OCTOBER 8TH, 1:15 AM (12:15 AM MOUNTAIN TIME)
Depression slashed and sank within Lang’s mind and body. Lord, why did it happen again? He held forth his hull-covered hands; they trembled. Great. Nerves rattled too. Please, Savior. Forgive me for losing faith, but please, can you please stop these horrible decrease events?
“Fifteen past midnight,” Nahas said, crumbling Lang’s prayer concentration. “And they have us participating in this. As a doctor, I’m used to it, but really.”
Lang focused again on the scene before them. Colonel Jenning’s team members were doing pretty good now, pushing the Suburban and Nahas’ red Mondeo together. Once they felt the repulsion, they kept their pushing force steady, for the required time Dr. Maplen had just announced earlier. “Funny it’s seventeen seconds.”
“Yes, I know,” Nahas said. “Seven of us. Decrease events were occurring at seven past the hour, though the midnight one occurred on the hour. And seventeen seconds, our time, for the repulsion to complete.”
“It’s just the hull playing with us, I suppose. Doesn’t really want to be figured out, without a doubt. And as far as General Tauring having us here now, this late, it has to be punishment for them finding us together.”
“My thoughts exactly. And I believe they want to see if the vehicles will come together, now, before…before we decrease in size too much.”
A disturbing course of heat went up along Lang’s back, and his stomach did its usual uncomfortable knotting. “Please. Don’t remind me.”
“Try not to despair, Lang. I am confident God will help us, eventually.”
“I hope you’re right, I really do. Because I’m really tired of feeling on edge all the time.”
“And for me, the same.” Nahas glanced at Evan, standing farther down from where he stood, closer to Kyleigh, Robert and Akina. “Your son showed great resolve, when General Tauring observed all of us in our large hull enclosure, or hull tent, as you describe it. Evan stared back defiantly.”
Lang had noticed it too. Evan was getting tougher than he had imagined possible. But it sure was unfortunate he never had the chance to speak with Evan about the original prayer, with time so limited then. “Yes, but I believe his resolve is coming from his connection with the hull. And…I don’t know whether to despise it, or accept it gradually.”
Nahas sighed. “I understand, I truly do. Just pray Lang. Ask God for guidance.”
“That’s interesting.” Nahas leaned closer to Lang’s right side, though not enough for the repulsion to occur. “You see how the space above the two vehicles is rather high?”
“I do. You think the hull’s anticipating Alan entering inside it?”
“Alan!” Robert called out, walking closer, his loud voice clanging Lang’s ears. “You sure you want to do this? You don’t have to.”
“I’m fine.” Alan turned to see Robert. “It’s better than standing around doing nothing.”
“You want our help, mate?”
“No! I’m fine, I told you.”
Sighing, Robert pulled his arms in, away from his hull sleeves, and folded them over his chest. “He’s really losing it,” he said under his breath.
Lang couldn’t deny it. “I hope you’re wrong.”
“Same here,” Robert said. “And besides. I said I’d be held responsible if they catch us. I should be doing this.”
“It’s all right, Robert,” Nahas said. “Alan adamantly volunteered to do this. It is his choice.”
Dr. Maplen, Colonel Jennings, and Colonel Stevens stood nearby, instructing Alan with their tablets on what to do next with the connected Suburban and Mondeo. Alan shifted his weight from side to side, many times, his patience obviously running thin. The real world was now moving far slower than ever, and the colonels’ actions stumbled along at a snail’s pace.
Uneasy thoughts dropped into Lang’s mind. “You think there’s a radiation risk to us?” he asked Robert.
Robert kept staring at Alan. “How should I know? Your wonderful Air Force doctors say no, even after subjecting your Suburban to who knows what.”
“I believe them,” Nahas said. “The hull isn’t really here, remember.”
“I know that!” Robert snapped.
Wow. Why the sudden hostile attitude?
“Yes, Robert,” Nahas said, “but if any subatomic reactions harmed the hull, we would be affected now too. We’re all in the same dimension.”
“And you would still want to take that chance?” Robert asked.
Their words continued, and became more heated. Lang blocked them out, remembering instead what Colonel Stevens and the general had communicated earlier; various electronic testers, similar to what the paramedics had used while in those hazmat suits, didn’t detect any biological, chemical or radiation threats on any of the hull vehicles. So, supposedly, they were safe.
Besides, like Nahas said, the hull isn’t really here. More reassurance.
Except what about Dr. Maplen’s concern that nuclear reactions or particle accelerators could affect the hull people?
Alan drew close to the Suburban and Mondeo within the vehicles’ hull tent, near each of their tail ends. When he did, the repulsion between his hull and the vehicles’ hull immediately caused the vehicles’ tail ends to swing apart by about a thirty-degree angle, though the vehicles’ noses stayed close together. How odd. “Nahas. Robert.” Lang hoped to end their argument. “You see that?”
But, didn’t matter; the two men were already looking at it and stunned into silence.
“It’s like Alan was saying,” Nahas said, after a moment. “The hull knows what he’s intending to do, and so it accommodates.”
Robert had an incredulous look on his face. “Bloody weird, though.”
With Dr. Maplen guiding him on what to do, Alan kept himself close to the vehicles’ hull tent near where both vehicles had spread apart at an angle, waiting for that seventeen-second-long repulsion to end.
Then, in an eye blink, the vehicles’ hull swept around Alan and gently plunked him inside, instantly removing the enclosing hull that was around him previously. He now stood, hull-less, in the triangular space between the vehicles within this new hull tent.
Evan walked over and stood before Lang, getting as close as he could. “Dad. Do you think Alan’s okay?”
Robert laughed. “You’re joking, right kid? He’s a stressed out university bloke, how else you think they act when they don’t get their face off?”
Lang wasn’t sure what he meant, but didn’t like it. “Robert, please. Evan doesn’t need to hear that.”
“And you just put my words under the spotlight.”
Lang sighed, frowned. No one needed this now.
“Hey, I can hear you,” Alan called back. This was understandable, since the Alan-vehicle hull tent was only around thirty real world feet away from all of them. “I’m no drunk, Rob. And I told you, I’m fine!”
“All right, all right,” Robert said. “Just separate the vehicles, like the general wants.”
Evan watched Alan a moment, but then he looked at Robert, and then at Lang. “Something’s wrong with him. I can feel it.”
Robert gave Evan an answer, but Lang didn’t listen; his thoughts focused elsewhere. He stepped back a short distance and glanced to his right, beyond Nahas and Akina, at Kyleigh. She only stared ahead at Alan and the vehicles, ignoring all else.
This had gone on too long. Besides, Robert didn’t really seem to be all that content and amicably anymore, so why should it matter?
“Do you think I did the right thing, Dad?”
Lang looked at Evan. “I’m sorry, Evan. What are you talking about?”
“Evan wonders if he should have told the truth, about how he showed us to walk through walls,” Robert nearly whispered. “And how he was able to get the hull to move all of us to your room.”
Lang peered over at Colonel Stevens and Dr. Maplen, both men standing near Alan. Alan was just opening the Mondeo’s driver side door. Lang took a quick look elsewhere in the huge room. Colonel Jennings and some of her scientists, along with Tauring, Major Ko, and Captain Indalo, stood about seventy real world feet away, in an area of the room with a lower ceiling. They were standing near Kyleigh’s bus and Akina’s subway, and slowly talked and moved amongst themselves, though they turned away often, so Lang couldn’t figure out what they were saying. However, they also shifted their gazes in the hull people’s direction rather often.
A new, awkward distrust now existed between them and the hull people. And Robert obviously felt it too.
“I’m glad he told the truth,” Lang said, and he gave Evan a smile. “But, that said, did you see the look on Colonel Stevens’ face, and the general’s face, when they saw us in the hull tent?” Lang shook his head. “Not good.”
Robert smirked. “Of course I saw it. Surprise and immense disappointment.”
“But at least General Tauring seemed happy and eager to have us help with these vehicles.”
“Yeah. It’s just a cover, mate. He’s nice for the moment, but then he’ll lock us in our rooms later. You watch.”
Nahas leaned closer to Lang and Robert. “Unfortunately, I have to agree. That General Tauring is too shifty-eyed for me to trust. And after what Evan told us? Reinforces it.”
“Especially the fact Tauring swung that night stick through Evan, after interrogating him once he came back those two horrid places,” Lang said. “That gives even more reinforcement.”
“Yes, I would agree,” Nahas said. “Was quite shocked when Evan announced that.”
“Alan,” Robert called out, obviously not paying much attention to the night stick conversation. “You need some help with that?”
Everyone geared his or her attention toward the Suburban and Mondeo.
“I think I got it.” Alan was standing by the Mondeo’s trunk. “Hey Nahas, you’re right. Your keys were in there. I was able to put your car in neutral.” Alan placed his hands on the trunk, readying himself to push it.
Nahas smiled. “I told you.”
“Dad,” Evan said suddenly, “why doesn’t Alan just drive it out?”
“Dr. Maplen doesn’t want me to.” Alan replied back before Lang had a chance to say anything. “Because of the exhaust.”
“Oh, okay.” Evan spoke loud enough for Alan to hear him.
But then again, Evan didn’t speak that loudly when Alan heard his other question. Alan has super ears? Or maybe he’s just super revved-up and everything is hyper-clear to him?
Or, maybe the hull did it.
Dr. Maplen used his tablet to communicate with Kyleigh and Akina about the car exhaust, and Colonel Jennings walked closer to the entire scene, her gaze glued to Alan and the Mondeo. Lang had his attention there too. Alan started pushing the Mondeo, his feet somehow getting friction and secure footing on the hull’s air floor. He began gaining momentum, and then the hull, obviously aware of the plan, moved the Suburban until both vehicles were parallel, about three feet hull distance from each other, no angled spread between them now. Simultaneously, the hull stretched out its wall near the Suburban’s driver’s side.
“Oh my gosh,” Kyleigh said. “You see all that?”
It was great to hear some enthusiasm in her voice.
Letting out an explosive yell, Alan pushed with all his might, until the red Mondeo surged into the hull’s tent wall. The hull bubbled itself outward, accommodating the Mondeo’s nose, until, in an eye blink, the hull wrapped a sheet of itself behind Alan and the Mondeo’s tail and then whisked them out together.
Alan now stood in a separate hull tent, with just himself and the Mondeo. The Suburban, on the other hand, was now back to how it looked before, with the hull tightly encompassing it.
Evan tossed his fist up. “Way to go, Alan!”
“Now you just have to get out of there,” Robert yelled to him.
Dr. Maplen held his tablet out, the device telling Alan to leave this hull tent the same way he did previously. Alan pushed on the hull wall and sprung out, gently, not with great force. He stood alone, the hull snuggling tightly around him as it always does. And Nahas’ Mondeo appeared just as it was before, like their lone Suburban.
With pain-staking slowness, General Tauring explained to his people how they needed to do the same with the Suburban and Kyleigh’s Daewoo bus.
Maybe because earlier he’d been too panicky, depressed, Lang now suddenly became acutely aware of the size differences between the hull and the real world. The awareness rammed against his will, forcing him to notice. Right, of course - Colonel Stevens stands about six feet tall, a good gauge. Colonel Stevens was walking right near their Suburban and the Daewoo. Damn, that much difference? Their Suburban – four feet tall. The Daewoo – about six feet two. Lang’s view was at an angle, but it appeared the Suburban’s length was around ten feet long, and the Daewoo about twelve to seventeen feet long.
And weight increases with each decrease event. The two vehicles had to feel massive. Yet Colonel Jennings’ six people pushing the Daewoo and the two people pushing the Suburban didn’t seem to have much trouble; the hull was probably hiding the true weights.
Soon they all held the two vehicles at the repulsion.
After the required time elapsed, a hull tent locked around the bus and the Suburban. This hull tent had a ceiling just a few hull inches above the bus, and then stretched this same horizontal height level over and above the Suburban too.
“I think I’m getting the picture,” Nahas said.
Lang needed to hear more. “What do you mean?
“The hull takes on the highest height of not only a person, but the tallest object, at least nearby.”
“I agree. That makes sense.” As with the Suburban and Mondeo, Colonel Jennings’s people had placed the vehicles parallel to each other, with both tail ends facing Lang and the other hull people. “You think they plan on racing them or something?”
“Ha, ha, good one Lang,” Nahas said.
Robert let out a gush of air from his nose. “Doubtful. These people are far too uptight to have some fun.”
Unfortunately, he was right. “Yeah, I guess.” Lang couldn’t help but smile briefly.
Dr. Maplen and Colonel Stevens requested verbally for Alan to enter this new Daewoo-Suburban hull tent. Alan had no problem with it, moving eagerly to get within.
Lang looked around. This entire room, both low and high ceiling parts included, was truly immense. Evan’s words came to mind – big as his school’s gym. Certainly, that would describe the higher-ceiling half of the room they stood in. This half was boring, though, with only gray concrete walls, ceiling, and floors, and lights attached to thick iron beams strung across the room’s expanse. To the right, far down from where they stood, a wide rung ladder, attached to a massive metal pole, led up to a large wooden platform. Seemed like a wide, long diving board, that platform. The ladder was about thirty real world feet high. Pulleys and other wire devices hung down from the iron beams above the platform.
Must be how they lifted things up there. Their Suburban, maybe? Did they lift it up, shove it off the platform, and hope it would crash below? Unlikely - the hull was far too smart for that.
Alan moved closer to the hull, near the tail end of both vehicles. Any of Colonel Jennings’ people on either side of the Daewoo-Suburban hull tent moved away. As before, once Alan’s hull repulsion kicked in, the two vehicles spread apart at the tails, keeping together at their noses.
Alan was soon inside this new hull tent. He walked over to the driver’s side door of the Suburban. He opened it and climbed inside, leaving the door open.
“The keys are in there,” Lang said loud enough for him to hear.
Evan seemed very interested, keeping his stare locked on Alan’s every move and stepping around to consistently get a good view.
Alan popped his head out. “Found them, Lang! Gonna put it in neutral, same as before, and push this baby out!”
“You want my help?” Lang figured it was only the right thing to do, given it was their vehicle.
“No. Got it.”
Alan reclined himself back against the seat, repositioning his body slightly until seeming more comfortable. He yanked on the gearshift. He adjusted the steering wheel too, since the front tires soon pointed directly ahead. Then he got out of the Suburban and walked to its back end. Squaring his shoulders, and inhaling deeply, he pressed his palms to the Suburban’s white, smooth surface below the windows of the rear doors. He pushed, hard.
He stopped; the Suburban was barely moving.
Nahas and Robert asked if he wanted their help, but Alan was adamant – he didn’t want it.
Alan tried several more times, but again, the Suburban wasn’t budging enough. “You stupid thing,” Alan said, looking up and around the hull tent. “Don’t you know I want this beastly thing out of here?”
Dr. Maplen began a slow verbal speech suggesting Alan should use the others to help him, but Alan didn’t listen.
“I know what I’m doing.” Alan turned back, determination in his eyes, and looked at Lang and the others. “I’m starting it up and driving it out of here.”
“Alan. No!” Lang said. “You won’t be able to breathe in there!”
Alan flung his arm up in a no-caring gesture and rushed to the driver’s door.
Nahas stepped until he was nearly in front of Lang, blocking the view. “Lang, wait! Do not worry. Think about it. We exhale all the time, with massive quantities of carbon dioxide, or even carbon monoxide, all around us in the hull. Yet we haven’t suffocated and died.”
A doctor’s reasoning, of course. “Well, good point. Except that’s old ’97 Chevy exhaust we’re talking about in there. And other chemicals too.”
“Trust me,” he confirmed, and moved out of the way.
But Nahas’ doctor’s reasoning couldn’t be heard in the real world. General Tauring and Colonel Jennings walked closer, warning Alan not to start it.
Their warnings meant zilch. The Suburban’s motor revved right up, sounding just as healthy and strong as ever, oddly.
“See, nothing to it,” Alan said, jumping out of the driver’s door, and then standing tall. Care not showing in his steps, he strode right back to the tailgate. He walked over to the exhaust pipe. He stood there, watching it for a moment.
Evan looked up at Lang. “What’s he doing?”
Right after Evan spoke, Alan leaned down and placed his face by the pipe.
“Have you bloody lost your mind?” Robert walked over to the Daewoo-Suburban hull tent, ignoring the general’s wishes that they stay put. “Get your face out of there before I come in there and grab you myself.”
Kyleigh immediately followed Robert. They both walked closer to the hull tent. “Alan. Please,” she said. “You’re scaring all of us with your insane behavior. It’s bad enough what’s happening already.”
Lang wanted to walk after her, to talk to her, and help with Alan. Yet, he didn’t; Evan needed to stay nearby.
But her words, ‘It’s bad enough what’s happening already’, stung, felt all wrong.
Alan stood up. He had a broad smile on his face, and ignored Robert and Kyleigh. He looked up instead at Dr. Maplen and Colonel Stevens. “I do not smell any exhaust, even though it is running.” He spoke slowly, deliberately. He smiled again. “Amazing. No worries. I am driving it out now.”
Colonel Stevens began to say it wasn’t a good idea, yet it didn’t matter to Alan; he wasn’t listening.
Alan got inside and put it in gear. Thankfully, he didn’t screech the tires loose. He slowly drove it forward, and then increased the speed gradually.
And the hull just knew, of course. The hull allowed itself to stretch outward, about half the Suburban’s length. Alan drove right into this empty space. A blur of motion flashed and a back wall instantly appeared around the Suburban’s tail end. In the same split second, a new wall swept in where the Suburban had exited on the old hull tent. A wide hull tent, with a high ceiling, since it must realize Alan needed the headroom, now enclosed the yet moving Suburban.
“I can’t believe it,” Akina said, pointing. “He’s driving the Suburban inside the hull!”
It was hard to believe! Evan and the other hull people let out whoops and hollers.
Alan drove the Suburban straight forward across the concrete floor, until he stopped about seven real world feet from the Daewoo bus’s location. He turned it off. He swung the door wide open. Since the hull already had about a door-width length of space all around the Suburban’s perimeter, the door barely pushed the hull’s side outward.
With anger emanating from his abrupt motion, Alan slammed the door shut. He turned to face the hull’s side wall and plunged himself into it.
Powder keg. Reckless. And more words describing Alan’s sudden, changed behavior popped into Lang’s mind. Maybe he was mad since he thought he would have gotten out by now. But didn’t he recall their earlier conversation, at how dangerous that would be?
The same thing happened as with the Mondeo; once Alan got out, both he and the Suburban ended up in tight hull enclosures, as usual.
Robert rushed over to Alan and started talking to him.
“I would like to go inside my bus.” It was Kyleigh’s voice, her words slow, measured, like Alan’s. Lang looked around for her. She was standing by General Tauring, both of them near her Daewoo bus. How had he missed her walking over there? “And I want to take Lang with me.”
General Tauring asked ‘why?’, that one word stretching out for seconds, a slow-motion audio. He held out his tablet to receive her answer.
“I am responsible for this bus. I want to see its interior condition, though I am not implying anyone harmed it.”
After some raised eyebrows and a wondering expression, Tauring finally agreed. He requested Colonel Stevens and Dr. Maplen to help.
Kyleigh looked at Lang. Her eyes were serious, and sad. She gestured with her hand for him to follow.
Lang actually felt his mood brighten, until he walked next to Dr. Maplen, who stood about as tall as Colonel Stevens. More depression, and fear, slashed through Lang’s body; Colonel Stevens’s earlier measurements after the last, the tenth, decrease event, which even made things worse to think of now, were correct; he did stand only about three and a half feet tall.
But he pushed that disconcerting, fearful rampage away, instead concentrating on Kyleigh’s need to see him.
Evan followed along.
“Kyleigh,” Lang said, “can Evan come too?”
She turned back a moment. “Yes, of course.”
Once she stood by the bus’s hull, Dr. Maplen told her to place out her hands. She didn’t waste a second. She did what he suggested, even moving the front of her body closer, until the repulsion developed. Seconds passed and it captured her inside.
At the same moment, the hull widened the air space all around the bus, same as it did when Alan was in the Suburban.
“Hey!” Evan said. “The hull just pushed me away!”
“Well, you’re too close,” Lang said, noticing Evan’s right shoulder and side were now six hull inches away from the bus’s hull.
But Evan was smiling, not upset at all.
Lang heard talking. He turned right to see Robert now speaking with Nahas and Akina. Akina smiled and waved, and Lang waved back to her.
“Dad, look. Those double doors are still open. And Kyleigh went right in.”
Lang focused his attention on the bus. “They sure are.” An eerie, silent marker to what happened that night, they were; no one had closed them since probably all three were more preoccupied with the other bus behind them. A shiver rustled up through Lang, but he managed to stop it. “Evan, you go first.”
Evan did, the hull grasping him in with no trouble. He then hurried up the bus’s steps.
Stepping closer, until the repulsion pushed against him, Lang waited for seventeen hull seconds. Next thing he knew, the hull captured him inside. He was free again from the tight hull enclosure. He stood there a moment, eying the Daewoo bus. Big. Nice. Not so worn down as he expected. Red and yellow horizontal color bands, with a few advertisements plastered here and there, ran along the bus’s lower perimeter. Otherwise, it was white everywhere else, except for black trim bordering the darkened glass windows.
He began climbing the three short steps. Immediately he felt something he hadn’t experienced in quite some time; his shoe soles actually touched against the floor’s rubbery surface.
Drumming foot-beats vibrated along the bus’s length and Evan suddenly came into view. He sealed his hands around the yellow rails bordering the front cab, to break his forward run. “Dad. I just ran down this bus! And it felt great!”
“I know. It’s awesome. I feel it too, stepping along here.”
Once standing in the front cab, Lang scanned around a moment. Strange it was to see the driver’s seat on the other side, but this was an Australian bus.
A smile on his face, Evan backed up, taking a step backwards with each step Lang took forward, allowing Lang to walk down the bus’s narrow aisle.
Lang couldn’t help but smile too. “Definitely great to walk freely again.”
“Evan.” Kyleigh approached from behind Evan. “I need to talk to your dad.”
“Oh, okay.” Evan spoke immediately, not resisting at all. Darn.
Evan swerved out and away from Kyleigh, into an opening of double black seats that faced each other. Lang quickly checked – not all the bus’s black seats faced forward, and none of the seats had armrests, probably to make sitting easier on a moving bus. Evan held onto the seats and headed to the back of the bus, sometimes perching his arms straight up, pole-vaulting along, avoiding more of those yellow floor-to-ceiling rails spaced every so often.
But Kyleigh’s gaze couldn’t be ignored, prying away his gander at the bus.
This was it. He was going to have to face what he had done.
She stepped nearer. She held her hands together, wringing them slightly, and then she stared up at him. He had never noticed how deeply blue were her lovely, almond-shaped eyes. Maybe it was the lighting in here, or the reflection from her blue suit, he wasn’t sure, but the crystal strands of her irises, the hypnotic fix of her dark pupils, had him falling into her gaze. “Did I do something to upset you?” she asked. “Please be honest.”
And he most certainly did want to be honest with her. “I…I’m trying to keep the peace, that’s all.”
Her brow drew perplexed. “Keep the peace?” She narrowed her eyes, anger showing, but then gradually her face softened. “I just want to tell you, Lang.” She stared toward the floor, but then raised her gaze and locked her eyes with his. “I really like you.”
Lang blinked a few times, surprised by her directness.
Stomping footsteps and a loud voice snapped Lang out of his lull and the deep blue of her eyes.
“Can’t believe I’m on solid ground again.” It was Robert.
Kyleigh exhaled loudly, turned, and headed for the back of the bus, by Evan.
Lang looked to the bus’s front. Robert was right by the bus driver’s seat, and Nahas and Akina were following in behind him.
No, this all didn’t seem to be registering properly; Kyleigh’s words yet lingered, gently reverberating, embracing his heart. ‘I really like you.’ But somehow, what he had really grasped from her voice, her mannerisms, differed: ‘We’re in a terrible mess, and I need you. Please be my strength, and my friend’. And what had he done? Let her down in droves.
This needed to stop.
“Hey mate. You enjoying this too?”
“Yeah,” Lang answered. “Can’t believe we can walk like this again.”
With Robert nearly colliding up against him, Lang leaned into the empty space between the black seats, allowing Robert to pass around. Lang kept his eye on him though, following his path down the aisle. He headed straight toward Kyleigh. But as Robert neared her, she stiffened, and shifted away from him, her eyes completely ignoring him. She instead locked her gaze on Lang and walked determinedly in his direction.
She knew what was going on, somehow.
“Well, well,” Nahas said, his voice so loud, since he now stood by Lang. “Nice bus, Kyleigh. I say they let us stay in here now, instead of those ugly, vacant, antiseptic rooms.”
“Yes!” Akina had joy in her gentle voice. “We should suggest that! We would have plenty of room in here.”
Kyleigh slowed her steps and stood close to Lang, though her eyes focused on Nahas and Akina. “Thank you.” She smiled at both of them. “And I enthusiastically agree!”
The three of them laughed. But Lang only smiled, instead keeping himself alert of Robert’s activity, along with Evan’s, at the far back end of the bus. Evan was sitting on one of the three black seats that bordered the tail-end of the bus. Evan turned back and looked out a wide window above the seats. Robert leaned against an inner wall, to Lang’s right of the three black seats that looked like part of a corner luggage compartment with an outside entrance. Robert was saying something to Evan, but it wasn’t audible from here.
Kyleigh continued walking toward Lang, carefully maneuvering herself around Nahas and Akina as those two headed toward the back of the bus, by Evan and Robert.
“You should try out these seats.” She pointed to a group of the seats that faced each other – two single seats facing two other single seats. She stepped around to the seat closest to the window, sliding her fingertips across the fabric of the seats as she walked. “Wow, it feels great to touch them again.” She sat down in the seat she had just touched.
Lang ran his palms across the seats too. The material was a little bumpy, with gray and white random patterns against a black background, though making the seats appear black overall. He pressed his hands against them. Soft. Cushiony. Good for a long trip, though he realized this was just a transit bus. He grasped one of the nearby yellow rails, to steady his balance. “Gosh. The metal’s cold. I haven’t…I haven’t felt this in a while, heat or cold.” He finally sat down in the seat to Kyleigh’s left. “This bus is our own little get-away from our weird reality.” He lightly sniffed the air a few times. “And smells nice in here too, almost like a used car.”
“Thank you, I guess.” She smiled, though her eyes held serious thoughts.
“Not sure I wanted to visit in here again,” Robert said, suddenly standing near them. He folded his arms across his upper body, the dark blue sleeves of his jacket contrasting against his light-blue buttoned shirt beneath it. “Guess I’ll take a seat too.”
“Why not?” Kyliegh said, her words a bit sharp.
Robert sat in the seat directly across from Lang.
Unexpectedly, Kyleigh gently wrapped her hands around Lang’s upper right arm, and drew closer to him. “Lang and I were just talking about how great it is to feel the seats, and to sit on them.”
Robert tilted his chin up slightly, reacting to what she had just done. “I can see that.”
The kind words Kyleigh spoke earlier, and especially her closeness right now, felt too good. This was it. Robert needed to say something now or just forget about it.
Though, for a brief flash, Lang felt sorry for Robert; that man needed someone to help him with this too. They all did.
But God was there for all of them, including Robert, if he would only seek, and accept. Though God, and everything else the hull was throwing at them- it all didn’t compute together anymore, or make sense.
The good feeling in Lang’s chest hadn’t left, but only registered for short times, and then seemed to disappear for long stretches.
From Lang’s left peripheral vision, tan colors flapped by. He turned and looked up. Nahas now stood in the aisle between the seats, his tan, loose pants standing out starkly against the black seats on the other side.
Nahas slid his hands across the white shirt over his stomach. He felt around to his back too. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been on Tramadol for years, for back pain.” He flipped his hands out suddenly. “Haven’t had any pain at all, lately!”
Akina, near him, giggled.
But Robert ignored Nahas and Akina. He secured his palms on his thighs, his elbows making a sharp angle outward, and leaned forward. “I’m no fool.” His eyes shifted between Lang and Kyleigh. “I know what’s going on here. But you two just don’t get it. It’s because of your God, I have a problem.” He stared directly at Lang. “And especially you, instigating and manipulating your child to join in with your folly. How ironic. The people who least believe in other evolved worlds and their advanced technology are the ones being slam-dunked right into the middle of it.”
Whoa. That came out of the blue. His words cut deeply, leaving Lang stunned into silence.
“Now wait just a moment here, Robert,” Nahas said. “You need to address those same thoughts to us. We’re Christians too, remember?”
Robert sniffed. “Yeah, whatever. Alan’s not.”
Alan? No wonder it seemed less complete in here. And this was an opportune time to change this uncomfortable subject ASAP. “Speaking of Alan, where is he?”
“Dad. Was he supposed to be climbing that ladder for some reason?”
Lang turned around. Evan was sitting in the seat behind Kyleigh, next to a window. Evan stared outside, a contorting grimace on his face.
“Climbing a ladder?” Robert’s voice inferred alarm. “He told me they were done with him for now, and he was coming on the bus.” Robert maneuvered his way in between Lang and Kyleigh’s knees and the other seats and peered out a window. “What the hell?”
Nahas leaned down and looked out the front and side windows. “All the Air Force folks are trailing after him. And they don’t look very happy. I’m heading out.” He stood up.
Nahas’ reaction jolted Lang to his feet. Kyleigh stood up too.
Lang watched as Nahas, Akina, and Robert rushed ahead, carefully making their way down the aisle and out of the bus.
“Let me go next,” Evan said, urgency in his tone. He bumped up against Lang’s side, nearly knocking him back into the seat.
“Evan, slow down. Let the adults handle this.”
Evan ran up ahead, but looked back when he got by the driver’s seat. “Okay. Sorry Dad.”
“It’s all right. Just take it easy.”
Evan rushed up to the bus’s open door.
Gentlemanly manners coming to a forefront in Lang’s mind, even with the current predicament, he politely motioned for Kyleigh to walk ahead of him. As she did, he watched, out the windows, how the others effortlessly bubbled out of the bus’s hull side. They were all becoming pros at this.
Evan made it out fine too.
Kyleigh finally arrived in front of the bus’s hull. She turned and gazed up at Lang, once he stood upon the last step. Her expression was rather serious again. “I wasn’t trying to cause a problem.”
“No, Kyleigh, you didn’t do anything wrong. It has been me, and I am sorry. And it won’t happen again.” Lang inhaled deeply, though trying to keep it hidden, to prepare for his next words. “And I like you too.”
She smiled at him, but she didn’t say anything, concentrating more on listening; Alan’s name was being yelled out more than it seemed humanly possible.
Great. Of all times for him to act up again.
Her expression gradually became serious once more. And it also seemed like she hadn’t really believed his last words. “I’m going to run over there now.”
Lang nodded. “Okay. I…I’ll see you over there too.”
She turned and leaned into the hull’s wall, bowing it outward. In a flash, the hull whipped a layer of itself all around her, and then expelled her outward, releasing her within her own hull enclosure, in a very smooth, effortless motion.
She promptly ran toward the ladder.
So, here we go again. Lang pushed his hands against the hull wall, stretching it out like a balloon, and immediately the same thing occurred, with the hull instantly covering him from top of head to foot bottom within his own hull enclosure. He was plopped out gently upon the floor, his balance intact. The hull was definitely exceptional at what it did.
He ran toward the ladder, following Kyleigh. He looked up. Gosh darn, Alan; Mr. Lose-fuse was struggling to climb, being so short, like a toddler climbing his dad’s ladder. He would wrap his arms around the next rung up and then struggle to climb with his feet or hop up to the rung just below the ones his arms held tightly. And not only did he have just a few rungs left before getting to the platform, but he was doing it all recklessly, without concern.
Suicidal. Yes. It was the only word that truly fit.
Then again, it took one to know one. The memory of that initial prayer, before all this started, crept into Lang’s mind. But he pushed it away.
Robert was climbing up after Alan. Nahas stood below, near the ladder’s base, yelling up guidance to Robert on Alan’s position. And thankfully, Evan just mingled near Kyleigh and Akina, who both weren’t too far from the ladder’s base, yet each of them had a good view.
Alan and his darn, bizarre circus. That’s what it was.
Go up after Alan too? But, no. Better to stay by Evan, and make sure he stayed safe.
Colonel Stevens, Dr. Maplen, and the general’s other people slowly ran their long strides and called out their low, deep words, more sloth-like now than ever before. Their faces held expressions for far longer than they should, especially Captain Indalo, whose face stood out for its amount of fear and shock.
“Alan!” Lang called out, running closer. He was about to cup his hull-covered hands together, to make his voice travel, but stopped, realizing it would only be a hull-created illusion and not necessary. “Come down! You should check out the bus! It was awesome in there! We could walk around and sit on the seats!”
Kyleigh, Evan, and Akina yelled up to him too, saying whatever they could think of to alter his behavior.
But it made no difference. Alan climbed onto the platform.
Lang finally rushed up and stood next to Kyleigh’s left side.
“I knew he was trouble the moment he got on the bus that night,” she said. “After doing this for five and a half years, you get to figure people our real fast. It’s self-preservation.”
“I understand that…believe me,” Lang said, breathing harder.
Akina walked over. “You missed it, Lang.” Her slim, petite figure in black dress covered by her red sweater diminished some of Lang’s tension, even though she was again imprisoned within the eerie, ugly hull, while her soft, Japanese-accented words, as always, comforted him even more. “When he stopped climbing for a second, he looked down and said ‘Don’t you get it? We’re all just lab rats’.”
“Yeah,” Kyleigh said, “and then he also said ‘Screw all of you’.” She stared into Lang’s eyes. “And he was directing it mostly at General Tauring.”
Lang took a gander at Tauring. He stood near the ladder, along with Colonel Stevens. Colonel Stevens grabbed the ladder’s sides, readying to climb up. “That’s not good,” Lang said. He gazed into Kyleigh’s eyes, attempting to capture the same intensity her deep blues gave on the bus. But he couldn’t. Stupid hull. “Though I’m sure they realize Alan is a nutcase.”
Motion and sounds up high alerted Lang to look up. Alan was walking to the platform’s edge. He halted and began stepping backwards, until almost near the ladder. He stopped. He looked down at Robert, who was just climbing onto the platform. Robert told him to wait. But instead, Alan leaned over into a sprinter’s position, and shot off right for the platform’s edge.
“Oh my God, Lang,” Kyleigh said. “He’s really going to jump?”
“You guys are ridiculous,” Evan said, laughing. “Won’t matter. Those bullets couldn’t get me. He’s a dumbo for even trying this.”
Alan jumped off the platform.
Lang squeezed his eyes shut.
All around, shrill words, high pitch screams, and loud ‘No’s!’, some deeper and dragging out far longer than they should, pummeled Lang’s ears.
But then words of shock flew out, and the absence of a loud impact pounding the concrete floor.
How? What? Lang opened his eyes.
“Look!” Evan was pointing up. “See, I told you guys. He didn’t fall!”
Lang looked up and could immediately see it; Alan was simply floating up there!
“He just jumped from that board thing and landed on air,” Evan continued, “like there’s an invisible floor up there. And then he just slid across it, until he stopped before hitting that wall across from the board. See?”
“I see,” Lang answered. “But I can’t believe my eyes.”
Alan just stood there, on a magical, invisible air floor. He was near the wall, but about fifty to seventy real world feet away from the platform’s edge. He tried to move, and quickly lost his balance, tilting sideways, backwards. “What the crap is this?” he yelled. Finally he managed to stand straight and steady. It was hard to see his face, to detect his thoughts, since he was so far away, but his body did appear to be shaking.
“He’s confused,” Evan said. “His plan didn’t work.”
“Yeah, so now what?” Kyleigh asked.
Robert now stood on the platform. Colonel Stevens was climbing up, nearing the top.
Lang thought about talking to Dr. Maplen, standing nearby, but it always took so long with that tablet program.
Robert stepped to the very edge of the platform. “Alan. Try walking back. Come on. You can do it!”
“Why? I don’t want to come back!” Alan hollered. “I’m not living this way any longer!”
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, the hull isn’t going to let you die. It wants us alive, for whatever reason. Suck it up, and come back.”
“F-off, Robert.” Alan began stomping his feet everywhere upon the invisible floor with such hard thrusts it appeared he was attempting to find a hole or weakness, or just to break through. But it wasn’t working; he stayed right smack on that same invisible floor. Yet this didn’t stop him, and he continued stomping all around, in a roughly squared-out area up there.
“Alan!” Evan yelled. “Just go back to the ladder. Nothing’s going to happen! The hull protects us, like it did for me! Remember?”
Similar requests rang out from the tablets of Colonel Jennings’ people, gathering nearer to the ladder. Colonel Stevens finally climbed on the platform and communicated verbally to Alan that everything would be all right, that they would help him, he just needed to have trust and faith in the doctors here.
Trust? Faith? Those words seemed so distant, and laughable, right now.
General Tauring suddenly appeared and stood to Lang’s left side.
Sure, with Alan’s situation absorbing all the attention, of course he could sneak up.
Lang looked up at the general. He stood just several real world feet away and gazed up at Alan, yet something was lacking. Concern? Yes, that was it. His face was more amused or awe-struck. Other Air Force people had frazzled or concerned expressions. But not this guy.
And why did he have to stand so close now? The memory of him striking Evan cut through Lang’s mind. But forgiveness - could that even be within grasp at the moment?
“Alan, no!” Kyleigh squealed.
Lang looked up. Alan was zooming down, feet first, in a curved path that had his feet heading right for the general’s head! And General Tauring wasn’t aware yet.
Instinct took over. Lang remembered his greater mass. He rammed all his weight into General Tauring, his hull-covered hands and torso centering into the general’s right thigh.
Lang knocked the general over and landed on top of him.
Alan’s fall the main focus in Lang’s mind, he whipped himself around and sprung off the general, keeping his eyes upward.
“What the hell!” Alan yelled.
Lang caught sight of him. Alan had come to a complete stop. He was floating, in a standing position, his feet right where the general’s head had been. Why would the hull do this? Alan then tried to force his way to the ground, kicking, struggling, slicing his arms. But he wasn’t budging downward in the slightest.
“Dad!” Evan rushed over. “You all right? That’s the second time you pushed the general down.”
“Yes, I’m okay,” Lang said quickly. He gave Evan a quick glance and focused back up at Alan. “What the…” Alan was yet struggling to get down. Kyleigh and Akina were saying things to help him, or asking if Lang was all right, and Tauring was being helped up by Major Ko and Dr. Maplen, but Lang kept his concentration on Alan.
Slow, deep voices emanated around Lang from Colonel Stevens’ men, and then Dr. Maplen stepped near Lang on the right. Dr. Maplen reached up and took hold of Alan’s hull-covered arms. With no struggle at all, the hull allowed Dr. Maplen to place Alan on the floor. Once standing there, Alan was able to move and walk around just as he always had.
“Why did the hull do that to Alan?” Kyleigh whispered to Lang, once she stood close to him. “Something against General Tauring?”
“That’s one hunch I’m having.”
“Alan!” Robert yelled down from high up on the ladder. “You all right?”
Alan looked up at Robert. “Yeah! I’m fine! Don’t get why, but I’m fine!”
“Great,” Robert called back. “I’m coming down the same way, mate.” He looked toward the floor and released one arm. Nahas, still near the ladder’s base, moved back some distance.
“You’re kidding me,” Lang said. “He’s jumping down?”
Kyleigh didn’t say a word, only staring up at Robert. Evan laughed, heartily, not worried at all. Others, especially Colonel Stevens still on the platform, voiced their objections to Robert’s action, but it didn’t matter.
With all eyes on him, Robert released his other arm and jumped outward just enough. Like Alan, his fall, feet first, made an arc path away from the ladder, heading in the direction of where Lang and the others were gathered. It was like a guy in a parachute fall, without the all-important parachute, and blown in an odd, curved path by a strong wind. Within seconds, hull seconds, Robert’s falling slowed and he landed, softly, feet upon the floor, about ten real world feet from Lang’s position.
Amazing what the hull could do. But thankfully Robert hadn’t become another missile headed for the general’s head.
“Whoo yeah!” Robert moved his feet, adjusting his stance on the floor. “That was awesome, a regular amusement park ride! At least the damn hull can give some fun.” He rushed over to Alan.
Nahas was running not too far behind Robert.
Among all the excitement Robert exuded and Alan totally agreed with, Evan asked both men how it felt to fall from so high up, and if they’d want to do it again. And unfortunately, Evan said he wanted to try it too.
But Lang’s mind centered elsewhere. Watching everyone, he concluded three things: first, Evan’s account of that chamber of horrors, with the strange human-animal hybrids and alien creatures definitely upset something, or someone, behind the hull. Second, something, or someone, behind the hull, definitely didn’t like General Tauring. And third, the hull wasn’t going to allow any of them to get injured, or die - at least, not for now.