Read Chapters 1 - 12 at: Deep Sky Stories
Chapter 13 (Part 1) - The Fallen Stars and Alex's Exam
The small formation of black Flies had been coasting for days in the airless vacuum of black space when they finally felt the strong pull of Earth beneath them. The randomly chosen "Commander" locked on to the directional beacons which were sending strong signals from a one hundred acre section of land located in the outskirts of an obscure rural town in the central region of a large northern land mass.
The beacons were relaying frequent data uploads from the regiment already on location so the Commander and its Platoon would arrive prepared for battle. Each Fly was self-encased in a thick, dense shell of caked-on asteroid dust which they had spent several days collecting from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
By emitting a strong static charge around themselves as they flew through the dust and debris of the asteroids, the thick shield of rock was built up around their bodies with the help of a film of glue they excreted. This shell was all that stood between the Flies and oblivion when they fell through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speed and experienced the melting-hot blast of air molecules against them.
Now, as they began entering the Earth’s ionosphere at a dangerously steep angle, the heat began to rise and the rock shells began to glow from the increasing friction. The Flies had become, in essence, meteors as they flashed down faster and faster, accelerating down Earth's gravity-well at a dizzying speed of thirty-two feet per second, every second.
One of their comrades went abruptly off-line in a last flash of incendiary light as the shell it had made for itself proved to be too thin to withstand the atmosphere's friction heat long enough. Too bad. Maximum velocity was reached minutes later when all of the rock shell was burned away, but by that time, the Platoon had reached the lower atmosphere.
The thicker air at that altitude slowed their descent to subsonic speeds and razor sharp wings swiveled out from their folded positions for aerodynamic flight. Still falling faster than arrows, with super-cooled frost hissing from their wingtips, the combat swarm circled the globe several times in tight formation before they re-established communication with the homing beacons.
New data advised them that the quarry had been found and a search-and-destroy plan had been made which would be executed at the hour of midnight, by Earthly time. They had arrived none too soon then, as that hour was nearly upon them. The Commander Fly extended the deadly points of Shock-Bolt Guns from both sides of his sly, coal-black face. Combat would be glorious!
"They're all around us," Teresa Vasquez said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice as she stared down at the scrapyard with Alex's hidden house off in a distant corner and their protective mound of scrap-iron lying directly below her. The ground all around the large scrap-pile, under which the Biosphere Vessel lay hidden, was crawling with a menacing green carpet of Flies. There was no doubt, now that the Others had tracked the infrared trails left by Rainah and Alex straight to the hideout.
Miss Vasquez, Rainah and Alex stood on the circular floor of the elevator, perched high in the air, near the ceiling of the Biosphere Dome. The elevator walls were again transparent so that they could look down upon the green glowing landscape image below them as though they were night-owls hovering overhead.
What they were actually looking down upon was a live-feed projected image of the ground above them and everything that moved outside. It was magically projected below them as a lifelike 3-D hologram on the vast round floor of the Biosphere dome.
The green, glowing landscape below was provided thanks to a night-vision camera mounted at the top of a tall pole that had been quietly raised high in the dark night air outside. Projection cameras mounted on the ceiling of the dome shone the high-definition hologram down on the huge floor below to complete the ingenious landscape visual.
The colored lights shining at each of the four compass quadrants were excellent reference points as well.
"As you can see," Miss Vasquez said crisply, they have a nest of sorts over here." The red dot of her laser pointer shone down and indicated what appeared to be a dense, green anthill, with a thick mass of Flies moving all about on it. From there could be seen a long trail of Flies moving to and from the anthill.
"They have made their nest inside the trailers of two large old transport trucks which are familiar to me," she said, without going into further details. "Fortunately for us," Miss Vee went on, "there are very few of them over here, by your house, Alex." Alex followed the bright red dot of the laser and saw that there were only one or two green dots crawling about near his concealed home to the south; that made him feel better about his mother's safety, at least.
"But, if we're surrounded like this," he said, "there isn't any way we can get over there or even to Brinnel's Bog where the fuel tank is."
"Ah, but we can get there, Alex," Rainah said with a reassuring laugh.
"She's right," Miss Vee put in, "you see, young man, we have many more tunnels than just the one you came down here in." Alex’s eyes grew wide with amazement as, at the touch of a button, a fascinating 3-D network of tunnels appeared, super-imposed in glowing blue, beneath the green of the outside landscape.
All the tunnels radiated away from the Greenhouse like the spokes of a huge wheel. Even the one that they had used an hour ago was shown as a wide spiral, running around and around the geodesic dome, from the surface opening, all the way down to the main entrance.
Oddly though, the tunnels that looked like spokes all appeared to stop short, going nowhere at all after only a few hundred yards. That was a strange way to build tunnels, and Miss Vee told him before that she used to travel through them to see new places and people...but how?
"How...how did you make all this," Alex finally asked. "This must have taken years and years!" Teresa Vasquez chuckled, "Actually, no, it didn't, Alex" "It actually took less than a week to clean them up and make use of them because, you see, I only found them , they were already here." "But, that's not important at the moment," she added with a throw-away gesture, which frustrated Alex terribly.
"But -" he began, but Miss Vee was already forging ahead though as she explained her plan of action to both of them. As her plan unfolded, the reason soon became clear to Alex why they needed him so badly.
What also became clear was that the tunnel that she was most interested in was the only one that seemed to lead anywhere at all; it ran straight from the Biosphere then to the outside air above-ground, near his backyard, and more importantly, his workshop.
Heavy darkness had long since nestled over the countryside and the scrapyard when the Flies commenced their attack on Miss Vee's hidden home. The last platoon had landed and joined their comrades by then. The actual attack though was more of an excavation than a bombardment because of the layer upon layer of thick protective scrap-iron, rock and earth which covered the dome of the large spaceship.
They closed ranks by the thousands, in an enormous circle around the mountainous hill of iron. Then at a silent signal, they all extended and linked their two Exo-Nerve Ganglions, then a third from their tail as well, each joining the other in a deadly embroidery of triangles.
Twelve sub-commanders were chosen in thirty-degree positions around the circle then and all surplus power was divided and given to them in a steady heartbeat of explosive pulses. With every shattering throb, through the masses, the conduit Flies dug down deeper and deeper toward the hidden Mars Biosphere. And, like evil, violet-eyed moles, each linked Fly took its brother down underground with it.
The ground shook violently with each pulse as though it was sick and the ringing of iron on iron and the cracking of rock soon became nearly unbearable. Alex and the others felt it too, clear through the solid earth. It seemed to pound through the muffling soil and into his chest, as though from an underworld horror which sought to take more and more of his life away the nearer it came.
Rainah clasped his hand to steady him as they ran with Miss Vee along the narrow, circular corridor which curved around the central elevator shaft. They soon passed by some metal doors which looked strong and heavy, until they came to one marked with a bright green light over it. Compass coordinates were marked on it as well, but the door was given an extra special label from those that they had previously run passed. The label clearly read, "To Alex's House."
"What?" Alex gasped in quiet amazement.
But Miss Vee simply said, "Okay you two, inside, let's move along please." Opening the door, she ushered them to the bottom of an equally narrow flight of stairs which lead upward to a tunnel entrance.
"Now, my dears, you know what you must do when you reach the workshop. Don't be concerned about this shaking yet, they still have a long way to dig down and, if all goes well, our plan-of-action will already have been completed well before they reach this far."
"But what will you do," said Alex, now that he was on the brink of leaving her behind.
"Please, don’t worry about me, Alex, I must prepare this whole vessel for departure," she said, looking all around. "There are a million things that have to be done in this last hour and I'll need every minute to do them." Another distant tremor came through the walls and made them all jump. If this was what it sounded like this far below the ground, Alex could only imagine the awful noise up above.
"You must all go now, there is no more time for idle chatter," she said forcefully. Rainah understood and took Alex’s hand and pulled him through the door leading to his home and toward the only plan they had; the only chance they had.
Meanwhile, not so very far away, Big Ben sat alone in the darkness, at the far end of Alex's workshop, quietly waiting for whatever was required of him. The little boy tested his patience considerably but, he had an endless supply of that to test. So be it.
He would soon be to work again, he was sure of that, with or without the young lad. After all, it was he, Big Ben, who labored when and where he chose. The boy had not a thing to do with it, he was most sure. Still, he sat stiff and silent, waiting... waiting.
A nearby sound and lights caught his attention and Big Ben slowly swiveled his great bullet-head around to look out a side window of the workshop. It was very dark outside.
He took note of twin light-beams moving toward the front of the boy’s home and the crunch of gravel beneath vehicle tires. The sound soon stopped, the two lights winked off and all became silent again after the smooth sound of a car door being shut.
Big Ben watched and listened for more but that was all. He stayed in that new frozen position though and let his quiet patience carry him through the dark minutes as they ticked slowly by again. Duty would very soon come for Big Ben this night though.
The door of the old workshop abruptly banged wide open!
Next: An Unexpected Visitor...
Race begins in earnest for the children to retrieve the lost fuel for the Biosphere Ship, but even amid the ensuing chaos, a new, utterly baffling mystery is presented to Elizabeth Faraway. And the answer for it cannot be of this world.
As of 2017-05-22, Chapter 13 (Part 1) is at: DeepSkyStories.com