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CI: Dark Target
By David DeBatto Pete Nelson
Warner BooksCopyright © 2006 David DeBatto Pete Nelson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE GIRL RAN, LEAVING THE JEEP BEHIND. She'd switched cars, abandoning her Civic at her uncle Henry's trailer after parking it in a grove of cottonwoods, though she doubted the trees would conceal it for long. She'd teased her uncle about owning a Cherokee (they were Cocopah) and told him he was a fool to leave the key in the ignition, abandoning the vehicle for weeks at a time while he traveled the country, but she'd been glad to find the old car gassed up and ready for use. She'd been wearing night vision goggles to drive with the headlights off, and was in the middle of nowhere, ten miles short of the Mexican border, on a dirt road the locals called Camino del Diablo, so rutted and eroded with deep corduroylike ripples that she couldn't make much better than twenty miles per hour, when it just stopped. It could have been simple mechanical failure. The Cherokee had more than two hundred thousand miles on it.
She turned the key. Nothing happened. She pounded on the dashboard. She tried to turn the headlights on and off, but the headlights didn't work, nor did the radio. When she checked the fuse box, she discovered that all the fuses had been tripped. The spare fuses in the glove box were blown as well.
She left the NVGs on the seat and ran, out of breath,across the floor of the desert. She was headed for Spirit Mountain, pausing to consult the topo map her friend had e-mailed her. Her ancestors had taken refuge there. Perhaps she could, too. Her goal was a place her friend had called the Ano Kayai, the Village of Eagles, an ancient Anasazi cliff dwelling beneath a red rock overhang, her friend had said, a ruin picked over by pot thieves and of little further interest to archaeologists, last occupied by mushroom-eating hippies in the sixties, but it was still holy, and she'd found herself praying a lot lately-perhaps it would protect her. If she could reach it before daylight came, she might be safe. They might not find her. The evil ones. The ones her uncle had warned her about. Her boots dug into the sand where it gathered in wind-blown drifts, her heels clattering across the hard-baked caliche where the wind had scoured the sand away. She navigated between the saguaros and the ocotillos and the jumping cholla by the light of a quarter moon, still visible in a sky that was starting to cloud over. She didn't stop until she reached an arroyo, where she paused beneath a mesquite bush to catch her breath.
She looked up at the moon. It was a quarter full, but bright in the clear desert air. As a little girl, she'd been fond of stripping off her frock and dancing naked by the light of a full moon. Now the light was her enemy. Her own body heat was her enemy-wasn't that how snakes located their prey? She prayed for the clouds to gather above her, an ancient prayer for rain that her grandmother had taught her, but she could only remember the first part of it. Perhaps that was enough.
She took a drink from one of the water bottles in her bag. She had two more. If she had to, she could make that last for a day or two. Yet when she pushed again at the implant beneath the skin of her right forearm, she feared she didn't have another day or two-unless she could get it out, her time left on this earth could be only a matter of minutes. It was crazy thinking, but sometimes crazy thinking made sense. That had to be how they'd found her. Getting the implant had been his idea. She'd trusted him then. She didn't trust him now. That had to be it.
She was angry with herself for not being better prepared-she needed a knife, but she didn't have one. She unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse and leaned forward to take the dog tags from around her neck, hoping the edge would be sharp enough to slice into her skin. It wasn't. She tried sharpening the edge of one of the tags on a rock, then pressed it one more time into her skin, scraping as hard as she could until she drew blood, but it just wasn't sharp enough. She should have done this sooner, at her uncle's trailer, where one of the old fashioned single-edged razor blades he kept to shave with would have done the job quickly and neatly.
Fortunately, the desert was full of things sharp enough to pierce her skin. She climbed out of the arroyo and moved to a large saguaro cactus, a twenty-foot-tall specimen, its taproot reaching down perhaps a hundred feet to find water, probably a five-thousand-dollar plant, she guessed, to the illegal cactus-rustlers who'd come with their four-wheel-drive vehicles and their lassos to pull the saguaros down and sell them to landscapers in Tucson and Phoenix. The rustlers weren't necessarily outsiders. Often they were tribal people who should have known better than to disturb the spirits of a plant that had stood in the same place for a thousand years. They'd lost their connection to the earth, but who was she to judge? So had she, she feared. It was why she was in the trouble she was in. It was how the evil ones had gotten to her. Her uncle had warned her, even though he was as modern as they came.
She prayed briefly to the spirit of the cactus, trying to remember the words her grandmother had taught her long ago, then positioned her arm against a long needle and leaned into the cactus until the needle pierced her to the depth of perhaps half an inch. She cried out in pain, once, then gritted her teeth and dug, dragging her arm against the needle until she'd made a cut that was perhaps an inch and a half long. She tried to get at the implant with her teeth, but it was too far down toward her elbow, and she couldn't reach. She dug again with the needle, and the pain was unbearable, but she endured it, digging with her fingernail until she was finally able to extract the device. She wiped the blood off it and then held it up to examine it, a small plastic tube, about an inch and a half long.
"Goddamn you," she spat, using the Cocopah name her grandmother used to call her, which meant "foolish girl." Foolish for all she'd done. Foolish for thinking she was better than anybody else, smarter. Foolish for losing her humility.
She flung the device as far as she could into the desert. Maybe they would think she was dead, now that it no longer moved. Maybe they would leave her alone.
She used some of her precious water supply to wash the wound, then tied her bandana around it, using her teeth to pull it tight. It would have to do. She had to keep running.
But where were her dog tags? What had she done with them?
There was no time to look for them.
She returned to the arroyo and moved up the wash, keeping to the side when it widened, hoping it would afford some minimal cover as she climbed through the creosote bushes and the palo verde. If she was reading the map right, her car had died a few miles short of the arroyo she was to take to bring her to the trail head. Perhaps this one joined the other. She had to keep moving. She tore her pants on a rock, and then a spike from an ocotillo nearly ripped her hair out, but she kept going. She'd gone a few hundred yards when she heard a snapping sound in the air behind her, a crackling, like cellophane crinkling.
She turned. There was nothing there, but she felt a presence, a shimmering quality to the darkness, zigzagging lines, like glass snakes, crawling across her field of vision, just below the visible spectrum.
They were coming for her.
She ran, the red rock walls of a shallow canyon rising to either side of her now. There was a chance that the canyon would protect her, long enough to find somewhere to hide, a ledge, a cave, a javelina den, anything.
They were coming. How had they found her?
Then, on a distant hill, perhaps a mile off, she saw a light.
It looked like a fire. A fire meant people. Out here, in the desert, at three in the morning, it probably meant people she didn't want to know, people who might do her harm, smugglers or thieves, but she didn't care-perhaps there was strength in numbers. Perhaps the presence of witnesses would be enough to make the evil ones leave her alone. Unless the evil ones wanted to kill them all, but if that was what they wanted to do, there was nothing to stop them.
She headed for the light.
Around the fire, the dancers moved, chanting as they circled, their faces painted in the reds and yellows of the earth. There was a Hopi warrior. There was a Navaho medicine man, and a Mescalero shaman, his back covered by the skins of a coyote, the image of Kokopelli tattooed across his bare chest. Two women danced naked from the waist up, their eyes closed as they swayed, enraptured by the chanting and the drumming, at one with the pulse of the universe, the orange-blossom turquoise necklaces clattering against the sacred crystals strung with leather lanyards that hung from their necks. There was a Mandan holy man, dressed in buffalo hides, and another warrior whose leathers were like those of the Cree or the Blackfoot, adorned with Sioux beads he'd purchased at a Cherokee trading post in Enid, Oklahoma. Next to him was a man dressed as a Star Trek captain, accompanied by his Klingon wife, and her best friend, who'd come dressed as Counselor Troy, even though at five-foot-three and a hefty two hundred twenty pounds, the resemblance stopped at the costume, the cleavage, and the curly black wig. A shy man in Vulcan ears stood back from the circle, reluctant to partake of the hallucinogenic mushrooms the leader of the group had provided but doing his best to be a good sport, a believer.
At the edge of the fire, a young woman named Rainbow stood with her back to the light, gazing up at the stars, visible to the east, the moon overhead gone now behind a bank of clouds. She'd never felt this good, ever, never known just how one-with-the-universe it was possible to become-it was everything she'd read about in her studies of Eastern mysticism and Zen philosophy, but it was better, because this, this night, this ceremony, this special group of people, had somehow managed to tie it all together, the ancient and authentic past (as represented by the Native Americans) and the realizable future, as represented by the crew from the Enterprise. They were at the cosmic tipping point between universal epochs, the leader said, and she knew it was true. She loved how for the first time in her life, she felt like she could be whoever she wanted to be. She wasn't sure what that was, exactly, but it didn't matter-it was the freedom itself that she felt, more than how that freedom manifested itself. So what if the Hopi warrior was really a Jewish librarian from Denver, and the Navaho medicine man owned a science-fiction bookstore in Flagstaff, and the Mescalero shaman was currently living off Social Security in Bisbee-tonight, anything was possible.
"I love you," she said to the sky, watching for movement. The ship was coming. Brother Antonionus had promised it would come. The idea made her so happy. Perhaps it would beam them up and take them with them, or perhaps it would simply study them tonight, in order to better prepare for the final ascension. It was an auspicious night. "I love you so much. I'm so grateful. I really am. I love you so much," she told the universe, letting the tears come. It was the way she'd been meant to feel. It was everything she'd lacked in Seattle, working in a cubicle for a running shoe company, dehumanized and joyless, in a town where the permanently overcast sky hung like a fat gray mattress about a hundred feet above the ground-that's what it felt like.
That was wrong. This was right.
She wondered, vaguely, what had happened to her daughter Ruby, but knew she had to be around somewhere. The universe was too benevolent to let anything happen to Ruby-Rainbow couldn't afford to worry about it. The earth would take care of Ruby. Rainbow tried to remember the lesson: Stress created negative vibrations, and negative vibrations interrupted the frequency upon which the universe resonated, whereas positive vibrations harmonized with it. That's what Brother Antonionus told them, and he'd gotten that straight from the Rigelians themselves.
"Brothers and sisters," the man in the white robes with the beatific smile on his face said, his blue eyes glazed and sparkling with an inner radiance, "People of the Light-move to the rhythm of the universe and feel the pulse of the planets. They are watching you, my brethren. They see what you do and they feel what you feel. They are waiting for their children to come home. They are coming to take us home, once we show them we are ready ..."
Ruby was bored. She'd spent the day helping the grown-ups make a gigantic mandala in the sand that was supposed to serve as a landing pad, but she was frankly (and secretly) hoping that the UFOs didn't come tonight, even though she knew her mother would be disappointed. Ruby didn't care-her friends were having a slumber party next weekend, and she wanted to go. All in all, she was pretty excited about the possibility of traveling to another planet and hanging out with super-intelligent aliens, or at least she was at first, but the more she thought about it, the more she felt like maybe she needed to spend a little more time on this planet, and besides, when she hung out with the super-intelligent kids at school, she didn't have any fun at all.
She'd taken a flashlight and wandered off to look for javelinas, the wild pigs that sometimes followed each other around with their noses in each other's butts because they were so nearsighted they couldn't see ten feet in front of themselves. She checked over her shoulder occasionally to keep the watch fire in view, but she wasn't worried about getting lost.
She was surprised when she felt something hard rap against the top of her skull, as if a squirrel had thrown an acorn from a tree, and then another, and a third, until she realized they were raindrops, not acorns. Storms could blow up fast in the desert, she knew. She knew also that it could be dangerous to be caught in a wash, where flash floods could sweep you away in an instant.
She turned and headed back to the fire, but then she heard something and stopped.
Something in the desert.
She turned her flashlight toward the sound.
In the distance, she saw something move.
It was a woman, a Native American woman-a real one, not one of the fakes who liked to dance around watch fires and take their tops off.
The woman stopped when she saw Ruby's flashlight. Ruby was about to call out to her, and say something like, "Over here-come this way-you can wait with us until the storm passes," but then something happened.
She wasn't sure exactly what it was, but it was like a flash of light, without the light. Like somebody was taking her picture with a flashbulb, but she'd blinked at the last minute, except that she hadn't blinked, and now there was a bright blue streak on the back of her retina, but she couldn't say why, except that she was looking at a woman, and then the woman sort of ... melted, and now the woman was gone.
Ruby couldn't breathe.
Ruby couldn't move.
For a second, she thought she'd dreamed what she'd just experienced. As she collected her wits about her, Ruby then thought what she'd seen was a woman being struck by some sort of invisible lightning. And lightning brought with it thunder, which, at so short a distance, should have been deafening-Ruby had heard only a soft crackling, and then a snap.
And then the woman was gone.
Maybe it was a dream, Ruby thought. Or maybe the image had been sent to her by somebody, the way some people saw the image of the Virgin Mary in the frost on a windowpane-maybe it meant Ruby had been singled out to be a witness to something special, except that she could still see the look of fear on the woman's face, and the pain she felt as she burned. Ruby could definitely smell something had burned, like the time she was trying to fry ants with a magnifying glass with her friend Cody and accidentally lit her own hair on fire. The picture of the woman melting was not an image Ruby cared to carry with her-it frightened her-but how was she going to get rid of it? Maybe if someone explained it to her.
Perhaps Brother Antonionus would know. He seemed knowledgeable about such matters.
Far away, in a darkened control room, lit only by the light of a liquid crystal display, a conversation:
"Collateral target acquired."
Excerpted from CI: Dark Target by David DeBatto Pete Nelson Copyright © 2006 by David DeBatto Pete Nelson. Excerpted by permission.
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