded." He shuddered. "The doors have Aliens guarding them."
"Get us out of here." Jess said quickly. "Did you find my keys out there?"
"Well, turns out the Sheriff kept your keys when his truck suddenly started working again." Zack hissed. "There was no way I can let you out without them. So... any ideas?"
Pierce was up, standing against the bars of his own cell. "Zack, my dad's deputy had to turn in his keys when he left. They're in the file cabinet. I know, because that's where I got my copy of the truck keys from. The file cabinet has his stuff, and the stuff I was carrying when I got locked up. You can break into a file cabinet easier than a jail cell. Hurry!"
Zack took off for the Sheriff's office, out of their sight. Pierce took the opportunity to get Jake's attention. "You know him better than anyone. You buying any of that story?"
Jake blinked. "What do you mean?"
"It's Zack." Pierce said as though it were obvious. "The guy's a wuss. He's scared of his own clothes, but he decided to come in here just because the Alien was ten feet away instead of five feet away?"
"Zack is family." Jake said firmly. "Family get brave when the chips are down."
"Tell that to my dad." Pierce sneered.
"I was running with him for half the time." Marie glared across at Pierce. "You can't think that Zack would-"
"No, I don't." Pierce shot back. "But I wouldn't have thought my father would work for them either. He's the only family I got and I can't trust him. I don't exactly have a lot of people left that I trust."
"I trust Zack." Jake said firmly. "If I gotta trust someone, I'm lucky that it's my best friend."
Marie nodded in agreement and after a moment, so did Jess. "Look at it this way, Pierce." The School President offered. "Would you rather figure it out inside the cell, or outside of it?"
That was good enough for all of them. Everyone was suddenly alive with a very dangerous energy. "Here we go, here we go!" Pierce was hissing, pacing the cell like a tiger in his cage.
"So. Once we're out, where do we go?" Jess demanded.
Jake started to answer, and felt cold all over. "We can't."
Jess spun to look at him in disbelief. "What?"
"Jake's right." Marie said softly, having worked out the same thing for herself. "There's a reason they left us locked up in here without a guard. There's a reason they put Pierce in his own cell. We can't run... because we've got the Implants. They tracked us once, they can do it again. And again. And again. Anyone we go to, we lead the Aliens to them. Anyone who might help us, we'd set up for a capture. Mayor Grady wasn't trying to scare us, everything he said was the truth. Where can we go?"
"Even if they couldn't track us, there's no way we can get out past the mists. We can't hide because they've got trackers in out brains, we can't run because if we get as far as the Dead Zone... We vanish, just like Jess parents." Jake finished. "We got nowhere to go. We can't run, and we can't hide."
"I can." Pierce said, in a very small voice. "Zack and I don't have Implants."
Jake, Marie and Jess traded bleak looks.
"Guys, we go with them, and we'll all just get caught again." Jake said to his cell-mates seriously. "They go without us, and they might just make it."
Jess looked ill and Marie looked resigned, as Zack came running back. "I got it! I found the keys!" He went to the Main Holding Cell, and started flipping through the keyring. "And I found the metal detector too!"
"Let me." Marie said softly to Jess and Jake, before moving over to stand close to her boyfriend. She reached through the bars and laid her hands gently over his, though it didn't stop him. "Zack, go get Pierce out of his cell."
"One sec..." Zack told her, before finding the right key. The door slid open quickly.
"We're not coming." She said softly. "If you think it's just a matter of opening the door, you're wrong. They can still track us; you know that. Take Pierce, get out of here, be safe."
Zack looked up at her. "I can't just leave you!"
Marie tried to smile for him. "You have to. You have to go, and if I go with you, then they're just going to hunt us down again. Go with Pierce."
Zack looked sick to his stomach. "I'm sorry about before."
She shushed him. "Me too."
Zack stepped back from the cell, clasping the keys in both hands like a talisman against evil. He backed up all the way to Pierce's cell without taking his eyes off Marie. None of them were leaving their cell, though the door was still open.
"Come on, man!"
Zack turned and quickly let Pierce out, and the football star almost sprinted out of his cell. He went to the window and peeked around the frame carefully. He looked for a moment, and then came back to Zack, snatching the keyring out of his hand.
Pierce bolted into the Sheriff's Office and Zack made one last effort. "Marie? Jake? You can't stay here. I mean, this isn't just the Sheriff or even the Mayor keeping you locked up. What happens if you stay here?"
"I don't know." Marie admitted. "But I do know what'll happen if we go with you."
Jake nodded, and felt Jess slip her hand into his. He looked over at her, and squeezed her fingers gently. Jess nodded, as though she'd made up her mind, and reached her free hand out to close the cell door again, locking the three Marked Ones in.
Zack slumped and Marie pulled him closer to give him a kiss through the bars, as Pierce came running back into view with a carry bag. "Zack, we don't know what's in the building, but out the window looks clear for now. He moved to the cells and paused at Jess. "We don't really have time to say stuff." Pierce said to her, sounding awkwardly sincere for what was probably the first time in his life. "But I'm sorry about how things ended."
Jess nodded, reaching a hand out through the bars to hold his hand briefly for a moment. "Right now? It doesn't seem like that big a deal."
Pierce grinned. "Oh, is that all it took?"
Jess knuckled him through the bars, but without any real anger.
Zack met Jake's eyes. "Wish us luck?"
"Always." Jake nodded, and the two shook hands for half a second. It was all the time two best friends needed.
The whole series of goodbyes was over in less then ten seconds, each and every one of them desperately aware of the clock... and equally aware that this might easily be goodbye. With agonizing finality, Pierce and Zack took off, escaping out the window.
Leaving the rest of them alone.
"Well. Locked up in a jail cell with two pretty ladies. I can think of worse ways to spend an Alien Invasion." Jake said with forced lightness. The joke fell flat, but the others were tense enough to accept the effort, and force smiles of their own.
"For what it's worth, I'm glad you guys are here. I'd hate to be here alone." Jess offered.
It was honest and it was kind, and it made the worry just a little bit easier. After a moment, Jake sat down, wriggling a little to get comfortable.
"So." Jake sighed. "It's going to be a long night."
"We should try and get some sleep." Marie suggested.
"Okay, you first." Jake said easily.
Marie snorted. "Right." None of them were going to get any sleep that night...
...in fact, none of us were going to sleep much for a while. I hadn't slept since the night before. I should have taken a nap before chasing Ben out, but the insomnia since the Plane still refuses to let me rest. The night is filled with dark monsters in every corner.
Marie says that's a normal Stress reaction. Normal or not, I don't sleep for days at a time, and when I do I crash for half a day. If I'd tried to sleep, I would have missed Ben's exit. Part of me wishes I had.
None of us dared to sleep. We wanted to. Marie said exhaustion is a major Stress reaction too. I never understood that until Zack and Pierce left us in that Jail Cell. I could feel my brain sending me 'shut-down-for-reset' warnings non-stop, and the urge to pass out and pretend the world didn't exist for a few hours was amazingly strong.
The cot in the cell was long enough for us all to sit in a row, but I was the only one sitting. Dad says that people react differently to terror. He's right. I was sitting, hunched over, staring at nothing. Marie was pacing, going back and forth across the ten feet of the cell like she was bouncing back and forth off the walls.
And Jess was glaring at the door out into the rest of the Town Hall. It's like she was trying to set the first person through that door on fire with her glare.
We stayed that way for over an hour until Marie apparently wore herself out enough to notice other people again.
"Jake? You okay?" Marie asked him softly.
Jake looked up at the sound of her voice, glanced over at Jess, who was plastered against the bars like she was trying to squeeze her way through. "I'm fine." He said to Marie quietly.
"Yeah, except you're not." Marie said with certainty. "Come on, this is me you're talking to. You can't fool me, Jake; you never could."
Jake sighed. "Even when I was... dreading what I was going to find tonight, a part of me was hoping things would turn out the way they did at the Bridge. I thought that if we could just get a damn photo and expose the truth, bring the secret into the light of day... If I could just show the Sheriff and the Mayor what was really going on with this town, then maybe they would fix it…" He threw his hands up. "What do we do now?"
Marie squeezed his shoulder for a moment and went back to pacing. In the narrow cell, she had to maneuver past both of them to keep moving.
The fourth time she brushed Jess, the young blonde growled over her shoulder. "Would you cut it out, already?"
Marie held her hands up. "Hey, chill." She said gently. "We're all in this together."
"If you wanted a private cell, you sort of missed your moment!" Jess told her coldly.
Jake looked to Jess with open worry. Over the last two weeks, he'd seen her degenerate from a poised, carefree High School Queen, to a scared girl trying to survive alone in a big quiet house, into a panicked war orphan with a gun.
"Would you have done it?" Jake asked her, curious.
Jess jerked as though she'd forgotten he was in the cell. "Done what?"
"Would you really have shot him?" Jake asked. "Because when Sheriff Tanner came in the door, you were looking pretty... eager."
Jess glared at him furiously, before her gaze softened a little. "I... You remember the first conversation we all had when we accepted the idea of aliens being involved?"
"I went home and went looking for serious UFO stuff. I couldn't find any. Internet was down. I tried the library, and every book on the subject was on the 'Loony List'."
"Been there." Jake agreed.
"So I went home and went through my dad's movie collection." Jess said. "All the movies where a bunch of teenagers discover an alien invasion? By the end of the movie they're all action stars, gunning down the monsters until the team of high school students manage to single-handedly save the world."
Heavy silence. The thought had occurred to all of them, but none of them thought it was really possible. Not for them.
"I almost pulled the trigger." Jess admitted. "And since Pierce isn't here, I can say it: I wish I had. How are we supposed to get past the Greys if we can't get past our own Town Sheriff?"
"I can't save the world." Marie said in a small voice. "It's too big. I want to save my family, I want to save Zack. I want to save you guys. But I don't even own pets, how am I supposed to save the world?"
"We can't do anything if we can't get out of here and keep them from hunting us down." Jess said in open frustration.
Long silence. Marie sat down on the cot with a sigh. After a few minutes, Jess sat down next to Jake, and pulled his arm around her shoulders. Jake was only too happy with that. Marie let out a breath and rose from the cot they all slouched on, leaning against the bars. Quiet, patient, Marie was now unable to settle for longer than ten seconds.
"What time is it?" Jess asked finally.
"Four thirty? Maybe five?" Jake offered. "Not sure. Sheriff took my watch."
"Mine too." Jess commented. "Why would they want our watches?"
"Been a hell of a night." Marie commented.
"We just have to make it till morning." Jess said. "Pierce can get people looking this way. He can get people involved. Zack has the photos. Maybe..."
"Maybe." Marie nodded.
It was a thin desperate hope for them to cling to. Jake didn't say it out loud, but he knew that if the three of them could work that out, so could Grady and Tanner, let alone the Greys. It was at least another hour till daytime, and the town was still locked up tight. Zack and Pierce would have to stay ahead of them until the day. There was no telling who else might be involved, who else might be collaborating. There was no way to be sure who they could trust. After finding out his father couldn't be trusted, Pierce would trust no one, and Zack wasn't likely to overrule him.
"Maybe." Jake sighed, though he didn't mean it either.
Jess came over and sat down next to Jake. "I lied to you." She said quietly. "Our talk about imagining holidays in picture books? I lied to you. I never did that."
"I know." Jake nodded, not upset.
Jess looked confused for a moment, realized quickly what that meant and glared over at Marie furiously. Marie didn't turn, pretending she wasn't listening.
"I'm sorry about acting so insane with you." Jess continued quietly. "Going from 'lets-be-friends' to being... me. I was just scared."
Jake smiled a little. "Of me?"
"Of this." Jess waved a hand between them. "I told you: after Pierce, you were the only guy I trusted, and stuff was happening. I was afraid to rock the boat."
Friend-Zoned. Jake thought distantly to himself.
Jess looked down. "To be honest, Jake... What I loved most about you was that you weren't anything like Pierce." She said lightly
Jake chuckled. "I'm pretty pleased that I'm nothing like Pierce too."
Jess smiled a little, despite herself. She scooted over a little closer to Jake and lowered her voice a bit. "Thank you for... stopping me before I pulled the trigger." She said softly. "You were right." She smiled up at him a little. "I'm glad you're here, Jake. I mean, I wish we both weren't here, but I'm glad you stuck around." She paused and chuckled a little. "You should have just taken the money, Stargazer."
Jake smiled a little. "Jess..." He drew the word over three syllables. "Do you know why I didn't just take the money?"
She gave him one of those looks. Shy and pleased and happy, and he loved to see it. "I think I can guess." She confessed. "Jake? Did you ever wonder why I didn't just go find some other smart kid, and offer him the same deal you turned down?"
Jake looked down. "All the time."
Jess nodded. "I'm blonde, I'm pretty, and if dad hadn't taken me off the Cheerleading team, I'd be a walking cliche. But you never saw me that way. Of all the guys offering to help me study, you were the one that actually wanted to know what my grades were." She squeezed his hand. "I think that makes you extraordinary."
Jake dared to look up at her, and suddenly realized how close she was again. For the first time, he realized he was on fairly solid ground with her, and he leaned in.
She moved to meet him halfway and their lips met in a long, warm kiss. Jake felt an electric shock run through him at the contact, felt her breathe in sharply around his lips, and the two of them moved closer, the mood turning electric, explosive...
Until finally they broke for air. Jake was seeing stars, like fireworks were going off in his head, and she gave him one of those perfect shy smiles...
And then both of them looked over to see Marie pressed into the far corner of the cell, being very quiet.
"I'm not here." She said brightly, waving them off. "Don't mind me."
Jake was about to respond to that, when the door flew back on its hinges, and Mayor Grady stormed up to their cell door. "Where is it?!" He demanded.
Jake blinked and looked at his cell-mates. They both shrugged. None of them had a clue what he was talking about.
Grady had lost it. He wasn't calm, he wasn't paternal, he wasn't collected and reserved. He was so worked up that he was almost spitting at them as he yelled. "I'm not paying games with you! Where the hell is The Device?" He pointed at the opposite cell, which was notably empty without Pierce. "I know he's got it, I know you helped him escape somehow." He slammed his fists against the bars. "You tell me where it is right now, or I'm going to bring THEM in and let them ask you. I swear, I will give you over to them on a plate! They've got quotas to meet, and they don't much care who fills them, and neither do I. Now where the hell is the goddam Device?!"
The three of them had shrunk back from the bars, intimidated by their Mayor, always so controlled, suddenly going berserk. If one of them had an answer, they might well have shouted it out gladly, if only to keep the Greys out of the room for a while. They tried to figure out what to say, when the door banged open again, and another figure limped into view.
Sheriff Tanner was using the wall to support himself as he made his way into sight. He was holding his handkerchief to the back of his head, and from the trickle of blood that they could see running down his fingers, someone had hit him hard. "They don't know where he is." Tanner groaned. "They haven't left this room, we'd know it."
Grady glared at them. "You got anything to say?"
The three of them put on their best 'innocent-and-completely-clueless' expressions.
Grady looked to Tanner. His voice spoke of absolute doom. "I have to tell Them."
Tanner nodded, weaving on his feet. "I'll go with you."
The two of them left as quickly as they'd arrived, leaving the three teenagers a little bit blown away.
"What the hell are Pierce and Zack getting up to out there?" Marie asked, a big smile on her face.
Jess, however, was not amused at all. "I don't know." She said. "But whatever it is, what are the odds that they're gonna get the three of us killed before they're done?"