The Lad Who Poked the Devil in the Eye
Chapter 1: A Lone Voice in the Desert
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
Otis stood beside the road, staring at the remnants of his onetime retreat. The entire mountain was now nothing more than a heap of orange rock. The local experts were flummoxed by what happened, blaming it on a buildup of natural gases which exploded—thought they couldn't explain the utter devastation it produced.
"I've really done it his time. I thought I was doing the right thing, extending human kindness to others in need, and now it's come to this." Otis closed his eyes, massaging the back of his neck. "No one realizes what's about to unfold, and how many lives will be lost. What's more, I can't tell them, because no one would ever believe me. The truth is beyond the pale, too outlandish to be believed. If I tell them after what's about to unfold, I'll be in even worse trouble. Not just with the law, for helping orchestrate events and not stopping them from happening, but because of what I know. And it won't just be the law after me, the government will want to get their hands on me, and others, much more dangerous, would rather I never speak a word of what I know. Face it, you're in for a world of hurt.
"You remember the fuss when Josh Evens decided to do the right thing twelve years ago. The President called on law officers across the country to shoot him on sight, and he set the both the CIA, the military and fighter jets against him. Yet knowledge saved him. He's hoping it'll do the same for me, though I'm unlikely to be seen as a hero by the survivors.
"To be fair, it's not as cut and dried as it seems," he conceded. "Despite their dubious intent, George violated his orders to save my life. What's more, he equipped me with the resources to resist them. I now possess the knowledge to combat forces the world's armies combined couldn't hope to resist. I have the knowledge to save lives, but I can't act on that knowledge until millions die. I'm on the horns of a dilemma, straddling a fence with massive death and destruction on both sides. I'm damned if I do, but the world is damned if I don't. And mankind would have no hope whatsoever if I hadn't made the biggest mistake of my life."
He glanced up at the uncaring sky which showed no sign of those hiding behind its blue façade. "So, how do I convince millions they'll die tomorrow, without admitting how I came by the information? No one listens to a lone wolf howling in the night. If they do, they're as likely to shoot it as heed its advice.
"Still, no one ever claimed saving lives was easy. Despite what I've done, I still have the power to affect the future. I can either throw my hands up and say it's hopeless, or figure out how to make a difference. I was willing to sacrifice myself to help George. What's different between then and now?
"The fact is, there's no way to rescue everyone. I got into this by trying to assist a single individual. I need to take the same approach. Instead of saving millions, start with a few individuals. In lieu of rescuing everyone, I'll save those I can. The information I possess is vital. If I admit to it, I'll never see a sunset like this again. I'll either be dead, or spend the rest of my days locked in a cell. What's more, they won't allow me to act on my information. I've got to save lives without anyone's buy-in, getting people to avoid an unseen enemy. Few will listen until it's too late, but once they do, everyone will be aware of the threat."
Otis sighed, frustrated at how complex his life had become in only a matter of days. "I've got to even the odds by using my knowledge. I can't warn anyone. Instead I've got to play a complicated game of chess. George's people have a board full of queens, while I only possess a lowly pawn. My first dilemma is finding other pawns who can help, and give them enough information to assist."
The bigger man slapped his host on the shoulder, giving him a big hug. "I must say, Liam, I'm glad we're here, but you didn't explain why we're here. It's certainly not to watch another baseball game! As much as we both enjoy the Chicago Cubs, it's easy enough to do in front of two different TVs in different states. What's this about your son, Otis? What's so severe that you needed the rest of the family here, and why couldn't you tell us ahead of time?"
"I hate to disappoint you, but ... at the moment, it's a big surprise. Otis arranged this, so he's calling the shots." Liam dropped his voice. "Personally, I think he's discovered he's got something, either something medical or a mental condition, and wanted the entire family here for support."
Jack Redding, Otis' uncle, stroked his chin, considering the prospect. "I hate to say it, but he's the right age. Depression is common among high school students, and the first signs of schizophrenia usually first appear now, though they're generally ignored until it's too late to prevent it." He glanced at his beautiful blonde wife and kids, playing in the other room. "Linda and the kids will be crushed. The kids were hoping to spend time with Otis, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of him since we've arrived. I know they're curious why."
"I suspect he's hiding in his room. I saw him earlier in the kitchen, grabbing a snack. Man, that kid can eat! He was never a very social kid. He's got various ... unfortunate habits that others like to make fun of." Jack nodded his head, well aware of those behaviors himself. "He's been acting strangely the past couple of days, especially sullen and moody. Frankly, I'll be glad to learn whatever it is. Then we can deal with it, at least, rather than guessing what's set him on edge."
"What about his sister, Geraldine? Does she have any clue what's going on?"
"Shhh!" Liam insisted, lowering his voice, glancing around the room. "Don't ever let her hear you call her that. She's very particular. You know she refuses to acknowledge her name, insisting that everyone call her Ger instead. If anyone was going to have a problem, I'd have thought it would be her. She's always trying to prove how adult she is, I keep expecting her to do something irreversible. I'm hoping it'll be as simple as a tattoo."
Jack glanced around too. "Strange, she was down here earlier, but now she's gone too. I haven't seen her for a while."
"I'm sure she's up trying to pry information from her brother. She's nosy and pushy, and hates being left out of the loop. But the game's back on. I'm sure they'll both be down in a little while. Otis promised to reveal everything by the end of the game, so let's enjoy what we can before he creates an emotional scene."
Jack and Linda Redding's kids were sprawled across the floor, playing various games. Linda was sitting to the side, gossiping to Liam's wife, Kelly—probably about the same issues Jack and Liam were just discussing. Jack slapped his thighs. "Come on, sport. Come join your ol' man for some baseball!"
Gary's face split into a big grin, and he threw himself onto his father's lap. "You know I love baseball. We watch every game. I just wish Otis and Ger were here to watch it with us."
"Don't worry. I'm sure they'll join us soon. After all, who can resist the crack of a ball against the bat or the thrill of a stolen base?"
They watched the game, just as the usually did, as a family—this time an extended family. Everyone was enjoying it—though the women never really paid much attention—when the game switched to another channel.
"Hey!" Jack demanded. "Who switched the channel? They were about to score a home run!"
"And what kind of channel is this?" Gary asked. "It's black. There's no picture."
"I certainly didn't do it! I know better," Kelly Crus said, standing up and looking for the remote. "Who's got the remote? Did someone sit on it by accident?"
Instead of video, a gravelly voice spoke in a hard-to-understand accent. It appeared to be a low-grade, science-fiction radio program.
Earthlings. You have one week to surrender Earth to us. To prove the threat you face is real, we are conducting a demonstration. With no unified government, we'll expect the President of the United States to take the first action. That should motivate the other minor nations to fall in line. Your president has until Sunday.
Uncle Jack swiveled, waving his arms and raising his voice. "What the frig is this nonsense? Did you kids screw up our game?"
The game reappeared, still in progress, though they'd missed two stolen bases.
"Otis!" Liam called, looking around for his son. "Where is that boy?"
Kelly spoke quietly, not wanting to upset the rest of the family. "Is this what he was talking about?"
Uncle Jack grabbed the remote, switching channels and finding them all displaying correctly. "It must have been Otis and Ger. Everything's normal now." He was about to turn back to the game when a red banner scrolled across the bottom of the screen. 'Massive mid-west power failure."
"Wait," Linda said, holding her hand out. "Where is this? It might affect our home in Chicago. Let's see what they say before you change it again."
Liam stood, watching the display as he walked to the kitchen. "Try one of the major networks, NBC or CBS. They'll report what's happened."
Jack did as he suggested. They were already broadcasting details.
Breaking news: Northern Illinois has suffered a massive power failure.
Linda gasped, clutching her hand to her chest. "This might affect when we can return home. It's lucky we weren't there at the time."
"The hell with that," Jack swore. "I'd prefer being there to protect our property. If it involves flooding, at least we could save what's important. Being here, we can't save anything."
A large display by the network's news division appeared announcing a "Special News Announcement". Jack turned up the volume.
The commentators took a moment to prepare, shuffling papers and listening to their ear pieces as they juggled the latest information. Finally the lead newscaster began.
This just in: The Chicago power grid has collapsed. Most of Northern Illinois and parts of Wisconsin and Indiana are now without electricity. This is the largest power outage in history, and there are immediate questions about a potential terrorist plot." He held his ear as he got an update and frowned. "We've tried contacting our network offices in Chicago, but get no answer. The landline phone system, which carries its own independent power, is down as well. Cell service seems to be out too. We're trying to reach our regional offices.
"Oh, my God!" Linda cried. All our friends are there. What'll they do?"
"We got out just in time," Gary said in a quiet whisper.
The news team was frantic, with personnel running papers to the correspondents. The various people separated and the lead journalist resumed.
The President of the United States has issued an executive order restricting all air travel over the Midwest, including our news and traffic copters. The Air Force is launching jets to survey what's happening. Apparently the White House has access to additional information we're not privy to.
Liam reentered the room, watching the television news as he waved a piece of paper.
"I couldn't find Otis and Ger, but they left a note in the kitchen."
We've established contact with a station in New Racine. They're speaking to us via Satellite phone. They report a major disturbance over Chicago. A 'beam of light' shot down from the sky. The power failed immediately after, and a few seconds later a massive shock wave rolled across the suburb, knocking pedestrians off their feet and flipping cars. The President has announced a state of emergency. We're awaiting word from the White House on what their fly-over determines."
The on-air coverage stalled, as various commentators came on and proposed alternatives—none based on any facts.
"Otis was adamant Linda and Jack bring their family, but said we'd know before the game ended," Kelly said. "Could this be what he meant? What did his note say?"
Liam blinked, remembering the paper in his hands. He started reading.
Dear Mom and Dad:
This is what I warned you about, and why I wanted to get our family out of Chicago. You'll be safe here, but don't mention anything to the authorities. I know what's happening, but can't do anything about it if the police are after me. It's better if you don't know where I am.
The news continued, as the journalists discussed what they knew.
"What about this mysterious broadcast, Fran? What do you make of it?"
"It wasn't a normal broadcast, John. It appears much as the one from twelve years ago. It blanketed and overrode all other signals, interrupting all existing AM, FM and television signals. That's not something anyone on Earth is capable of."
"Do you think the White House is considering this a serious demand by an alien race? One we've never heard of and have no evidence of at this point?"
"Don't forget, Don, no one heard of the aliens who did the same thing twelve years ago. The government was aware of them and made a fumbling attempt to capture them, which didn't please the aliens."
"Do you think our actions provoked them into retaliating? They stated before that they didn't like how our world was organized politically. Is it possible they've decided it's not worth the risk to allow us to ... continue as we have?"
"Frankly, Don, we have no clue at this point. However, our science team has been studying the short broadcast message, and it's quite sophisticated. The odd-accented speech extends into several octave ranges which are impossible for humans to hear. I'm convinced it wasn't created by man. Now, what their interests are, it's hard to speculate on."
"They demanded the world's surrender. Clearly they aren't here on a peaceful mission. If the broadcast was legitimate, and it didn't originate from this planet, then we're in for a hell of a time."
Linda turned to their hosts. "Liam, is this why you asked us to come? To get us away from our homes before something happened to us?"
Kelly fidgeted. "Liam, what's the rest of the message say?"
As if remembering it for the first time, Liam resumed reading the note. "It's from Ger.
I joined Otis before he could slip away. He needs someone to watch over him. With me there, he should be fine. But he seems to understand what's going on.
Kelly jumped up, glancing at the door. "Otis can't drive. How'd he leave? How long ago did he take off?"
"He took his bicycle, last we saw him was about an hour ago," Gary said. "We thought you knew where he was going."
"Liam, what's going on?" his brother-in-law asked.
Holding his hands up, Liam shrugged. "Earlier in the week, Otis began spouting some nonsense about how we needed to get you out of Chicago. We thought it was a strange request, but he wouldn't give us any information. He's been so well-behaved of late, seemingly better adjusted than normal, we humored him. He and Ger made a reasonable case for inviting you here and how it would help him adjust."
"We haven't seen much of Otis since we arrived," Gary said. "He's shown no interest in spending time with us, so we've been entertaining ourselves."
Kelly entered from upstairs. "His bag is missing and his drawers are disturbed. He clearly packed for a trip. It looks like he took food as well. Ger doesn't seem to have prepared, grabbing a few loose items."
Gary shrugged. "He welcomed us when we arrived. Now I think it was to see who'd come."
"So he knew this would occur in advance?" Linda demanded.
Jack stood, his hands balling into fists. "Couldn't he have warned everyone else? What about the millions caught unprepared?"
"Who would have listened?" Kelly argued. "Liam and I didn't believe him. We even scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist."
Linda turned to her brother. "How'd he learn what would happen?"
"There was a big explosion. An entire mountain tableau was leveled. Maybe they were practicing their weapons here?"
"That doesn't make much sense. If Otis witnessed it, he wouldn't know what they planned. I think this is more complex."
"Unfortunately, we won't understand unt—"
Liam stormed to the front closet. "Kelly, grab your purse. If Otis is on his bike, he wouldn't travel far. What the hell was the kid thinking? You can't ride a bicycle far in the desert. There are only two ways out of town. Jack, Linda, you take the interstate southwest. We'll take the northern route."
As the other adults hurried to comply, Kelly interrupted. "I don't think you'll catch him. He's been distracted all week, but he seemed driven. I tried to get him to talk, but he wouldn't say anything. I could see the gears turning in his head. I doubt he's planning to ride his bike somewhere safe. I suspect he's gone to combat the aliens. I don't know what he's thinking, but seeing as he's the only one to anticipate this, he's probably better equipped than anyone else."
"He's a kid," Uncle Jack insisted. "He couldn't handle a situation like this even is he had the full backing of the military. Taking an individual stand again—"
"Uh, guys," Gary interrupted, pointing at the television set. As the adults huddled around it, he cranked the volume up.
"The Air Force jets the Pentagon scrambled have confirmed it. The city of Chicago has been leveled. It hasn't just been destroyed; it's as if it never existed. There's nothing but rock, bits of metal and scattered floating papers. Several areas are reflecting light like glass, implying the skyscrapers and bedrock fused under intense heat in the blink of an eye.
"The damage extends for a full twenty miles, meaning there are portions of the city still surviving. The regions outside the immediate catastrophic area were only impacted by the resulting sonic boom. They didn't seem to suffer much heat or radiation, but that's only a guess. The President declared martial law. All airline flights across the country are banned until further notice. No one in the Chicago region is allowed out of their doors until they can determine the dangers to the public. The Illinois National Guard is putting together teams to measure radioactive fallout. Communications are crippled, and many still aren't aware anything has happened.
"There's complete pandemonium. Those who didn't see the initial broadcasts are being informed by word of mouth. The roads are already clogged with those fleeing. The President's Science advisor, Peter Muznard, warns that sitting in traffic might expose everyone to harmful exposure to radiation and recommends taking cover in storm shelters."
Another newscaster took over the broadcast. "The New York Stock market has been closed with no date to reopen. The Chicago Exchange obviously no longer exists. This will likely cripple the entire economy, not to mention the incredible reconstruction costs. Assuming we'll be allowed to rebuild."
"Damn! What the hell has Otis stumbled into?" Liam wondered, scratching his head and staring at the television screen.
David Saunders stared at the twelve-year-old girl sitting in the back seat, leaning between the seats to hear the discussion. "Are you going to tell me what she's doing here? What's she going to do, aside from distract us?"
David was a scary looking man, with wild eyes, unkempt hair, and he always wore old military fatigues. Ger had noticed him around the neighborhood, but like the other kids, had never trusted him enough to venture near. Her brother clearly hadn't been so easily intimidated.
Otis sighed, not really having an answer. "She tailed me out of the house." He studied his sister, Ger, trying to figure it out himself. "If she hadn't come, she'd spill the beans before I could get away."
"I understand that, but why? What does she offer, besides more limitations? It would be safer for all of us—especially her—if we just dumped her by the side of the road."
"I understand my brother," Ger objected. "I can keep him on the straight and narrow. Besides, who'll suspect a car with two kids in it?"
"If you ask me, we should leave her behind the next time we stop for gas. She can find her own way back. Does she even understand what we're doing?"
"I have a few ideas, but I don't know any specifics."
"Well, at least you did one thing right," David said, glaring at Otis.
"He's got a point," Ger said. "You need to explain the details. What did I miss on the TV?"
David glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "Don't even think about it," he warned Otis. "The more she knows, the more she's liable to blab it to the wrong person."
"No, she wouldn't," Otis insisted. "She's as closed off as I am. We're both loners, and we don't volunteer information unless we trust people."
"That's the problem. She still trusts the police to do the right thing."
"Are you kidding me?" she asked, stretching between the seats. "I understand you're both on the run, and I realize you're running from the police, not the aliens."
David's head snapped around.
"Don't worry, I've figured out a lot, despite Otis not saying a word. You don't just walk away from an exploding mountain without getting into something otherworldly."
Otis leaned back, ignoring the dirty looks David was flashing him. "There's a lot you need to learn. But the first thing is, you're not going to take any risks. Anything which looks dangerous, you'll step away from."
David rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry, but just knowing us will have every policeman in the world salivating."
"Excuse me, but I'll be keeping my eyes on you, as well as my brother. You aren't exactly Mr. Easygoing. If the stress gets to either of you, we're all in trouble. I'm in charge of keeping you both calm. So when I say we stop and calm ourselves, we do it. Got it?"
David shot her a look, but couldn't keep from cracking a smile. "Like brother like sister. We're three peas from the same pod.