The Jeep bounced under them constantly, but with Maggie in the driver's seat and Pierce beside her, none of them felt comfortable squeezing in.
"Hey, Jake?" Zack said casually. "You know we're bouncing along a dirt and gravel road in the middle of the night at an unsafe velocity while perching on unsecured sacks of ammonium nitrate, many gallons of Diesel Fuel and at least three dozen homemade fireworks, on our way to blow up a building while keeping our fingers crossed that a UFO won't come and blow us all up on the way?"
"And no seat belts." Marie put in, her voice very small.
"Still safer than riding up front with Maggie." Jake quipped.
In the front seat, Pierce was looking over Maggie's Gizmo, turning it over in his hands. "How long did the battery last?"
"I dunno." She waved it off. "I don't know if it used a battery, or if it broke, or if it just had to be near them, but it stopped making sounds when I hit buttons." She looked over at him. "You want to make it work." She said carefully, knowing the answer. "You think you can go in there and free everyone."
"Well, probably not everyone." Pierce admitted. "But maybe our families. Something to think about. Might be a better plan than just blowing it all up."
"What is the layout of their cages?" Maggie demanded. "Do they even use cages? I don't know, do you?"
"How many people are already prisoner? How many guards do they have? How good is their Alien Vision? Who else in town might be working for them? What sort of weapons do they have? How do we get in to wherever they're holding those people? When we get in, how do we locate your families specifically? How do we get back out again? What kind of defenses do they have?" Maggie demanded, rapid-fire. "I don't know, do you?"
Pierce shrank down in his seat. "No."
Maggie nodded. "This plan ain't perfect, but it's the safest one, and the most likely to work."
Pierce bit his lip. He hated it, but he couldn't think of any compelling arguments against it.
Maggie's face softened a little as she looked over at him. "You're young." She said, not unkindly. "Too young to understand that most days, there ain't no happy endings, only quick ones."
The Jeep approached town and Pierce slowed them down quickly. There wasn't a lot in the way of hills and mountains, so they weren't overlooking the whole town, but the differences were obvious to them as soon as Curtis Creek came into view.
When they had left, it was dead silent, sealed up tight, and the only people moving were them. In the hours they had been away, the small town had turned into a warzone. There were fires burning in every vehicle they could see, but only a few of the houses. There was no sign of any people, and the fires burned unchecked, with nobody trying to put them out.
The only light visible came from the fires that burned and the Aurora in the sky, which boiled and rolled like an electrical storm... except it made no sound.
Maggie pulled the Jeep to a halt and everyone climbed out. They were on the very edge of town, where there were normally just a few houses, just a few vehicles. There was no sign of anyone.
"Looks like they targeted the transport." Jake said quietly. The others followed his gaze over to the side of a house, where a motorcycle lay destroyed on the ground.
Maggie was about to answer, when they heard a familiar humming in the air. A Flying Saucer was on the way. They followed the sound with their eyes. The Saucer was out of sight and back the way they came.
"They're patrolling the edge of town." Jess said, her voice low with fear.
"We try to double back, they'll see us." Maggie said sharply. "There's no cover outside of town, just a long straight bit of road. Sheer dumb luck they didn't see us on the way in."
"She's right." Pierce snapped. "We need to hide the truck, and we can't do that out in the sticks. We have to go deeper into town, find a place to hide."
Maggie waved the younger ones away. "Kids, get outta here. I only need the Jeep, I can take it from here. Go find a place to hide, and wait it out. With any luck, you'll have the sun back in an hour or two."
Marie nodded. "It's five minutes to the Festival Ground. Less if you know the backyard routes."
"I'll go with Maggie." Pierce volunteered. "It's my Jeep."
Everyone reached into the tray of the Jeep and pulled out their backpacks. Jake took the opportunity to grab Pierce's wrist and pull him closer. "Don't let her hit the Town Hall. We have to figure out some stuff first."
Pierce nodded in agreement. "Meet up at Tracy's house. There's a place there behind her garage where I can keep the Jeep out of sight from anyone else. I've used it before."
Jess was close enough to overhear that and snorted in disgust.
The Jeep had pulled away from them just in time to avoid the approach of the Saucer. The kids that stayed behind had ducked behind the walls of a random house, trying to be invisible.
The Saucer hovered in mid-air for several seconds... before the humming dropped off to nothing, and it slid across the sky inaudibly, toward the middle of town. Nobody liked to admit it, but the Saucer was going in the same direction as Maggie and Pierce.
"They might be following the heat. They can travel between stars, they probably have heat-sensors." Jess offered. "We don't have Implants, so it could be they don't care about us that much. At least, not as much as the Jeep."
Four of them clambering over backyard fences was too much to go unnoticed this far from the middle of town, but none of them dared suggest they split up.
In every street they passed, there was damage. It looked like every vehicle had been targeted, some of the streets themselves were torn up and mangled, power lines were down and sparking all over the place.
Only one of the houses they passed was burning, but it was burning out of control. There was nobody around to watch, and the kids didn't stop to see if the people in it had gotten out in time.
"That's the Crichton place... isn't it?" Jess had called back. "I know their daughter. She tried out for the debate team last year. Lost out by one vote."
Jake was about to answer when the low humming sound of the Saucer became audible again, and they sped up, running across the street for cover. He was glad he hadn't gotten the chance to speak. The source of town pride, their closeness and sense of community, had suddenly become a danger. Every house held someone they knew.
The houses became more tightly packed, and the yards became narrower. They were in town now, instead of skirting around the edge of it. Jess led the way to Tracy's house. Jake had never been there before, but Jess had, and she led the way. The house in question had a two car garage, instead of the usual one, with a wide concrete driveway that actually extended into a patio area. Wide enough that Pierce's Jeep could pull around behind the garage, to a spot near a tree, putting the vehicle out of view from the street and the air.
The Jeep was already parked, lights off. As the four of them came over the fence, the doors opened, and Maggie and Pierce got out.
"We waited for you." Pierce said by way of explanation. "We didn't want to go in until we had some idea of where you guys were... We saw Lucy Crichton's place burning."
"So did we." Jess confirmed as they all made their way toward the house. "Pierce, is this a good idea? You've been here once tonight, and switched off an Implant. The Greys may have been... interested enough to take a closer look."
Everyone jumped half out of their skin and spun around. Tracy herself had come out of the garage behind them. She was dressed in tough clothes, boots that were strong but a size too big for her, and she had three carving knives from her kitchen stuck through her belt. Her eyes were cold and feral, and her hair pulled back in a tight bun.
She stalked towards them, her feet making no sound on the concrete. "They came here, and I don't know if they were looking for me, or..." She saw Pierce and her face froze. She came forward with two quick steps and slugged Pierce hard across the jaw. "You bastard!" She raged at him quietly, trading volume for venom, and she moved in for another hit. "Why?! How could you just leave like that?!"
Jess hauled her away from Pierce and put her against the wall. "Get in line, sister. We got bigger problems."
Tracy shoved Jess away. "Not that. Jeez, how big an ego do you have?" She spun on Pierce. "How could you leave like that? You wake me up and then you just... Leave the rest of us?"
"He had to get us out." Jess argued. "Pierce and Zack weren't messing with you, they were trying to set three of us free. They have our families, and Pierce's dad is working for them. It's not like we were off having a party!"
Marie was studying Tracy's eyes carefully. "Tracy?" She said quietly. "Where's your family?"
Brief silence. Tracy raised one hand and pointed at the street, in the direction of the Town Hall. Everyone went quiet, sending a quick look toward Pierce, who had the decency to look ashamed. "I didn't scan them with the Gizmo..."
Tracy was vibrating with anger. "You could have done it. You could have given me my whole damn family back. Instead, you dove out the window once you knew I was awake. They came for me. They came to my house, and I hid in the garage. My parents wouldn't wake up, no matter what I did. So I hid in the garage and I had to watch them rise from their beds and just march..." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I couldn't wake them up. Two more minutes, you could have freed them all."
"I'm sorry." Pierce offered weakly.
Tracy growled low in her throat and turned away from all of them, stalking toward the house. The back door wasn't locked, and with nothing else to do, they all followed her.
Tracy went straight to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water, slugging half of it down in two long gulps.
The others relaxed at being inside again, grateful for at least the illusion of security. Zack went to the front of the house and started peeking out the windows. Everyone else gathered in the kitchen while Tracy told the story.
"Once Pierce left, I tried to get my family moving." She explained. "They wouldn't wake up. They were alive, they were breathing, they responded when I prodded them... they just wouldn't wake up." Her voice was more tired than anything else. "At first I thought it was something Pierce had done. He'd hit a few buttons and snapped me out of it, so I wondered it something he'd done had put them under. So I went to try and find help."
Zack burst into the kitchen. "There are people outside!" He hissed.
Everyone reacted except Tracy. "They walk." She agreed. "It happens in groups. Not long after Pierce left, I headed for a friend's place... but the Saucers came over. Half a dozen of them, gliding over the town. When they started shooting, I hid. They targeted the cars, the trucks, motorcycles... anything that could get people away. The explosions came over and over... and people woke up fast. The entire street, people started running out their back doors. The ones that ran for cars didn't get far. The ones that ran on foot..." Tracy shivered. "The Saucer came, floated straight over them... and they all stopped running. Dozens of people just... stopped running. It was like being in a Zombie movie. They all just turned around and started shuffling back toward the middle of town." She shivered hard. "Never seen anything like it before."
Jess and Jake traded a dark look. "We have." He said quietly, before turning back to her. "Tracy... how many people kept running?"
"Maybe... fifteen? Maybe? Lot less than half the ones that started sleepwalking." Tracy told him. "They were the ones that don't have the... whatever they are? Right? The ones like us?"
"Yeah." Maggie said flatly. "The ones like us. You got rope?"
"In the garage." Tracy nodded.
"I'm going to go get some, see if I can secure the stuff in the back of the Jeep a little better." Maggie told the others, and headed out the back door into the yard.
"Doesn't make sense." Pierce said finally. "Zack said that they could shut down my dad's truck, plus Jake's house, at will. Just switch all the lights off. Why are they blowing things up now?"
"How the hell should I know?" Jake shot back. "It's not like they told me the plan."
"So." Marie said to Tracy. "What happened next?"
"Well, like I said, I was looking for help, so I got out of the main street, away from the explosions... and that's when it got really scary, because people just started... leaving their homes. It happened on two different streets that I saw. A whole street full of people would just walk out of their homes... and line up at the corner of the street. They were all in their nightclothes, and they'd just walk, two-by-two toward the Town Hall."
"They're going street by street?" Jake thought, drawing the map of the town in his head.
Pierce nodded archly. "That makes sense. They're in no rush, and they don't want people queuing up wherever they're going, so they pull people in as more... manageable groups."
Tracy wrapped up her story. "When I saw the third street full of people lining up, I came home... To an empty house. I looked for my mom and dad," Her eyes softened, almost tearing up. "They were lined up with the rest. I tried to pull them back inside. Didn't work."
"I'm getting out of town." Tracy said simply. "I was collecting food and stuff, but after the trucks stopped coming in, there wasn't a whole lot of food left. We cracked open the stores we keep in our garage three days ago."
Jess was staring out the window. "Tracy..." She asked suddenly. "Is everyone in town going the same direction?"
Tracy nodded, eyes cold and deadly again. "Yup. At least, all the ones I saw. They were all headed for-"
"The Town Hall." Tracy, Jake and Pierce all said together.
Jess turned on her heel and stormed out of the house. She didn't stop marching until she reached Pierce's Jeep. Maggie was tying down the bags of fertilizer when Jess grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around. "Tell me you didn't know!" She roared. "All the people taken prisoner get marched two by two into the Town Hall! You were going to blow it up!"
The Old Woman glared so hard at Jess that the younger girl almost lit on fire. "You ever want to see the sky again? You ever want out of this town? You want to live long enough to see your next meal? What did you think was going to happen? This ain't like the movies, little girl. Our town is being rounded up like cattle. There are going to be some casualties!"
Jess glared right back, teeth bared. "Are all their prisoners there? My parents? Are they in there too? Were you going to blow them up?"
Maggie said nothing, and Jess hissed in her face, her hands going around the old woman's throat. An instant later, Maggie struck, jabbing two punches into Jess, just under her ribs. The girl gasped thickly, and reeled back in pain. Maggie struck again and swept one of Jess feet out from under her. The instant Jess was on the ground, Maggie planted one of her crocodile-skin boots against her throat. "Never. Ever. Do that again." Maggie growled.
Jake got between them, with a courage he didn't really feel. "Listen, maybe we handle this inside?"
"What happened?" Marie demanded as they all trooped back in.
Jake looked at Maggie, Maggie looked at Jess, and Jess glared at nobody, her face burning. "Nothing." The girl said finally. "Nothing happened."
"Here's what I don't get." Marie said after a moment. "Where are they putting all those people? The entire town is walking in the front door in groups... Why?"
"I don't know." Jake confessed.
"Would there even be room for them? I mean, everyone knows everything that happens, but for the most part, when there's a Town Meeting, it's just one member of each family. To have them all crammed in there at once..."
"Not all of them." Maggie creaked. "Just over two thirds."
"Yes, but why there? What's in the Town Hall?" Maggie asked again.
"Maybe we should pay them a visit and find out?" Jake suggested.
"Maybe we pay them a visit and put a stop to it." Maggie Gunn declared. "Permanently."
Jess lunged for her again, and the old woman moved, quick as a rattlesnake. Jess froze as the barrel of a handgun suddenly appeared against her face, touching right between her eyes.
"Stay out of my way, little girl." Maggie said coolly.
Jess looked around for help, and nobody moved.
"We can't let Maggie go through with this!" Zack hissed.
"Well, I don't know." Pierce put in carefully. "I mean... look around guys, this is so much more... so much bigger than us."
Zack glared at him. "So what? Just blow it all up?"
Marie looked sick. "We don't exactly have a lot of options here."
Jess glared. "Your family is probably in there too!"
"Tracy said they take people in sections." Jake tried to think. "So how many have they got through so far?"
"I don't know!" Jess snapped. "But I'm not blowing them all up just because I can't think of anything else."
Maggie gave Jess a look that would have stripped paint. "Every minute we wait, more people get marched into that place, and don't come out again. If you kids can't stop your caterwaulin', then give me the keys and beat it."
Tracy froze. "Everyone stop talking right now!"
Her tone was such that everyone obeyed instantly. In the four hours they had been away, Tracy had been transformed into an urban survivor. They all froze, not even breathing. After a moment, they picked up a low hum in the distance.
Zack and Marie sprinted to windows on opposite sides of the house, looking up at the sky.
"Here!" Marie hissed, and ran back to the kitchen. "It's coming this way."
"Nothing this way!" Zack answered her.
"They patrol, right?" Jake demanded. "I mean, it's just in the area?"
"Yes, but they search in a pattern." Tracy hissed back, checking her watch. "They're coming back this way too early, and it's for a reason."
"What's it doing here?!" Pierce demanded. "The whole town to study, and they come here? Why? There's no..." He stopped talking instantly and sent Maggie a horrified look. "No!"
"What?" Jake demanded. "What?!"
Pierce reached over to the bags and yanked out the metal detector. One wave over Maggie's face was all it took to set it off. "You're marked!"
"Never said I wasn't." Maggie growled back.
"But they..." Jake squeezed his eyes shut, trying to figure it out. "But they can't control you, obviously!"
Pierce let out a hiss of horror and reached into Maggie's belt, yanking the older Gizmo. "It's not the same thing, is it? It doesn't work like the one we got."
The Old Woman curled a lip contemptuously. "There's a difference between being mind-controlled and being chipped."
The humming dropped to dead silence instantly, but they all knew it wasn't going anywhere. Pierce spun and tossed his keys at Jake. "Get outta here! Don't wait for me!" Pierce shouted and pumped the shotgun firmly as he sprinted for the stairs.
Jake turned to Marie. "We gotta get outta this house."
Marie pointed at Maggie. "We can't take her with us."
Maggie shrugged. "Fine. Gimmie the keys to the Jeep."
"Like hell!" Jess snapped. "You'll never get close if you're marked."
Everyone froze. There was a groaning, creaking sound...
The house erupted suddenly. Tracy let out a squeak and ran for the hallway, trying to get to the opposite side of the house. An instant later the flames became visible and audible, exploding through the ceiling of the kitchen. The Saucer had fired on the house, and now it was burning. Jake and Jess ran for the back door.
Maggie got in their way, and suddenly they both had a handgun pointed at them. "The keys! Now!" Maggie roared.
The ceiling suddenly caved in behind them, and everyone ducked. Maggie was forced to dart aside, throwing her free hand up to cover her eyes.
Jake grabbed Jess' arm and hauled her toward the window, trying to keep the burning debris between them and Maggie.
Maggie lunged demonically through the flames, and brought Jake down in a tackle. Jess looked back, uncertain.
"GO!" Jake yelled at her, trying to fend off Maggie, and Jess dove for the window.
Zack came running through the house, not willing to run out the front door into the open, and saw Maggie and Jake wrestling. Jake was trying to get the gun off her, Maggie was trying to get the keys off him. Zack didn't have a clue what was going on, but he hauled the crazed woman off his friend. "Whatever it is, handle it outsi-"
The house warped again, and Maggie rolled away from the two teenage boys as more of the house collapsed on them.
From Tracy's bedroom window on the second floor, Pierce aimed and fired. Then he pumped the shotgun and fired again. For all the fear it created, and all the firepower it carried, the Saucer was still only five feet across. The simple concussive force of the buckshot was enough to knock it off balance. Pierce fired again... and then again... until the Saucer reeled like someone had punched it, and the flat aircraft turned almost on it's edge, and crashed into the edge of the house.
Pierce felt the house shudder, and the floor under his feet began to sag. Without pausing to think about it, Pierce threw himself forward, and jumped out Tracy's bedroom window. He slid off the roof as half the house started to cave in on itself. He saw a flash of blue and jumped out at the swimming pool.
Jake had made it out of the house in time to see half of it come down, almost on top of him and Jess. They darted back... and the Saucer collided with the house. There was a sudden shudder that shook them both off their feet, and a wave of sound and heat rolled over them...
And then Pierce fell feet first into the swimming pool behind them, screaming like a banshee.
Jess and Jake looked at each other with wide, disbelieving eyes.
"Did you see that?!" Jake struggled not to shriek. "I mean seriously: DID YOU SEE THAT!?"
Pierce burst up from beneath the surface of the swimming pool with an explosive gasp, and both of them rushed over to haul him out. The shotgun was left at the bottom of the pool.
Pierce looked at the blazing house, where half of it had been caved in from a crashing Flying Saucer that he himself had shot down. "Well..." He gasped out finally, shaking the water off. "There's something you don't see every day."
Jake cast about suddenly. "Where... Where are Zack and Marie?!"
Jess looked around quickly. "They must still-"
Pierce bolted for the burning building, not even looking back.
"PIERCE!" Jess yelled after him. The footballer was already in the back door, as flames spread across the rest of the house. Even from the backyard, the heat was intense, and the smoke was thick enough to make them gag.
"He ran in." Jake hissed, paralyzed by the moment. "Should I go in after him?"
There was a loud bang as something flammable caught light in the house, and both of them ducked as debris rained out of the burning building. Pierce emerged from the door with Marie over his shoulder. They were both stained with soot, coughing furiously.
"Zack!" Marie gasped out, almost coughing up a lung. "Zack's still in there!"
"I know." Pierce gulped oxygen as the others helped Marie sit down gently. Pierce ripped off one of his sleeves and dunked it in the swimming pool, wrapping the wet cloth around his nose and mouth. "You gotta run!" He told them. "They'll be here soon, looking for whoever knocked down their Saucer." And with that, he ran into the burning house again.
And this time, Jake got his act together and chased after him. I shouldn't have hesitated the first time! He kicked himself, and ran into the fire.
"Jake!" Marie shouted after him.
They found Zack quickly enough. He was in the hallway, trying to push a fallen chunk of the wall. The wall was laid across his leg, and a motionless Maggie Gunn's midsection. Pierce and Jake ran over, hacking and spluttering up smoke, and they wrapped their arms around the heavy debris, which was already burning. The ceiling had fallen in, the flames licking at their heels. Jake felt the fire jump out and bite at his arms...
And still the burning wall wouldn't lift off the two of them.
Pierce put his whole body into it, and barely managed to lift the thing an inch. "God!" He roared, eyes streaming with tears from the heat and smoke. "We need something to lever it!"
A figure emerged through the smoke and held out a coat-rack. "Use this!" Tracy said, pressing it into Jake's hand, and she took off running for the door.
Pierce didn't bother to call after her, and put the lever in place. "Jake, you with me?"
Jake grabbed onto the lever. "Ready!"
"Zack, is it broken?"
Zack winced and tested his pinned leg. "I don't think so..."
The hallway caved him behind them, and the roar of the flames grew louder. It was approaching the point where they couldn't see anything through the thick, black smoke...
"Now!" Pierce roared, and they heaved the lever down. The wall lifted, one inch, two inches...
Zack was able to get his leg clear, and scrambled out from under the burning debris, running for the door. He vanished into the smoke instantly.
"Zack!" Jake called after him in frustration. Maggie was still pinned, the fire getting hotter and more of the burning house falling down around them every second. "Dammit, Maggie; wake up!"
The old woman was still, and Jake suddenly noticed the blood around her midsection, where the debris had landed on her... He let go of the lever and checked her pulse.
"She had a pulse when I got here!" Pierce roared over the flames and broke down coughing.
"She doesn't any more!" Jake shouted back and choked on the smoke himself. "She's gone."
Pierce released the lever, and pried the handgun from between Maggie's fingers. "Then what the hell are we doing in here?!"
Jake wanted to answer, but couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, couldn't see... He felt a hand grasp his wrist and haul him forward. The wall touched his hand and Jake pulled back in shock at the flash of scalding heat.
A shock of cool air hit him, and the grip around his wrist vanished. The roar of the flames faded, and Jake fell to his knees, retching from the smoke that filled his lungs.
"Jake!" A familiar voice shouted and he felt arms go around him tightly. Little by little, he managed to blink the grit out of his eyes, and found Jess holding him. His arms came up automatically to return the gesture, and they both shuddered for a while.
Tracy looked on as what was left of her house caved in on itself. She didn't seem sad, just in shock.
Zack looked miserable. "I should have..." He coughed. "I thought you were right behind me. I thought..." He broke down spluttering again.
Pierce was sitting on the edge of the pool step, almost bent double, splashing water on his face over and over. "Okay." He started to say, and burst out coughing again.
Jake got there first. "We lost Maggie, but we still have the Jeep. Do we try and do what she-"
Too late they saw the movement from the street, as two Greys came over the fence, aiming their weapons at the kids. Everyone dove for cover. Jake and Jess went for the Garage, Zack, Marie and Pierce went for the fence...
"Run!" Someone shouted, though Jake didn't see who. The sound of the Alien weapons chased them, and Jake peeked past the edge of the garage just in time to see Tracy make a break for the far side of the house, making a dive into the smoke...
The goo splattered against Tracy, catching her full in the back, and an instant later she dropped, shrieking at a pitch that made Jake's hair stand up. The goo sizzled and almost immediately, like the bike and the Bridge... Tracy started to twist in on herself, her body being mangled by the weapon from another world... Her suffering was mercifully brief.
Pierce came up with the handgun and fired two shots, missed, and ducked back down as the Greys fired back. The football player didn't bother to raise his head again. "Get outta here! Just go! Run!"
"He's right!" Jess hissed. "They're distracted now!"
Jake turned away from the Aliens and ran as fast as he could with his skin smarting and his eyes almost pasted shut from soot and tears. He still had one arm around Jess, and she hauled him away from the backyard as fast as she could.
They ran, and they ran, and they ran and had no idea how far they would get, as nightmares waged war on their friends behind them.