Gayle Peters












Not until dark, with the wind kicking up and thunderheads building in the west behind them, did Prophet feel any relief from the brutal Georgia heat. He and Lonnie tossed a quarter, and at the eight o'clock radio check Lauralee gave them a Code Seven and Lonnie went for burgers. By then the entire western third of the sky had filled with a solid black mass slowly moving east. Prophet hauled his yellow slicker out of the cruiser's trunk.

Putting it on, he watched the thunderstorm build and draw near, the darkness blotting out the summer twilight. As the clouds passed overhead, Prophet could hear the trees bending under the press of the rising wind and the hiss of the approaching rain curtain on leaves. When the first oversize drops exploded against his plastic-covered Stetson he dove into the car. The metallic drumbeat of the rain on the roof become a solid roar in the space of two breaths.

The sky for miles around lit up wildly as the storm slid over middle Georgia. When lightning struck in the area, for whole seconds the road, the hills and forest around the cruiser, and the Flint itself stood out in sharp contrast, even through the pounding rain.

After the first onslaught the wind quieted and the rain slacked off, as though gathering its breath for the next assault on the unresisting land. Prophet took advantage of the lull to retrieve a box of shotgun shells from the trunk. As he stood looking into the trunk, his head braced against the wind that threatened to blow the Stetson into the road, he heard something that might have been hurricane-force wind, except the wind wasn't nearly that strong. "Tornado!" was his next thought, but the lightning didn't show anything like a funnel.

He suddenly realized that the lightning had picked up its pace and fury, but the thunder hadn't increased at all.

The hair on the back of his neck stood straight out as Something broke out of the clouds less than 500 feet above the cruiser and headed straight for the bridge. A microsecond later Something Else followed it, with lightning pulsing between the two. An ear-splitting high-pitched whine came immediately after the Things, and Prophet clapped his hands over his ears to protect his hearing. The first Thing broke off its approach to the bridge and swerved toward the trees along the Flint, swooping low over the river's surface. It threw out multi-colored light strokes and constantly received lightning strikes from the second Thing.

The two objects abruptly rose over the tops of the trees and doubled back toward the road. Prophet hit the deck, rolling away from the cruiser. Whatever those were, he decided, it might be wise to keep away from large visible objects like cars. He crawled under the fence into the roadside pasture, watching the movements of the two Things.

The first suddenly stopped its trajectory toward the road, rose straight up to just below the rain clouds, and began to circle wildly and erratically over the woods beyond the Flint, over Crawford County. The second Thing moved to close the distance, and the light strokes between them suddenly changed color. Prophet felt the high-pitched whine in his head move out of the range of hearing, then slide back into a low-power hum.

He watched open-mouthed. "If this were 'Nam," he told himself, "I'd swear that was a dogfight."

The two craft sped out of sight to the north and were gone over the horizon in seconds. Prophet waited, unable to hear anything except the thunder and the rain in the trees. The storm drifted with the west wind, and the rain increased its downpour.

After a minute, Prophet got shakily to his feet. He anxiously scanned to the north, trying to see anything in the lightning pattern that might mean they were coming back. As he quickly glanced over the lightning-lit rim of the hills and the trees, he became aware that his right hand hurt, and he looked down to discover his grip on the magnum white-knuckled. His breath came in great gulps, and the uniform was drenched with sweat as well as rain. He forced himself to relax.

"Son of a bitch, boy," he said, as much to calm himself as anything, "I believe you just saw a real live UFO. Two of 'em." He thought about it, then raised his voice into a proclamation to the world. "Son of a Bitch! Right Here in River City!" He began to laugh, and shut the hell up when the laugh climbed into the upper register. He watched the north a few seconds more, then turned slowly and began to walk back toward the cruiser, shaking his head in wonder.

KAAA-WHHAAAAAMMMMM! An enormous lightning bolt exploded into one of the beeches at the edge of the river, and a millisecond later the world tilted as Something flashed over the cruiser twenty feet off the ground, turned in mid-air and slammed into the earth with tremendous force, jarring the land under Prophet. The craft bounced into and through the trees by the river, splashed into the Flint with a huge spray of water and a great hissing of steam and energy, and came to rest on the other bank.

Prophet had flung himself on the ground with the lightning bolt and had stayed there when the craft came ripping in from the west. Now he ran to the car, slammed the trunk lid, and got in. To hell with the county line, he told himself. This, if he understood at all what had just happened, was going to change his

After some reluctance the engine cranked, and he raced down the hill and across the Hawkins Bridge, keeping an eye for the cloud of steam to his right as best he could see it in the

"Dispatch, Unit Five. Dispatch, Unit Five." He waited impatiently for Lauralee to come on.

No answer.

"Dispatch! Unit Five! This is Prophet. Deputy needs help! Acknowledge! Anybody!"

Still nothing, except a faint subsonic growl that came to his bones just at the limit of hearing, then began to climb slowly into the audible range.

Prophet decided not to waste time with the radio any more. He finished crossing the bridge, pulled the cruiser over to the verge, and started running toward the shoreline where the craft had disappeared into the woods. With the big flashlight in his left hand he crashed through the pathless brush, trusting the heavy slicker to keep the thornvines and wild blackberries from impaling him. He constantly had to slip sideways and under the low branches of the scrub trees, bobbing and weaving and ignoring the steady rain that fell from the canopy of the tall oaks and pines.

He found himself scrambling over the uneven terrain, sliding down into the wash gullies and stumbling up the slippery sides and the brush-covered hillocks. The soles of his uniform shoes had no tread and he had little traction in the red Georgia clay.

Suddenly he plunged out of the growth and found himself in a gouge torn out of the earth. Wide and deep, strewn with clipped-off and uprooted trees and brush, it pointed straight to a large mound of dirt and tree parts. He turned left and doubled his pace, running and stumbling toward the mound.

He stopped short. A bluish light came from one side of the pile of debris, nearly hidden by the smashed limbs and dirt plowed up by the—he brought himself up short. Thing? UFO? He shrugged. Hey, he thought, be a man—call it a flying saucer if it fits.

Obviously, though, this saucer would never fly again. Buried in tons of debris, it had one entire side crushed and split from hitting the ground and the trees, and the blue light came from inside, in a slow, pulsing beat. Prophet stood there, his chest heaving, his eyes excitedly watching, looking for… Something. Or maybe Someone. He was gasping for breath and his uniform hung sodden against him and his Stetson lay somewhere on the ground between him and the road.

Besides his heavy breathing, the only sound came from the drip of the subdued rain and creaking noises as the pile settled.

Nothing moved.

It had been one of those Georgia Sunday afternoons in August when nothing moved but the young. A merciless sun in a sky the color of old aluminum cast blue shadows through air thick with haze, and by noon the house was uncomfortable. Prophet and the girls went outside under the Magnolia trees in case a breeze came by.

He plopped himself on the outdoor lounge chair with the Atlanta Sunday paper and the radio, half listening to the Baptist preacher from Macon. As usual, the twins quarreled over the comics until Prophet gave them one page apiece, and then each demanded he read hers aloud first. He chose Angie's page until Amy remembered with crystal clarity that her sister had been first last week.

"Is that right, Angie?" Prophet asked. He smiled at the easy-going one of the eight-year-olds, but lowered his head a fraction of an inch to show that he expected a truthful answer.

"Yes, it is," Amy answered before her sister could say anything. "I said it was."

Prophet held up a hand and looked at Angie.

"Oh, I guess. If Amy says."

Prophet accepted that as acknowledgement of Amy's moral ascendancy and started with "Kudzu", since it was supposed to be about the South. As he read through the comic strips, pointing out the sight gags and explaining the jokes, he noticed that the thirteen-year-old, JackiElizabeth, went back into the house. She emerged a few minutes later in her old green one-piece with a towel and tanning butter. Carefully placing her towel half an hour from shade, she slathered goo on her arms, face, and legs
and lay down on her back with sunglasses on.

Prophet grinned ruefully. His eldest daughter was pulling away from Little Girl all too fast and bearing down on Woman like an express train. He left the preacher in mid-sentence and found Casey Kasem for her without being asked, and she smiled her thanks at him.

The twins wanted to sunbathe too, of course, like their big sister, and soon the three of them were lying on towels with tanning butter glistening on chubby little arms and legs, the rich coconut aroma filling the air.

When everybody got tired of that, Prophet put away his paper and pulled the car onto the lawn and hauled out the hose and the bucket and the detergent. He was pretty sure some of the car got washed with all the screams and giggles. Angie seemed intrigued with her reflections from the front bumper chrome and spent a lot of time enjoying the faces she made to herself, and Amy almost strangled by trying to drink water as fast as it came from the hose, even after her father told her to quit. Prophet finished the final rinse himself while the girls hung up rags on the clothesline and the steam rose from the cartop.

"Okay, girls, it's about time to get ready to go over to Uncle Henry's and Aunt Sharon's," he announced.

"Will Gramma and Grandad be there?" Amy asked.

"Don't know," Prophet answered. "Why don't you call?"

"Okay, I will," Amy said and ran into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. Gotta fix that door-closer one of these days, Prophet thought as he put the bucket away. He heard the phone ring, and a moment later came a piping "Daddy, it's for you!"

Wonder of wonders, Prophet thought, and headed for the house, bringing the radio and the paper with him. Something up at Henry's?

As soon as he heard Jack May's gravel voice, he knew it was

"Sorry to spoil your Sunday, JP, but I need you on duty asap."

Damn! Prophet thought. He'd been promised…"What's up, Jack?"

"Well, it's both professional and personal for you, JP. We just heard from Atlanta. Jason Stevens and two others escaped from state pen this morning and the word is they might be coming this way, 'cause of Janine. We've been asked to put roadblocks at the Flint River bridges. No word yet on how they got out or how they're traveling."

Prophet felt a weight settle on him as he took the news. His first major collar after moving down from Atlanta and joining the Sheriff's department was on the road again and coming home to roost. Mean as a snake and not too bright, Stevens had given Prophet all he could handle until he was cuffed. Janine had helped, too, coming in from the kitchen and trying to bounce a cast-iron skillet off Prophet's head.

He came back as Jack went on. "The GBI had his threats against you on their computer, and this time the system worked. Whoever's on duty up there did their job and notified us local authorities. How soon can you be at the Hawkins Bridge?" Prophet thought a moment. "Forty minutes, maybe. That okay?"

"Yeah, that'll do. I'll get Lonnie Ross down there too, as soon as I can reach him."

Prophet shaved in the shower to save time. He thought about the girls, and as soon as he had his uniform pants on he called Jackie into the bedroom. She pressed her lips together when she saw he was going on duty.

"Phone next door to Edie and ask if you and the twins can stay over there tonight after supper." He pulled his shirt on and began snapping the front closed. "Henry will have to bring you home, Princess. Something's come up."

He caught the look in her eye, and stopped dressing. Sitting down on the bed, he patted the place beside him. She came closer but she didn't sit.

"You're mad," he said, meeting her gaze, "because I promised we'd be able to spend the day together just like everybody else, and now we can't, right?"

She nodded slowly. He reached out and took her hands in his. Initially she resisted, then let him have them.

"Well, you got a right to be mad. I'd be mad, too. Promises are s'posed to be worth something in this family. I understand how you feel." He squeezed her hands gently and smiled at her for a moment. "But you're old enough to understand I wouldn't break my promise to you if I had another choice, and I hope you know I don't want to leave you girls at all, but I have a job where people depend on me."

Again, she nodded without speaking.

"And because I have a job to do," he continued, "I depend on you to do your job, to take care of things around here when I'm not home. You know, you're the closest thing to a mother Amy and Angie have now."

She looked at him stonily, not helping. He tried again.

"Look, you've had to grow up faster than other kids, and I know that. Of all of us, I think maybe you're getting the roughest deal."

That did get her attention, and she frowned her question.

"Well," he answered, "I miss your mama a lot, but my work keeps me busy, and the twins are young and they'll bounce back. In a few years, their mother won't be much more than a hazy memory, and that's natural, you understand?"

She nodded.

"In the meantime, they've got both me and you to look after them. But you now, you're becoming a woman, and you should have your mother to sorta show you the ropes. Dads just don't get that right."

"You do all right for a Dad," she said quietly.

"Anyway, because I been needing you to help with raising Amy and Angie, you had to put away being a little girl too soon, like havin' to lock up your dolls before you were done playing with them." He stood up and gave her shoulders a squeeze. "I haven't told you very often how much your help has meant to me these past months. You're a great kid." He paused. "And you're becoming a fine young woman. We're…I'm very proud of you." She did give him a smile then, but one quick hand brushed at her eyes.

"I miss Mama too, Dad," she said softly. Then she shrugged. "I can take care of the girls all right. Most times, they're cute." She tossed her hair into place, and her voice took on a slightly deeper timbre. "No need to bother Edie. I'll be all right with them after we get back from Henry and Sharon's."

He stooped for socks and shoes. "I know you will, Princess, but I don't know how long I'll be out, since this is special. I'd just feel better if you were over there where somebody can drive you if there's a need, like to the hospital, or the store." As he watched her watching him, Prophet had a feeling that she wasn't entirely buying the casual tone he'd tried to put into that sentence, but she'd go along with it.

After a few minutes, Prophet approached the craft carefully, slowly, his eyes constantly searching the surface that he could see, looking for any signs of movement that might mean…life? Life From Out There? He moved around to the right, looking for a way into the saucer. There were gaps in the material large enough to work his way in, if he were careful, took his time.

Gingerly he stepped closer and finally got close enough to touch the craft. He held his hand a few inches from the dark substance and could detect little heat, so with a quick sweeping motion he brushed his fingers against it.

The sensation was one of incredible sleekness, a slick warm surface that in a strange way reminded him of the joy he felt as a little boy on the school playground, running his hands over the smooth annealed steel of the slide, all blue and gleaming and smooth and slick and sleek and neat.

He rubbed his face with his hand, shaking some of the rain away and trying to decide what to do next. If the thing had a door or a hatch somewhere, it stood under four feet of Georgia, pinned by tree trunks as big as his legs. The holes in front of him looked like the only way in.

"Into what, we wonders. Yes, we wonders," Prophet muttered to himself, then dropped his voice into starship-captain resonance. "How many crew on a Zylon saucer, Sulu?"

"About a million little green men and six great big mean ugly suckers," he answered himself. Then he shrugged. What the hell, he thought. No guts, no glory.

By ducking under a large tree trunk Prophet found a hole in the saucer he could start into, but he couldn't get his shoulders past the sharp-edged protrusions. He backed up, shed the slicker, and started in again with the flashlight, patting the butt of the magnum for luck.

"Even figuring a gun will do me any good against death rays," he told himself with a curl to his upper lip.

He flashed the electric torch into the craft's interior, but couldn't see very well, as though the surface absorbed light instead of reflecting it. He could, however, make out a space—maybe a passageway—past some sort of equipment.

"I ought to report in," he muttered to himself. "I ought to follow procedure. This roscoe isn't going anywhere. Got plenty of time to call Jack May for backup. I really ought to do that." Prophet grabbed a handhold and lowered himself down and into the saucer's interior. "My radio doesn't work. The hell with it."

The blue pulsing light came from below and to the left. He edged past the structure his light had picked up and let himself down toward that darkness beyond. The blue lights quickened their pulsing and Prophet froze, every nerve straining to see or hear anything dangerous.

The craft echoed with soft noises coming from no direction. That might be settling or cooling, Prophet thought to himself, or it might be something else entirely.

"Not too late, boy," he told himself. "You can still turn around and report this. No need to get your head fried." It didn't work; he didn't seem to be listening.

He reached the edge of the darkness, not so dark now that his eyes had gotten used to the blue light. It was indeed some sort of passageway, big enough for him to creep through bent over. After a moment's hesitation, Prophet set his jaw and dropped lightly into the passage. The lights still came from the left, the pulsing quickening even more, and now he could plainly hear a throbbing that came in time with the lights.

Moving silently, he crept toward the light, and as he grew closer to it, he could see that it came from an opening at the end of the corridor. He slowed his pace as he neared the room, moving carefully, gliding over the slick surfaces, avoiding any projections in his path. He found himself sweating—either he was more nervous than he thought, or the walls here really were warmer than the outer skin.

The sounds he had heard began to grow in volume, and as Prophet reached the end of the passageway, where an oval hatchway stood crumpled open, he realized that some of the sounds were indeed coming from the area of the light. He stood there almost a full minute, trying to hear any pattern, anything like communication, but all he heard were random clicks. At last he began to ease his head around the edge of the hatch, not wanting to move or touch anything that might make a sound.

He had found, he realized, the cockpit or bridge or control room, where those who drove the thing did their driving. The blue glow came from lights placed at intervals along all the surfaces of the cockpit/bridge. As he watched, the lights accelerated their pulsing, and the throbbing in his ears became a humming that jarred his sense of balance.

He wondered what it meant—communication, safety lights, maybe an emergency homing beacon or propulsion with a broken frammis, or maybe something else. He looked carefully at what he could see of the room.

The lights reflected off silvered surfaces that he guessed were flight or navigation instruments clustered into three stations above and beneath one surface of the room. "Viewscreen during flight, I'll bet," Prophet muttered. He pushed his head through the opening a fraction of an inch at a time. "Let's not interrupt anybody doing anything private," he told himself. "They might not like it."

For a moment he thought about the magnum, then decided the time hadn't come yet, though he did silently ease off the hammer strap.

He drew a deep breath and finished edging his head through the hatchway. He could view the entire room, and he had the answer to the clicking noises he'd heard, with the rain pouring down on Georgia in a drought-breaking thunderstorm outside and the lights in here pulsing their blue rhythm all around him.

He saw the alien.

It was watching him.

"My sweet Lord," he whispered. His heart pounded against
his chest and he stopped breathing.

Suspended in some sort of webbing which had torn loose from many of its mountings, the alien looked vaguely human, but smaller, with two of everything Prophet had two of, a sleek golden wet-looking skin on its head and hands, but almost no ears. It wore a garment—uniform, maybe, Prophet thought—that carried several large stains. The creature held a device in the hand that was farthest from the stain, and the clicking came from its mouth. After a long slow moment transfixed, Prophet let out his breath in a silent whistle. The creature continued to click, never taking its eyes off Prophet.

Now what? Prophet wondered. Do we stand here forever while he clicks, or do I just slide back around the hatch, or what? Be nice to know if that thing is a communications gizmo or a weapon.

The blue lights were now edging their way past blinking into fluttering, and the hum kept climbing through Prophet's hearing range. Something is fixing to happen real soon, he thought, and a Georgia boy probably shouldn't be around when it does.

He slowly began to move his body around the damaged hatch and took a step toward the alien. The clicking increased in volume and rate. Prophet spread his hands slowly to show he held no weapon in them. He could, if he had to, draw the magnum in three-tenths of a second, but he hoped he wouldn't have to. He took another step.

The clicking suddenly stopped and the device in the creature's hand dropped to the floor. The alien rolled backward in the webbing and began jerking itself from side to side. It closed its eyes.

"Hey, easy, easy, little guy," Prophet said, putting his hands out. "Nobody wants to get you upset. You're in control here. I—"

Prophet felt a gut-wrenching pain in the back of his head, followed immediately by intense dizziness. He dropped to the floor and hugged his knees in the fetal position. His head pounded as the pain increased and he felt his mind turn inside-out, thinking and remembering—no, not remembering, because he had nothing to do with it. He grabbed the back of his neck with both hands and hung on.

His life unrolled and he saw himself in his mother's womb, his own birth and the first days of his life. He watched— relived—every second of living and growing. He saw the world through his own year-old eyes, things he had no conscious memory of ever seeing.

"Stop," he whispered, and the words came out in a language he had never heard. "Please stop. It's too fast. I can't do this."

All his words and all his deeds, everything he ever
thought—every emotion, every memory of the smallest part of his life—he lived through again, in superspeed. Every joy, every pain, every hope and fear he felt then he felt again.

He moved from infant to toddler, from schoolboy to teenager. He felt again the wrenching snap from the broken leg and the pain from the dislocated shoulder of senior year homecoming. The agonizing loneliness that ended his first love crashed down upon him again.

He grew from youth to soldier and lover and husband and father. He grew from student to policeman and to deputy sheriff. He bawled like a baby again when Linda's death hit him again, and the same sick weariness he had known then he knew again.

The present loomed ahead, and he plunged into it and through it and his senses reeled with overload.

Then, slowly, very slowly, the dizziness subsided.

He walked into the Sheriff's Garage and signed out the last stand-by cruiser. The girls were next door until Henry came by; Prophet had called his former in-laws arranging for the girls to be delivered back to Edie's whenever the cookout ended, even stay there all night if Prophet got to be real late. "Never you mind about the girls, JP," Edie had said when he'd talked to her. "I just love those angels to death and we'll have a good time. You get them in the morning if need be."

Prophet checked his .357 Magnum, made sure he had extra shells, and checked the twelve-gauge shotgun clipped to the screen behind the front seat.

"All set, JP?" the voice sounded behind him, echoing in the empty garage. Prophet turned to see Jack May coming toward him with a sheet of paper in his hand. Jack had been in the army exactly one Asian land-war earlier than Prophet, and was only now beginning to lose his battle of the bulge, though it didn't affect his erect carriage any. In spite of his desk time, he had no trouble with the fitness test the Department required each year. Even now, on a surprise Sunday afternoon he wore his pressed fawn-and-brown uniform with precision. Come to think of it, Prophet realized, the only other clothes he'd ever seen Jack May wear was a dark suit at funerals and a Santa Claus outfit at the county children's home.

"All set, Jack. Any more word on Stevens?"

"This just came in from Twiggs county. Eleven o'clock this morning a farmer from Myrick's Mill reported three men wearing prison denims had broken into his house and took his station wagon, some clothes, two shotguns and a .22 rifle. So now they're armed and mobile."

"At least he wasn't a deer hunter."

Jack May snorted. "Other than that, nothing solid. Either they haven't been seen or they're all over the state. You know how it is."

"Has this been released yet? I haven't heard anything."

May nodded. "Word is it'll be released about…" he glanced
at his watch "…now, at five o'clock. Some kind of delay about it, I guess. But the APB is out and the state boys are coordinating the search. We're just supposed to stop up the ratholes. Usual drill."

"Except this time it's Stevens."

"Except this time it's Stevens and there's a good chance he's heading straight for Janine." Jack May paused a moment, then added, "Or you. I thought maybe you'd want a hand in this, JP. That's why I assigned the Hawkins Bridge to you and Ross. If Stevens circles around the south side of Macon and really is heading home, he just might come into the county from the east side, and there's only the two bridges over the Flint. The Hawkins Bridge is the futhest, so I figure if he gets this far he just might try an end run. Okay, Son?"

"Yeah, Jack, sounds right. I 'ppreciate it," Prophet nodded. "Anybody watching Janine?"

"Now what do you think? The GBI told us to go make an official inquiry and then to stay the hell away from the house. So the Sheriff himself went and inquired if she'd had any contact with Jason since her last visit to Milledgeville and she said no, and the Sheriff come back. I'd guess there are enough GBI plainclothes around that house to double the entire population of Howardton, Georgia. If he gets past us, I'll bet a steak dinner he'll never get into the house."

Jack gave the paper he'd been carrying to Prophet. "Here's the make on the Twiggs county station wagon. Don't let him get past you, JP. I don't want the GBI to be pulling our fat out of the fire. We brought Stevens in the first time, and you did that
good. Let's be the ones to bring him in this time, if he isn't caught before that he gets here."

Jack May finished his briefing with a single sharp nod, turned and walked away a few steps, then stopped and faced Prophet. "You be careful of Jason Stevens. I know that family, and he's as bad as they come. None of the Stevens ever forgets anything or learns anything, and forgiveness ain't part of their religion. So you go by the book, JP, except don't be giving him the benefit of any doubt. Janine is only part of the reason he'd come by this way. You'd be the other." Jack May looked at him closely. "Your girls squared away?"

Prophet nodded. "They'll be all right, Jack. Staying with Edie next door."

Jack May nodded again and walked out of the garage, his footsteps echoing off the corrugated steel walls and ceiling until they were lost in the squeal of Prophet's cruiser heading toward the Hawkins Bridge.

Prophet turned out east Main, where every home had bright white porches, and then across the tracks, to the black neighborhood of hardscrabble houses and old mobile homes. The heat had defeated the few attempts to plant flowers, and even an old basketball hoop nailed to a dusty power pole sagged. He picked up speed as the town dropped behind and the highway wove between farms and second-growth brush.

As he passed the water tower he ran his radio check and the equipment worked just fine. Chuck Keller was handling the board, and he relayed the Braves score: in the sixth in Chicago, they trailed eight to three. Justice had hit a home run, but so had a lot of Cubs.

"Wind must be blowing out, Chuck."

"Dispatch to Unit Five. That or our bull pen's as good as ever, one."

Prophet grunted. Maybe the brass ring next year.

Lonnie Ross hadn't surfaced yet, so when Prophet got to the bridge, he picked out a spot that took advantage of the terrain: a quarter-mile from the bridge the road coming up from the river crested the hill. Anyone coming from the Crawford County side would be slowing as they topped the rise, and they'd be on the Cruiser before they knew it. For his part, Prophet could see major parts of the bridge through the roadside screen of scrub pines and tulip trees, and that would be helpful after dark, to get ready for visitors coming across the long straight span.

"Dispatch, Unit Five. In position." Prophet watched the heat shimmer off the blacktop. Dust devils swirled in a nearby field.

"Unit Five. Unit Five, Dispatch." Chuck's voice came through tinnily. "Unit Nine will be joining you by eighteen hundred."

Prophet acknowledged, then got out of the cruiser and prepared his equipment. The magnum was checked again, the shotgun was loaded and replaced in the clips behind him, and he maneuvered the cruiser until it could restrict traffic but not be a safety hazard.

Now, nothing to do but wait. He leaned back against the seat. Weedy grasses swayed wearily in the superheated air, and the dry overgrazed pasture to his left stretched over the top of the hill. The Flint drifted quietly downstream on his right, fringed by river oaks, pines and tall brush. He lifted his Stetson and mopped his forehead on his sleeve.

What had Jack May meant by "Don't give him the benefit of the doubt"? Was he just saying Be Careful? Or was he saying something a little darker? Was he saying something about Stevens not surviving a roadblock? Did Jack expect him to drop the man in cold blood?

He glanced down at the checkered walnut butt of the magnum. Off the range he had fired it three times in nine years of law enforcement, and two of those had been into the air. Could he kill a man because he might hurt his daughters?

Prophet looked at himself in the rearview mirror. He shook his head. No, he decided. No Rambo stuff. Vietnam was a long time ago, and he had gotten old enough and smart enough to avoid trouble when he could. At least there was one thing he and the Sheriff could agree on: full-charge heroics got people hurt, usually the wrong people.

He carefully opened his eyes.

**HELLO!** The voice exploded in his head and Prophet clapped his hands to his ears, but it didn't help. He shook his head, and immediately wished he hadn't.

"Not so loud," he said, then stopped. He realized that sounded different from the HELLO. He considered the possibilities.

"You're inside my head," he said. The creature slowly raised one hand. Clicks came from its mouth.

**You're inside my head,** Prophet repeated, thinking it

**And you're in mine.** The thought came, and Prophet shivered with delight at the experience. It was like thinking—at least he was pretty sure he hadn't heard it, and he didn't see anything move or—well it was like thinking, but he knew it wasn't from him.

**Ah, welcome to Earth, I guess.**

**Thank you. As it happens…not my first trip.**

The alien shuddered and seemed to slump in the webbing, his torso rising and falling as he labored to breathe. Prophet forced himself back to practicalities in the midst of wonder upon wonder.

**You're hurt. How can I help? What do you need?**

**…There are…three of us…other two…back the other way…bring them here…hurry…we don't have much time.**

Prophet nodded, then realized the gesture might have little meaning, then decided that the alien knew everything about him he knew, and understood nodding. He turned back down the corridor, past the hole to the outside, toward the other end of the craft. Again, the flashlight showed little of the material along the walls. The blue lights behind him fluttered faster and the sound climbed from bassoon to clarinet.

**Ahead…turn right…see if anyone is still alive.** The thought from the alien followed him. He shook his head at the smashed bulkheads and crumpled floor.

**This part of your machine is heavily damaged. I don't think anyone could have survived.**

**She's tough….hurry.**

Prophet reached the room and managed to get the hatch open.

**What is it? What…do you see? Is she all right?**

Prophet's torch showed that whoever or whatever had been in the webbing in here had died when the wall collapsed.

**The room is destroyed,** he thought. **All I can see is part of a leg or an arm covered with a kind of fur. The rest is crushed between two bulkheads. I'm sorry.**

There was a short pause before the other's thought came again. When it did, Prophet understood the brisk pace of the message. He would have done the same thing. **Try…last area…ahead of you…on the left. If you can't…get through, come back…running out of time.**

Prophet slid around damaged bulkheads and tried to press past an area that had been crushed and twisted.

**Hey, up there. The walls are getting warmer. Am I getting dosed with radiation or something?**

**No…not radiation. The skimmer…sublimating.**

**Sublimating, as in sublime?** He squeezed ahead a foot.

**As in physics…solid to gas without…passing through the liquid stage.**

**What?** Prophet felt a real attack of panic.

**Still time. Try…to find the other one, Deputy.**

Prophet froze at a flicker of movement in the darkness ahead of him. Only his eyes shifted as he strained to see into the shadows.

**Hey—by the way, what do I call you?—Something moved in that room.**

**He's alive, then…that's good. Can you get to him…is he hurt? Ah, call me…Smith…for now.**

Prophet looked at the narrow space crushed by the damaged walls. **Pleased to meet you, Smith. This is gonna be real tight. I must be bigger than your crew, and the damage is pretty bad. I'll give it one try, then I'm coming back up there to get you out of here before we both melt, or sublimate, or whatever the hell you call it.**

He turned sideways and began to slide through the narrow passage, trying to avoid the worst of the razor-sharp edges and the most obstructed areas. The sound around him moved into flute range and continued to rise, and the flickering blue lights did strange things to his vision, so he closed his eyes and concentrated on feeling his way through the damage. Two feet, three feet, and the walls began to open up slightly.

**I'm making some progress here. Can you tell what's-his- name I'm coming?**

**Afraid not…for me, this only works with humans… commlink…is out…no response.**

A quarter-inch-thick tendril shot out of the darkness, wrapped itself around Prophet's wrist, and squeezed. The flashlight went flying to the floor and winked out. Prophet stared at the thing crawling around his arm, reaching closer to his body, pulling him further into the darkness ahead.

"Son of a Bitch!" he yelled, shuddering with terror and loathing. He tried to jerk his arm loose and slide back the way he had come.

**Hey, Smith, this thing has grabbed me. Forget this, man, I'm outta here.**
A second tendril snaked out of the dark, wrapping around his upper arm, heading for his neck. At the touch of the tip below his left ear he recoiled, hitting his head on the bulkhead behind him. He reached for the magnum.

**Smith, I'm going to have to drop him if he doesn't let go.**

The tendril tip left a trail of liquid that burned its way into Prophet's flesh. He pulled back further into the tight hole he'd just come through, trying to free his gun in the cramped tunnel.

"Damn you, let go," he hissed, finding his weapon. "You won't get me without trouble, you damn snake." His hand closed on the grip and the gun cleared the holster, starting to come up to aim into the blackness ahead of him. Reluctantly he thumbed back the hammer.

**I hate to start something, but you don't give me any choice.**

He began to squeeze the trigger, and the tendrils jerked him off-balance, scraping his face on the bulkhead as he stumbled. The magnum fired but Prophet had no idea where the slug went. The barrel caught on a jagged edge of the ruined wall and spun out of his grasp, clattering to the floor.

Prophet screamed as something soft and cold and moving in the darkness reached him. A larger tendril wrapped around his torso and began to pull. His head swam as terror poured adrenalin into his bloodstream. He spread his legs along the walls to resist the pull of the tendrils, but their power started him sliding along the walls and he felt with both feet for knobs or damage or any foothold to give him leverage.

**Smith! Smith, Help me!**

**Relax into him…Prophet. He's irrational…with pain…go with him.**

Since he was coming in second in the strength contest anyway, Prophet relaxed his muscles slightly, letting the thing pull him more easily along the corridor. The tendril on his gun arm began to change position, perhaps seeking a better grip, and Prophet immediately twisted his arm free, cracking his elbow on a wall section, but his groping hand reached only empty air. In this part of the passageway the damage was evidently lighter, and Prophet was free to maneuver.

He jerked himself from side to side, pulling against the tendrils and trying to free his other wrist. The tendrils tightened to pull him to the floor, but he resisted by a superhuman effort. Off his feet and down, Prophet thought, and he was a dead man.

The fingers of his free hand brushed against a ledge above the passageway. He hung onto it and managed to get his other hand up to it against the pull of the tendrils. Taking the weight off his feet, he began to kick as hard as he could, slamming both feet into the thing in front of him wherever he could find something to take his fury and his fear.

The tendrils twitched and the larger one re-attached itself to his waist momentarily, then all three released their grip. Prophet felt something give beneath his left heel, and the tendrils slithered into the darkness. His kicks met nothing and after a moment he stopped, releasing the ledge and scurrying back up the corridor to the damaged area where he felt for his flashlight and his gun.

As he squatted down in the jumble of the damaged corridor he heard squishing noises coming down the shadowy passageway toward him. The thought of another attack gave desperation to his attempts to locate the flashlight and the gun. By now the flashing blue lights were pulsing at the rate of hundreds per minute, and he spotted the dim outline of the flashlight against a wrinkle in the wall material. He pounced on it, stabbed at the ON button with a frantic thumb, and knew full-blown panic as the light stayed dark. He shook the light, pounding it into his palm, and got a sudden beam from the torch.

Concentrating on finding his weapon and ignoring the sounds of the alien approaching, Prophet frantically swept the corridor with the flashlight—left, right, ahead—looking into the shadows.

Then he saw it. On the floor, the magnum appeared in the pool of light. He lunged for the gun and a tendril wrapped around his ankle with savage ferocity. His lunge stopped
abruptly, and his fingers fell just short of the magnum. He
scrabbled desperately on the floor, bracing himself for the pull back down the passageway.

No pull came this time. Pinned in place, he waited an eternity.

More tendrils wrapped around the other leg and began to slither up his thighs toward his chest. And this time he was down. He tried to slide forward, but the tendrils permitted no more than an inch of progress. Claw as he might, he couldn't reach the magnum.

Something soft touched his leg, keeping his feet immobile by the tendrils, and began to cover him with soft cold weight. Prophet tried to kick and shake it off and thought about turning over and using the flashlight as a weapon.

The flashlight! Immediately he extended the light toward the magnum, capturing it and sliding it toward his other hand. The hammer caught in the rim of the light and he pulled it back into his gunhand.

In one blur of motion Prophet twisted onto his back and sat up, thumbing the hammer back and turning the flashlight on his attacker. When he saw eyes looking at him he pulled the trigger.

The force of the slug rocked the alien back.

Prophet pulled the trigger again and the entire head exploded, leaving the tendrils jerking spastically around his legs. The gunshots roared and echoed in the corridor, deafening him. The gun bucked in his hand as he pulled the trigger again and again. Not until he dimly heard the hammer snapping on spent shells did he stop.

The radio crackle interrupted him. "Unit Five, this is Dispatch. Contact Unit Nine on Tach 2."

"Dispatch, Unit Five." Prophet punched the button. "Unit Nine, this is Unit Five."

"Hay-lo, JP!" came from the speaker. Undoubtedly Lonnie Ross. "Unit Ni-yun shore is fi-yun, can Unit Fi-uv even dri-uv?"

"On station before you got your pants on, my man. What's your twenty?"

"You surely got that right, Ace, but you're a family man. Ah'm about three miles from the bridge and just a-buzzin, cuzzin. Any bad guys around?"

Prophet curled a lip and shook his head. "Negatory, good buddy. Come on in and catch the clinic on how this is done."

"I don't believe I know you well enough to be called your good buddy." Lonnie paused. "And I don't believe I care to, either."

In a few minutes Prophet could see the brown cruiser with the lights blinking as it came over the crest of the hill. Lonnie parked across the road, got out and approached Prophet leaning against his driver's door.

"You got a death wish?" Prophet asked the only black deputy in the department as he came over. "What if Jack had been listening in? You know he hates clowning on Tac Two."

"Hope he was, summer's too boring around here. Got to get those juices flowing."

"He'll get your juices flowing all right. You're going to crack wise once too often some day, and then—."

"—Won't never happen. He and the Sheriff know they can't afford to fire me without having the EN-tire state of Georgia on
their ass and the NAACP too. Besides," he lowered his voice, "Me and Jack May done took our blood brother oath, Yes!" he shouted, holding his hand outstretched, "my friends, it was in the dark of the moon, after midnight! Give me an amen, brother," he glanced over his shoulder to where the deacon should stand.

"Amen," supplied Prophet dutifully.

"In the dark of the moon when we swore the most solemn oaths, unbreakable and unspeakable in this or any other county, to be blood brothers!" again he paused for breath, looking behind him.

"Uh, amen again," Prophet said, grinning.

"Yay-uss, blood brothers!, to use the secret handshake, name our first-born after each other, and…."

"And?" Prophet asked.

"To turn each other in to the I-uh R-uh Ess at the first chance we get. Me and Jack are just like that." he held up two fingers.

"Never mind, I know the rest." Prophet forestalled him. "Jack fill you in on what's happening?"

"Make Georgia safe for democracy, hold the fort, and tell Jason Stevens They Shall Not Pass. That about it?"

Prophet nodded, not sure whether he was irritated or entertained. Sometimes Lonnie didn't know when to turn it off. Maybe by now he didn't know how to turn it off.

In the next hour they stopped four pickups from the county and a tourist from Connecticut, checking licenses and looking into the two trucks that had camper-tops. The sun moved slowly through the Georgia sky, but the breeze that came and went did nothing to ease the heat. Sweat rings appeared and spread on both uniform shirts.

"Damned unprofessional," Lonnie said. Prophet agreed.

A little after their second radio check they had a moment when a green station wagon showed up, but it turned out to be a county family coming back from Macon.

"Hot work, Deputy," the man said, as four kids in the back crowded over to see the excitement. "and the radio says it's gonna come up thunderstorms tonight. Don't envy you your jobs."

"Glad to be of service to you folks," Lonnie said with a grin.

"'Preciate your concern, Sir," Prophet said, and waved him through. An hour later Lonnie went for burgers.

Prophet sat on the floor, waiting to see if the alien would move again. His heart pounded and the palm of his gunhand felt wet with sweat. He shivered despite the warmth of the corridor and tried to understand, as the tendrils slowly fell away from him.

He had killed an alien being, that seemed certain—maybe the only human in history who had. He looked at the magnum and slowly holstered it, moving as in a dream.

What else could he have done? He had been attacked twice, and had only defended himself. He hadn't wanted to squeeze off, and his reluctance had nearly gotten him killed. If there had been another way to stop the attack he would have taken it. Now nothing more could be done. He'd killed something—somebody— that no man had ever killed before, and he felt like vomiting.

But then he had always felt like vomiting when he had killed in Vietnam—after the fight was over.

**Prophet…fight…isn't over…not yet!**

He jerked his head up.

**God, Smith, I'm sorry! I had to shoot your friend. He's dead.**

**You…only shortened his life…by minutes. I understand…combat. Now come…help me get out…before this thing disappears… and us with it.**

Prophet scrambled to his feet and his head collided with the low ceiling, driving him to his knees. Damn! he thought, blinking slowly. **I'm coming, hold your horses.**

He slid through the crumpled area of the passageway and crab-walked to the bridge, where Smith was still lying in the webbing. He seemed less…present, maybe…Prophet thought.

Smith looked up as he came in. **First thing…this harness. Then I'll need your help…to get back and report.**

Prophet had pulled out his lockback and had started to saw through the tough fibers of the webbing. He stopped, considering what he had received, then started sawing again, slowly. Report? To who? about what—Earth and its defenses? What was going on? If Smith lived and reported, was the next thing a fleet of spaceships coming to take over? Maybe the smartest thing right now was to leave him here, get out, and let nature take its course. Two crew members were dead. Why not three? There might be advantages.

He shook his head. It wasn't his style. First things first.

He renewed his attack on the webbing, which was surprisingly resistant to the sharp blade.

**Is it me, or has the temperature gone up in here?**

**…sublimation…generates…high temperatures as a by-product. Try the area over…there.**

Prophet worked where Smith indicated, and the fibers began to separate. Smith fell back weakly, causing the webbing to sway with his body weight. Prophet tried to disturb the harness as little as possible while still working his way through the strap as rapidly as possible. The temperature continued to climb, and in a few minutes Prophet drenched himself in sweat again.

**What the hell is this sublimation for? Are your machines supposed to do this?**

**…defensive…like destroying military equipment…before the enemy can use it.**

Prophet finished the second strap and began to work on the third. He looked at the way the straps fell across Smith's small form. If he got those three, and the two along that side, he ought to be able to slide Smith out along the bottom edge and they could both get out of the craft.

**So, are we the enemy?** He asked the question off- handedly, but it was clear he didn't fool Smith.

**This is not…War of the Worlds…haven't come across the galaxy to…annihilate humans….Even if we had… you really think …I'd admit it when…I'm trapped…you my only way out? We're just shy…about being noticed by you people…. Sublimation…keeps us less… visible…after something like…this.**

Prophet completed working along the side and moved to the bottom, supporting Smith with one leg while he reached for the first webbing.

**You mean like a crash?** he asked.


**Or ship-to-ship combat.** Smith remained silent.

Prophet worked faster now to compensate for the blade growing dull and the craft becoming uncomfortably hot. He could feel heat radiating from the walls and coming up through his shoes.

**Come on, Smith. I sure haven't been across the galaxy, as you put it, but I can recognize sky-fighting when I see it. There were two ships and you guys came in second. That damage back there is more than just the smashup when you augured in. So if us humans are just clumsy irritations, then who in hell did this?**

He moved to the next to the last strap, and he had stopped sweating. The temperature had moved into the range where the water evaporated as soon as it appeared, and he could feel his skin heating. They didn't have much time left at all.

Smith remained silent.

**Look, Smith. I can leave you here right now and walk away and tell myself with no trouble at all that it would be best for my country and my world.** Prophet stopped and looked directly at Smith. **So tell me what's going on, or you'll never make your report to headquarters or the Big Ragu or anybody this side
of Hell.**

The temperature continued to climb, and for a moment Prophet feared the strain had become too much for Smith in his weakened condition. He paused a moment more.

**What's what, Smith?** Prophet dragged out the time as much as he dared, perhaps a bit longer than he should have.

Smith's answer came at last, in a thought that Prophet wasn't really sure he had received, and he wondered if that indicated the alien's growing weakness.

**All right, Prophet…you'll get…the full story. My word…whatever it's worth….enough games….let's get out…of here.**

**Right.** Prophet answered, slashing through the last strap. As he did, he wondered if he had been bluffing about leaving a helpless creature to burn to death. Then he wondered about the word helpless.

The last strap parted, and Prophet eased Smith out of the harness. The alien was too weak to be of much help, only moving his chin aside to avoid snags in the webbing. As he came free from the web, Prophet took his weight in both arms, cradling him as he had injured children. He marveled at the light weight, about half what he would have expected from Smith's height.

The heat had become frightful, and as Prophet retraced his steps to the entrance holes, he found to his horror that he sank perceptibly into the deck material. Evidently everything was breaking down. He could smell the stench of scorching shoe leather and rubber as he moved down the passageway and he prayed that the hot ceiling wouldn't drop onto his back. Behind him, he could hear noises coming from the control room they'd just left as equipment fell into the decking.

He shifted Smith's position, holding him close under his chest as he scurried along, trying to protect him from the worst of the heat.

When he came to the holes leading to the outside, the material was cooler here, as though the wet night had slowed the process. He started the climb up to the surface of the craft, using his elbows and feet while his hands held Smith. Beneath him he could feel the craft shaking, becoming flimsy and insubstantial.

He pushed Smith outside, setting him on the surface of the craft, and pulled himself out. As he rolled free, a great ball of heat shot past him, sizzling the leaves on the trees above. Prophet set himself on the ground and reached to take Smith, who had slumped sideways on the craft's hull.

The saucer crumpled in on itself, taking Smith with it as Prophet stretched for him. He lunged, grabbing wildly at the alien and coming up with an arm and a handful of uniform front. He pulled back and swung Smith up and out of the range of the intense heat, gasping for relief in the cool night air, one hand securely wrapped in Smith's uniform.

After a minute, he carried Smith back along the track of the crash-landing, setting him at the base of a Beech tree. He covered Smith with the slicker, and the two of them watched the craft dissolve in a silent white heat that consumed everything.

Neither Prophet nor Smith found anything to say.



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