John sat panting, catching his breath. Whatever was in the road was not from here.
It had appeared almost in front of him. With no room to maneuver out of the way, he slammed on the brakes, and at seventy-five mph, it had taken a bit of road to stop. By the time he stopped his car, what he had seen and tried to avoid had vanished. As if it had never been there.
He closed his eyes, willing his breathing to return to normal. It was there all right. He’d seen it. Opening them again, he looked around the flat desert landscape that seemed to go on forever. There was nothing there.
John exited the car and stood, hands on hips, wondering what had just happened. He had seen an object the size of a large horse, but it was not a horse, but something else. He’d only seen it for a few seconds, just enough time to register that it was in front of him, and he was about to hit it. When the car stopped, he was well past where the being would have been if it had still been there. Which it wasn’t. No body of a large being—no blood or other signs of a car at extreme speed, hitting a creature of any kind. Nothing but a deserted road and acres of sand and scrub brush around him.
He got back into the car and jumped when the door slammed shut. No blood or other signs of a creature of any kind struck by a vehicle at extreme speed. Starting the car, he maneuvered back into the correct lane and pushed his foot down hard on the accelerator. The speedometer quickly climbed back to the speeds it had been resting at before the “incident.” That’s what he’d call it to himself. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever tell anyone else about it as they would never believe him. The skid marks on a deserted desert road proved that something had happened, but he was unable to explain it to himself, much less anyone else.
As he drove away, he failed to notice a glint of the sun on a pair of binoculars in the distance. Nor did he see the small stone moving on its own toward the side of the road.
At the same moment, a mile or so behind John, the captain stopped his car just short of the wood barriers that blocked the road. The sign attached said, “Road Closed.”
Old habits die hard, and he glanced around as if there were anyone who could see him in the outer reaches of a desert. It took barely a swing of the wheel to maneuver his car around the barricade that blocked the road. But the captain knew that the road-closed sign was misleading. The road was missing.
And he knew why.
The captain had seen the other car almost hit the alien that strayed too far from its crash site. The scare had caused it to regenerate spontaneously, and it became a rock that skidded into the gravel when the car stopped after barely missing it. He’d seen the whole thing. The guy got out and looked around. Even from his vantage point a mile away, he could tell the encounter had shaken the man up. He didn’t blame him.
The captain changed his form to match the parameters his computer gave him back at the crash site. He then “borrowed” a car from a farmer’s driveway several miles away. It had taken him a few minutes to learn to drive such a primitive contraption, but it was the standard way for natives to travel, so he assimilated as quickly as he could.
Now it was time to see if he could get his crew and his ship off this godforsaken planet.
He stopped the car near where the native had nearly killed his crew member and turned it off. He wondered if he could get it started again. Machines had never been his thing, so fixing this mechanical monster would be out of the question if it didn’t restart.
“You okay?” He spoke in his native tongue as no one was within a hundred miles.
The small pebble regenerated itself into its former size and shape. “Where did THAT come from?”
“It’s called a car. They use them for transport. I borrowed one, so we could travel without raising more suspicions.”
“What are you doing?” The younger eyed his captain’s strange form. “You look very uncomfortable in this thing.” He motioned to the car.
“I changed shape to a native form, so I wouldn’t scare the natives—like you just did.” He opened a back door. “Get in.”
The younger one stared at him as if he were crazy, but the captain nodded yes. Following orders, it shrank down small enough to fit in the back of the car and slammed the car door.
The captain turned the key. They both jumped when the engine roared back to life.
“This is loud!” the younger one complained.
As the captain had become accustomed to his new form, he found he liked the mobility of legs compared to his natural state. He knew that keeping the form for long would quickly drain his energy and cause his thinking to slow down. He needed all the energy he could get as long as he could.
A few minutes later, they arrived at the road closure sign. The captain eased past the closed-road sign that he had generated when he realized that he had crashed on the road, and his scans showed frequent travel. It looked real enough but would soon disappear into the subspace as the structure broke down.
He didn’t have long to get his ship off the planet. His cloaking device wouldn’t last long, and his ship would be visible to the natives. His limited research had already told him it wouldn’t end well for anyone.
At the crash site, the captain stopped the car, and he and his young passenger exited. He regenerated into his natural form, but the sun and heat were already slowing his reaction time in his natural state. Regenerated, he’d have to work fast.
John was only a few minutes down the road when he remembered the “road closed” sign on a side road. He had passed that road late yesterday, and there was no sign. He mused to himself. “So, what closes a road this fast? There hasn’t been any flash flooding, no earthquakes, no construction in this area.” He hit the brakes hard for the second that morning, and the car skidded to a stop, it’s rear end halfway across the ribbon of pavement.
John eased the car around and headed back the way he came, but this time not so fast. He slowed further as he approached the spot where his incident occurred. He stopped and exited the car. Standing next to the front fender, John could see the fresh skid marks, tire tracks, and make out the gravel’s skid pattern that blanketed the edges into the pavement.
He hopped back in the car and continued at a slow speed retracing his path. He watched the side roads that opened up at odd intervals along the main road. Some came in at wild angles almost parallel to the main road. A couple came up from ravines and appeared only as patches of gravel along the main road.
He was looking for a regular dirt road, relatively flat and level with the local ground. It should be on his right traveling in this direction. Yep, he was right. There it was. A road closed sign just as he remembered from earlier.
He stopped the car in the gravel along the pavement and exited the vehicle. He looked around, but there was no one in sight. He walked up to the sign
Getting out, he looked around. There was no car in sight.
Walking up the gravel along the road, he stopped short. There was a tire track leading around the barricade. He got back in the car and made a wide berth around the road-closed sign as he drove around it.
At the crash site, the captain was busy. He and his younger subordinate set up a perimeter cloaking device that made everything appear as it should be.
Inside the cloaking field, he was busy assisting his crew. Most were fine, but a couple had spontaneously regenerated into forms they couldn’t reverse. Those were a problem, but not his biggest problem.
He was fortunate his ship was undamaged, but he needed to power it up again, and that would require more energy than he was able to generate here. The ship was running on auxiliary power, and life support and main computers and sensors were working for now. He needed power, or the ship would be dead on a random planet he didn’t know existed. Sensors indicated a power source located not from the ship, but how to get the power from where he needed it?
John hadn’t been on this old side road in decades. About a mile or so down the road, he slowed down, sensing that something was amiss. A chill came over him as he approached an old, abandoned farmhouse on the right. Stopping the car at the mouth of what had once been a driveway up to the main house, he got out.
He shivered as he slammed the car door shut. He knew the temperature should be into the upper nineties, and he should be sweating even after a brief time standing in the sun. But the chill continued. He walked up the worn-out driveway muttering to himself. “Why did I stop here.” Something was not right, but he was clueless to tell what it was.
At the crash site, a sensor beeped. The captain stopped what he was doing as he read the display panel. It indicated a presence at one of the outside perimeter stations. And something else, the ambient temperature of the air around the perimeter was at least twenty degrees cooler than it should be. He had seen a similar reading other times he’d used the cloaking shields.
The data told him the intruder was a native from the height, weight, and body mass recorded. He wondered if it was the native he had seen almost hit his crew member earlier in the day.
The captain paused for a second, considering his options, but he didn’t have any. He needed help. This native appearing on the sensors was the only higher life form showing in the area. He had to try.
John glanced at his watch and realized the second hand wasn’t moving. What the…? It was a new automatic watch. The rotor inside spun around a pivot whenever he moved, thus winding the mainspring constantly. As long as he was moving, the watch was winding. It should be working, but it was not. The second hand hadn’t moved.
Something was wrong. He was shivering from the cold air that shouldn’t exist, not with the sun beating down in the middle of the day. He was cold. Looking around, he could see the sun shining directly above him. And his watch didn’t work when it should.
He walked back toward his car. Standing about where he was before, he looked back toward the house and realized there seemed to be a haze surrounding the driveway and the land surrounding it. The air away from the house was clear to the distant mountain range.
What was happening?
The captain decided what he was going to do.
Rechecking his scanners to make sure there were no other natives around, he transformed into a native form. The effort would deplete his limited energy, but he needed help.
The captain pushed a couple of buttons on a panel near his ship’s main hatch, stepped out, and walked toward the perimeter of the cloak.
In the distance, John thought he saw a movement. Standing very still and covering his eyes from the sun, he observed as he detected movement coming from the old farmhouse. A figure came toward him and passed through the haze, which appeared to part then close behind the image.
John stood silently, barely breathing. Someone or something was walking toward him when he should have been alone. On the other hand, after this morning’s incident, anything was possible.
The figure was at least as tall as his six-foot frame but thinner, and his clothes seemed to be a hodgepodge of assorted styles from different eras. He wore a fedora and horn-rimmed glasses from decades ago. The rest of the outfit looked like it was scavenged from a thrift shop somewhere.
John was mostly fascinated by the figure’s face. It seemed to be familiar. It wasn’t until he was close enough to see the figure’s face that he realized who it was.
“Roger?” John whispered almost to himself.
“John?” The captain had no idea that the form he took looked like a form he’d taken decades ago.
“You’re the captain of the starship Galaxy Chipper?”
“How did you know that?” John’s face slowly came into focus to the captain.
Then it came to him.
“John, Johnny Starr...?”
“Yes, and you are Roger, Roger Major, we met back on Earth’s Mars a few decades ago.”
“Yeah, right. Now I remember. What are you doing here?”
“I got assigned here to try to keep them from blowing themselves up.”
“Yeah, the paperwork when a planet blows up is a bitch.”
“How’d you get here?”
I crashed, actually ran out of power, and landed back here.”
The captain gestured behind him to the old farmhouse.
“Yeah, I thought I recognized the signs of a cloaking device, but it’s been so long I’d forgotten. What do you need to get going again?”
“Power I have. There’s a substation not far from here. We’ll give you a jump. Oh, I must have almost hit one of your crew this morning.”
“Yeah, no problem. He’s fine, but I have a couple that shifted into odd shapes, but nothing I can’t handle.”
It took a couple of hours to transfer enough power for the captain’s ship to break through the atmosphere. As the ship faded from his view, John felt a slight longing to go with them.
However, he had a mission here to complete.
Returning to his car, John continued on his journey to Washington, D.C., to hopefully save the planet.