Enoch thought he heard a siren in the distance, but it faded out. A minute later he heard a car come roaring up the driveway and stop. He and Brent went out to meet the sheriff.
"That was quick," Enoch said.
The sheriff held out his hand. "Deputy sheriff James Broadman," he said. "Call me Jim. I was at the Miller place when you called. Not too far away. Tell me about your visitors."
"They had this airplane, about the size of a corporate jet. They landed it over there, just beyond that rise."
"Do you have an airstrip? I don't remember anything about an airstrip last time I was here."
"No, no airstrip. I think they just landed straight down. It was in the middle of the night, and I was driving back from California when I saw the bright blue fireball come streaking across the sky towards my ranch. When I got here, there they were. Come, I'll show you where."
Together they walked up the rise. "See that melted area? That's from their jets. Pointed straight down. It's probably still hot."
Brent held out Enoch's cell phone. "Here, Enoch got some pictures of the plane."
Jim took it and scrutinized the pictures. "Never saw anything like that," he said. "Did you see the people?"
"Little guys in silver jumpsuits and black helmets about so tall," -- he held out his hand -- "but I never thought to get any pictures of them. I figured they were space aliens or something, and I wanted to communicate. We did." Enoch decided not to mention the trip to Arkansas, or his grandfather's cure.
"What about this artifact you mentioned?"
"Over there." Enoch pointed.
"I don't see anything."
"That's the camouflage. See that little bush down there where bushes shouldn't be growing? It's not a bush. It's smooth, like a plastic tarp. It only looks like a bush. You can go feel it, if you want to. I'm not sure I want to go near it again."
The sheriff handed Enoch's cell back, then spoke briefly into his lapel microphone, and the radio confirmed that they were sending out a backup. He started down the hill toward the bush. When he got closer to the burned area, he hesitated, like he was feeling the heat, detoured around it, then resumed his pace.
When he got close to the tarp, he reached out his nightstick to touch it. The stick thumped on the tarp, but the branch he seemed to touch did not budge. "If that ain't the damnedest," he said. He thumped it some more, high and low, walking all around it. From the back side he leaned down as if to peer up through it.
"Hey!" he yelled, "where'd--" He stood up suddenly, his head reappearing over the top of the bush. "Oh, you're there. I thought you guys had walked away."
"No, it's the camo. You can see through it, but you can't see people through it."
Jim bent down again, slowly. Enoch watched his head disappear behind the bush, but there was no movement where you could see the rocks behind through the branches. He moved his head up and down, as if looking at Enoch and Brent across the edge of the bush. Finally he reached out and tapped the edge.
"That's one hell of a camo job," he said, starting back. "I never saw anything like it. Did these guys tell you anything?"
"We talked a lot, mostly about religion after they learned English. They learned fast. I think they were missionaries or something."
"They didn't know English when they came?"
"Couldn't speak at all. The leader -- the guy I spoke to, he denied being the leader -- had a little box that spoke for him. I had to teach him English, but he learned fast."
"When did you say they came?"
"Um, it must have been Tuesday morning. Yes, I left California Monday morning, drove straight through, got here about 3am Tuesday. I saw them -- they had blue area lights -- right after I got here, but they shut everything down when they saw me. I slept a little, then started to communicate with them when I woke up. I took those pictures that morning. We talked a lot."
"Why didn't you notify us right away?"
"They didn't seem hostile. I figured if the military got involved, you'd push me off my ranch and I wouldn't get to learn anything from them."
"Yes, I see. But that, that bush over there has you worried. Did you do something to make them mad at you?"
"Not really. I don't think so. They wanted to take me with them to some distant planet. I told them no."
"Hmm... They left today? When did you tell them you weren't going with them?"
"I emailed them this morning, from The Lazy J. Then Brent and I came. They were just leaving as we drove up. Lifted straight up maybe fifty feet, then shot off that direction."
"That was what time?"
"Maybe nine, nine-thirty. Just a few minutes before I called 911."
The sheriff spoke into his lapel mic again. "Can we get a log of the air traffic in this county, western region, from the FAA? We have a report of a plane, looks like a corporate jet, took off from here on the Pair-a-Dice ranch about oh-nine-hundred, maybe oh-nine-thirty, heading south or south-east, I would like to know its flight plan."
After a couple minutes, his radio barked. "Jim, the FAA reports no known flights near you. There was a very bright meteor seen over the interstate about that time. We had several callers tell us about it. It was going south when they saw it."
"I see. Thanks, Paula." He turned to Enoch. "You heard that?"
"Yes. It was going very fast when it left here. I'm not surprised it was mistaken for a meteor. Look, I don't want to waste your time..." Enoch stammered.
"No, you were right to call..." He was interrupted by a second sheriff car arriving. Jim went down to meet with him. They talked quietly for a few minutes, pointing and gesturing.
Brent spoke first. "I need to get back to the Lazy J. Thanks for having me come out. This is awesome. Please keep me informed, will you?"
"Sure thing. Thanks for coming. And I really appreciate your putting up with me last night."
"Think nothing of it. After something like this, anybody would need it. See you around." He headed off down the hill, said a few words to the officers, and then drove off.
Enoch started down the hill himself. Jim came over to meet him. "We've asked for a scientist from the college to come look at it. They also put a call in to the Army for a threat evaluation."
The other deputy approached, and Jim introduced him, "This is deputy BJ Williams." BJ put out his hand. The greetings accomplished, Jim motioned up the rise. "It's over there, if you want to see it." They all went.
Enoch wasn't sure if he wanted to get that close, but the two deputies didn't seem worried. Jim walked right up to it and thumped it with his nightstick. BJ put out his hand to feel it. "You sure this isn't poisonous?" he asked, turning to Enoch.
"How should I know? I think it's just a covering. They had something like it -- maybe this same one -- over their lander after the first day. I tried to lift it, but it's too solid, too firmly fastened down."
BJ reached down to the edge on the ground. "I see what you mean." He felt around some more, then found a loose rock partly under the edge. He wiggled it for a while, and it came out. "Would you look at that!" he exclaimed. It's got a picture of the rock I pulled out, just like the rock is still there. You can even see around the sides of the rock." He held up the rock. "See that reddish spot on the end? You can't see it from this angle, but if you lean way over, you can see it under the edge in the picture, like it's really there."
Enoch came closer and looked. BJ continued investigating, sticking his fingers into the hole left by the rock. "The underside is rough, almost like sandpaper." He tried to lift it. "Nailed down solid. I wonder what would happen if we dug it out? Jim, I have a shovel in the back of my car, would you mind?"
"Sure thing." Jim sprinted back toward the cars. BJ continued scraping dirt and pebbles out from under the tarp. Enoch stood back and watched.
When Jim returned with the shovel, BJ started digging in earnest. The ground was hard and rocky, so it took a lot of effort. "Wish I had a pick," he grumbled. "Or a back-hoe." He managed to undermine the tarp a few inches, alternately digging down with the shovel, then reaching in to claw away dirt with his hand.
"I found some air," he announced, "where the covering curves up." He followed the curve along the top with his finger to demonstrate. "If it weren't so hard, it would be like a piece of cloth, but thicker." He renewed his digging. Enoch and Jim stood by, watching.
Enoch was beginning to feel the urge to be somewhere else. "If you guys don't mind," he said, "I drank a lot last night."
"No problem," Jim replied. "We're just waiting around for the investigative team."
After taking care of his immediate need, Enoch went to his computer
to check his email. In addition to his refusal note to Lazir, there were
several new emails from Lazir. Most of them were binary data, but the first
one looked like a farewell response:
I'm sorry you decided not to accept our offer. That concludes our mission here, so we will be leaving shortly.
We noticed your interest in our camouflage tarpaulin, and decided to make a gift of it to you instead of simply recycling it. We have reprogrammed it to respond to emails from your laptop computer the way the energy converter worked, with 'Camo-Control' in the subject line. In the following and final emails from us, there is a brief description of the programming controls, plus an actual example, in which we programmed it to resemble a bush over rocky soil similar to what we used over the lander. This has the additional advantage of keeping it out of sight until you read this email and are ready to reprogram it yourself.
We enjoyed interacting with you, and we wish for you the best of your chosen life.
Lazir & crew
Enoch opened the second email. It was a very long explanation of how the tarp worked and how to program it, like a computer reference manual. He was still reading the introduction when he heard the faint sound of a helicopter growing in the distance. Before the end of the day his ranch would be swarming with military and haz-mat and God knows who-all else. It was the nightmare he so carefully avoided while the Ghibbers were here. The worst of it was, he, Enoch, had invited them. They probably wouldn't let him near the tarp.
He scrolled down to quickly skim the operating instructions. It had a rather complex programming language, not at all like the computers he knew well. It would take Enoch at least a couple of days to absorb enough to control the tarp without destroying it. The military would probably never let him near it again.
"Oh God," Enoch said. It wasn't a prayer.
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