White Horse - Chapter 17
“Hilarious,” Max said, embarrassed. He pulled up his loose fitting work pants and turned around to buckle the belt. The bones of his elbows moved inside the long sleeves of the matching beige shirt like a classroom skeleton draped with a cloth for protection. He turned back around. “What the hell, Professor.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” the professor asked, looking at Max’s wrinkled work uniform. Max always dressed like he was the janitor of the observatory, or like he had just come in from working in a garage, rather than a scientist.
“I heard you,” Max replied, annoyed with the question and the fact that strangers were staring at him. “But I was a little busy.”
“Why were you buckling your pants out here, anyway?” the professor asked, only for the benefit of the onlookers. He did not want Max to look like a deranged man who got off on exposing himself. Sure, Max could be a little eccentric, to say the least, but the professor regarded Max with the utmost esteem and knew Max would have a good explanation. There was no sense having everyone think he was too much of a weirdo right out of the gate.
“Because without electricity, there isn’t any running water. I was just making my way out here to use the hand sanitizer there on the wall.” Max pointed to the dispenser as he walked up to it and pushed the lever. A glob of gel fell into his hands. He turned around, rubbing his hands vigorously as Tony, Clare, Willis and Georgie came in through the side door. “I wasn’t expecting you to have a gun-totin’ posse with you.”
“Let me introduce you to my posse,” the professor said. He introduced everyone in the room as Max grumbled under his breath with nods of acknowledgment.
“I’ve got work to get back to,” Max said as he walked toward the tower. “And I hope you brought a lot of gasoline because I’m almost out, that’s why I had the generator off for a while. I’m not fond of venturing out into zombie land.”
“We have some, and we can get more if we need it,” Tony said as he canvassed the interior. Breaking into the place would be easy with a firm kick to the old wooden side door or a rock thrown at one of the old-time cylinder glass windows. “I think we should secure this place as best we can.”
“I’ll start bringing in some of our gear,” Clare said as she walked to the modern main entrance glass door and unlocked it.
“I’ll help you,” Sarah said. She followed Clare outside while everyone else went with the professor and Max up the winding stairs of the tower to the dome.
Sarah took a deep breath of outdoor air. It was thick, or maybe it was dusty. It did not seem crisp and clean, as it should on a chilly autumn day.
Clare opened the van’s cargo doors. “We don’t need to take much in, we may need to leave quickly,” she said to Sarah, who was standing next to her.
Sarah watched as Clare moved canvas bags and hard-sided boxes around before pulling out a couple duffel bags. On the floor, pushed up next to the backseat, was a soft gun case.
“Anyone claiming that gun?” Sarah asked, pointing toward a long cloth gun carrier.
“You mean that 12-gauge?” Clare asked. She unzipped the fabric bag and handed the hunting gun to Sarah. “It’s probably a good gun for you. You don’t have to be a good aim because of the spreading shot, but what you’re shooting at will need to be in close range.”
Sarah took the pump-action shotgun. “It’s heavy.”
“Yeah,” Clare said, helping Sarah put the gun strap over her shoulder. “It’ll stop whatever you’re aiming at, though.”
Jack walked over as Sarah adjusted the shotgun ammo strap already filled with red shells. “Do you know how to use that thing?”
Sarah felt rather silly; she was not used to having a gun over her shoulder. “I think a shell goes in here, you cock it and then pull the trigger.”
“I think you got it,” Jack said, looking at Sarah as if a romantic Bonnie and Clyde connection had just been made.
“Put this in your car,” Clare said, picking up the gun carrier. Noticing Jack was looking at Sarah with ridiculous goo-goo eyes, she shoved a strongbox into his chest, causing him to spring back to reality. “Let’s get inside.”
Jack carried in the box of ammunition while Clare carried in a couple duffel bags. Sarah kept the shotgun on her shoulder as they went in through the observatory’s front door, locking it behind them.
“Jack, get up here,” the professor yelled, from the tower.
The tower’s metal staircase echoed as they climbed it to the dome. When they reached the top, they sat the gear against a wall and marveled at the astronomical equipment. To Jack, the observatory area seemed larger than it had appeared from the outside. The painted black dome sat atop the work area and sheltered the thirty-four-inch telescope in the center of the room. Several tables with computers surrounded the scope and created a warm glow against the dark colored furnishings. There were a couple doors that may have led to a closet or possibly a small room, he thought as he walked over to the professor and Max, who were looking at a computer screen.
“This is what Max and I have been watching,” the professor said, pointing at a monitor. The sphere of a planet filled most of the screen; a pea-sized red object was next to it. “This is Mars and next to it is a red, gaseous anomaly that occasionally hides behind the planet. We inadvertently found it while we were checking for NEOs.”
“What’s an NEO?” Jack asked, suddenly feeling like the professor was wasting his time explaining the data to him.
“Near-Earth objects, things like asteroids or comets that come close to Earth,” Max said as he flipped screens. “Look here. At first we thought it was just an aberrant gaseous asteroid, but the behavior was just so unnatural that we focused on it, just to figure out exactly what it was.” He pulled up a video. “This was recorded two months ago. If you watch closely, you’ll notice it makes intelligent maneuvers.”
Everyone leaned in close. They watched as the object made a right angle maneuver, shoot a beam of light to the surface of Mars and then shoot another beam of light toward Earth, before disappearing behind the red planet.
“Wow, that’s amazing,” Sarah said, placing her hand on her chest as if she had lost her breath. “And you said you told NASA?”
“We did,” the professor said, leaning against the counter layered with papers and folders. “We copied our images and video and sent them a report. We never heard anything back. I then called to do a follow-up, but a NASA official told me they weren’t able to capture the image themselves, that it could just be an optical illusion.”
“In other words,” Max said, throwing down his pen, causing it to lodge between a coffee cup and a plate dotted with old dried ketchup. “They blew us off.”
“Or,” the professor added. “They believed us but didn’t want it to get out to the public. Maybe they thought that if they told us it was bunk that we’d drop it and move on to our usual asteroid hunting and not cause public chaos.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Sarah said, not believing that it truly did make sense. Keeping things secret from the public was not an American thing to do unless it was a matter of national security. “But apparently you didn’t drop it, so what else did you find out?”
The professor began. “You’re right, we didn’t drop it, we continued to keep the scope trained on the area, waiting for it to reappear and last week it did. It came back around to the front of Mars and began heading directly toward Earth. I once again called NASA but was unable to get anyone to talk with me. I then got a call from Sister Kate, who wanted me to come out and celebrate Father’s birthday,” the professor said, looking over at Father Mitch. “I took Sister up on the offer because the frustration of NASA not listening was causing my blood pressure to rise.”
“He was looking like a lobster,” Max said, leaning back in his chair.
“I’m glad you came over, Professor, or I might . . .” Father trailed off, reaching for the rosary in his pocket.
“You might be zombie meat,” the professor said. “Anyway, while I’m at the school I lose communication with Max, and you know the rest.”
“Here’s something else AND the most disturbing thing,” Max said, leaning forward again, his bony elbows on the table. “You better sit down for this because I captured these images shortly before I lost power. Keep in mind it takes around six months for one of our spaceships to travel to Mars. Whatever intelligence is controlling this ship, it is far superior to ours.”
The group gasped and murmured among themselves. On the screen was, what appeared to be, a diamond shaped spacecraft. Max cycled through images then played a video that showed a blue glow building at the base of the ship before a blue beam shot from the bottom bulbous with a flash, filling the screen with a blue static charge before then going black.
Max turned his chair around to the shocked group; his fingers laced behind his head. “The power has been sporadic here but when it was on I heard mention of a contagion causing people to act like zombies. So I hope you brought food, too.”
“We’re fine for now,” Jack said, rolling his head side-to-side, trying to release the tension in his neck. “We brought food and gas, but I still don’t get what’s going on.”
The professor sat in front of a monitor and keyboard, next to Max. “One hypothesis, based on what we’ve experienced, is that the aliens want to take over the planet by infecting susceptible people and turning them into vicious zombies so that they’ll kill the uninfected.”
“Why don’t they just nuke the planet?” Tony asked. His biceps bulged as he placed his arm around Clare’s shoulders.
“Well, obviously that would make the planet uninhabitable,” Max said, shaking his head in disbelief that someone would ask such a question.
“The big question,” Sarah said as she took the shotgun off her shoulder and sat it on top of the counter behind her. “How do we stop them?”
“That’s why I wanted to get back here to the observatory,” the professor said as he clicked items on the screen. “I think there must be something in the data we’ve collected that will give us the answer. I’ll keep going over it until I find something.”
“I was using the generator a lot when the power would go out, searching for answers,” Max said, watching the professor read through the information the telescope and computer had collected. “But when I went into town to get food and fuel and saw those crazed people, I knew I’d have to hold out here for who knows how long. So I had to back off on some of my research.”
“So we have no answers on how to stop the aliens?” Sarah asked, watching Willis and Georgie walk around the long white telescope, mounted inside an open truss high up in the dome on something that looked like a tuning fork. Wires, gears, and knobs surrounded the base; a stepladder was positioned nearby.
“You mean KILL the aliens,” Jack corrected, rolling a couple chairs out from the counter for him and Sarah to set on.
“Not right now, I don’t,” the professor said, focused on the monitor.
There was silence.
Max slammed his fist on the table, causing a cup of cold coffee to spit a couple brown drops onto the crusted plate next to it. “We need to infiltrate these alien bastards.”