I knew I was under surveillance three months ago when I decided to go off the grid. If only I had known then what I know now I would have headed for Central Kansas, or whatever place is the farthest from saltwater.
They’re out there waiting. Whatever possessed me to decide to hide on the Baja Peninsula? When it started to get dark and I noticed a lot of the locals cutting worried glances at the beach. Now I understand.
It all started about midnight on the second of May when a van full of wets went off the Route 90 Bridge east of Alpine.
They must have been going like a bat out of hell, because when we walked the bridge a few minutes after we got the call there wasn’t so much as a scrape on the hefty concrete and steel rails. Somehow they vaulted right over without touching anything. The wreckage was still on fire in the bottom of the ravine. The crumpled metal was so hot we couldn’t get near it. It burned strangely, I remember; not much smoke, but we squinted in a fierce whitish light that made me wonder if they had been carrying something unusual as cargo.
We climbed down through the Manzanita and scrub that choked the steep banks of what used to be a river some millions of years ago. That old river was long gone; and on that late spring evening in South Texas it was already sweltering when we reached the ravine floor.
A lot of things have changed in the Border Patrol since nine-eleven including our name, but one thing has stayed the same. We ain’t the Red Cross. We climbed down there, not to rescue anybody, but to make sure no living wetbacks had crept away into the darkness.
Officer Juan Beltrán, our half Apache-half Yaqui tracker, immediately began to quarter across the featureless stone. He turned his khaki baseball cap around backwards, and I could tell he was about to get serious about the business of chasing men.
We headed for a little kink in the ravine almost a mile from the bridge; I called my other two troopers to flank to the south.
“You got it, Goldie.” Tom Gephardt and Mickey Wilson were born Texans and hard as nails. Good men who would probably have been Texas Rangers, or maybe outlaws, in another time.
“You gonna be able to track ‘em, Juanito?” I said.
“There’s always somethin’ they don’t notice.” He grunted with about as much enthusiasm as he ever showed for anything. Juan was your basic stoic Native American, or whatever the politically correct term is these days.
No more than a couple of minutes passed before he called out of the darkness on the edge of the beam from my Maglite.
“There’s some kind of stain, something blue. It’s still damp, c’mon over this way.”
“What is it?” I expected blood, but if I had understood what was happening we would have all climbed out of that ravine right then.
“I don’t know. The dust is all riled up like somebody was dragging a giant broom, and there’s this wet, blue stuff.”
“Giant broom?” I guess he might have heard skepticism in my voice. “Trying to cover their tracks out here? Don’t make sense, vato.”
“I mean like ten, twenty feet across, Goldie. Giant, I ain’t kiddin.’”
“Don’t get too far out front,” I said, “there might be a bunch a them. They could be waiting out there with rocks.”
“Wetback’s ain’t dangerous, Ese, you know better’n that. Probably just scared and hurt.” But for an accident of birth, Juan Beltrán could have been one of those undocumented Mexicans, and we both knew it.
“Slow down.” I yelled back for Tom and Mickey to close up with us, because something was giving me a bad case of the creeps.
“There’s more and more of it.” Juan never got excited, just more and more intense.
“Well, what is it, a bag of ink, or paint, or what?”
“Nope, it’s got a smell. I don’t know, kind of salty. Almost like blood, but different.”
“Don’t get so far ahead; I’m having a hard time covering you.”
I was carrying two pounds of Beretta nine-millimeter on my hip, and one-handing a stubby little M-4 carbine. Our other two team members were packing serious heat too. Only Beltrán, with his crafty insistence that gun oil messed up his sensitive tracker’s nose, was unarmed.
We should have been able to hold our own against a regimental combat team, but it sure didn’t turn out that way.
Beltrán didn’t hesitate. He disappeared around the corner into the deadfall and there was a sudden bright glow from the other side and a commotion. He reappeared almost instantaneously, low to the ground. Then I realized it was only his hat. A split second later I knew his head was still in it.
“What the hell! Shoot! Shoot!”
All in one motion I dropped my Maglite and flicked the M-4 to full auto. I stepped around to line up with the notch motioning the other two forward. We stood line abreast, all firing. The brass rained down around our feet. Something whipped out of the darkness past my head. I felt the breeze as it flashed by. Was it a whip? A rope?
The flames from the three automatic weapons and the light from the still-rolling Maglite combined to show us something I still can’t forget. I swear, what I saw looked like a huge plastic bag full of water with a mass of something, maybe like guts, twisting around inside it. It towered over the deadfall, nine or ten feet tall. All at once there was a subtle “pop” and the essence of the sea rolled over us with choking intensity.
I finally managed to get my finger off the trigger and stopped the others. We got three flashlights pointed in the right direction to find Beltrán’s body half buried in some indescribably slimy stuff that was starting to disintegrate. It looked like bubble wrap somehow disappearing, cell after cell, as we watched. I had a flash impression of a giant, baleful eye. It was looking right at us. We backed out of sight of the thing.
Tom’s voice was strangled, “What the hell was that?”
“What’re we gonna do, Boss?” Mickey was usually a bit resistant to my authority, but suddenly he wanted someone to tell him what to do.
“Let’s get back to the bridge until it gets light. There might be more of them.” I said with my voice shaking.
“More of what?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a helluva good reason to get out of here.” Even the unflappable Tom Gephardt was flapped.
We took turns walking backwards and staring into the darkness. It seemed to take a week to make it back to the bridge, but it wasn’t really long at all.
Nonetheless it was long enough for us to get lots of company. At the top of the slope was an unwelcome surprise.
The guy was a poster-perfect example of the modern urban super-hero. He was dressed head-to-toe in black combat overalls, but on him they looked like a custom-made Tuxedo. “Seth Marshall, Homeland Security.” He held out a small leather case with a gold badge.
“Captain John Orr. We’re from the US Customs and Border Protection. We’re part of Homeland Security too.” I extended my hand, but he ignored me.
“I’m from Headquarters.” He vaguely gestured over his shoulder toward a Blackhawk helicopter idling on the highway.
I was puzzled. “How’d did you get here so quick? The wreck only happened a couple hours ago.”
“We were tracking the thing from NORAD during the final approach. One of the deep space surveillance systems picked it up almost a week ago. We launched as soon as they calculated the impact point.”
“NORAD? What NORAD? No, a van full of wetbacks went over the bridge here, but we followed one of ‘em, and my God, I don’t know what we saw. It got one of my men up the ravine. Like something flew out and cut his head right off. It almost got us too.” I was jabbering and trying to keep my words separated, but failing.
“Calm down now. It wasn’t a van. It came from deep space.”
“The hell you say. A spaceship?” I guess my mouth was hanging open.
“This never happened as far as you’re concerned. We don’t need any loose cannons.”
“It got one of my men.”
“No, you chased some Mexicans in the darkness. In the confusion you guys panicked and accidentally shot your own man. It’s happened plenty of times before.”
“Well, it didn’t happen here.” I was feeling pretty adamant.
“What happened here is what I say happened.” Seth rejoined smoothly. “You all are going to shut up about this. There will be a shooting evaluation board and you’ll all be acquitted—if you keep it zipped.”
They herded us into the helicopter like a bunch of chickens. They isolated us. Everyone had noise suppressing headsets, and no one talked. It was hours before we landed on some Air Force base. We heard a pair of fighters roar off into the growing pinkness of the dawn.
Another Blackhawk landed out front. Figures dressed in big moon suits came climbing out. Two of them were carrying the diminished body of what had to be Juan Beltrán shrouded in a black body bag. Four more individuals carrying two large boxes that looked like high-tech ice chests followed them.
“What’s that?” I pointed toward the people with the chests.
“It’s what was left of that thing. They say they got almost a hundred and fifty pounds of it sealed up in each of those chests. We’ve got a full team standing by; we’ll figure out what it is.” Seth Marshall was doing his best to calm us, but it wasn’t working.
“It will be a while for the test results,” Seth Marshall confided. It was four long days.
“Clean bill of health, boys. We didn’t bring anything back from out there.”
“What about those chests of slime? What about those?” Mickey Wilson, a man of few words, was finally roused.
Seth Marshall was ready, “Well, as a matter of fact we have a guy coming down this afternoon to tell us all about that. There’s no reason you can’t hear the final results of the analysis. You paid for it, after all.”
Our enlightenment arrived that afternoon right on schedule. Wyatt Elkins, PhD, was a cherubic little fellow in his mid sixties. He had the kind of pink, translucent skin that comes from a life in the laboratory.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to get this chance.” Dr. Elkins’ smile was as angelic as his appearance.
“Well, tell us, Doc. What’s the answer?” I was running out of patience.
“Gentlemen, if you told me you had retrieved this specimen from a bathyspheric submarine I would have no doubt what it was. The fact that it came from South Texas, five hundred miles from saltwater, makes it a bit more problematical....”
“But if it had come from the ocean, then what?” Tom Gephardt was right on my wavelength.
“Elementary. Architeuthis, without question.”
“The giant squid. Almost everything about your sample is a perfect match for Architeuthis.” Dr. Elkins spread his hands as if revealing a magic trick.
“Wait a minute. So, there was somebody out there that got away?” Mickey was slow, but the reality was beginning to sweep over him.
“Why? What do you mean?”
“Somebody turned on a flashlight just before the attack. And then somebody used something, a weapon of some kind. Something cut Juan’s head right off. No damned squid was carrying a flashlight or a machete,” Mickey said.
“Flashlight? I hadn’t heard about that. Fascinating.” Elkins was positively beaming.
“I saw it plain as anything.”
“Fascinating. A photophore.”
“Squids have specialized structures called photophores. They can light them up like a searchlight to immobilize their prey. I’m not aware that we’ve seen this with Architeuthis, but frankly, there is no more unknown creature on this planet than Architeuthis.”
“But what about the weapon? That wasn’t from a squid.” Mickey wouldn’t give up.
“Oh, I’m quite sure it was. The incision marks on the victim . . .”
“Juan Beltrán.” I said. “He’s not just a lab sample.”
“Of course, sorry. The incision marks on Officer Beltrán’s neck precisely match the remnants of a tentacle we retrieved at the scene.”
“A tentacle?” Mickey persisted.
“Architeuthis has eight arms and two tentacles. The squid can shoot its tentacles, and the velocities in water are nothing short of astounding.”
“So in air they could fly out so fast they could cut Juan’s,” Mickey’s voice fell.
“You’re telling us that these deep sea creatures or whatever they are, were walking around out on the ground?” My creepy feeling returned full force.
“I doubt that was the plan,” Dr. Elkins said, warming to the idea, “I think what you saw was a crewman, so to speak, from a spaceship, it was wearing what would amount to an emergency space suit. I expect they never had the intention of being exposed to earth’s air.”
“What about the blue stuff we followed, was that what was in the big bag?” I had seen it and smelled it.
“No, the bag apparently contained something remarkably close to earth’s ocean water.”
“So, what was the blue stuff?”
Oh, that was the blood of Architeuthis, of course. It’s quite blue.”
“How did this thing end up in a spaceship crashing into South Texas?”
“That is the mystery of the age, I’m afraid. Perhaps Architeuthis came from outer space in the first place.”
“Real aliens, huh? Well, that’s sure enough a job for the Border Patrol—” I think I almost grinned, but it was the last time.
Seth was Johnny-on-the-spot with the cold water. “This is a national security matter. You either sign up to our version of this story or you’ll be held on material witness writs.”
“You can’t do that.” I was getting a sudden sinking feeling.
“With the Patriot Act in effect? Are you sure?” Seth had what might have passed as a smile on a normal man, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
I believed him then, and I still do. I signed the paper that day, along with Tom Gephardt and Mickey Wilson. Juan escaped the indignity the hard way.
We buried our partner and we all went on extended convalescent leave. DHS gave all of us medals for participating in a “special counterterrorism project,” and we zipped our lips.
Not long after that I heard that Mickey was drinking way too much, and Tom told me he thought Mickey might be running his mouth a little bit while he poured Bourbon into it.
It made me sad to hear a week or so later that Mickey had crashed his pick-up and killed himself, not three miles from where we found the van burning that night. It was strange though; he had driven that route a million times, drunk and sober.
I wrote it off as an accident until the evening of Independence Day when they found Tom Gephardt’s body. Tom wasn’t a drinker, but the explanation was that he had fallen into some kind of depression and had, as the saying goes in the Patrol, eaten his gun.
I stuck to the deal, but I began to get that feeling I used to have when I worked undercover for the DEA south of the border. Somebody was watching me. I’m not a great believer in government conspiracies, I know damned well how hard it is to keep secrets, but I began to form the opinion that Seth Marshall, or somebody in the Government was systematically getting rid of witnesses. I wish to God it had been that simple.
I had enough accrued leave to go away for a while, so I decided to get on the road, and see if the surveillance would let up.
Thinking back, I suppose I saw those white vans. There were plenty of stretches across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona where there was nobody around but me. If they followed me, I must have seen them, but they are the most common vehicles on the road so I guess they just didn’t register. It wasn’t till I arrived in the little nowhere town of Ligui, Baja del Sur, in Mexico that I noticed the three vehicles that followed me down the hill to the little double line of houses that flank the beach. They were all white vans with opaque windows.
Whoever is driving those things must have a powerful aversion to the sun, I thought to myself. They parked side-by-side in a scarce patch of shade on the east side of a ramshackle little house a close to the beach, but nobody got out. The vans sat there idling, and I supposed, running the air conditioners full blast. Later that night it began to make sense.
I sat in a little palapa joint overlooking the Gulf of California and ate fajitas and drank Mexican beer. Something was missing in Ligui. Finally if dawned on me. No dogs. I joked to the waiter, “han comieron todo los perros? Have they eaten all the dogs?” I meant it as a joke and I gestured with a tortilla filled with the delicious fajita meat.
His eyes were wild with fear. “A quién?”
“Cualquier,” I said, waving the tortilla. It meant like “whoever.”
“No sé,” he scuttled back into the kitchen.
By dusk the place was empty. I walked back toward my camper. That’s when I saw the three vans back out in unison. They looked like the Thunderbirds taxiing for an airshow. Absolute precision. The turned sequentially at the first cross street and headed for the beach. I ambled along till I could see the water and there they were, the three vans line abreast, backed into the water. Suddenly all hell broke loose.
There was splashing and thrashing. This time there were no plastic bags, just huge, gray shapes with lots of horrible suckered arms. They launched out into the water and were gone in a flash. The vans remained rear wheels just at the high tide line. Now the engines were silent.
I made it back to my camper and clung there, chest heaving, the taste of copper in my mouth. I got into my hide-out box and got my .45. It gave me comfort, but I knew in my heart I was kidding myself.
“No va hacer una differncia, eet won’ make no difference,” I jumped as if I had been shot. The old man looked at me with rheumy eyes. “They keeled all the dogs, señor. Las’ night they took a leetle girl.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Los calamares, those beeg esquids. They can walk on their arms for a little way.” He was all in white and he seemed almost luminous in the growing darkness. “They only need the vans to go far.”
“When did this start?”
“Maybe tres meses, three months, four. Meteores falling into the sea, now we see these so beeg esquids, and they get smarter. Now they come out.”
“Are there any more guns in this village?”
“I don’t think enough.”
Behind me I could hear the hiss and suck of the little breakers.