OCTOBER 5TH, 9:25 AM
Lang’s own words yet replayed in his head: ‘Like we’ve said before, it’s already interacting with all our minds anyway. I get it. I know. But I’m still not happy about it.’ Watching Evan transfer them again, he felt a part of himself die inside; neither he nor Evan would ever have attempted such new age-like mind tricks before. The aliens behind the hull were truly testing their Christianity.
And that sense of comfort, and peace, by his heart. Yeah. Still there. But off and on. And it wasn’t from Kyleigh, for certain; the sensation was the same as before they embraced each other, and besides it happened way before the other hull people arrived. But its source was hard to explain. Though difficult to admit, what with all that was happening to them, it was honestly hard to say for sure if it was from the Savior’s presence anymore.
The scene before Lang’s eyes had a slight bit of delay to it, a period of adjustment, thankfully. It didn’t appear as in a slide show on his phone’s picture gallery, but more of an emerging mist of colors in an increasingly lighted realm.
He began to take it all in.
On his left was a highway, with two lanes in each direction, sunlight brightly shining upon the many large vehicles slowly driving by. But so weird, so strange it was – as with everything else, the vehicles’ sounds were deeper, and excruciatingly drawn out, and their motion felt all wrong and otherworldly.
After glancing around to make sure Evan, Kyleigh, and everyone else was nearby, which they were, thank God, he looked straight ahead and down. They stood upon a sand-covered highway shoulder, with patches of short, green grass dotting the ground here and there.
He stared farther ahead, and up. A green sign with white letters - its height so tall – read ‘Riverton’, while below ‘Riverton’ was ‘POP 10615’ and ‘ELEV 4956’. “Riverton where?”
Nahas pointed beyond the Riverton sign. “I think you will find your answer there.”
Down the side of the road, ahead of the sign, stood two highway number markers, side-by-side each other. One had ‘US 26’, and the other, a yellow sign, had ‘Wyoming 789, South’. “So, Riverton, Wyoming.”
“I think so, Dad.” Evan pointed across the street from where they stood. “Look, a Walmart.”
Lang looked in that direction. Evan was right. “Yup. A Walmart Supercenter. You can tell by the size of the store and parking lot.”
“And there’s a Kmart.” Evan pointed over to the right.
Evan was right about that too.
“I know you two are busy acknowledging your American icon supercenters,” Robert said, “but I think you should take a look behind us.”
Lang turned around. Behind them, on the highway’s side, was a Shell gas station combined with a Burger King. “You don’t see that every day.”
“Lang. Quit it with noticing your stores and servos,” Robert said. “Look at those people in the black Buick Lesabre.”
“Servos?” Australians sure had their unique words.
“Never mind that. Look at them.”
“Okay.” He did. Waiting to exit from the Shell station, onto the busy highway, was a black car with a curious older woman poking her head out the passenger side window. Her mouth was agape, her eyes wide and shocked.
“What…are…those…things?” she said very slowly, her words reverberating in baritone. “Lit…tle…peo…ple?”
“Never mind her!” Alan spoke quite urgently, and pointed beyond that car’s nose, down the highway, at the right side lane heading directly at them. “See that truck down there?”
How could you not! A massive tractor trailer truck, with an enormous silver and chrome plated grill, and carrying a huge gas tank behind the cab, was driving erratically, its passenger side wheels gripping up onto the sidewalk. Something was wrong. Did their presence distract the driver?
Fortunately, it was moving slowly compared to them. But probably not to the real world.
But those people in the car! “Hey!” Lang thrust his pointed finger in the direction of that truck. “Look! Truck!”
“Oh my gosh,” Kyleigh shrieked. “The gas in that truck could explode on us and those people!”
Fortunately, the black car’s driver noticed and slowly sped out, ripping its tires on asphalt, though it sounded blurred and all wrong. It looked like the car was getting away from the near hit, but just barely.
Kyleigh and the other hull people let out panicked words and exclamations.
“Don’t worry, everyone,” Evan said. “Nothing can hurt us. But I’m getting us out of here now.”
Lang wanted to look at Kyleigh, and speak to her, even just give her a comforting glance, but the scene changed, and he instead focused his attention to where Evan was now placing them.
A wall appeared, gradually, a wall of small red bricks, covered by a large, multi-colored poster of a few anime characters. What? This made no sense.
Lang looked to his right. Along a lengthy table placed by a glass wall barrier, older children, probably teens, were sitting in black plastic chairs, their backs to Lang and the other hull people. Each teen sat in front of a keyboard, mouse, and LCD computer monitor. Lang looked under the table, between the teens’ chairs and legs. They were obviously on a second floor; the tops of tall, long bookshelves, positioned in rows, could be seen beyond the glass. He looked down by his feet. Smooth, tan carpet. He looked left. Another wall, painted lime green, with open doorways to small rooms. Kids with Xbox controls sat on low gaming chairs in each small room. All of this brought one thing to mind. “Evan. A library?”
Lang watched Evan pressing away on his PSP. “What are you doing? Why did you bring us here, of all places?”
“To use the free WiFi. I want to see if Dr. Maplen sent me an email.”
“But I thought that was only on their internal network, not out here.”
Evan shrugged. “I know. But the hull, Dad. Maybe it will pass it to us anyway.”
Lang turned, until he found Kyleigh. The other hull people were talking about how the teens had just noticed them, and how shocked, and frightened, they were, but his concern was only on Kyleigh at the moment. “You okay?”
Her eyes held worry and tension. She motioned with her chin, in the opposite direction of the brick wall. “A mother, with two small kids. She was heading toward us. The kids noticed us and the girl looks ready to cry.”
Lang could see them, about six real world feet away. A young boy, about five, and a toddler girl, maybe three, along with their mom, all stood there, eyes wide, staring in disbelief. Disturbingly, the kids were so young, but their heights hovered higher than Lang and the other hull men. The boy’s jaw dropped and he inched his arm up and pointed at them. And as Kyleigh noticed, the little girl began crying, her shoulders heaving up and down. Similar to normally high-pitched sounds at the underground base, the little girl’s utterance, though probably shrill, began deep, eerie, and increased in volume, yet never developed its normal, higher sound level.
Lang felt the hair on his arms rise.
He looked at the teens by the computers. An older girl in jeans and a grey hoodie was now standing. Her mouth slowly opened and sound came out, most likely a scream, but just like with the little girl, a normally high pitch noise came forth deeper, scarier, and eerily prolonged. She pointed at Lang and the other hull people and began backing away, knocking into another teen girl, whose eyes held tight on Lang. Two teen boys were slowly standing up near them, bellowing forth undistinguishable words. And worst of all, one boy was edging his hand back, readying to throw a small book in the hull people’s direction.
“Evan,” Nahas said. “This will not work.” Akina, her face furrowed in anxiety, drew closer to Nahas. “We can’t stay here. We’re scaring these people to death and we’re about to get clobbered with a book.”
Evan glanced around at the scared kids. “Ha. You think they would find this cool. They’re monsters to us, and we’re monsters to them now too.”
“Good argument, kid,” Robert said. “It’s just a matter of big monsters and smaller monsters, and who’s badder. But get us out of here.”
Lang saw that even more was happening. “Some of them are texting and attempting to take photos with their phones.” Trouble was brewing . “Evan, get us out of here, right now!”
“Okay, Dad, okay.” He stopped pressing his PSP’s buttons and closed his eyes.
Lang kept his stare on Evan, but couldn’t help but notice the background change at the same time, and not a second too soon for everyone, especially those poor, scared kids. He looked down. His hull-covered feet now pressed firmly into a lush lawn. The green blades spiked up taller than they should though probably due to his shorter stature. Golden and brown leaves, larger than normal, speckled the lawn here and there. He looked around, taking more in. They were standing before an older two story white home, their position about in the middle of the home’s average-sized lawn. A small white shed was on the house’s left side. Behind him, the home’s lawn continued until it came to the border of a gravel alleyway. Other similar, older houses were on either side of the white home, and across the alleyway.
“Sorry about that, guys,” Evan said. “Can’t believe they were so scared of us.”
“And I can’t believe how frightening their screams sounded,” Kyleigh said.
Ignoring the nasty, annoying hull surrounding her, Lang gazed at Kyleigh, his eyes absorbing every single trace of her beauty, calming his stressed-out, tired soul. “I know exactly what you mean. Deep, like roars from a lion.”
“Yes,” she said quietly, trembling slightly.
“Yeah,” Alan said, “I guess we got complacent being at the base. They were all used to us there.” He snickered. “And yeah, I know. That’s why we shouldn’t be doing a walkabout all over the country.”
Evan began working on his PSP again.
“Why did you bring us here?” Robert asked, glancing around.
“I thought about coming to a home with an unsecured wireless router, with a common brand name SSID.” Evan eyed the white home. “And I’m pretty sure that’s it right there.”
Kyleigh stepped away from the group, her eyes capturing glimpses of colorful moths, flies, and beetles buzzing around. Lang totally understood, noticing them too, their decelerated flight now allowing a brief view of their flight mechanics. “You can actually see their wings flapping, something never possible before,” he told her.
“I know,” she said. “It’s beautiful, actually.”
Lang looked back at Evan, working on his PSP. “Is that what you saw with the fly by the fence?”
“Yeah, Dad, I did. Really cool. But I want to get this going now.”
Alan took out his cell phone and positioned it up near his face, the hull bowing outward to accommodate. “I’m gonna try again. Who knows? The hull might let us take pics or videos now.”
“Or maybe we should try accessing this local network,” Nahas said, taking out his phone too, “or even determine if our wireless service might work now.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Evan said. “Could help me out.”
Robert soon had his phone out likewise, as did Kyleigh and Akina. But Lang tried to keep his attention only on what Evan was doing and ignore the urge to try taking a photo again. Yet, though the others all made attempts, no one could access the wireless router, get phone service, or take any photos or videos. The hull just didn’t want to allow any of it, for whatever reason.
“There’s a truck driving near us,” Akina said suddenly, pointing toward the alleyway.
Lang looked in that direction. Sure enough, there was. The driver was just passing the garage and a large tree on the property of the home next door. The truck’s passenger side window was directly in Lang’s line of sight so the driver had a perfect view of all of them. Not good.
Nahas, his expression perplexed, walked over until he stood near Evan. “I wonder how your PSP is even accessing these radio waves from the wireless router. If light speed has decreased, relative to the hull, and size has increased, then their radio wavelength is longer now. I don’t even see how your PSP can read them, or for that matter, any of our cell phones.”
“But it is,” Evan said. “I’m accessing the base’s network, right now.”
“Precisely. And how can you access a secretive, private network over the Internet?”
Lang nodded. “That’s exactly what I was wondering too.”
“I get it,” Robert told Nahas. “The hull is transmitting the connection.”
“Right. We don’t even need to be here,” Nahas said. “The hull is doing all this for us. I believe we could be miles from here and Evan could still gain access.”
“Why, you nervous about being here?” Robert asked. “Who cares what anyone thinks. Screw them all.”
Lang sighed quietly to himself; that wasn’t such a nice response, especially after seeing those panicking kids in the library.
Kyleigh approached from the alleyway direction. “That truck just stopped. And the driver’s getting out.”
Turning to see, Lang saw she was right. Though his motion was slow, the man was now inching around the front of his truck, his stare on them through every gradual advance. “We’re nothing but a freak show to everyone.”
Evan laughed. “So what? They are to us too.”
“But here’s the thing.” Nahas voice was serious, his expression worried. “ Guaranteed, General Tauring’s troops will be looking for us. And the more we appear before witnesses, the more they’re going to zero in on our location.”
“Yeah, but even if they were right next to us, I could move us away instantly,” Evan said. “I mean, if the hull keeps allowing this, they can never get us.”
“Did you access that email and download it yet?” Alan was staring at the white home’s back door. “An old woman is coming out. And I really don’t feel like hearing her scream, and being stared at again.”
Lang looked at the door. A short, heavy-set, white-haired lady, with a bright orange bathrobe, held her screen door wide open, surprise all over her face.
But that truck. Lang turned back. The driver stood by his truck’s front bumper, staring incredulously at all of them.
Akina walked over by Evan. “Evan. I don’t like this. Please. Can you get us out of here?”
“Do you have it?” Lang asked, his nerves rattled.
“Yeah, Dad, I do. Okay. I’ll get us out of here.” He closed his eyes again.
Lang kept his eyes on the old lady. Not only was she getting a good eyeful, but now she would see them disappear as well. Wrong, wrong, wrong, all of this just felt so wrong. Sadness for her fright, that maybe their presence was damaging her frail health, bled through Lang.
New visions materialized before him, gradually clearing his concern for the old lady. A row of trees appeared, about five real world feet before them. The trees’ presence nearly blocked the view of a small, tree-less hill beyond. He looked around. The row of trees continued, in a nearly perfect oval border, completely surrounding them. Within the oval, where they stood, the ground was covered with a few young trees, and sparse areas of short grasses and some rocky dirt, all of it dotted by the same golden and brown leaves they had just stood upon moments earlier on the old lady’s lawn. Sparkles of light came through the trees behind him. He stared carefully in that direction, finally seeing the light came from sunlight reflecting off slowly moving water ripples. The faint sound it produced was so low, so abnormal. “We’re by a river?”
“Yes,” Evan said, “I guess so.”
“Finally, some peace,” Robert said, looking around, walking away from the others.
Alan did the same.
Kyleigh came near Lang. “This is pretty.” She looked up and around. “But where are we?”
“I don’t know, but I thought of a secluded wooded area, not too far away,” Evan said. “And this is what the hull did.”
“Fine choice, young man.” Nahas had a warm smile on his face. “Robert’s right. Very peaceful.”
Kyleigh gazed into Lang’s eyes. “I’d like to sit down and rest. You think we could form a hull tent?”
“Sure, why not?” He couldn’t imagine disagreeing with her on much anyway.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Robert said, walking back to them.
Alan came back too. “I scouted around the area. I don’t see any of those monstrous people. I think it would be a good idea too.”
“I agree,” Akina said, her soft voice fitting the gentleness of the surroundings.
It wasn’t long after, once they formed a circle, that they made the usual hull tent, oval in shape, like the time they formed it in Robert’s room.
Kyleigh stood to Lang’s right. She looked up at him now and then, her blue eyes inquisitive, searching. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, briefly, a slight anxiously. She seemed to be waiting, even trembling a little.
Of course. Make the first move.
Lang knelt down and sat upon the floor, and she promptly did the same, sitting quite close to his right side. She wanted to be near him, it was obvious, regardless of what Robert thought. And even better, she sat far away from Robert. A pleasant, warm feeling filled Lang’s core.
Evan sat to Lang’s left. Then Robert sat to Evan’s left, and then Alan, Nahas, and finally Akina near Kyleigh, completing their oval perimeter.
With all of them now sitting, everyone made attempts to get comfortable. Surprisingly, Robert took off his navy-colored suit jacket, revealing a buttoned-up long-sleeve dress shirt, off-white in color. So neat and high-class, even though he wore designer jeans. He carefully folded the jacket and placed it behind his back, for a cushion.
Remove mine too? Nah, Lang realized, feeling comfortable as is, for the moment, anyway.
Evan held up his PSP. “Well, here’s Dr. Maplen’s email. Is it okay if I read it?”
“Sure, kid,” Robert said. “Quicker than having everyone read it themselves.”
Alan snickered. “Yeah. God knows we’re short on time here.”
“Yeah, he-he,” Robert said mockingly.
“To all of you,” Evan began, ignoring the tension between Robert and Alan, “I hope you receive this quickly, and I hope you are all safe, wherever you are. I understand why you left, since they kept you as prisoners and weren’t being much help. I wanted to inform you that I am close to determining a pattern for the light speed increases within your realm…” Evan then mouthed the words, reading ahead, but didn’t say them. “He goes into some math, but…I’m not sure about it.” Evan looked up. “And he wants me to contact him back, but understands if I don’t.”
“Because they’re probably screening what’s going in and out on that network now like mad hatters,” Robert said. “Not that it will make a difference.”
“Yeah, like we discussed,” Evan said.
Robert stared at Lang, and then at Nahas. “Okay. I know that altering ZPE levels is involved in the decrease events, but either of you know exactly what Maplen’s talking about?”
“I know it, but Nahas could probably explain it better,” Lang answered.
“Well, thank you, Lang,” Nahas said. He looked at Robert “Simply put, the decreasing amount of zero point energy in our dimension here, in the hull, is increasing the speed of light. And if all dimensionless constants and ratios of fundamental constants remain the same, yet the speed of light changes, we wouldn’t know it, except for the comparison of a place where it’s not occurring, which is in our real world, like the trees around us here.”
“Ha, yeah.” Robert let out a hearty chuckle. “That ole ZPE-holding-the-universe together crap, that you theists love so much.”
His words took Lang off guard. And it seemed the same for Nahas and everyone else. No one responded back.
Robert placed his hands behind his head, outstretched his legs, and leaned back against the hull tent’s wall, getting himself even more comfortable. He glanced around at everyone. “Well, aren’t we just the motley bunch. A black pediatrician from Ghana, an uber-quiet hotel clerk from Japan, a mild mannered American native man and his alien-connected son, and two stark raving hot-heads from Oz and their Christian bus driver. How quaint, and yet how stereotypical. And, of course, we’re on the run from the U.S. military, while at the same time getting smaller all the time. Ah, yes, life couldn’t be much better.”
Alan lunged forward and faced Robert. “Rob, when you gonna stop your stupid dumb-ass attitude, huh? We’re all having trouble with this, but you…you…”
Robert swung his hands down and nearly smacked Alan in the head. “What, bitch.” He gave Alan a menacing stare. “You have something you need to say to me? So say it!”
The look in Alan’s eyes got dark and threatening far too quickly. Alan scrambled up to a standing position.
Robert stood up too, though more calmly, gracefully, keeping his stare locked on Alan the entire time.
Lang’s pulse picked up. What’s with these two, and did they really have to bring Robert’s description of them to life now?
“Men,” Nahas said. “We should be figuring out our next step while out here in the world.”
Alan’s gray hoodie-covered arms contracted and loosened by his sides, and his face contorted in anger. He wasn’t paying attention to Nahas.
“Did you two hear me?” Nahas stood up while he spoke. “We have more important things to do.”
“Bloody idiot,” Alan said, glaring at Robert. “You still think your money can buy you anything, even get you clout in all this. But you’re dead wrong.”
Robert kept his arms relaxed by his sides, but tension and deep concentration washed over his face. Both men were getting ready for something.
“Evan,” Lang said in a low voice, nudging him in his ribs. “Get up.”
He did. Lang got up with him too. He pulled Evan behind himself and carefully placed him near Kyleigh. Kyleigh and Akina scrambled up too.
Robert glared back at Alan, and then laughed. “You university drunks are getting stupider all the time.”
Alan clenched his teeth.
A lightning flash of gray arc, Alan plunged his right fist directly for Robert’s face.
But Robert instantly sidestepped into the hull tent’s wall, completely avoiding the powerful punch. Somehow, Robert instead ended up facing Alan’s back. The next thing Lang knew, Robert jabbed Alan’s right arm with hands formed as a triangle, and then he quickly seized Alan’s right wrist. Through a series of rapid movements of his arms and legs, Robert dropped Alan to the hull’s floor, though the hull tent didn’t move. He then sunk his fist, hard, into Alan’s right shoulder joint.
“Ahhh!” Pain emanated from the intensity in Alan’s voice. “Get off me!”
This had gone on long enough. Comfortable that Evan, Kyleigh, and Akina were far enough away from the two fools, Lang stepped closer. Nahas did too.
“Guys,” Lang said, “you need to stop this, please.”
“Had enough yet?” Robert nailed his fist into Alan’s shoulder joint even more.
Alan started kicking his long, massive legs. Lang, and Nahas, moved back a bit. “Why don’t you just kill me already!” Alan yelled, attempting to rise up, nearly knocking Robert over.
Suddenly the scene before Lang quickly began materializing into something else. Did Evan move them all again? He blinked repeatedly, trying to focus and clear his vision. No! What had Evan done! Lang now stood alone, in his own individual hull, in the middle of a field of dry grasses and random dirt spots, though the oval tree border did appear to be before him.
He frantically searched around. No one else was near him. “Evan! Where are you?”
The call-out came from his right. He looked in that direction. From about twenty real world feet away, Evan was running around the side of the oval tree border, heading to where Lang stood. “Evan! Why did you move us like that?”
Evan slowed down as he approached and furrowed his brow. “I didn’t! I don’t…I don’t know what happened.”
He soon stood before Lang. Evan's breathing came heavy and he was blinking a lot. “Really?" Lang asked. "So the hull did it?”
“Lang!” It was Kyleigh’s voice, so welcoming to Lang’s pounding heart. She was running along the same path Evan had just taken. “What happened?”
Evan turned back and watched her come closer. “It wasn’t me. Dad thought so too.” He looked up at Lang. “I guess the hull…was afraid…we would all get hurt from Robert and Alan. But wow, I couldn’t believe it. One second…I’m staring at Alan, the next…I’m staring at the trees.”
“I know,” Lang said, “tell me about.”
Kyleigh sighed loudly, between her breaths. “It sure…loves messing with us.”
“It didn’t hurt me,” Evan said. “Did you guys get hurt?”
“No,” Lang answered. “Just shocked, and very surprised.”
“I’m fine too, physically,” Kyleigh said. “But I think the hull…wants to test our emotions, and in a very large manner.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Lang told her.
Evan turned away, in the opposite direction of the trees, and stared a moment. “There’s that river. It moves so slowly and sounds so weird.”
“Yeah, I know,” Lang said. “But we need to find the others.” He looked into the oval group of trees. Each tree was separated from the other tree by about a foot or more width, in real world measurements, allowing a partial view within the enclosed oval area. “We should look in there. They have to be nearby.”
He walked up to the trees and realized they could each fit through easily. Seeing no one inside the oval’s center, he told Kyleigh and Evan to go ahead before him. He walked in after them.
But once in the clearing, Nahas and Akina entered between the trees on the other side from where they stood. He, Evan, and Kyleigh then explained what they believed happened, and that Evan hadn’t moved all of them.
“So, no one has seen Robert and Alan yet?” Nahas asked.
“No,” Lang said. “Once we met up with each other we walked directly in here, and didn’t see them.”
Across the oval center, beyond the other side of the tree’s border, a person’s voice could be heard up on that small hill. Lang and the others stared intently in that direction.
Good, what a relief. Robert was running down the hill, heading right for them.
“So, there’s Robert,” Lang said. “But where’s Alan?”
Some seconds later, Alan came running up from near the river.
After Robert and Alan stood amongst them, Lang and the others restated their theory again, that the hull probably moved them to stop the fight.
“Well, I apologize.” Robert spoke promptly, his manner far calmer than earlier. “Shouldn’t have happened.”
“Yeah, me too,” Alan said, though he didn’t look at Robert. “Sorry, everyone.”
Robert pointed down. “And so odd. The hull put my folded blazer by my right foot.” He held out his arms. His arms and upper body were clothed again in his navy jacket. “I simply picked it up and put it on. Didn’t think it was possible to have anything extra in here.”
“That is odd.” An uncontrollable shiver passed up through Lang, though he tried to force it to stop. “So it just made extra space by your right foot?”
“Yeah. Just brought my hand in, moved it down along my leg, and picked it up. The hull even ballooned outward when I put it on.”
“The hull just showing us more of its talents and mystery,” Nahas said. “But you two must not let this happen again. I’m sure none of us needed this shocking surprise. We all need to work together.”
While Evan and the others spoke with them further, about Robert’s jacket, and how both men should avoid future incidences, Lang glanced at both Robert and Alan. Not so good. Though both apologized, Alan yet had aggression brewing in his eyes and demeanor.
Robert stepped away and looked up and around, as though he was searching for something.
Nahas walked closer to him. “What is it?”
“I don’t know…something…seems...” His gaze remained steady on the sky between the golden leaf-covered branches. “Nah, can’t be.”
Nahas looked up too, and took on a mystified expression.
“Robert, so what are you seeing?” Kyleigh asked
“Oh, nothing,” Robert said, a bit exasperated. “Everything just looks all wrong. But I think that’s the hull’s intention, to create puzzling images all around us.”
“But everything is wrong,” Nahas said, “because we are changing.”
Robert forced out a gruff exhale. “Yeah, but are we really?”
Lang wanted to respond too, but was more caught up in secretly keeping an eye on Alan. Robert had definitely lost his fight-desiring stance, preoccupied more with observing his surroundings. But Alan, oh Alan - the unstable powder keg - or, in Robert’s words, the stark raving hot-head - the intensity in his eyes, the periodic sudden grimaces on his big mug, all pointed to increasing aggressiveness. Great.
“Wow, I just noticed something.” Evan was watching Alan move a little close to Robert. “The hull really wanted you two away from each other. It just put us by the trees, but it put you guys up by the hill and down by the river.”
“Yeah, kid, good observation,” Robert said.
“How did you do that?” Evan asked. “I mean, get away from Alan’s punch like that?”
Robert took on an annoyingly conceited expression. “Martial arts. Been studying primarily Japanese martial arts since I was fourteen. I’m thirty-four now, so twenty years’ worth.”
“Yeah, right,” Alan said, “he just got lucky.”
Nahas let out a loud sigh. “All right, men. We are stopping this right now. I think someone needs to be in charge, to control this unruly behavior. The hull is not going to let us harm each other, but this needs to end.”
“Oh yeah?” Alan blurted. “What’s it going to do about this?” Insane agitation flooded Alan’s tone. He yanked his hands in away from his hull’s arm sleeves and thrust them right up around his neck. He then squeezed his hands tightly until he was gasping, spurting for breath.
“Oh, for damn’s sake.” Robert began heading over to him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Alan, no!” Evan shouted. “Stop!”
Kyleigh was closest to Alan and immediately plunged her hands up against him, trying to produce a hull tent. But Alan spun away from her and ran off in the direction of the river.
Lang ran after him too. Nahas and Akina did the same.
Nearing the tree borderline, Alan slowed his motion, unable to run and foolishly choke himself at the same time. His troubled breathing was getting much worse.
A whip of motion flashed around Alan. Lang blinked a lot, not sure what he was looking at. Somehow, the hull had forced Alan’s arms into outstretched arm sleeves, forming a T-shape with his torso. What? How?
“Stupid hull!” Alan yelled. “Leave me alone!” He tried bending his arms at the elbow or rotating them at the shoulder, or even pulling his arms inward, but he couldn’t budge an inch.
“Like I said, the hull is not going to let us harm ourselves,” Nahas said, looking around Alan. “Amazing. The usually fluid hull is now rock solid around his arms.”
Kyleigh stepped closer to Alan again, though she didn’t get close enough to cause the repulsion. “Alan. Just calm down. Don’t think angry, destructive thoughts. Be at peace. Then see if you can move again.”
A confounding thought struck Lang. “Why does it want us alive, at all cost?”
“I have thought about this, and can only conclude one thing,” Nahas said quickly. “It’s experimenting with us and needs us alive, and unharmed, to continue the experiment.”
Sounded right, but it was hard to concentrate on it at the moment, with Alan a living statue.
“Never mind that now.” Robert walked up to Alan. “Come on, mate, let it go. Stop the anger and calm down. And I promise I’ll try not to goad you again. Deal?”
“Okay, okay. Let me concentrate.” Alan stared toward the ground, his arms yet stuck straight out from his shoulders like a scarecrow. He took some deep inhales. He relaxed his facial muscles. With each inhale, he slowed his breathing, his chest expanding and contracting slower and slower under his gray hoodie. His crazed, angry behavior was gradually disappearing.
“Try moving your arms now,” Kyleigh told Alan.
Alan jerked his arms downward. They could move again! He swung them around, and bent them easily at the elbows. “Oh right, finally.” Much relief filled his words.
Evan and Kyleigh told him to move more, and he did, proving things seemed to be back to normal for him.
“Solved,” Robert said. He crossed his arms over his chest, beneath the hull, and stepped closer to Nahas. “But what’s this about being in charge?”
“I’m the oldest here, except for Akina.” He gave Akina a quick smiling glance, and she smiled back. “But she’s not a take-charge sort of person.”
Akina nodded. “No, I’m not.”
“Who’s made more money?” Robert asked.
Nahas took on the same folded-arm pose. “Who has the most education?”
And it didn’t stop there. They began tossing argument points back and forth, trying to prove who would be the better leader. From the combined unwinding turmoil of Alan’s freed, moving arms and this ridiculous argument of who should be in charge, Lang felt his energy draining away. Were some of them about ready for the loony bin? “Please,” he interrupted. “Shouldn’t we try to figure out what to do next?”
“Yes,” Nahas said. “And that’s why we need someone to coordinate our decisions.”
Evan walked over and situated himself in the center of the gathering between Robert, Nahas, and Lang. “I have an idea.”
“What is it?” Lang asked.
“I want to bring the bus here. Kyleigh and I were just talking, and she would love to sit down, in a real seat, and I agree. We could all sit down, relax, and talk for a while, to figure things out.”
Loud, slow speech suddenly rumbled through the air. Lang turned to the direction of its source. Beyond the tree border, two older boys and a girl were approaching, and one of the boys had a gun in his hand. “Hold on, Evan. Great. Here we go again.”
Robert looked at them too. “Yeah. Can’t we cut a break here? What is it with these Wyoming people?”
“Dad. We don’t have much time.” He glanced at the others. “So, is it okay?’
“How’re you doing it?” Robert asked Evan. “And it’s not gonna matter to those kids, once we’re in the bus. They’ll still see us.”
“But we’re more protected. We’re safe anyway, but it will feel better.” He glanced from Nahas to Robert. “And so did you guys decide, who should be in charge?”
“No,” Nahas said.
“No one should be in charge,” Robert added. “We should all just decide what to do.”
Well finally he had something rather decent to contribute.
They all quickly discussed the bus idea and what impact it would have on the Air Force base troops and what comfort it could bring. And the answer became unanimous – Yes.
“I’m just going to see if the hull will let me think it here.” Evan closed his eyes. “Here we go.”