Three lasers streamed into the blackness ahead. Captain Erin Waite aimed her executer and led her squad deeper into the cave. They were more than a mile in. Her unit moved in formation behind her surrounding a scientist, Sandra Moore, and a waste-of-space journalist, Thyme Bransford.
“It’s coming,” Thyme whispered, her voice trembling.
“Where?” Erin kept moving, scanning the narrowing rock walls with the executer tight to her shoulder.
Thyme didn’t respond.
The semi-automatic weapon, a rare commodity, fired tiny proton explosives encased in a bullet that reduced objects to dust while leaving the surrounding matter untouched. Ford Reams, the Southerner to Erin’s right, claimed he blasted a Russian terra-tank the size of a house to ashes back when the Army could afford to supply executers to a small portion of infantry. The bullet waiting to be fired held the laser. A dimmer red light fanned out from the barrel, penetrating the dark, showing a narrow, empty cave. Erin was losing patience with this girl.
“Thyme, answer me.”
“I don’t know. But it’s coming!” she screeched.
“What is that condiment saying?” Brody Halverson left his position at the rear to approach Erin. He wasn’t the type to coddle anyone.
Probably why Erin loved him. And why she would never tell him. He would’ve broken her heart after one night together. She met him years ago, but only worked directly with him once before. “Anything?”
“Nothing. I’ll keep walking backward to make sure.” He returned to his position.
“Tom?” Erin glanced over her left shoulder at Tom Eagle, her second-in-command.
“Clear,” he replied.
She groaned, tempted to order a spit-shine to clean the goggles. “Only report a sighting if you actually see something, got it?”
The group, including Thyme, echoed understanding.
They pressed on, and Erin determined to ignore Thyme. If she cracked up, Erin could send her back to base.
“Here I thought alien-huntin’ bored a woman like you, Thyme,” Ford said. “Back in the canyon, we’re saddlin’ up and you yawn like this is some cake walk.”
She said nothing.
Ford sniggered. “Not so confident now, huh, twig?”
First day back at base camp, he had made cracks about Erin in front of the other soldiers, too. “What Xdream-injectin’ politician voted some chick as team leader?” he asked, unaware she stood a few feet behind him.
“You don’t know Erin Waite,” said Tom. The one person on the planet Erin genuinely trusted always backed her up. She knew Tom from several Russian tours in the 20’s. He saved her life during an incident the higher ups claimed never happened.
“You heard about the slaughter, didn’t you?” he asked.
Ford spat. “Myth far as I know, bro.”
Tom folded his arms, his dark biceps bulging. “I’m not your bro, and I was there.”
“You sayin’ it’s true?”
“I found her outside Treehouse, our outermost post, five bullets in her. A sniper shot had grazed her head, but I still saw fight in her eyes.”
Brody cleaned his executer beside Tom, but neither gave Erin’s position away as she stood behind Ford. She waited to see what else Tom would say.
“You implyin’ she took down those Russians alone?” asked Ford.
“It’s a fact. Colonel made her replace thirty of our guys at Treehouse. I found out, grabbed weapons and anybody who’d come. She only had her knives, but someone left a flack shield. That’s probably what saved her in the end. By the time I got there, sixty Russians were splattered across the tundra. Sliced and diced. When I dropped a rifle beside her, she helped me hold off the rest till our company caught up.”
Ford backed up, arms raised, stopping just before he would’ve knocked into her. “Still, who says she killed ’em all? I’d take her on.”
He looked down. Erin’s knife caressed his inner thigh.
Brody whistled and Tom grinned.
By the time she face planted Ford, knife at his throat, she knew he’d never question her again.
In the cave, the red lights skimmed along the ceiling, the walls, the floor. If Erin didn’t know better, she would’ve thought the cave had been there for thousands of years. Rock shelves jutted out, but nothing else.
“I hear running water,” Sandra said.
The distant noise was faint, but Erin heard it too.
“If the AA is searching for water, we may be close to encountering it,” continued the scientist.
“What’s AA again?” asked Ford.
“My name for it. Animalia Abnormalis,” Sandra repeated for the fifth time.
They walked on in silence for another mile or so. No major changes in the surroundings. The cave walls remained about twelve feet in diameter. The trickling water sounds grew louder. In another mile, the cave narrowed into what looked like a dead end where clay mixed in with the dirt.
Erin pressed her hand against the wall. She checked her GPS. Four miles in and already blocked.
Sandra picked up loose rocks from the ground, observing them in her flashlight. “I’ve never seen this before.”
“You a geologist now?” asked Ford.
Sandra glared at him. “Didn’t you once headline the ‘Wal-World member of the day’ site?”
Brody crowed, “That shirt was tight and tiny! Made your biceps look huge.” He tarried in the back, still facing away.
Ford scoffed, but didn’t reply.
“I’m familiar with every rock known to exist in this canyon, including the meteorite,” Sandra said. “This is not native.”
“Do we dig?” asked Tom. “Try the breathing equipment?”
“I don’t think we’ll need it,” said Thyme.
Erin turned to her. Thyme didn’t seem right. Her goggles gave her eyes a glazed look. “Why?”
“We’re not going lower, just deeper.” Whatever Erin saw, Thyme seemed to snap out of it. “Suits me,” she continued. “Easier to record my notes if I’m not blocked by a mask.”
“You ain’t recorded nothin’,” said Ford.
“Nothing worth mentioning yet.”
“What about, ‘it’s coming’?” Brody mimicked her nasally voice well.
Erin didn’t laugh, but wanted to.
“The monster? How should I know?”
Erin stepped toward Thyme raising a flashlight. “You don’t remember making that comment?”
Thyme shielded her eyes. “What?”
“You clearly said, ‘it’s coming.'” Tom moved in behind Erin. “Twice.”
“Like a scared lil’ girl,” added Ford.
“Please.” She brushed dust off her jumpsuit.
Erin lowered the flashlight. If Thyme proved a liability, she was returning to base. One more “it’s coming” and that would be it.
“Ford, keep an eye on her.”
“What’d I do?”
Brody patted his back. “You earned it, poster boy.”
Ford elbowed him off. “Whatever. That skinny butt belongs to me now if Waite says so.”
“I say so.” Erin scanned the space behind them and then faced the wall ahead. Turn back or try to dig through? No one knew AA’s capabilities yet, except burrowing tunnels and killing animals. Even she didn’t know what to expect. For her, that was unusual.
When Special Agent Daniel Newsome had Erin brought in, she anticipated a repeat of the Area 51 Insurgency of 2199. The first real proof that aliens existed, and they were wiped out in a millisecond. Although she preferred not to exterminate extraterrestrials like her forefathers, Newsome said the president asked her to head up the team pursuing the AA into the earth. The military had been depleted to minimal levels back in 2301. She figured she was chosen as one of the few officers available for a mission on American soil. Currently, President Maria Gonzalez was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy for the U.S. while the top military personnel waged the Great Eastern War against Russia.
On November 11, 2331, a green cloud had descended over the Greater Grand Canyon. No one knew what to make of the cabbage cumulus that never dissipated. A meteor struck the state of Wyoming centuries ago, creating a pit bigger than the Grand Canyon. As the green cloud stalled over the southeastern portion of the pit, the president ordered a quarantine. Scientists worked for months researching the cloud when something black oozed out of the center, disappearing into the depths of the meteorite debris.
Since then, AA had been spotted only twice. Some comparison was made to the old fake photo of the Loch Ness monster; a vague, misshapen behemoth rather than a sea creature.
In May 2332, Newsome shipped Erin to the camp stationed at the edge of the site. He’d introduced Erin to Sandra, who explained what they knew, which wasn’t much.
“We’ve been monitoring from the moment the cloud descended. Every animal killed has been sucked dry. Not of blood, but of water. The men who claimed to have seen it described it with a range of traits, but nothing concrete. At the very least, to our human eyes, AA is a monster.”
“So it needs water. Why wouldn’t this cloud move over the Great Lakes, then? Or the Pacific if it doesn’t mind the salt? Plenty there,” Newsome suggested.
“We don’t know. This so-called cloud contains no water, so it could be a hologram or a trick of lighting from the mother ship.”
“All this talk about dehydrated aliens and mother ships, and you want only four soldiers down there, Dan?” Erin asked.
“We don’t have many resources,” Newsome said. “The equipment we got for this team is ancient besides the executers. The thing has apparently managed to burrow several caverns. You’ll be searching one. We have no idea how deep it is because the scientific equipment here is no better. But Sandra will be coming as well.” He continued before she could object. “We don’t know if there’s a threat to humanity or not. However, the number of animal carcasses found indicates a possible confrontation. Though the president doesn’t want a repeat of history, either.”
Erin expected a vague directive in terms of dealing with the AA. “Give me something concrete.”
“The president wants this done however it needs to be done. If you have to take this thing down, so be it. She trusts you.”
Her team, with a citizen, prepared for the descent. Then Newsome sprung Thyme on them.
“The president wants journalistic eyes down there. Someone who can report something positive for the American people to hear.”
“This can’t be airing on the nightly news.”
“Nothing like that. We’ll have her prepare a special report after it’s all over.”
The revulsion Erin felt contorted her face as Thyme stepped up to the men, shaking each of their hands. The slender woman looked ready to tip over at the first sign of wind.
Erin had no idea why President Gonzalez trusted Thyme. She must be sleeping with a senator. From the little time Erin had to research her before the mission, she appeared to be a flake who wrote articles about why the military should be disbanded for good.
If the government commanded that two citizens tag along, it was on them if one got herself killed. Now Erin welcomed Sandra. She had a vague idea of what they might be dealing with, impressing Erin with her no-nonsense approach. The tall, muscular blond handled a pistol like she owned one.
Still, Erin debated her next move in the cave. Brody slid around her to the dead end. “Permission to try something.” He held up his weapon.
He jabbed the butt of his executer into the wall.
Like chalk, the wall crumbled where he struck.
“Aim!” Erin shouted.
All four beams shot through the hole. The red dots struck a smooth, striped surface. Polished rock walls. The falling water sound was louder, but beyond their sight.
“Eyes.” Erin stepped through the hole and felt just how smoothly the rock had been polished. As her slip-proof sole hit the ground, she slid like she’d walked onto a frozen pond. Her feet went up, and her back went down, hard. She slid to the right where the cave sloped before hitting the side. She grunted, more pride than injury.
“Erin!” Tom dove through the hole, sliding on his stomach. “You okay?”
“Fine.” He helped her up. They skated along the floor, holding each other’s arms. A clicking sound drew her head up.
A red light blinked near Thyme’s ear. “June 27th, 2332. Fourteen hundred hours. We’re four miles in, nothing unusual until this. At a dead end, one of the soldiers smashed through the wall. It’s as if someone spent thousands of years hand-polishing every inch of the cave from here onward. I can only see about twenty meters in, and then the cave appears to turn left.”
The red light stopped blinking as soon as Thyme stopped speaking.
“You really don’t remember sayin’ it, do ya?” Ford smirked.
Click, click. “The team members are professional and dedicated to this mission. The only questionable member is a soldier named Ford Reams.”
“He appears the most volatile of the group. I’ll be sure to keep a close watch on him.”
“I’m watchin’ you. Make note of that.”
The red light vanished. “No more notes needed at the moment.”
“Are we coming in there?” Brody asked.
Tom panted. “You notice the air in here?”
Erin’s breathing, now labored, matched Tom’s. “It’s thinner.” She wondered how the change felt so sudden.
“The pressure in this area is fluctuating.”
When Erin glanced back, Sandra held a metal stick in the air with a gauge at the top.
“Masks on and take off your shoes,” Erin ordered.
The men slung their weapons over their shoulders, obeying.
When the oxygen flowed, Erin’s head cleared and her breathing steadied. The minimal, clear bubble covered her lips and nose just below the goggles, locking in place with suction around the edges. A tube at the bottom led to a small tank on her back. Tom held her shoulders as she unstrapped her boots. When she placed a bare foot on the stone, she had some grip.
“Nothing like our day in Russia.” The bubble muffled Tom’s voice.
Erin glanced up. He grinned in the dark. The guns gave off minimal red light aimed toward the floor. “Not yet, at least.”
The memory struck Erin, and she was there. She saw Beck, the man who tried to rape her, approaching as if he were a present threat. She had just gotten warm under a thermal blanket. He pulled her off the bunk down to the cold floor. While she was trapped in the folds of the blanket, he had an advantage. But as soon as he ripped it off, she elbowed him in the jaw. He stumbled back into the bunk, but recovered quicker than she anticipated. He smashed his fist into her temple, disorienting her. He pulled her onto the lower bunk, face down. When the room stopped spinning, she felt his breathing on her neck. He smelled like sauerkraut. He yanked on her belt. She jerked her head back, smacking his skull hard. He slumped and cursed. She flipped to face him, wrapping her legs around his torso. He held his forehead. She hurled him off the bed. Now on top of him, she crushed her thighs against his ribs. His hand moved, but she reached the knife on his waist before he did.
Colonel walked in. “Lieutenant Waite! On your feet!”
“I know why the president trusts you.” Tom’s voice, quieter in the bubble, snapped Erin out of the trance. He took her hand to help her stand. “The Russian terminator.”
Her arms had goose bumps. She rubbed them, wondering how the memory felt so real. “Plural.” She smacked his arm while the others poured through the hole, gingerly stepping toward them. They helped each other keep balanced.
“If we find the water, we’ll likely find the creature,” Sandra said.
“Eyes open. Watch your step.” Erin’s boots hung at her waist, off-balancing her. As they rounded the curve, she slipped more than once. Each time, Tom caught her arm before she could fall.
“This monster is no match for you,” he whispered. “Even when you’re on the ground.”
Erin turned her head sideways, wishing he’d stop putting her on a pedestal. “Not if you’re with me. Our day in Russia, remember? Not just mine.”
Another memory flashed in front of Erin, pulling her in. The blistering cold tundra winds swept over her. As punishment, the colonel sent her to defend Treehouse, the outer post, alone with only her knives. She stood bloodied, full of lead and adrenaline looking over the Russian bodies. No one else rushed. She was alone again. The blood and guts reeked. She tasted iron. She heard the shot the same moment it hit her head, crashing back onto the flack shield. The lightweight, body-length, impenetrable material had saved her life until now.
Blood trickled into her ear. A whooping noise. She didn’t understand. How could she hear anything? How could she see clouds overhead? She was dead.
The yelling closed in. The enemy would take over Treehouse. Why would colonel give up the post just to have her killed? He could’ve let Beck shoot her in the bunker.
Tom Eagle. He sounded far away, but she recognized his voice. He leaped over her, looking like a bird of prey. He dropped a rifle.
The sniper bullet had grazed her skull, shaving off bone. The other bullets didn’t hit anything vital. Tom’s presence shot fresh adrenaline through her. She sat upright and grabbed the gun, grimacing as pain seared throughout her body. She clamored to her feet, lifted the rifle, and aimed. They held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived.
Both colonel and Beck were dishonorably discharged. Both had been Russian spies all along, and when that came out, they were executed.
Erin slipped again, and Tom’s chuckle jerked her into the present. They traveled until the curve dipped down. Erin motioned for the squad to hold weapons at the ready during the descent. They had to slide on their butts, and her feet hit dusty, unpolished ground at the bottom.
The tunnel opened into a cavern with a musty smell. Light poured in. Erin searched, aiming her executer, but couldn’t find the source of it. At different levels, several waterfalls drained through the walls, creating pools that went nowhere.
Across the cavern, she saw a pair of shoes. Someone hid behind a partial wall.
“Show me hands!”
The squad reacted and moved into formation.
“Please don’t shoot.” The voice sounded female and rickety, as if an old woman’s. “I’m unarmed.” She stepped out from behind the wall into the laser beams, arms raised. She looked clean and wore street clothes.
“Who are you?” Erin asked.
She stepped toward them.
“Halt or I shoot!”
Click, click. “We’ve entered a larger cavern with an unknown light source and waterfalls. Here, we’ve encountered an elderly woman, maybe in her seventies. She speaks English.”
“Not now, Thyme.” Erin wanted to smack her. “Actually, keep the recorder on, but don’t speak into it.” She kept a laser on the old woman’s chest. “Identify yourself.”
“Sandra Moore. I’m a scientist.”
Erin twisted her head to look at Sandra.
Her eyebrows shot up behind her goggles. “How do you know my name?”
“It’s my name,” the old woman said.
“That seems unlikely,” said Brody.
However, Erin saw a resemblance. Same facial structure, tan skin, her arms and legs still muscular, but the white-haired woman must be lying. “What are you doing down here?”
“I came to find the AA, long ago…” She trailed off, glancing at a pool beside her. Water splashing from the falls hit her shoes.
Sandra’s term. “Why don’t you have a mask?” Erin asked.
“Don’t need it anymore thanks to whatever the monster did to us.”
“If you’ll just let me show you. Then again, you always do.”
Erin couldn’t grasp what she meant, but the woman turned and walked behind the wall.
“Wait!” Erin jogged forward, the rest close behind.
An electrified hum, then an explosion blasted the rock wall to the right. Erin stumbled, turned. Ash floated out of a hole between the stalactites and stalagmites. Behind her, Ford aimed his weapon toward the spot where the old woman fled. “Warnin’ shot!” he cried. “Don’t try nothin’ funny.”
Erin marched to the Wal-World trash and tore the executer from his grasp. “How dare you fire without direct orders?”
“Erin!” Tom aimed his laser at the old woman’s chest again. Her hands were still up.
“Do it again and I’ll see you court marshaled.” Erin slammed his weapon against his chest.
Ford bowed his head. “Yes, cap’n.”
The old lady waved a hand. “We’re all coming out, unarmed.”
Four others trailed behind her, two old women and two old men, dressed in similar clothes.
The lasers targeted each person. When Erin looked closer at their faces, she gawked. They all looked too familiar. When the last woman stepped into line with the rest, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “What is this?”
“I’m Sandra, like I said. This is Ford, Thyme, Tom, and this is Erin.”
The woman named Erin had wrinkled lines around her eyes and mouth. She was the spitting image of Grandma Margarita from Mexico. She cropped her white hair short. A scar above her right ear left an unnatural part. Erin’s shoulder length, brunette hair was tied back in a ponytail, covering up most of her scar. Her tattoo, a thin vine trail, was on the old woman’s wrist.
Everyone gaped, speechless as they stared at their aged counterparts. But this couldn’t be real. As much as they looked like older versions of themselves, Erin didn’t want to trust her eyes. Sandra warned the monster might be capable of creating hallucinations.
“You’re supposed to be me?” Erin asked, sounding as snide as possible.
Old Erin nodded.
She wanted to fire and watch her dissolve from ash into thin air like the illusion she must be. “Prove it.”
“You’re in love with Brody.”
And she went there.
It felt like minutes passed in silence. Besides Erin’s breathing in the mask, no sound but the waterfalls rushing into the pools broke it. She wanted to dive into one of them and disappear. She couldn’t turn to look at him, though she was sure he watched her in horror.
Yet it proved nothing if the monster could get into their thoughts. “What’s going on?” Erin demanded. “Are you the AA?”
“No,” Old Sandra said. “But we have a lot to tell you about him. Like the fact that he’s telepathic. He can make one thing appear to be something else. He also makes matter disappear, like a vacuum or a vortex. And he’s not here now. We feel the pressure in the room change when he leaves, but it doesn’t affect our breathing. When he’s far enough away, you’ll be able to take off your masks.”
“Why are you… olders here?” asked Brody.
Erin still couldn’t look at him, but noticed he had no aged counterpart.
“We can tell them. AA is far enough away.” Old Thyme, thin as a rail, had clear blue eyes like her younger self, and the chin-length strawberry hair was streaked with gray. “He can’t hear us now.”
The group of “olders” collectively sighed. “You can take off your masks.”
Though none of this made sense, Erin decided to hear these people out. They presented no immediate threat. She motioned for the team to lower their weapons. They removed the masks and breathed normally.
“After fifty years down here, with a lot of trial and error,” Old Sandra said, “we may have discovered a way to destroy the AA. Before you try to stop him, we need you to help us get out without the monster knowing. And you need to hear what happened to Brody.”
“But why are we meeting you?” Sandra asked. “If you are really us?”
“Listen here.” Old Tom spoke. “Your bullets won’t affect him. That’s why we haven’t been able to kill it. He can make anything coming at him disappear: fire, ice, weapons, including proton and nuclear ones. AA told us he dug too many tunnels in the Earth’s core. To fix it, he created a time loop. We don’t know how, but the year 2332 starts over every January to prevent the eventual destruction of the planet where he intends to live forever. You coming here every year proves it still works.” The smooth and deep voice Erin knew so well crackled. He seemed different than his younger self, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. More…peaceful.
“That’s why you’re meetin’ us. We’ve relived this scene every year for the past forty-nine. Been tryin’ to figure out what can be done differently to keep y’all from bein’ killed. But it happens every time.” Old Ford, the oldest looking with the whitest hair, shook his head. His legs wobbled like he was tired from standing. He reached for Old Thyme’s hand.
The younger pair stared at their counterparts, then at each other.
“Your time loop theory is flawed,” said Sandra. “Wouldn’t you all return to wherever you were celebrating New Year’s on the first? You wouldn’t still be down here, and you wouldn’t age.”
“AA made us immune to the time loop like he is,” Old Sandra explained.
“Why didn’t you come out and find us at the base?” Erin asked.
“He said he’d kill us if we left.” Old Thyme leaned her head on Old Ford’s shoulder. “He brings us food and supplies.”
The animal carcasses? Maybe there were many more they hadn’t found because AA brought them to these people. Erin couldn’t help but grin at the odd couple. Fake or not, after fifty years together, she supposed Thyme and Ford might have succumbed to the “opposites attract” rule.
“The green cloud is an illusion like we thought,” Old Sandra said to the younger. “It’s really his spacecraft. AA chose to come to Earth because he only survives on water. He burrowed tunnels into the Greater Grand Canyon to create this lair. All look identical. Same length and width, blocked at four miles deep with a thin wall, easily crushed. But the wall, including the polished rock, is another illusion. As is the light in this room.”
“Non-native rock.” Ford shook his head. “What’s with the tunnel?”
“When someone enters one of the caves, it somehow alerts the AA,” said Old Sandra. “When the wall is broken, he comes close enough to draw out the memories of those inside, especially their greatest achievement. Of course, it’s always been us, but he seems to enjoy replaying the memories.”
Tom jerked his head back. “Erin, did you have a moment back there where you thought you were fighting at Treehouse?”
“We share our greatest achievement,” said Old Tom.
Brody raised his hand. “I had a memory pop up as well.” He met Erin’s gaze, gave a half-grin, and looked away. Like she thought. No return of the feelings. At least now she knew.
Ford, Thyme, and Sandra raised their hands.
If anyone could convince Erin that their eyes didn’t deceive them, Sandra could. Yet she hesitated to trust what she didn’t understand. “How do we know you’re not an illusion?”
“Because we want to destroy him.” Old Sandra lifted her arms, waving her hands as she spoke. Erin had seen younger Sandra do the same thing. “When we first came into this cavern, AA was waiting. I saw the abominable snowman. Thyme saw a dragon. Ford saw the Mothman. Tom saw Anubis, the jackal-headed god. Erin saw a chupacabre.”
She cringed. As a kid, she got scared watching movies with that blood-sucking creature in it.
Old Erin grinned knowingly. “He scared us, but when we fired, he was unscathed. Then he changed into a small, fluffy-looking thing. He convinced us we were safe, and asked about our world. We told him some well-known events. He seemed indifferent when we mentioned the Area 51 Insurgency. Then he told us about himself, how he’s the only one of his kind. After living 10,000 years, he traveled to Earth hoping to live forever with the abundant water resource. He stole his spaceship, which travels faster than light speed, from another alien race.”
“Not very nice. So what about me?” Brody’s voice had a hint of fear.
Old Erin’s face fell into a deep frown.
“It happened suddenly,” said Old Tom. “AA transformed into a black, gaping hole. I don’t know what else to call it. There was no real form to it. He was coming for Erin, but Brody stepped between her and the monster. He made Brody disappear, but not until he sucked the water from his body. We’ve never seen that Brody again.”
Erin felt a jolt in her chest, like a nerve ending came loose and struck her heart.
“I’m sorry, man,” said Old Tom.
“Okay.” Brody took the news as Erin expected, with a nod and his half-grin. “Now I know. Thanks for that.” He pulled the weapon off his shoulder. “So let’s kill this thing before it kills me.”
“You should know,” Old Erin said, “AA let us live down here unaffected by the time loop because of what you did. He said you were a brave person who had thoughts of sacrificing yourself so that all of us could live. He respected that.”
Brody gripped his executer. “Good to know I’m not a coward.”
Erin debated whether to trust these people or find the monster on their own and risk being sucked into some sort of darkness. “Is this possible?” she asked Sandra.
She shrugged. “We’re chasing an alien that came out of a green cloud. Anything’s possible.”
Erin took the risk. “What do we do now?”
Old Tom rubbed his hands together. “Tell them your idea, Erin.” He was looking at the older one.
“Last year,” she said, “we froze a section of the polished tunnel and it turned into regular cave rock. I believe freezing the ship, exposing it for what it is, will draw the AA inside, causing his true appearance to be revealed. Then maybe we can figure out how to destroy him. Except he obviously stopped you last year. You left to freeze the green cloud with liquid nitrogen. But you never came back. We want to come this time to see what went wrong.”
“This sounds crazy,” Thyme said.
“You were here while we did all the work?” asked Ford.
“We have made progress eliminating what can’t kill the monster,” Old Sandra said. “You would never know if you didn’t meet us every time. Now we’re willing to risk leaving.”
If they were telling the truth, the youngers were expendable, not the olders. “We’ll go, but you should stay until the AA is frozen. Then you can help us destroy him.” Erin looked over the team. “My first instinct is to bring only military. That’s probably what I did last year. This year, Sandra and Thyme will come along. If we don’t make it, I’ll tell Newsome to send another team down here to explain what went wrong.”
“Last year, no one came to tell us what happened to you,” said Old Sandra. “We think AA sucked them up.”
“Then failure isn’t an option,” said Erin.
“But y’all already tried ice,” Ford pointed out.
“We don’t think he’ll vacuum up parts of the spaceship just to make the liquid nitrogen disappear,” said Old Sandra. “He may talk about living here forever, but it’s another thing if he’s trapped.”
“Sounds like way too many ifs in this scenario,” said Thyme.
“We may disappear, but we’ll come back and try again next year,” said Tom. Erin appreciated that he always agreed with her.
Ford pointed to the hole he had blasted. “Did you know I would do that?”
“You fire every three years on average,” said Old Sandra. “Some of the holes, the AA tunnels toward water sources. That’s where the waterfalls come in.”
A cavern behind the wall linked several tunnels and caves where the AA had helped the olders make a home. They had beds, tables, even kitchen appliances that worked. They brought out a long rope from their storage room.
Brody spread the goop he used in his hair along his hands and feet. The stuff gave him traction as he climbed up the tunnel with the rope tied to his pack. He hollered when he stood on the other side of the dead end.
The rest of them wiped their feet and strapped their boots back on.
Erin used Brody’s product on the bottom of her boots, handing it off to Tom. “See you soon.” She glanced back at the olders, wondering if she would. With the rope, she pulled herself up the tunnel. It didn’t take long for all of them to reach the main cave.
“We’re running. It’s four miles, so I don’t want to hear any complaints.” They jogged slowly. She figured the lack of meat on Thyme’s bones meant her energy level would be low. Erin heard her panting, but the journalist didn’t say a word.
The red lights led them through the narrow tunnel. Soon, a circle of sunlight appeared in the distance. They stepped out of the cave and onto the floor of the canyon. The tar-like smell of the meteorite debris singed Erin’s nostrils.
“Hydration time.” They pulled out waters. Erin gulped down the cool fluid until the canteen was empty.
“I’m on the walkie.” Tom reached for the two-way radio. It wouldn’t work inside the cave, so they’d left it at the entrance. “Caveman to base, over.”
The device crackled. In less than a minute, Dan’s voice answered. “Base here, over.”
“Caveman and crew requesting the bird, over.”
Erin dropped her pack. “We’ll eat while we wait.” She tossed sandwiches to each team member.
“Pardon me.” Brody stepped toward the nearest meteorite chunk and disappeared behind it.
The rest of them sat on the ground, munching on PB and J’s.
Ford wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Thyme, what’d your older say? I saw her whisperin’ to ya.”
Thyme swallowed. “She said the AA can speak through a mind weak from fear. That’s why I don’t remember saying it. Because he has killed our group every year, he likes to foreshadow our deaths using me.”
“Your mind ain’t weak.”
“I guess it’s the weakest in our group, and that’s enough for the monster to infiltrate. She told me to stay strong and not be afraid so I don’t let him in when he’s nearby.”
“I’ll protect ya. Remember, I own you.”
Brody appeared from behind the meteorite and sat by Ford. “Looks like you two are ready for your own cavern.”
Ford smacked Brody in the head.
“Hey! We all know what’s gonna happen. I think it’s helpful, seeing you get along so well. Makes us trust them even more.”
Tom crumpled the sandwich wrapper’s recycled paper. “How do we convince the base to freeze the ship?”
“I think I have a way.” A humming noise drew Erin’s head up. The sound of spinning helicopter blades grew louder. The bird landed in a flat, open space.
They climbed aboard. Erin stared into the mouth of the Greater Grand Canyon as they rose, counting fifty cave openings the AA had vacuumed out. Soon, they crested the canyon’s edge where rows of white tents and one building stood. Special Agent Newsome greeted them at the base camp’s landing pad.
“That didn’t take long. You have a meet and greet?”
Erin waited for everyone else before leading Newsome to the communications tent. “Thyme, give him your headset.”
The tech played back the recording, beginning to end.
Newsome listened, and his eyes widened when the olders introduced themselves. When it was over, he asked, “Is this for real?”
Erin said, “I believe them.”
Newsome glanced at the team. He folded his arms. “All right. I’ll get the president’s approval.”
“How much LN will they need?” Erin asked Sandra.
One of the scientists calculated the number and handed it to her. “We estimate ten million gallons. Though the cloud may be bigger than the actual ship.”
“This may take some time.” Dan scratched his head. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The team took the opportunity to rest in their tents. Erin expected to sleep a few hours. When she awoke, it was dark. The day played in her mind like a vivid dream, but she knew it had been real. She’d be ready, whatever happened. If it was her time to disappear, so be it. If things finally worked out, then she was lucky to be a part of it.
She swung her feet off the cot and onto the ground, clicking on a lamp. Brody sat in the corner.
Though her body didn’t jump, her heart did.
“I wanted to talk to you.” He clasped his hands together. “I’m not bothered by anything that was said back there.”
Erin held her breath, unsure how to respond.
“You’re my superior, and I respect that. If what your older said was true, I’m sorry that I don’t feel the same way. You and me, we wouldn’t…” He clapped his hands together. “You know what? You don’t need to hear any more from me.” He saluted and left the tent.
She exhaled. Though she had figured it out, she felt a fresh pang of rejection. Part of her wanted to hit something, but another part wanted to cry. She went with the former and headed for the lodge where a punching bag waited.
By the time Newsome found her, Erin’s fists throbbed, a bloody mess.
“Whoa. Save your strength. We’re on.”
She wrapped her hands as he talked.
“Stetson University had the amount we needed. Some past research project or something. It’s all president-approved. We’re getting updated equipment, even. You ready to board an alien spaceship?”
“More than ever.”
The next day, one hundred aircraft carrying 100,000 gallons each passed over a specified area of the green cloud before releasing their load.
The team watched from the rim of the canyon. The rest of the base stood behind them. Erin shielded her eyes from the sun. As the smoky liquid sprayed the cloud, a silver color bled through the green. In less than an hour, a long, cylindrical-shaped spacecraft hovered above the canyon, frozen.
She turned to the team. “Our bird is waiting.”
One by one, they entered a tent where some of the scientists dressed them. They placed a clear-bubbled helmet over Erin’s head. She breathed and the oxygen flowed. The first clothes layer, like a leotard, suctioned to every inch of her body. The neck snapped inside the helmet. The top layer looked like a biohazard suit and smelled rubbery.
“This will control the temperature inside your suit.” One of the scientists tapped a control panel on her arm. “Right now, it’s room temperature. Before you exit the helicopter, tell your team to press this button.”
It read, TEMP ADJ.
“Your suit will adjust to keep each individual’s temperature at 98.6.”
On the chopper, Erin glanced at the five of them. The soldiers and Sandra looked eager behind the clear helmets. Thyme looked afraid.
“No sign of the AA. We’ll keep you posted,” Dan said into the headsets. “No expense spared this time.”
When they neared the vessel, it reminded Erin of spaceships in sci-fi flicks. Even frozen, the thing had blinking lights, panels, and round attachments. They looked like escape pods, if she had to guess. The liquid nitrogen created a smoky haze around everything. They rose above its rear where three circular thrusters stared at them like full moons behind wisps of clouds. The chopper hovered inside one of them.
“Push the button. Stay close!” Erin touched her control panel. Increasing TEMP flashed in red. She dropped the ladder and climbed down with an LN canister on her shoulder. She stepped onto a frosted metal of some kind, moving aside as each team member followed. The chopper backed away. They walked toward the hull. From what she could tell, it would take about twenty minutes to get inside from where they were now.
“Can everyone hear me?”
Every team member gave an affirmative. Everyone except Thyme.
“I need verbal confirmation.” Erin glanced back over her shoulder. The smoke surrounded everyone. Thyme had that glazed look Erin remembered from the cave. “Can you hear me on your com?” She stopped in front of her and tapped her own helmet at the ear.
The rest of the team stopped and stared. “Something’s not right with her,” said Sandra.
“I’m coming.” Thyme frowned and her eyes squinted. Then her hands shuddered. The movement traveled until her entire body shook.
Ford wrapped his arms around her. “Steady! I gotcha.”
The chopper. Erin looked up just as a blackness rose beneath it, swallowing it whole. The bird disappeared. After that, the blackness shifted and stretched, growing larger.
The team turned to see it coming for them. Tom and Sandra moved into position with their canisters in hand. Ford dragged Thyme into the line. “Snap out of it!” he yelled.
“I’m okay.” Thyme sounded like herself again.
Brody turned and faced the monster approaching with incredible speed.
“Get into position!” Erin feared they weren’t deep enough into the ship for the AA to begin freezing. The canisters were supposed to be a last resort. “That’s an order!”
Brody stepped forward, not back, toward the thing flying at them. “All of you, run! Get farther in to make sure it freezes.”
He was right, and there was no time. “Run!” Erin turned and they followed. With the suit, she didn’t have much speed, but she gave it all she had.
“You know me!” Brody cried. “I’m ready to die so that you’ll let them live.”
A voice, deep and hollow, echoed in Erin’s head. “I know you all.”
She couldn’t help it. She glanced back over her shoulder.
The black, gaping hole hovered over Brody, lowering itself.
She tripped and fell. Her helmet hit the icy ship. She heard a crack. When she opened her eyes, a starburst in her helmet stared back at her.
Hands gripped her arms. Tom and Sandra lifted her to her feet.
“Your helmet.” Tom had panic in his eyes.
“It’s okay. As long as it doesn’t spread.”
AA was getting closer to Brody.
“This is the end,” he said. “I’m not afraid to die. What about you?”
“I’m not afraid of any of you,” the voice said.
“So take me! It’s what you want to do. Make me disappear.” Brody squatted, and then lay flat on his back.
AA moved closer to the ship. His fringe began to ice. The edges grew starbursts like the one on Erin’s helmet.
She sprinted toward them. Fifty meters. She could save Brody. Keep him from disappearing.
The blackness shuddered as it neared the icy ground. The starbursts on him spread, splintering toward his center.
“Come on. I’m ready. Do it!” Brody cried.
AA lowered onto him, the blackness that was left wrapping over his body like a dark blanket.
“No!” Erin pumped her arms and legs harder.
“No,” the voice echoed. AA skated along the ground, moving toward her. A hole in the ship appeared where Brody had been.
Erin skidded to a halt, choking back tears while unscrewing the cap on the canister. AA was ten feet away.
Where the monster’s form had frozen around the fringe, it looked see-through like an ice cube. But the starbursts stopped and now retreated toward his edges, allowing him to lift off the ground.
As he rose toward her, she knelt, swinging the canister back and heaving it into the air with a firm grip on the metal. The liquid nitrogen splattered the blackness above. The starbursts that had retreated splintered again, moving quickly toward his center until they covered him.
“Not…” The voice weakened. “…my…intention.”
The smoke surrounded AA until no blackness could be seen through it. Erin scooted back and stood. Four other streams of LN splashed onto the frozen monster.
“For good measure,” Tom said.
The team panted, holding their empty canisters.
When the smoke cleared, a block of ice hovered in the air. Erin stepped toward the floating cube and stared into it. “I can’t see anything.”
“You brave woman,” Tom said. “That thing saw what making Brody disappear did to his ship, but he still could’ve tried to suck up the LN coming at him. And you.”
She exhaled. “He didn’t want to risk making more holes.”
“That was an assumption.”
“Brody took the greater risk.” She turned to the hole where he had been. “He paid the greatest price.”
“You bein’ here made the difference,” Ford said to Thyme. “You warned us it was comin’.”
“I did?” Thyme’s eyes widened. “Why can’t we see it?”
“It’s possible the AA is…nothing in its truest form.” Sandra touched Erin’s helmet. “We’ve got to get you back.”
The starburst had spread, creating a line down the center that almost reached the neck.
Tom punched the control panel on his arm. “Newsome, we have the AA. It’s frozen in a two-foot square cube. Waite’s helmet is cracked. Send us another bird ASAP.”
When the replacement chopper came, one of the scientists climbed down the ladder. He jogged over holding a metal container the same size as the ice block. “This it?” he asked.
“I’ll keep it frozen in transport.” He pressed the buttons on a keypad, and the container split apart. Sandra helped him close it over the floating cube. When it locked, a red light on the keypad switched to green.
Everyone walked to the ladder and boarded the bird with the cargo.
Back at base, after a hot shower, Erin collapsed onto her cot. She awoke in a sweat, her dreams dark and foreboding. She had been hanging onto the edge of the spaceship, but her hands slipped as something sucked her up like a vacuum. She had glimpsed a giant face that opened its mouth and swallowed her. Brody cried, “Take me instead!”
She woke up, dressed, and left the tent to discover that she’d slept through the night and into the next afternoon.
“Erin?” Sandra came up behind her. “You’ll want to see this.”
She followed her to one of the stations where it seemed every scientist at the base hovered like pigeons.
“Excuse us!” Sandra pushed her way to a table where the metal container holding the AA sat in the center. Newsome stood behind one of the scientists who, strangely enough, peered into a microscope that aimed at the container.
“There’s a small glass window.” Sandra moved the microscope so Erin could see what she meant. “We can look inside without having to open it and risk the AA melting.”
Erin hadn’t noticed the tiny glass circle when they had closed up the cube.
“Take a look.”
She peered into the microscope. The image was difficult to describe, but she knew the words to say. “A neon blue-colored life form that resembles no organisms found on this planet. Structured in a manner suggesting that it is self-sustaining.” She lifted her eyes from the microbe. “Except we know it survives on water.”
The buzz from the murmuring scientists sounded like a swarm of bees.
“Do you know what this means?” Newsome cried. “This is the same type of extraterrestrial the U.S. military destroyed in the Area 51 Insurgency!”
“Looks that way,” Erin said, having seen the pictures in history books. Those microbes looked identical to this one.
“I can’t figure this out!” Dan pulled up chunks of his hair. “If this thing is telepathic, makes matter disappear, and creates illusions out of existing matter, why didn’t those aliens back in 2199 do the same things? They were placed in a sealed room and exposed to radiation. And that was it! They didn’t show up on the microscope anymore.”
“At least now we know how to destroy this one,” Sandra said. “AA obviously can’t wield his power now that he’s frozen. Perhaps those other aliens didn’t show us their abilities because they had no desire to.”
A humming sound drew Erin’s gaze upward. The chopper approached. “Who’s coming in?”
Sandra grabbed her hand, grinning. “Come on.”
Her giddiness surprised Erin, but she let Sandra drag her toward the helicopter pad.
Thyme was already there.
When the bird landed, an older version of Erin stepped out, along with Old Sandra, Tom, Ford, and Thyme. All unharmed though they had left the monster’s lair. They ducked as they walked out from under the spinning blades.
Erin shook each of their hands. It was strange shaking hands with herself, but she smiled at her older. “Good to see you.”
Old Erin shouted over the bird. “I’m glad you’re safe this time!”
Behind them, younger Tom and Ford exited the chopper. When Tom saw Erin, he ran over and saluted. “We went while you were asleep. I hope it’s okay. Newsome–”
“Mission accomplished, Tom.” She patted his back.
They brought the olders over to the microscope.
“How is it possible?” They turned to each other, looking confused. “He was one of a kind, he said.”
“Perhaps something about him was different,” Sandra replied. “The things he could do were never demonstrated by the first aliens. Theoretically, the time loop should end when we destroy him.”
The olders whispered amongst themselves. Old Sandra stepped forward. “We think you should do it. But someone should investigate his burrowing activity. This far into the year, he may have damaged the earth’s core. Without the time loop, the Earth won’t fix itself.”
Sandra and Newsome nodded to one another.
“The transport arrives in an hour to take the AA to the Area 51 facility,” Dan said. “The research on him and his activity will likely last until the end of the year. It’s the president’s call, but she’ll listen to me. Before January, he’ll be exposed to the radiation level that destroyed the others.”
“What if he came for revenge?”
Everyone turned to the journalist, who had that glazed look again.
“Thyme…” Erin stepped toward the girl who looked anxious, but not AA-guided. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe he lied. He could’ve gotten some kind of signal when we killed his fellow aliens, who likely possessed the same abilities whether they demonstrated them or not. So AA got angry and flew here on the ship.” She waved up at the frozen spacecraft. “He planned to destroy us by burrowing endless tunnels, but then he saw our water source.”
“I don’t know if I’m followin’…”
She cut Ford off. “The time loop wasn’t to fix anything, it was to punish us while he potentially lives forever on our water. His kind can obviously die, so burrowing tunnels became his failsafe if we ever figured out how to kill him. Meaning if he died, we died. Eventually.”
Erin glanced at the scientists, whose mouths hung open. Many shook their heads.
“That’s speculation,” Sandra said. “But it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. We’ll have to deal with whatever problems AA has left behind whether he lied or not.” She glanced at Newsome. “We need to figure out a way to seal up the ship and blast some radiation in. Just in case AA has a friend.”
Thyme grabbed Erin’s arm. “You were right! He didn’t want holes in his ship because he planned to go home and bring back more of his own kind.”
She looked ready to implode with this unconfirmed knowledge. The nightly news wouldn’t be prepared for the special report she was about to create. “I’m sorry to admit I thought you were a waste of an oxygen tank, but I’m really glad you were with us. I think Ford’s right, you are the reason we didn’t disappear.”
Thyme’s lip trembled, which surprised Erin. “Thanks.”
She patted Thyme’s shoulder. “Let’s hope AA hasn’t done enough damage to destroy us after we destroy him.”
New Year’s Eve, 2332
The group of ten olders and youngers chanted in unison. “Ten, nine, eight…”
“Seven, six, five…”
“I’ve wanted to say this for a long time.”
“Four, three, two, one…”
“Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Tom.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Erin stared at them, shocked.
Their faces faded, their bodies dissolving into air. Empty space remained where Old Tom and Old Erin had been.
Erin’s hand, holding a champagne glass, opened. The glass shattered on the floor.
The rest of the olders dissolved into nothing as well. The five of them gaped at each other in Thyme’s living room.
“What’s going on?” Thyme stepped away from Ford, whom she had been kissing.
“The time loop is over.” Sandra pointed at the television where New York City erupted in fireworks and confetti. The camera scanned the street level in Times Square where people bobbed with “2333” banners.
“Did they…?” When Erin looked up, Tom moved in closer.
“Erin, there’s something I want to tell you.”
Her hands felt sweaty. She rubbed them on the designer suit as subtly as she could.
He took them in his. “I have loved you for a long time.”
Somehow, watching her older kiss Old Tom connected all the dots Erin had never joined. When Brody died, she didn’t want to love again. But Tom was the best friend she’d ever had. Somewhere along the way, her feelings changed without her realizing it until now.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, gazing into the face she knew so well. This tall, dark, and handsome man loved her.
Erin felt the passion behind his eyes transfer to his mouth. His lips caressed hers, and she vaguely heard the rest of the group debating the moment of change for the world.
“How are they kissing? Our olders just disappeared in front of us!” Thyme cried.
“The AA is finally destroyed,” Sandra said. “That’s reason enough to celebrate.”
“What if I’m right about the aliens sending a signal to their home planet when they are killed?” she asked. “What if the research team determines that AA set the Earth on a course for destruction? Are these things to celebrate?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Ford said.
Tom pulled away from Erin, but still held her hand. “We’ll fight for this world again if we have to.”
Erin faced her team. “We can die trying.”
Bria Burton writes in St. Petersburg while her pets try to distract her. They are the stars of her family-friendly short story collection, Lance & Ringo Tails. Her fiction has appeared in eFantasy (now New Realm), FICTION on the WEB, and the Journey Into… podcast. Upcoming publications will appear in Page & Spine and The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. An English Major, she graduated from Flagler College in 2003. As a member of FWA, she leads a critique group. You can view her website at: http://www.briaburton.com