Escaping the Future
They coasted into McGroarty Park and stopped next to the tennis courts. An open gate across the street led into the Arts Center and to the only nearby trails that led into the hills, but it was blocked by the police. An officer stood next to his car, diverting traffic.
“We’re too late,” Sophia said. “They’re never going to let us pass.”
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Nic replied.
“You go,” Sophia said. “You might have seen something after all, but I’m still not buying it. I mean aliens, really?”
Nic turned to see if Tate was coming, but he averted his eyes before saying, “This is your adventure, man.”
Nic shrugged and then rode over to the officer. Before Nic could ask, he was being waved away. Nic continued, stopping when the officer raised his hand and said, “That’s far enough.”
“Can we get up to the Arts Center?” Nic asked.
“No. There is a fire up there. You should head home in case the fire makes it down to any houses and you have to be evacuated.”
Nic stared up the hill, but no smoke could be seen. If a fire did start from one of the crashes, he was close enough to tell that it wasn’t likely it was still going. He shrugged to the officer and said, “Okay, thank you,” before coasting back down to where Sophia and Tate were waiting.
“Well?” Sophia asked.
“There’s a fire up there,” Nic said skeptically.
“Possible, but where are the fire department helicopters?” Sophia asked. “Normally, they’re all over the place during a fire.”
“Obviously, that’s their cover story,” Tate replied. “We tried, Nic.”
“We’re not done,” Nic said, shaking his head. “I know another way in.”
“But what if we get caught?” Sophia asked.
“We’ll be okay.” Nic pointed to the other side of the park, past the officer guarding the gate. Three months ago, Nic had gone on a hike with his brother, returning after the gates were closed. There was an exit in the chain-link fence. “You can peel back the fence over there. We’ll duck through when the officer isn’t looking.” Nic was still pointing at the hidden entrance when the officer spotted them. Nic ran his fingers through his hair in a feeble attempt to hide their intentions.
The officer continued to watch them as Nic started for the playground. He led Tate and Sophia down to the jungle gym, where they ditched their bikes underneath the structure. When he looked back at the officer, he was ushering people out of the Arts Center down the road.
“Now’s our chance. Let’s go,” Nic whispered and then dashed across the street. The others were lagging behind him, but they still followed. They crossed the street and ran up to the fence before Nic heard a shout from behind.
“Stay out of the hills, kids!”
Nic ignored the warning as the officer headed their way. He peeled back on the chain-link fence enough for Tate to squeeze through. Sophia hesitated. She stared back at the officer, who was now running their way from the park side. If they went through, the officer would be too big to follow them.
“Go, Sophia!” Nic shouted.
Tate reached back and took Sophia’s hand. “We’re only going to get in trouble if they catch us. Let’s go.”
Sophia climbed through and held the fence open for Nic. He scrambled to the other side, brushed his pants clean, and then bolted uphill after the others. They no longer needed any prompting to run, and when the fence rattled behind them, Nic didn’t look back but did run harder.
They ran until they reached the trail. They didn’t stop, just slowed enough to catch their breath. The trail was steep, but it passed through enough trees to hide them on their trek up the hill.
“Well, we made it,” Sophia said. “Now what, Nic?”
“Just follow me. The first spacecraft shouldn’t be too far,” Nic replied and then continued up the hill at a pace just short of running.
Nic periodically glanced over his shoulder until the park was completely lost from view. Once it was, he slowed down to a little more than a walk.
Tate caught up to him, leaving Sophia trailing behind.
“What makes you think aliens would come here?” Tate asked. “Nothing happens here.”
“I don’t know,” Nic replied. “That movie E.T. was filmed in this valley. Maybe E.T. was based on a true story, and the alien came back to visit his old friends.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough.”
Sophia hustled forward. “Do you think the aliens are friendly? I mean, I still think you two could be trying to pull one over on me, but if you’re not …”
“Probably not friendly,” Nic replied. “They shot each other down, remember? So at least one of them must be hostile.”
Their trail’s switchback headed in the wrong direction, making Nic lead them off trail. The ground beneath them was loose, and more than once Nic felt his feet slide out from under him—not enough to slow them down, though.
The path they took now led through tall trees farther up the hill, until they reached a peak that would give them a better view.
They reached the top as the sun began its descent behind the hillside’s tallest peaks. In one direction, barely visible through the leaves, a black helicopter circled the distant hills, close to where Nic thought the saucer spaceship might have crashed. There were some houses being built on that side, but most of the land was undeveloped.
Sophia had stopped next to a tree to watch the helicopter and catch her breath. Nic joined her, thinking that they should have already found the first spacecraft.
Behind them, Tate cleared his throat. “I think that might be it.” He was pointing past the next ridge to an unseen valley with faint traces of smoke rising into the air.
“We found it!” Nic shouted with a laugh. “That has to be where the crystal one went down. I’m sure of it.”
With renewed energy, they all ran toward the smoke. Before they could peer into the valley to see what made the smoke, distant indistinct voices stopped them in their tracks.
Tate grabbed the others. “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Sophia said. “I don’t think we’re the first ones here.”
They crawled the rest of the way until they could peer into the valley. Only fifty feet below them, a smoldering hunk of crystal the size of a small house was embedded into the ground. Shards of black obsidian glass stabbed into the earth like tombstones, while smaller pieces were scattered in every direction. A stench of rotten eggs wafted past them, and an unnatural fog seeped from the crystal across the ground, giving Nic the impression they were looking upon a misty graveyard.
A dozen soldiers with assault rifles were sifting through the debris. Two more stood next to the core crystalline structure: a bald man still wearing sunglasses and a tall woman on a phone.
“Aha! That’s it, guys,” Nic whispered. “I told you it was a spaceship.”
“Could that thing really fly?” Tate asked. “I guess it could be a next-gen military aircraft.”
“Give it up, Tate. It’s from another world.”
Movement below ended their conversation. Four soldiers carried a stretcher out of the wreckage, which held a humanoid shape far too large to be human. They set it down next to the woman and bald man, but because of the terrain, Nic could no longer see it. He glanced around to see if there was a spot to gain a better vantage point. The only place he found was twenty feet from where they set down the stretcher, with part of the spaceship to use as cover. He turned to a grinning Tate, who asked, “Do you think we can get closer?”
Nic nodded and then inched his way forward, when Sophia grabbed his leg. “Do you really think that is a good idea? They could see us if we got any closer.”
“Come on, Sophia,” Nic replied. “It’s an alien. It’s why we’re here.”
“We saw the spaceship, Nic,” Sophia replied. “That’s why we’re here. Whoever that is, is dead.”
Nic glanced around. Half a dozen soldiers were spread out below and might be able to see him if he climbed down, but for now they were too focused on spaceship debris, giving Nic a chance to go. “Then don’t come down.” Nic kicked his leg free and scrambled down the hill to where the stretcher was in sight.
Nic stopped behind a large crystal spike that stabbed into the ground. Tate was on Nic’s right, and they both peeked over the crystal like it was a fallen tree. The military woman tucked her radio into a vest pocket as Sophia glanced over the crystal next to
Nic, wide-eyed. Nic knew that when it came down to it, Sophia would come along too. She was worried about getting caught, but her curious nature would always get the best of her.
The bald man knelt next to the stretcher and took a deep breath before pulling back the tarp. He unveiled a dreadful creature resembling a massive humanoid reptile, twice the size of a human.
Its skin was pickle green, with large, sunken eyes so black that they seemed to absorb darkness. Its nose was no more than a bump with oversized but closed nostrils. Its wide, snarling mouth parted enough to reveal a row of skinny teeth that belonged inside a shark. Instead of hair, uneven rows of short, stubby horns spread from its scalp down to its thick, muscular neck.
“Look at that,” Nic whispered.
Sophia shuffled at Nic’s side but couldn’t contain her amazement. “Totally,” she said softly and then added, “I want horns.”
Nic glanced at Sophia to see if she was serious, chuckled, and then returned his attention to the scene, wanting to see more. Nic’s eyes widened as the bald man dragged the tarp down to the creature’s waist. It wore a tattered, half-burned maroon shirt that opened enough to show its body underneath. Its torso was mangled in the crash as if ravaged by wild animals, with a mossy-green sludgy substance leaking from its wounds down to the ground.
A wave of queasiness washed over Nic, but it couldn’t dull his growing excitement. “I knew it—”
The soldier closest to them spun around, causing Nic to duck down, pulling Tate and Sophia with him.
The military woman spoke, “Take this thing over to the field, and don’t touch it. The helicopter’s due to arrive in ten minutes.
Sophia peeked around the side and then whispered, “They’re leaving, except for the lady and bald man.”
Sophia inched closer to get another look, and Nic scooted next to her. The creature was being carried away by four soldiers, once again shrouded by the tarp. Even covered, Nic couldn’t shake the image of its parted mouth frozen in a scowl.
The woman and the bald man who stayed behind had begun examining spaceship parts that were gathered around them.
“Okay,” Sophia said quietly, “you’re right about the aliens, but I think it is time we go.”
Before they could move, a deep voice called out from the woman’s radio, “Eagle 01, Eagle 01, this is Fox 03, over.”
She took out her radio and replied, “Fox 03, this is Eagle 01, proceed.”
Hoping the momentary distraction would allow them to escape, Nic took a step back up the hill.
“Eagle 01, this is Fox 03. Local police reported three children on their way to your location from McGroarty Park. Over.”
Nic froze, and then flattened himself on the ground.
“Fox 03, this is Eagle 01, affirmative. Over.”
“Fox 03. Out.”
As soon as the call was over, Nic looked up enough to see the woman had returned to examining something black and sludgy that had to have come from the spaceship. The bald man had walked away and was now gesturing to a pair of soldiers. The pair saluted and then headed straight toward Nic and the others, causing Nic to entrench himself deeper into their hiding spot behind the crystal.
The crunching of footsteps approached but didn’t slow as the dim shadow of the soldiers rushed past them up the hill, back to where Nic and the others had come from.
“We need to follow them,” Sophia said, checking to see if they were clear to go.
Nic glanced around the wreckage. The woman that remained was facing away, joining the only remaining soldiers who didn’t go and search for them. The bald man headed off in the same direction as the alien on the stretcher.
When Nic turned back to say it was safe to go, Sophia was already halfway up the hill. Tate was sneaking behind her, and now Nic rushed after them at a distance.
Sophia and Tate lay down where they first discovered the spaceship, waiting for Nic. They watched the crystal spaceship and the remaining soldiers below. Nic turned to face where the saucer had crashed. The easiest way to the other spaceship was up the hill.
They would reach another trail eventually and be able to take it close to the area where the invisible ship had crashed.
“Maybe we should head back home,” Sophia said, “instead of finding the other spaceship.”
“Go home and do what?” Nic asked. “What could possibly compete with this? We can’t go back. Our only choice is to keep going forward.”
“And if they have the next one locked down too?” she asked.
“And if they don’t?” Nic replied, surprised that Sophia actually wanted to head back. “We should leave here, or one of the soldiers could spot us, but we can’t go home.”
“Imagine what we could find at the next spaceship, Sophia,” Tate said. “We should hurry, though.”
Ignoring Sophia’s protests, Nic crept away until the crystal spaceship was no longer in sight, and then sprinted up the hill, away from the alien wreckage. “It won’t be too far, I promise.”
Shadows from the setting sun stretched across the landscape. They finally reached the other side of the hills and stopped when the trail branched in two directions. Nic scanned the valley below them for any clue of the second spaceship’s whereabouts. “It has to be around here somewhere.”
Tate crossed his arms and stared back along the trail they came from. They had been searching for a while now, and neither of the others wanted to stay anymore. Once they got away from the military, Sophia was happy to explore. Tate had voiced his reluctance to continue, and his willingness to search was fading with the sun. It wouldn’t be long before he tried to convince them to go home again. Time ticked away, and if they didn’t find a clue, even Sophia would get tired of wandering around aimlessly.
“All right, Nic,” Tate said. “We’ve looked long enough. We’re done here.”
“Yeah,” Sophia added. “Maybe it’s time we head home.”
“Shouldn’t it be my choice? It’s my last day.” Nic wasn’t ready to leave. When he got home, he had to move. They had more time, not much, but still more time. “No, we’re going to keep looking until we can’t see anything. If it gets too dark, you brought a flashlight, and we can just take the fire road home.”
“No, Nic,” Tate said. “It’s my turn to pick.”
Sophia waited, clearly wanting to say more. She was ready to leave, but as long as Nic refused to go, she would keep searching.
When Tate stepped in front of Nic, Sophia shrugged and then wandered off, happy to avoid the first signs of their brewing conflict.
“We’re not going to take the fire road,” Tate said. “The fire road is barely connected to town; it’s why like ten people live back here. It would be much quicker to just walk home the way we came.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Nic replied.
Tate stood in front of Nic, glaring at him. “We are done searching. We could have gone home after seeing an alien and its spaceship and still have had time to hang out. Instead, we’ve wasted what’s left of daylight, searching for something that we’ll never find. If it was up to you, by the time we left, it’d be so late that when we finally did make it home, the only thing we could do is go to sleep.”
“And?” Nic replied. “So what if that’s all we do? We are searching for a spaceship, and that is worth doing, no matter how little time we have left.” Nic moved away from Tate and stared across the hillside. He peered down into the hidden valley below, hopeful for any sign of the crash. They had reached the side of the valley that just started construction, with only a couple of homes built.
Tate stepped next to him, and Nic turned away, trying to cut off any further objections before they started. He was hoping to buy himself enough time to continue searching in what was left of the sunset’s light.
Sophia had continued up the path of the steepest hill, or what was left of it. The route she took should have continued uphill past where Sophia knelt, but in front of her, roughly twenty feet of the ridgeline was missing. “I think I found something,” she called back.
“That’s it!” Nic shouted. “That’s where it hit!”
Nic raced off the trail toward Sophia through waist-high thorny bushes that tugged on his pants, slowing him. Now that they found this spot, it was obvious that the spaceship hit there. The dirt around him was loose, muddy in places, like it was plowed by a tractor. The plants around him were uprooted and buried under a landslide. It was like something scooped out an entire section of the hill, creating a gully filled with small trees that were smashed, severed, or uprooted completely.
Nic peered down into the valley below, hopeful for any sign of the crash. He searched with renewed hope. Scrubby trees, brush, and boulders filled the rest of the valley, without seeming out of place. The only evidence of something being off was that the top halves of dozens of trees were scattered across a flat patch of ground hundreds of feet away. Besides the severed trees, the hillside below had no other sign of disturbance and no sign of the spaceship.
When Tate finally caught up, Nic said, “It must have bounced here first and then landed downhill.”
“I don’t see anything, Nic,” Tate said. “Even if it hit here, there is nothing below us except a couple of fallen trees.”
Dusk approached, and the last rays of light began to fade, along with Nic’s vision below.
Tate shook his head. “It’s not here. Why do you think this is where it crashed, Nic?”
“Because what else could have destroyed this hill? Something big hit here and headed that way. How else did the tops of those trees end up so far downhill?”
“But nothing’s here,” Tate said as he leaned over the ridge. He opened his mouth to say more, but stopped.
“If it didn’t land here, then where is it?” Nic asked under his breath. Taking a step back, Nic crossed his arms and sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe the spaceship escaped after all.”
Behind Sophia, dozens of trees were collapsed into piles of stumps, broken branches, and wood chips. Sophia leaned against a severed tree, the top half missing, scattered far below. “Hey, Tate, what are you looking at?”
Tate squinted, staring below them. “What? Oh, I thought I saw something moving into that house under construction down there. It looked … weird.”
“Define weird,” Sophia said, frowning.
“I don’t know. It was too blurry to make out. Whatever it was, it’s heading this way now.” Tate ducked away from the edge. “We should hide.”
“Is it an alien?” Sophia asked, straining to make out what approached.
Something hustled up the hill toward them, shrouded in an ivory cloak. It didn’t resemble the hulking form of the alien at the crystal spaceship. Nic grabbed Sophia and pulled her behind the branches of a toppled tree, which allowed them to keep an eye on what approached. “Whatever it is, it wasn’t there a minute ago, but I think it’s human.”
Tate lay down behind a fallen tree as the cloaked figure scrambled into view.
As it drew closer, the figure became clear. It was human. Despite the hood still being up, eyes shone through like bright-blue beacons of light reflecting the fading sun. Unruly strands of black hair fell from the cloak’s hood as they set a backpack on the ground and removed a flask for a drink.
Upon pulling the hood down, the figure appeared to be a woman around Nic’s mom’s age, but that was not quite right. She was not old, but not young either. The longer she stood there surveying the hillside, the less Nic was sure of her age.
Her bronze skin made her look like she might have spent some time in the sun, but like her age, Nic couldn’t make out her ethnicity. Nothing about her made Nic think she wasn’t human, but why would she be flying a spaceship, and especially when it appeared the military knew nothing about her.
Sophia nudged Nic and whispered, “She looks human. Maybe we should talk to her.”
“What could we say? Have you seen a spaceship?”
“Maybe. If it’s hers, think of what she could tell us.”
“Think of what she won’t tell us,” Nic said. He didn’t want to risk her stopping them. “I doubt she’d want to explain to a bunch of strange kids why she was flying a spaceship. As long as she doesn’t spot us, she’ll be gone in a minute, and we could go find her ship. Now, shush.”
A broad smile crept across the woman’s lips, causing Nic to wonder what she could possibly smile about after crashing her ship.
She knelt in a patch of mud, grabbing a leaf, and then twirled the stem between her fingertips. Sighing, she examined the gully carved out by the saucer spaceship. As she stood, mud fell away from her cloak, leaving it as pristine as when she arrived. She put on her backpack and slowly headed their direction, causing Nic’s heart to thump like a drum with each of her steps.
Before she had a chance to spot them, a squirrel ran across the path in front of her. The woman shrieked with delight and turned away to follow the squirrel until it dove under an uprooted tree. She stared at the tree with soulless dull-gray eyes, which transformed back into a beautiful blue when she blinked. But as Nic saw them transform, he saw something else too. The blue eyes had various lines that encircled the pupil, moving independently to the iris. While Nic wasn’t close enough to be certain, he was certain that they were not natural.
Catching what Nic did, Sophia whispered, “Her eyes aren’t normal.”
Smiling, the woman flung the cloak hood back over her head and then roamed along the trail toward the city.
It wasn’t long before she was lost from view. Once she was, Nic joined Tate searching downhill with renewed hope of finding the spaceship. “Tate, where did you say the lady came from?”
“You see that house being built,” Tate said, pointing to the only house down the hill under construction. “It only has frames for a couple walls. She walked from it straight up here.”
“Then that’s where we start,” Sophia said, stepping forward. She stumbled down the hill past the landslide created by the spaceship. Sophia turned toward the spot Tate indicated and took off as fast as she could go.
With more caution, Nic chased after her. He reached the house under construction as Sophia ran through what made up the house’s wooden frames.
Nic stopped when Tate halted abruptly in front of him, spotting a pair of dirty footprints on the house’s foundation not made by Sophia.
“Over here!” Tate shouted. “This is where she stepped up.” He shined his flashlight on the footprints, following their trail away from the house.
“Let’s follow the tracks and see what we can find,” Nic said. “Remember, this spaceship was cloaked, so even though we can’t see it, it could still be here.”
Tate closely tracked the footprints as Sophia ran ahead to the field that would soon be this house’s neighbor.
Nic stuck with Tate, searching for a sign of the spaceship’s landing, but didn’t see anything out of place.
Sophia headed up a little hill and then faded from view as if she had stepped into a deep fog. “Wait, Sophia! Where’d you go?”
“I see it,” Sophia bellowed. “It’s right in front of me.”
A flood of relief rushed over Nic, and a renewed excitement pushed him forward to where Sophia faded away. He reached the fog that took her, and continued with his arms extended as if he were trying to find his way in the dark. Tate joined him, and they marched together toward Sophia’s voice.
With each step, the field in front of them faded, replaced by a large blurry object. It was like the spaceship was surrounded in a bubble sphere that hid it from view. Once inside, though, it was all clear. Nic turned back to the hillside they came from, but it was still in focus.
“This has to be the cloaking device I told you about,” Nic said, grinning.
Tate rubbed his eyes. “Either that or I need glasses.”
Nic’s hands shook in anticipation when a black object as long as a school bus came into view. The saucer rested at an angle, half buried in the ground. A single piece of landing gear extended in a failed attempt to hold the ship upright.
They had found the second spaceship.