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Oakton

Oakton

By B.Chen

Copyright 2016 B. Chen

Shakespir Edition

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Chapter 1

Introduction.

Tuesday March 27, 2029.

My name is John Archer Jr. This is my voluntary statement about what happened in our home town, Oakton, Nebraska, during March, 2029.

According to ‘legend’ the feud started in 1945 when Calvin Archer, my great grandfather got into a fight with all the neighbors over possible Pawnee grave locations. I think I always knew ‘the feud’ would only cause more problems than it ever solved. It had lasted for generations and just wouldn’t go away, until recently. There was no actual hostility between the neighbors, just a total lack of communication and cooperation.

It all started as an argument after surveying was done to satisfy the state tax board. The surveyor suggested our homes might be sitting on an old man-made Indian burial mound. My great grandpa Calvin offered to let the university dig in the yard to search for relics. The neighbors thought he might jeopardize their property rights and wanted nothing to do with it.

Words were exchanged, things got out of hand. Whiskey was drunk, punches were thrown, someone got shot in the foot, and the locals stopped speaking to each other for generations.

That’s how the story was told around the dining room table ever since. When it was my generation’s turn to hear about ‘the legend of the feud’ it was met with yawns and rolling eyes.

Now in 2029 about eighty four years since the first punches were thrown the families are the same but the people that started the feud are all buried in the Fricke Cemetery up the street.

Three of the oldest kids in Oakton today are seniors at Falls City High School. We’ve all not been allowed to be friends with each other but the truth is we’ve been like best friends since kindergarten. Ben and I are both wide receivers on the Tigers. Beth (Bethany Meek) is in girls’ varsity volleyball. She turned nineteen two weeks ago, Ben and I are about to turn eighteen.

Today, Oakton is just an intersection of two dirt roads with three homes, four barns, three tractors, one horse, ten people, three dogs, and lots of barn cats. The town is in Richardson County, Nebraska in the south-east corner of the state. Back when the town was founded by fur trappers and Pawnee Indians in the 1700’s the place was a bustling trading post along the Missouri River. Back then the rivers were used like highways are today. The town sits on a hill-top maybe twenty feet higher than all the surrounding land. It looks like a big fuzzy lump from a distance.

Over the generations the river did as rivers do, they get silted-up and they move. Today the river is about four miles away. They taught us in fifth grade local history class that our town was named for a stand of tall Oak trees not native to Nebraska or the American grasslands. It was also home to a very large stand of apple trees supposedly planted by Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman. He was a travelling preacher who’s supposedly buried in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

With the floods and movement of the river over the decades the whereabouts of the old Pawnee cemetery was lost to the ages but was rumored to be located somewhere under our homes and yards. Up the street to the north is the old ‘white man’s cemetery.’ Today, it’s called the Fricke Cemetery and it no longer matters what color your skin is to be buried there, no animals allowed. It’s located on County Road 655 about a quarter mile north of County Road 712.

The Fricke family lived here long ago, buried their dead then in the 1930’s they moved to California during the dust bowl era when farming became nearly impossible. They once owned nearly one quarter of our county but only farmed a small part of it.

We also learned about other possible reasons for the large lump in the mostly flat Nebraska farm land. Some local geologists suggest our hill is a portion of a glacial moraine, much of which was washed away by the migration of the Missouri River long ago. A moraine is the pile of rock and soil debris carried in the glacier then deposited at the end of its travel. Some of our teachers prefer this explanation over being man-made since the amount of soil in a hill this wide if built by hand it would take twenty men about fifty years to build which would be a tremendous feat for a nomadic hunter-gatherer society. And there’s still no hole to account for the hill’s soil.

They said it was probably this glacier that cut the original Missouri and Platt River gorges, then melted northward. Most of the written records of the founding of old Oakton as a trading post along the river were destroyed in a series of floods from 1820 to 1911.

Cast of Characters:

The Archer Family: (south-west corner)

John Archer Sr. 39. 6’2” Farmer.

Mary Archer. 37 full-time mother.

Narrator: John Archer Jr. 17 yrs old. 6’0”.Student. (18th birthday in four weeks)

Melissa Archer, 13. 5’1” nickname: Mel. Student.

Dog: “Carl” German Shepherd

The Meek Family: (north-west corner)

Harvey Meek, 44.6’ Farmer.

Gwynn Meek, 40.5’3” Nurse.

Bethany Meek, 19 5’ 9” nickname: Beth. Student

Horse: "Bullet" Spanish Mustang- female. Various outdoor cats. Dog: 'Daisy' female Irish Wolfhound - an indoor 'sofa' dog, shaggy long dark gray fur.

The Brown Family: (north-east corner)

Raymond Brown, 40. 5’11” Farmer.

June Brown, 41 Vet assistant and mother.

Ben Brown, 17 5’11” Student. (18th birthday in two weeks)

Dog: “Killer” mixed breed male. 55lbs.

The Patton Family: (south-east corner) They have moved about two miles closer to Falls City but still own the corner lot and attached 4500 acre farm. They moved after their house burned down leaving a barn, garage and house foundation.

Vocabulary, terms and abbreviations used in this fictional story:

VR= Virtual Reality. Typically a head worn visor appears like very large wrap-around sunglasses you cannot see through. Inside contain two small high resolution displays like small TV screens. Frames contain cameras so what is actually in front of the glasses is seen on the displays. Other video can be shown on the displays, and what yours sees can be shared with others worldwide over the internet.

Net = internet = Netwise. A wireless public data network, owned by the taxpayers but originally built by Verizon then purchased by the federal government after satellite based internet efforts failed.

AI = Artificial Intelligence. A computer software that ‘thinks.’ More like human thought than just mathematical and logic models, allows computers to weigh the benefit of doing or not doing something. Requires very fast and complex processors and large amounts of nearby data storage.

Flexing = Using network based storage/memory to act as if that was memory in your device.

Dev, Device, smartdev = fancy cellphone

VRnet = a place where people can share their live or recorded video from their VR goggles, to be watched by others with similar equipment. Usually VR goggles linked to your device which is linked over the net to VRnet. Some people think this is what put most of the TV news networks out of business by offering unlimited live action coverage of big events.

Net Repeater = small electrical device used to extend the range of a cellular tower in a particular area without the expense of installing another cell tower.

Autonomous = unmanned operation. A device that can perform it’s function based on what it already knows or can learn without human intervention.

Drone = a small unmanned flying or crawling machine. Typically have specific tasks or functions.

Swarm = two or more drones sharing data to accomplish a self-beneficial task.

3D printing = a machine used to build things out of plastic or metal based on a 3D design in a computer. Typically fed by a plastic string similar to fishing pole line, the plastic is melted inside a tiny reservoir (print head) then laid down (printed) in microscopic thin lines, layer upon layer eventually forming an object. Three dimensional objects designed with a computer program typically called CAD software (computer aided design), which can be used to create 3D models of objects, rotated and observed and edited from any angle. This is used to feed print data to the 3D printer which connects to the computer via ordinary USB cable. Early opposition to 3D printers were from companies that feared losing income when people could ‘print’ their own replacement parts for broken things at home. Some feared people printing weapons from plastic that couldn’t be detected by security scanners.

Recog = Recognition. When the image from an electronic camera is compared to a database (aka: the entire internet, Facebook, Google, etc.) to identify a person seen by the camera. Used by casinos, police, intelligence, retail, background verification, military. One reason people have for never posting a photo of yourself online anywhere, and remove any that are there now.

Bluetooth-5 = A short range, two-way, high speed radio link for exchanging data between computers. Some variants have longer range, up to a half mile in some terrain and interference situations.

RFID = wireless technology to replace barcodes on packaging. Sensing the product code number from a short distance. Can be used to attach a unique number to anything, sensed remotely.

Magnetics, Maglev = using electrically powered magnets to propel and/or levitate a metallic object using no moving parts. Typically this technology is very fast and quiet.

Oakton, after the storm.

It was a record winter storm, worst in Nebraska and United States history. February 25th to March 1st, 2029. We missed a week of school. I’ve never seen so much snow in my life. Over three days we got nearly forty five inches of snow. The massive arctic storm dumped the white stuff from Montana to Michigan. They said eastern Nebraska and western Iowa got it the worst.

The snow fell for nearly three days then stopped suddenly. Eight hours later the temperatures dropped to below zero, the wind picked-up and started blowing it around for another eighteen hours. That’s when people really started dying. Visibility was down to just inches in some places. They found people frozen dead within ten feet of their homes. Thousands of animals perished.

Everything from North Platt to Des Moines was shut down for over a week. Most of the airports in the Midwest were closed for five days. Dad strung a life-rope from the house to the barn in case he needed to go out to start our generator. I saw on TV that thirty people were found dead in Omaha over twenty hours. In the larger cities the death count was much higher. I saw on the news that total deaths from the storm were around five hundred. Most of those happened after the winds came and made it a blizzard.

The snow drift in front of our living room picture window blocked it off to within a couple inches of the top, that’s about eight feet above the ground outside. Our neighbor Ben Brown had to climb out his upstairs window, jump down into the snow drift then struggle over to their garage to get a shovel to dig out the kitchen door for his parents so they could get to the tractor in their barn. It took him twenty minutes to make it from the side of the house to their garage. That trip normally takes you about thirty seconds.

About all everyone had to do was sit at home and wait on the weather, which left the net as about the only thing that was still working. It was running slow as can be with about every human on VRnet sharing their blizzard videos and tons of live video from dumb people riding around on their ATVs. There were some deaths among those folks too.

That was a month ago. Eventually they got the roads plowed. A used 4-wheel ATV was selling for $25,000 in the Auto Trader in Falls City. I heard someone got beat up over that.

Luckily we have the net. Unluckily we live on the outskirts of Verizon 5G Netwise. That’s the national wireless data network that doesn’t cover Oakton very well. It’s how we get our school work, e-textbooks, and talk to our friends. We got a repeater installed along Highway 73, but it only marginally improved the coverage inside our homes. You can use your device but you gotta stand still or you drop off the network eventually.

Up until 2020 Netwise used to be owned by Verizon but the taxpayers agreed to purchase the network, so it’s paid for by taxes now but still maintained by Verizon. Getting dead spots like our town is in fixed is much harder than it used to be, which is why we purchased our own network extender thing that sits on someone’s fence post along the highway.

We finally got some docking stations so when I get home I put my device in the dock, it links with my laptop, the TV and the repeater but I miss the portability of using it anywhere like I can in town or on the bus which has wifi just like airplanes used to. Someday I’m gonna move to town or have that repeater raised another twenty feet.

Dad would have a fit if he saw Ben and Beth’s numbers in my device. I got a Verizon Model-17 Smartdev. It’s a phone, computer, media center, GPS, library terminal, and portal all in one. Most of my friends have ‘em. It’s how we stay in touch. Mine’s about the size of an old cell phone, runs forty eight hours per charge and stores one terabyte on board with 128 TB on our home network it can flex to. We have about every TV show, movie, book, painting, and song made before 2018 on the home server. Dad can run the tractor, order parts from Deere, and even sell his crops on his device. He usually runs the tractor from the desktop computer in his office room. Two of our fields are set-up for autonomous mode but the other five aren’t yet because the sensors are kinda hard to get since everyone’s trying to get their fields set up for autonomous farming.

We need the sensors because some of our fields are crossed by creeks that are dry at times or have water flowing others. The tractor AI can’t understand a changing landscape. They can handle something like plowing an empty parking lot unsupervised. All the AI stuff that got deployed in the last few years really changed the way we look at places like yards, parking lots, driveways, and fields. More and more stuff comes out with ‘Netwise AI’ these days. Practically nobody owns a lawn mower, vacuum cleaner, recycle bin, or snow-blower with a handle any more.

When you go shopping you just look for the connected device with Netwise-AI logo, a green and black checkered flag and you know you’re good to go if you got it at home or on your device. Any device with the logo is smart, has AI (artificial intelligence), and can run autonomous after being set-up. It’s compatible with other smart devices using Netwise.

Back to the story about the storm. Sorry about that but I like talking about technology.

+

We got stuck inside for almost a week after the mega-storm started back in late February. We never lost power or network but we did lose two barn cats. Of course we don’t monitor them real close but that’s what my little sister said. She’s the animal lover in the family.

Bad part of the net these days is we still had some school from home during the storm. It’s hard to study with all my sims and tunes right at my fingertips.

We could get around a little. Dad made one trip to the grocery store in town after the blizzard ended. It took him two hours to get our mail and groceries. We rigged up a sled behind his ATV 4-wheeler and made a two page list of stuff to get. I think he only got what he and Mom wanted anyway. If it wasn’t for the feud he probably would have picked up mail for the entire town while he was there.

He said town was like normal for this time of year but once you got to the edge of Falls City where the plows stopped, everything stopped. It was like a wall of snow at the edge of town waiting for the first plows from the state highway department to make their run down Highway 73. They had to fly surveillance drones above the roads looking for abandoned vehicles since many of the snow plows had to run so fast due to the depth of the snow they’d have little time to stop.

After the state got the highway open the county started plowing the rural unpaved roads like ours. That took three more boring brain-rotting days. When the plows came down our county roads it was like a lifeboat had dropped from the heavens. The net was running slow since VR and media was about all the three families in Oakton (and around Nebraska, Iowa, and the mid-west) could do during the ‘event.’

+

On the first Monday of school Ben and I rode on the bus like normal. Beth drove her 1971 F150 fully restored pick-up. She had the back end loaded with firewood for weight.

Ben and I go out to the little bus shed near the corner. Around 7:10am it comes up County Road 655 turns the corner and stops for us.

There we were on the bus heading for school. My brain was numb after a week being stuck at home with my entire family under one roof, twenty four hours a day. I was sure I’d have a stroke or something. I might have even been hallucinating.

After my storm induced lobotomy all I could do was stare out the window of the bus at all the white snow on all the fields, water standing everywhere, dripping and melting. About three weeks after the first snow plow drove by our house a big blast of warm air came up from Texas, a tease of the coming spring weather. Again today, it’s sunny and fifty five degrees. Not a puff of wind, not a cloud in the sky. If the snow hadn’t fallen I’d probably be outside with my rifle, hunting possum or farm rats or something, probably with my shirt tied around my waist.

The bus blasted out huge waves of water off the highway as it lumbered towards our school. About two miles north of Falls City we pass our little data network repeater mounted on a fence pole along the highway, then I know I have full access 5g speeds on the net in town. My device comes alive as all the updates and messages I missed over my week in solitary start downloading normally. I loved being in town, I saw my background photo change to a smiley face. I also loved not living in town. Too many rules, too many people, too much noise, too close to school.

We had our normal five hours on campus then back home the same way we got there, on-board the banana-mobile. I wear my earphones to drown-out the slowly flooding world while the bus is still in range of Falls City municipal wifi.

Our school buses have wifi for part of the trip. The rule is if the bus is running late but within wifi range then the bus becomes the classroom and each student is required to connect and start class while they’re still on the bus. All the rules for behavior in the classroom apply in the moving bus. Otherwise we can connect to Netwise like we would in-town and do our own stuff online. But if school is in session we’re required to participate from inside the bus. With twenty nine students all sharing the same wifi it ain’t that fast. It would run something like two hundred forty horizontal lines of resolution and two to three frames per second with everyone on the bus logged into a live classroom feed. Those specs are like my grandparents VHS tape player running in slow motion. Sorry about that but I like talking about technology.

The flooding on the highway was much worse on the way home. I saw Dad had the driveway and walks plowed. Mom’d gone to town. There were even a few spots of brown grass showing in the front yard where the winds blew enough snow away to only leave around ten inches piled-up. It was nearly six feet high along the driveway and the street.

When I got home he was in the office with the VR headset on. Outside our tractor had the plow on back, he was plowing anything he could. He even pushed the snow further back on the county road. Plowing snow with our tractor via the Netwise link was like making an eight cylinder gasoline engine powered paper shredder to destroy a Post-It note. But Dad loved running the tractor remotely, joystick in-hand, VR headset-on the noggin. He was ready to do battle with anything Mother Nature might throw at us! Typical VR farmer these days.

That night at dinner Dad said something I never considered before,’ what if the warm weather continues?’ At the table we ate our dinner watching Channel 6. The weather guy said the same thing Dad did, if the sunny warm weather continues it could spell disaster for people along the Missouri River basin. We were miles away but the old river bed was still there. The more I thought about it the more I realized I never saw something like levees where the old Missouri riverbed ends along the banks of its current route. I should ride the ATV over and scout it out to see if there’s anything to stop the river from backing-up into the old river bed which partially surrounds our hilltop.

+

Tuesday arrived, bus time 7am. I was waiting in the shed with Ben, pretending not to speak or have fun. We really were friends but had to keep it on the QT around the folks because of the feud. ‘To hell with the feud’ I thought to myself as I listened to Ben go on about his father complaining about the roads being so rough this time of year and damage to his truck from rocks on the highway.

Tuesday was pretty much the same as Monday except it was a little warmer, still sunny, not a cloud to be seen in any direction as far as the eyes could see. It reached almost sixty degrees today. I felt like lounging in the sun after school! It stayed a little above freezing all night. There were bare fields all over the place as the snow melted rapidly. The forecast from Omaha this morning called for continued sunny and nice until the weekend. We rejoiced on the bus when that came over the loudspeakers from the local radio station. I thought about what Dad said, the flooding.

I’ve never seen this much snow before. And I never seen this much snow melt this fast before either.

By Wednesday they were calling for volunteers to sandbag in Rulo. The old Rulo Bridge had been turned into a museum but the new one was higher and longer so it should stay open no matter. The threat was to the sewage plant a block from the river. If the pumps stopped then the toilets in town would back up and flood Rulo in its own sewage. Which was worse, flooding from the river or flooding from all the toilets in town? It would be a weird way to get to know your neighbors better when their sewage bubbles-up into your kitchen sink.

I was in my bedroom when I heard that familiar sound of the Bethany’s Ford truck rumbling down the county road, she must’ve got home. I had my bedroom window open enjoying the spring like weather.

I’ve always had a thing for her, kinda tall for a girl. She’s always been tomboy-ish, but I like that in a girl if she carries it right. We used to go fishing and swimming together on our bicycles. We’d ride the four miles to the Missouri River to catch catfish or carp and throw ‘em back. Things are different now.

Beth is a total girl, although she dresses like a ‘local boy’ at home and a little at school too. I saw her in a dress once back when we were in third grade for Grandparents Day. Otherwise she’s always in denim of one form or another. She’s a natural blonde. Years ago in fourth grade we started skinny dipping in the river at our best fishing spot. To us it was great fun. We did it again a few times that summer and kept doing it until high school. This is how we are when we’re alone together, she’s like the twin I never had.

That night I closed my window. About all you could hear outside was water dripping. The whole state of Nebraska was dripping. That sound could be heard right up into the Dakotas and Montana. What Dad said about flooding kept running through my mind as I fell asleep doing a reading assignment.

Chapter 2. The Big Melt.

Two days later the TV news sounded more desperate. They were calling for volunteer sandbaggers from Bismarck to Omaha to Kansas City. Hundreds of volunteers answered the call. Dad and I talked about going but decided to wait. The videos on VRnet and on YouTube made it look like it wasn’t out of control yet.

By Wednesday afternoon most of the snow was gone from our yard except where we plowed up piles around the driveway. Same deal in Falls City, only piles at the edges of parking lots and along streets. Everything was dripping. About every store in town had a bucket or two somewhere on the floor and on ladders catching drops falling from ceilings since everything there was leaking too. Muddy water was everywhere.

After dinner tonight when I was outside enjoying the record warmth something caught my eye, it was Beth across the street. I waved and smiled. She was outside in her yard walking towards their barn, shovel in one hand and a grocery bag in the other. The scene out behind their house where her dog does her personal business was lit from the back of the house and lights by their barn door.

I watched as she went about her business. I was doin’ my best not to look like I was staring, you know, the feud and all.

Not sure, but it looked like she was digging a hole in their yard near the barn, a small part of their yard I could see from our driveway.

Judging by the lights in our house Mom was in the kitchen, Dad was in his office. He loved to play virtual farmer on an interface sort of like a farm simulator, except it used our actual property and the three square miles of land we leased from the neighbors to the south. He has a Deere 8360, the 2nd generation of agri-tractors with AI and the no-cab configuration.

This new tractor had some features like a drone. They figured out how much it cost to build the big comfortable cab on the tractor and made a new version with none of it, not even a simple steel seat and steering wheel. It dropped almost twenty thousand dollars off the price, cut one ton, and extended the distance you could run per gallon by seventeen percent by not having a cab. It was all fly-by-wireless from the PC in the office. Dad wears his VR headset and sees the farm like he was actually riding in the tractors driver seat.

Dad runs financial what-if scenarios on the simulator that comes with the tractor. It allows him to compress an entire planting-growing-harvesting season into a couple of hours then make changes like adding seed storage or buying fuel and fertilizer during the winter when prices are lower. This way he can maximize profits and be ready for anything that might occur during the actual season. If something can go wrong, he’s already practiced how to deal with it during the winter.

Sometimes Dad rents land for one growing season. It takes too much work to plot it into the computer and practice drive so he takes his device with the Deere app and rides his ATV from the barn following the exact path he wants the tractor to take, then rides the very perimeter of each field. The device stores the route down to the inch. Then back at home he transfers it to the computer so when he’s ready he can transfer it to the tractor so it can run the land all by itself as long as nothing significant changes to the land and it’s perimeter and it has good Netwise signal on the entire field, which is part of the reason for running the perimeter first.

One thing I’m impressed with on Deere tractors is their excellent radios and antennas for AI control/supervision.

Lemme tell you, the new cab-less tractors are strange and look even funnier running across the field with nobody steering ‘em. And two of our fields, he doesn’t need to even watch the computer because it’s totally autonomous.

When harvest time comes even the trucks from the grain elevator arriving along the road are pilot-less, but they’re limited to 5mph on rural roads only. Our Deere can dump its seed into the truck from the grain elevator all without human involvement.

The fuel company comes around the same way. They use a small unmanned tanker. By law they can only carry one load in an unmanned vehicle. The delivery truck is not much larger than a golf cart with a hundred gallon tank on board. Like the seed trucks they pull alongside each other, extending a mechanical arm to fill the tank all without human intervention. Those are restricted to 5mph on rural roads only. They have lots of rotating lights and beepers. They’re fun to watch, especially if an animal wanders onto the road when it becomes the battle of wills.

It made the news several times when autonomous tractors first appeared at the dealerships then in actual use. People would stop along the road to watch them run, see how well they did being steered by computer intelligence. It seems several cats figured out something was different about these tractors. We all saw video on Youtube, a cat sitting upright on a county road with a farm tractor stopped fifty feet away waiting for it to move. It became a stare down, cat versus AI. Somehow the cats figured out the tractor could see them and would stop to wait for them to move.

The tractor would even shut off its motor running on battery power watching for the cat to move. Sometimes the cats would stay put for about thirty minutes testing the patience of the tractor without a human on board.

Back to thinking about Beth…

I walked across the street. It was almost totally dark outside. Beth was in their backyard digging something.

“Hey Beth!” I shouted approaching from across the street.

“Hi John. Whatcha up to?” She paused leaning into the shovel handle, halfway to her ankles in mud. She looked nice in her tight jeans and slightly ripped blue plaid long sleeve shirt, rolled up to the elbows.

“Just comin by to see what got you out to play in the mud at six o’clock on this nice warm evening?”

“One of the barn cats died, something got hold of her, maybe a coyote? Got kinda chewed up.”

We both paused to stare at the lifeless feline lying on the grocery bag by her feet. It looked like most of its back end was gone.

“Looks like it got ate-up bad.” I sort of mumbled out loud trying not to gag at the sight.

“Kinda made me picture a coyote attack, but Daddy says he never seen nothing like it before.”

“Huh, weird? Need’ny help?”

“Nah, ‘sall good.”

“Okay then, we’ll see ya tomorrow.” I said tipping my cap with as friendly a smile as I could muster.

“Thanks John, don’t be a stranger.” She said with a wink and a smile.

I waved, turned and walked back to my side of the street. Once I crossed the middle I felt like I’d just crossed the ‘neutral zone’ and actually spoke nice to the enemy, but we talk at school every day. Sometimes I wish I could tell my parents to take their feud with the neighbors and shove it where the corn don’t grow.

Walking along the street towards our footbridge something caught my eye in their yard. It was something shiny, metallic in the puddles along the road. I heard a clicking sound, stopped to look. I could hear the sound of digging back behind me as Beth resumed her grave digging. Then I lost it. No sound, no flash, whatever it was had vanished. All I saw were the circular rings of tiny waves in the puddle of melted snow water. I kept heading for the house.

+

By the time it was too cold to do anything more outside I was ready to do some reading then turn-in for the day, still got school tomorrow. I couldn’t get the picture of that half-missing cat out of my head. More than that, I couldn’t shake the image of Beth walking across the yard; flowing hair, tall, slender, the right sizes in all the right places. Even carrying a grocery bag full of dead cat and a shovel, she was still like sex appeal in motion.

+

In the morning we stood near the shed waiting on the bus. I waved and winked as Beth drove past. Someday I should ask her if I could ride along. It’s gotta be better than waiting on the banana-mobile with all the little kiddies and the school rules. Usually I don’t talk much on the bus preferring to listen to music on the net. It’s about what half the kids do on the way to school.

On the bus we passed standing water everywhere. We blew huge waves of snow melt water way off into the fields as we headed down Highway 73 for Falls City. Some people were driving really slow. The sky was still clear, the sun felt warm. The whole world seemed to be melting. We got to school late again. I managed to do advisory class from the bus on the way.

Overnight tons more snow disappeared only to be replaced by standing water along roads, in peoples yards, flooded basements, and leaky store roofs in town. We couldn’t count the number of basements being pumped towards the streets. I was expecting to see an Ark being built in someone’s yard.

In school it was more like a grown-ups disaster. We heard stories of a few people with flooded basements or septic systems that were under water and people having to stay at hotels until the ground thawed enough to let more water soak in. Dad said he expected the frost to be gone from the ground by the middle of the week. Until then, Nebraska was a thin layer of mud above the frozen layer underneath the topsoil. He said most of the puddles would disappear when the ground thawed.

+

I ran into Beth in eighth period Thursday. Actually, she nearly ran into me.

Maybe I should admit I got a thing for her. She’s a classic girl-next-door type, I like that.

She came running out of the CAD-3D Printing & Metals Shop into the hallway chasing a fast moving metallic thing, sliding across the floor. That was a rather odd sight. Its legs were trying to run back towards the classroom but it was sliding in the other way.

Made me think she was catching a runaway tarantula or something. It was metallic, making a clicking noise as it seemed to be struggling to gain a footing on the slick hallway floor. It looked like someone kicked it out the door from metals lab into the hallway and under the lockers on the other side.

Beth was wearing her signature faded denim bib overalls and blue plaid long sleeve shirt. Down on her knees by the lockers across from the shop door her long blonde hair fell around her face as she blindly reached under the lockers to catch what looked at a glance like an aluminum bug or something. I stopped in the hallway to enjoy the sight.

Her attention was focused on her hands while she stood-up closely examining something she just rescued from under the lockers. The teacher stepped out the door just then. He glanced at me and then coaxed Beth back into the room. You could hear pandemonium in the room as the door quickly shut.

I know from hearing folks talk that she’s into robotics with AI. She buys the electronics and software as a kit but designs her own body and legs then adapts the software from flying to crawling. It’s all based on old drone tech from the Middle East wars and the attacks on the USA back in 2018 on the east coast. I hear she also uses cellular technology and apps too but not which ones. I heard she steals old cell phones from recycle bins to get parts for her projects.

There was a series of bombings and assassinations in cities using semi-autonomous drones in kill-mode. They flew inside buildings. Some had tiny machine guns too, looking for specific people in specific places. They used facial re-cog, AI, AKM (autonomous kill modes), terrain re-cog, and extensive use of Facebook and Google images to identify people to carry out their execution programming. I knew Beth was into miniature smart robotics when stuff became cheap enough to buy online. The tech was cheap and very sophisticated by the time it went up for sale at Hobby Shack and Amazon.

The people that did those attacks used photos they got off Facebook and tracking technology to find people’s cell phone signals or their wifi then facial-recog to confirm them using AI and open fire from small autonomous killer drones with simple small .22 cal guns. Some were rumored to contain anthrax spores inside their hollow tips.

They were really efficient because some drones were mostly for identification of target humans and others were basically flying smart machine guns. Their attacks were fast and overwhelmed all defenses. Those drones were small and very quiet too. I hear Beth is doing the same thing with her spiders. Some are for ID, some are for tactics or performing specific tasks. I think she said only one is a primary weapon that shoots sewing needles by magnetics like an ultra high-speed Maglev train.

Beth explained ‘swarming’ was a feature she put in her spiders too. When two or more are near each other doing stuff they communicate by short range wireless. They share their data and tasks sometimes. If one is damaged or destroyed they all know immediately and alter their plans. Each spider knows what the others are doing and seeing. Each one is willing to be destroyed to save the others. Beth told me she is making one to serve as a combat intelligence command unit for the swarm. She said it acts as a map server and drone manager. It’s sort of like the command unit for a small military sniper/extraction team.

Beth told me once she makes body parts at home in plastic then in metal once her design is perfected using the better printers at school. Nobody makes ground-based drones, they all fly or hover. Beth was really the first to mimic insects on the ground to make an intelligent swarm. Hers can run, jump, climb, hide, spy, attack, or act as a decoy. The big drone makers avoid ground based units because they move slowly compared to ones that fly.

+

Thursday evening at home I spent more time outside trying to catch a glimpse of Beth in her bedroom window, but her room was dark. Their barn lights were on but the doors were all shut. I haven’t been in their barn since almost two years ago because of our parents.

After dinner when it was dark out around 6:30pm I went back outside to spy some more. Her room was still dark, but the barn lights were still on. Her truck was in the driveway but the other vehicles were gone.

When I was a kid Dad built a narrow footbridge to cross the ditch along the street when it was full of water, like all of ‘em were now, even on our hilltop village of Oakton.

I crossed into their yard, down their driveway up to their barn door. I pressed my ear to the cold steel door for a listen. I could hear a radio playing or something but not much else.

I grabbed the doorknob to give it a slight twist. It’s unlocked!

Pulling the door open a bit, I could see Beth from behind. She was sitting in front of a big computer screen, maybe something like a forty inch monitor with some sort of CAD software. I could smell melted and burnt plastic. That could only mean one thing; they must have a 3D printer running. I could hear some machine noises but the sound from the radio drowned out most of it.

Slowly, silently, I shut the door then knocked loudly. In a few seconds Beth swung the door open with a look of surprise painted all over her face. There was also a look of ‘you know you’re not supposed to be over here you naughty boy,’ written on her face too but she was too cute to be intimidating.

I stepped back a bit. She stepped out pushing the door shut with her foot. My eyes naturally drifted lower as she gently pushed the door shut, then bounced, smiled, shook her head to move the hair from her eyes. “Hi John.”

“Hey Beth. Can I borrow a cup of sugar? My mom’s trying to bake some fudge.”

“John Archer! Your mother never bakes a thing ‘cept maybe meatloaf and pizza!” She said with a somewhat sexy and playful grin on her face showing off her pearly whites trying not to look obviously surprised by my illegal visit.

“Got a spare USB charger? My dad’s favorite pepper grinder won’t run without a charge, his died.”

“Why you really here, neighbor?”

“Just wondering what you’re doin’ is all? Saw you trying to catch something in the hallway outside metals shop today.”

“Oh, that! My senior project tried to escape with the help of someone’s boot. They won’t let my spiders swarm on campus! I had no idea the school had an anti-swarming policy.” She rested one hand on her hip.

“Smells like you guys got a 3D printer.”

“Uh huh. Dad lets me print body parts out here when they’re not home.”

“My father talked about getting one for metals ‘till he saw the price on the net.”

“Yep, they start at about nineteen thousand for an oh-oh-six gauge feed machine, but they’re so sweet. We’re running flex matrix recycled thread now. It’s a blend of polymer and carbon nano particles. The spools my dad gets cost about two hundred fifty bucks for five hundred feet.”

“Is that high?”

“Very. And the muscle fiber polymer is sold by the inch, it’s really pricey. I’ve got four feet of it so far.”

We stared briefly into each other’s eyes. I had a dorky smile I couldn’t get rid of, she seemed to be mimicking it right back at me. “Wanna see it?” I nodded yes.

Beth reached behind her pulling open the barn door then stepped aside inviting me in. I stepped past her.

The radio was on a pop station from Omaha. I think it was on 1180 AM. Only one overhead light was on, right over the computer desk.

They had a desktop computer running CAD software sitting near a large 3D printer. The printer was big a big glass cabinet, about four feet on a side. I could see it moving in a matrix back and forth, the odor of melting plastic was much stronger now. I couldn’t make out what was on the screen, only a small part was visible. My guess was she had made a change to a part she was re-printing.

On a different work table I saw a small pile of disassembled cell phones missing parts of circuit boards and other components.

“What you printing?”

“Legs.”

“For what?”

“My senior project. I got the rest of the year to tweak the design and submit it to the university in June for their school of AI and Manufacturing Technology.”

“Like what kinda leg?”

“You on a spy mission tonight?” She briefly looked seriously at me with scrunched eyebrows.

“I’m not a competitor y’know, just curious is all. I won’t tell a soul.”

“That’s okay, everyone in class knows what I’m working on.”

She sat on the bare steel stool in front of the computer taking the stylus in her hand on the touch panel next to the keyboard. I noticed then, she’s right handed.

She spun the drawing then zoomed out. It came into full view as a wireframe image about one foot tall on an emerald blue background. It looked like a mechanical spider with stereo camera eyes, two antennas, a tiny spear, and eight legs. I was amazed. So this was her big drone project. She didn’t like people calling them bugs because she didn’t want the stigma of being known as the girl that played with bugs.

I had heard what she was doing that was unique was combining several technologies; facial recognition, autonomous operation, swarming, remote video/audio, defensive-offensive operations, and in some cases using a miniature cannon firing magnetically propelled sewing needles at three hundred feet per second, which is pretty darn fast.

“So I gotta ask, just how much damage can a sewing needle really do? I heard about your weapons platform at school.”

“It’s not always about kinetic force or stopping power. A sewing needle at a very high speed can puncture about anything, except maybe not thick steel. That’s why this platform is designed to shoot at the vulnerable large blood vessels, eyes and lungs. Any of those will put an enemy soldier out of action and kill them quickly.”

We walked over to the 3D printer to watch it work. It’s rather large, probably for making larger parts. She explained how it worked.

With the CAD software (computer-aided design) you create a drawing for a thing you want to make, in her case it’s an articulating spider leg. The drawing you create can be looked at from all angles by using the stylus to rotate the drawing to any position. In this case, the leg segment is about two inches long, somewhat rounded, with places for ‘muscles’ to be added on the outside to make those legs work like living spider legs. It was basically a 3D model of a plastic spider body she designed in the computer and built with the 3D printer.

That data is sent to the printer. It has a platter upon which it starts to build things. There is a print head, sort of like an ink-jet cartridge except it’s heated and has melted plastic inside. The print head moves in three planes they call X,Y,Z. Those letters represent; side to side, forward and back, up and down, all three dimensions. The print head deposits a tiny thread of melted plastic which knits to the previous layer then hardens as it moves above the platter leaving layer after layer, slowly building up the spider leg segment.

Plastic is fed into the print head from a spool containing something that looks like fishing line or weed-eater cord. The physical properties of the thing you’re printing determine what type of plastic you use. Some large and expensive printers can use a fine roll of wire, heat it to melting, and make things out of metal. The list of things you could print with one of these is endless. I stood in amazement watching this printer slowly building her spider leg segment, one thin layer at a time.

While we were talking I pulled out my device but she put her hand over the front, “Sorry John, no photos please, not yet.”

While I was sliding my device back inside my pocket I noticed in the shadows that Bullet was inside too. She was in a stall about twenty feet beyond the computer bench silently watching what we were doing.

“Actually I was gonna look at my schedule to see what I had planned before I asked if you had time for pizza this weekend. Maybe we could talk about your design and the tech you’re using?”

“My folks are gonna be home soon, y’better go.” She said with a straight face, but at least it wasn’t a firm ‘no-way.’ I let her open the barn door for me, I started walking towards home.

“Better walk on the driveway John, the yard’s under water that way.”

“Thanks Beth, see you tomorrow.” I started walking down her driveway towards the street, but I was listening behind me for the sound of the barn door closing.

“Good luck with the fudge!” She yelled laughing at me when I was halfway to the street, which means she was watching me walk away the whole time!

She waved, smiled, then walked back in the barn gently closing the door. I walked down their driveway to the street, then towards our place, up our driveway, in the side door, across the kitchen, up the stairs, and into my room which looked out on the dark side yard towards Beth’s house.

I thought what I should do tomorrow is be outside a little early, stand right in the road and see if she would take me to school with her.

Friday:

Ben and I were pacing around in the street waiting on the bus like always when she rolled past in her truck. At a glance Beth looked a little rough around the edges.

I tried walking into her path but she slowed and maneuvered around me, acting out in plain language that a ride this morning was out of the question, so I backed off and never told Ben about my plans to hitch a ride. Nothing ventured nothing gained.

It came to me that she probably couldn’t stop for me right in front of the bus shed because her parents could see a clear violation of their dumb feud rules. Oh well!

We were soon on the bus and back in range of the net and the start of school almost before we got off the banana mobile. Everything outside was wet but the sky was blue, the sunshine warm.

+

I had lunch with Ben today. Even though we’re good buds, we don’t always talk at school. We’re both in varsity football, both first string-wide receivers, even shared some GF’s but don’t lunch together very often.

We talked about the weird stuff going on back around Oakton.

“What d’ya mean the animals are missing? My dog’s home. I let him out this morning when I left for the shed.” Ben reported apparently unaware of the rest of town.

“Yeah, but Mel’s is okay and Beth said she’s lost some barn cats, found one with the back end totally missing.”

“Well that’s nice to hear when you’re eating this crappy food, thanks teammate.” He slid his tray away, which was mostly for show since his lunch was mostly eaten anyway.

“Look, all I’m trying to say is we need to get ready ‘cause something’s going on and it could get bad before we figure out what’s taking our critters.” I said with a more serious tone.

“Hell, I’m all for that. I’ll get my stuff ready tonight. Maybe we should go down by the cemetery and do some shootin’ after school today, make some noise, let whoever’s doing it know we’re armed and all.” Ben looked all excited briefly.

“That’s not a bad idea, but I got a feeling about this one, something’s really wrong back home.” I think my look of worry was lost on him.

“Hell John, last time you told me something’s wrong at home all it turned out to be was the thing you lust after, Bethany Meek, was wearing some jeans you didn’t like.”

“Can we forget about that crap for a while, I’m being serious. This ain’t no fashion emergency. Animals are getting’ killed and I’ve been seeing some strange stuff too.”

“Like what strange stuff?” He said with a grin slowly spreading across his mouth and his eyebrows lifting slowly. It was starting to get me a little angry.

“I can’t explain it yet, but I’ve been seeing stuff outside, quick little glimpses of things on the ground and up on roofs and around trees in our yards. All started about the same time as animals started to disappear.”

“Spooks?” He said probably thinking he was funny.

“Okay. I see this conversation’s going nowhere, you ‘bout done there teammate?” I asked.

“I’m done eatin’ ‘til I forget your nice mutilation descriptions?”

“Whatever, you done?” I asked.

“Yeah, let’s go.” We got up from the table to head for class, by the clock on the cafeteria wall the bell was about to ring anyway.

We got to our feet, set our trays on the cart by the door. Ben whispered to me as we walked out the cafeteria doors, “Just remember, you’re unique. Just like everyone else!” Then he slapped my shoulder and chuckled to himself.

We went our separate ways outside the cafeteria doors after a brotherly fist bump.

Next time I saw Ben was on the bus after school heading for home. Just a glimpse of him because I was all focused on the video my dad sent me about volunteering on the sandbag lines in Rulo.

+

On the TV tonight the weather guy on Channel 6 said there was a good chance for rain this weekend. The rest of the news was about the arrival of flooding on the big river in the north-east corner of the state. People were being evacuated. Sandbag crews were working twelve hours a day north of Omaha. Flood warnings were posted for the entire river basin to Kansas City and south to the Mississippi. Our yard was like a giant wet sponge.

At dinner my sister said she heard that Beth’s horse was missing.

+

That evening after dinner Dad and I went to Rulo in his truck. There were a few sandbag filling lines. Dad wore his VR glasses. If you’ve never seen one before it looks like large wrap-around sunglasses. In the glasses frame on both corners were tiny video cameras.

Wearing them is like wearing sunglasses, you see what’s right in front like they were sunglasses, but that’s what is actually seen by the cameras, you’re actually looking at two small TV screens. Your headset links via Bluetooth-5 to your device which shares sound and video with the world. Dad loves doing it. He uses the better headset to run his tractor.

The sandbag lines are a two-man operation each. They use a skid-loader to dump sand into the bin. Then an auger feeds it into the sand bag. You slide the open end of the bag onto the bottom of the chute; it senses the bag and dispenses the correct amount of sand. The bottom of the sandbag sits on the lower end of a conveyor. When the auger stops the sand bag drops off the filling chute lying on its’ side on the conveyor. A quick twist of the fingers causes the clasp to self-tighten closing off the top of the sandbag. The conveyor takes it away dropping it into the back of a small dump truck to deliver it near the river’s edge by the sewage treatment plant.

The other person with you by the sand bag machine slides a new bag onto the chute and the process starts all over again. You can usually do four bags in a minute with a good crew and clean dry sand. Dad and me’s done five a minute before but you gotta hustle and know your partner. And you gotta have your bags ready to go too.

We stayed there from 7pm until 9:30 when he said his back was getting too sore. We were basically on our knees on pads the whole time. Tonight we extended the wall around the Rulo Sewage plant by fifty feet on both ends. The main reason is to protect the pumps from flooding. The rest of the plant can tolerate flooding.

“How many bags you think we filled?” I asked as we were pulling out of the grocery store parking lot near the river where the sandbag filling stations had been set up.

“The counter was broke on our line but I know they got one hundred bags to a bundle and I opened four bundles, so I’d say we filled almost four hundred bags.” Dad answered.

“You’re gonna feel that tonight Dad!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, son.”

“Not a problem old man!” I shouted slapping him playfully on the right thigh. We both laughed out loud. He knew I meant nothing offensive by my kidding.

“They say anything to you in school about expected flooding?”

“Nah, only that the school was too high up to flood, it might become an evacuation center if the old school gym in town becomes too crowded.”

“You have gym this semester?” Dad asked.

“Nope.”

“So that’s fine, right?” He continued.

“Yeah, I just don’t want a huge disaster this close to the end of my four years. I’m ready to move on to college.”

“Nice to hear you testify son. You got all your papers submitted to the university yet?” I figured he’d actually know since him and Mom talk all the time in private, I thought he’d know but was just making conversation.

“No. I need some stuff from Mom yet, then it’s good to go.”

“Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

“Thanks Dad.” We smiled at each other then leaned back to watch the wet countryside as we headed west on Highway 159 heading towards Falls City. Our own road doesn’t make it this far south so we turn off early on County Road 656, take it all the way up to CR 712 which runs right into Oakton. It’s farms the whole way, boring actually, but pretty.

“Wanna go by the flooding on the creek?” I asked hoping he’d want to go see with me since he didn’t sound like he believed my report.

“No, your Mom’s expecting us home for a snack then off to bed soon.”

“She’s the boss!” I said with a sarcastic tone that I intended to poke fun at him being more like the queen and her more like the king of the family.

We didn’t talk for about a minute then I asked him, “You know what I don’t get?”

“No, what?” Dad replied.

“The date on the corner of the old Rulo pump house says it was built in 1918, but I know that place has flooded several times since then. So why not just build a wall and be done with it instead of wasting time making sandbag dikes instead?”

Dad paused for a moment then answered, “Cost. The government pays for the sandbags and the labor is free. I think the state of Nebraska is hoping the town of Rulo disappears someday soon.”

+

Once you turn off the highway it’s only like three more miles home, so he didn’t drive too fast since the roads aren’t that great, after the winter they get kinda rough until the county has the chance to grade them flat again. Dad could do ours with his tractor but he won’t. Dad says our tractor is strong enough to wrap a chain around the house and yank it right off the foundation. I think he’s dreaming. Our house is like almost one hundred years old and weighs as much as three newer houses in town. Sometimes I think that tractor is like an extension of his manliness.

“Dad, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Me and Beth’s been seeing odd stuff ‘round town lately. Would you be willing to meet with the rest of town to discuss our missing animals and all the odd stuff going on since the snow melted?”

“Wow. Stuff’s been going on, huh? Your mother never said anything about it to me. You sure something like a meetin’s necessary?”

“Yes sir I do, certain of it.” I said trying to get him to actually listen to me because he usually doesn’t.

“Well you come up with the plan and let me know and I’ll talk with your mom then let you know, that fair?”

“Yes sir it is.” I said to the side of his head as he watched us turn left onto road 712 heading west into town.

Back at home I took a shower went to bed thinking about all the stuff going on in town. The time Dad and I spent in Rulo was nice, got my mind off it. It scares me that Dad is so casual about what the kids in town see as something really big. I think if the grown-ups in town actually spoke to each other they might get freaked out too.

Chapter 3. The Weekend.

Saturday morning arrived. There was something going on downstairs in the kitchen, the noise woke me up. At first it sounded like Mom and Dad were arguing but there was something else wrong.

I heard my little sister crying so I got up to see what all the drama was about.

My little sister Melissa (or Mel as we usually call her at home) was sitting at the kitchen table, Mom was sitting next to her holding her hand, both of ‘em looked like they were really upset.

“Good morning sleepy head.” Mom said to me with her usual tone when I sleep past 8am on a weekend.

I went about my business but kept an ear on them trying to figure out what was up without looking too interested. Bowl on the counter, cereal poured, milk from the fridge, back in the fridge. I stood in front of the sink staring out the window at the soggy brown and white state of Nebraska listening to the drama behind me, across the kitchen. There was a bad vibe over there I was afraid of catching.

“Your sister’s dog is missing John.” My mom told me.

“Oh? When’d he disappear?” I asked not bothering to turn my head, trying to speak with a mouth full of milky crunchy cereal.

“Last night. I heard they found Beth’s horse tied up in the cemetery this morning with her legs cut bad, Dad said it’s a cult or something.” My sister added with her mocking tone she usually has with me.

“Can we not talk about blood while I’m eating?” I said trying to get her back for talking down to me again. She always talks to me like I’m the village idiot or somethin’.

Melissa looked at Mom then stomped up the stairs to her room across the hall from mine. My mom gave me ‘the look.’ So I dumped the other half of my cereal in the sink and headed outside. I saw a line of clouds were starting to appear in the south-west, a sure sign of storms coming. It was still rather warm out, almost fifty five degrees (13 Celsius) on the big dial thermometer on the side of the barn.

I walked to the barn to get the Honda four-wheel ATV out and push it out the door. I hopped on and pressed the starter button then rode down the driveway onto the street heading north. The old Fricke Cemetery was about a quarter mile north of our place, a gentle down-hill trip most of the way.

Once you get away from the center of Oakton there’s not a lot of trees, but along the dry creek beds near us there are a surprising number of apple trees. They say those are the descendants of the ones planted by Richard Chapman in the late 1700’s. No GMO apple trees on our town!

In a few minutes I came up on the cemetery, there was a crowd gathered. There hadn’t been any burials here in over a year and I wasn’t expecting to see one today but there were four trucks, a few I recognized from town.

I saw Beth’s horse Bullet was tied up to a large cross headstone; she was standing by Bullet’s face petting her. The vet, Doc Wilson, Beth’s dad, some guys from town, two were game officers where there too. I saw the horse’s back leg was covered in dried blood. Everyone stopped and looked my way when I rolled to a stop by the short limestone block wall along the street, then went back to their investigations. One guy was taking pictures of the scene. The vet was looking closely at the animal’s legs. Beth looked upset. I kept my distance. Her dad looked angry about something.

I walked in the cemetery but kept a safe distance, really just trying to hear what all the hubbub was about at the same time trying to respect the feud and not cross any of their invisible political lines. Many of us here had relatives buried in this cemetery. Both my grandparents and great grandparents were here. I walked to their headstones and kicked at the weeds then slowly went back towards the four-wheeler.

A large pick-up truck arrived pulling a two sided horse trailer. The sign on the side said, “Falls City Veterinary Clinic” I guessed Bullet was heading to town for treatment of her leg wounds. Too bad horses can’t speak English. This is a good example of why I don’t own any animals. I’ll let my sister enjoy the heartache for me, she seems willing. And now her dog was missing too.

Maybe what we needed right now was a town meeting and an animal census but nobody’d listen to me. The feud assured that nothing would be done either. I remember the time I asked Dad to come watch one of our games against Nebraska City, he refused saying he didn’t want to see Ben’s dad at the game.

On the way home I remembered the last weekend our town had four houses. That was the weekend when the Patton’s house burned down while they were in town having dinner. They never rebuilt but the foundation (a full basement) is still there, so is their barn and a garage. They still work the land but now they live in a newer place half the distance to Falls City as Oakton.

I didn’t have a really good feeling for where the original town of Oakton was or where the Missouri River was when it flowed around our hill. As I rolled through the intersection I saw Dad walking to our barn so I headed that way.

“Dad, can I ask you something if you got a minute?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” Dad answered with a sincere smile.

“I know this is like a big question but could you show me on the ATVs exactly where the old town sat, where the old river bed sits, and where the Pawnee are buried?”

“Wow, no small request! Uh, sure I got the time right now. I’ll meet you out there in a minute.” He seemed eager to spend a few minutes with his son so I was willing to play along. I just wanted the information but I wasn’t going to sit around to hear about why they don’t speak to the Meek’s or the Brown’s any more.

I heard his ATV fire up and in a few seconds he rolled out the barn with his rifle still strapped to his handlebars where it usually was. Dad has a semi-auto AK replica made in China. I got his old Honda ATV but he got a new Land Rover gas turbine powered, electric drive ATV.

Start-up takes a few more seconds and makes more noise but acceleration is phenomenal. He has almost unlimited electrical power, speed and torque. It’s a miniature version of the drivetrain in his farm tractor. We rolled to the intersection and stopped, he killed his motor so I did the same.

“It starts here. This is the center of the new Oakton. If you look down the road in all four directions you can see it’s downhill every way. So this entire neighborhood, about five hundred feet in every direction is supposedly a Pawnee burial mound but since I’ve been alive nobody’s ever used ground penetrating radar to prove anything one way or another. Even when our foundations were dug, nothing was uncovered. Over the decades there’ve been home and barn foundations dug, septic systems and water wells dug with nothing ever found.”

He pressed the start button heading north towards the cemetery. About six hundred feet north he stopped but kept his engine running, I pulled along side.

“You can see how it’s a downhill grade all the way past the cemetery up there on the left. The original site of Oakton was in the fields on both sides of the road around the cemetery, heading up this hill. I’ve heard when they plow the fields once in a while they still hit some big stones from the old home foundations, but that’s just here-say, never seen it myself.

There were some real bad floods in 1820, 1854, 1871, and 1902. All the land around here was flooded which is why they started to build new homes for those that didn’t move away further up on the hilltop. Most of the people moved away from the river. That’s why Rulo is a bit of a ghost town today. By the late 1800s there were established dirt roads all over the area and people were no longer using the river as a highway so there was no longer any reason to live near it. Then in 1904 the Missouri River flooded again and moved to where it is now.”

“The rumor of our town being built on sacred lands got started because most of the college people believed the Pawnee only buried their ancestors on high ground to prevent them from getting pushed up from the ground during the big floods. We found out about ten years ago that that’s not true at all. Most of the time they buried their people along waterways and established trails so they were easy to find again and pray to.” That was the first time I sat still for one of his Pawnee lectures which often sounded like he was defending his grandfather’s legacy, the guy that started the feud.

“There was a dirt road that paralleled the river, sort of the main street through town. Of course it wasn’t paved back then in the 1800s, but Dad once showed me the marks in the ditch along the existing roadway where the old riverfront road sat. Eventually the grass grew up through the street as it slowly disappeared to time. Now, the only way to locate it is with a shovel – hard packed soil.”

“You gotta remember this stuff I’m saying is like fourth-hand from my grandpa who heard it from his grandpa long ago, I can’t promise how accurate this is.” He glanced at me then looked away.

He sat there staring at the land, on the side of the hill we could see the slowly dissipating crowd at the cemetery, as Bullet was being loaded on the horse trailer by Beth and her father. We were still higher than the cemetery by about fifteen feet or more. He started heading north again past the cemetery on the left to the lowest spot on this county road. Any further north and it started heading up-hill again. We were in like a shallow valley that sat just to the north of the Fricke, it ran roughly east-west. There were some apple trees along the sides and lots of weeds. It looked too wet and hilly to farm.

Dad motioned for me to come closer.

“What we’re standing on a few hundred years ago would be in the middle of the Missouri River, it ran past here to the west, then curved around back south and east to near where it sits today. The actual river bottom was lower than it is here today. My grandpa said the location now is totally man made because rivers never run that straight. But they all move over time. Just look at a map of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to see all the trapped loops of river cut off over the years as it moved east and west during the spring floods. Just like here.”

“That’s weird, hard to imagine a river just moving one day.” I said trying to understand the whole story.

“Well it’s not that simple. Like I said, look on maps at the abandoned segments of looped riverbed near Vicksburg, Mississippi some day. It’s easy to see how rivers move over time. Sediment gets pushed hard in floods, it makes sand bars, rivers overflow, and new river paths are made in a couple of days. Anytime you see a straight river on the map, that’s man made.”

“See Beth’s horse?” I asked him.

“Yeah, what happened?”

“Mel said it got out last night. They found her all bloody but alive and tied to a headstone in the cemetery this morning.”

“That’s weird.” Dad looked all concerned as the truck hauling the horse slowly left the cemetery and the rest of the crowd started to drive off. “They got’ny idea what happened?”

“No, but there’s been some weird stuff with other animals in Oakton since the snow left.”

“Yeah, your Mom said Melissa’s dog is missing too. Since last night I guess.”

“So do you know where the Pawnee are buried?” I asked Dad.

“I’ve heard lots of stories over the years. The big question isn’t if they’re here but exactly where they are. Last I heard is some relics sneak up out of the ground over there north of Brown’s place.” He said raising his arm pointing at the farm land this side of Ben’s house, and a little to the east.

My phone buzzed. I pulled it out, Dad watched. I had barely one bar on the signal meter, not good. Slowly a text arrived, it was from Ben. He asked if I’d seen their dog. “Ben’s dog is missing too Dad.” We started our ATVs and headed for home just as the last truck pulled away from the cemetery. This was probably the first traffic jam in Oakton since Patton’s house burnt a few years ago. Dad told me he thought it sounded like some sort of cult activity from one of the reservations.

I did some serious thinking for the next hour or so. Then I decided to text Ben and Beth, we needed to meet.

Beth responded that she was in town at the vet, maybe later today she’d be home with Bullet. Ben and I rode west on our ATVs to the next intersection and stopped along the road to talk. He told me about his dog, I told him about ours. I also told him about Beth’s cat and horse. We talked a bit more about stuff and our discussion at school about the plan to force the parents to meet outside. Then I txt’d Beth, told her to message me as soon as she got home, we needed to meet.

We ended our meeting. We both headed home to inventory ammunition and check our weapons. Ben took off heading towards the dry creek bed, I took the street home so it didn’t look like we were together.

The clouds were heavier and darker overhead. I felt really angry inside, my stomach was tied in knots.

Back at home I knew Ben was doing the same thing at his place. I got out my rifle, pistol and ammo. Everything was counted and cleaned then standing along the wall near my bedroom door.

Chapter 4. The Town Meeting.

In school yesterday I got to talk to Ben and Beth. They both struck-out trying to talk to their parents into having a town meeting. More town feud crap, I’m so over that.

We came up with a plan to get their attention but I’m not sure if it’s legal or not. We’re convinced that something’s wrong in town but you gotta see the big picture to really understand it. Someone is slowly taking all our animals and we’re afraid it’s people next. We made our plan and set it in motion that night.

+

My mom had left with Mel for some animal show up in Nebraska City at the county fairgrounds, this left me and Dad home alone. Mom already got us food, we nuked it while watching ESPN instead of the Omaha news.

The plan was to meet Beth and Ben near the cemetery at 6:30 tonight. Beth was supposed to start working on stuff when she got home from town, and Ben was going to contribute the gasoline. Dinner was done, dishes in the washer, Dad was in his office playing farmer while I went outside with my .22 pistol in my back pocket, safety on of course.

Right on schedule we met on the road walking north. Ben ran out from his place wiping off his face, must have just stuffed the last bite of dinner when he saw us go past.

There’s lines of trees that run east-west and serves as a wind block along the north side of both Ben’s and Beth’s places. It’s about four hundred feet long and helps block the winter wind and cuts down on drifting in their driveways. The trees served as cover for us but it was practically dark outside by 6:30pm.

We turned into the field walking back towards the far side of Beth’s barn. She unloaded some of the firewood from the back of her truck and stuffed about four chunks into a few paper grocery bags. Most of it was split for their woodstove. All it needed was a little spark.

The three of us carried them towards the county road behind their barn out to the street, over the ditch which was muddy and felt like walking on half-melted ice cream. We carried them to the intersection of the two roads, right to the middle and dumped the wood. Ben took off at a trot for his barn. Me and Beth stacked the dozen or so chunks of wood into a nice pile.

“You really think this is gonna work?” I asked her stuffing my hands in my pockets.

“Ben and me are sure it’s gonna empty out the houses but if they still won’t talk at least we know we tried, then it’s up to us to defend our homes and stuff.” She answered looking moderately worried, maybe even a little scared.

“Can’t we get in trouble for setting a fire in the street?”

“Well it’s a dirt road, the fire ain’t gonna damage anything. This late in the day about the only thing that passes along here is old man Stidams on his way home from work around 10pm, this’ll be long gone by then.” She sounded confident that nothing will happen, it’ll only be a local event. I agreed it can’t hurt the roadway but it will leave a black mark for months unless the snow plows run again.

“Here he comes.” Beth said turning towards Ben’s backyard when she heard his footsteps on the wet grass.

Ben approached with a gallon can of gasoline from their barn. We’d already arranged the wood pile into a pyramid of about a dozen or so pieces of split wood, not too big a pile really, just enough to burn for about an hour with a little help from that stinky gasoline. Ben twisted off the cap and sprinkled fuel all over the stack.

He carried the gas can back towards his yard, set it at the street corner, then ran back to us. From the middle of the intersection in the center of town you can see in all four directions for almost five miles, except not to the north because the road ends about a mile north of the old river bed. There were no headlights to be seen anywhere except way over on the main highway heading towards Falls City. We gathered in a huddle one last time.

“Y’all sure this is wise to do?” Ben asked looking at each of us.

Then Beth grabbed her overalls suspenders kicked the road with the side of her shoe, “We gave them every chance to meet and talk. We know something serious is wrong and the killing ain’t stopped, I say we got no choice but to force them to face each other.”

I added my two cents, “Yeah I suppose we could all get hollered at but we’re too old to beat or ground really. All of us get A’s and are college bound. As far as I can see the worst part of this will be forcing them to actually look each other in the eye for a few minutes. They won’t get mad at each other, only us. I don’t think we got a choice. Besides, they gotta be nice to us; we’re the ones who’ll be picking their nursing homes some day.”

Then Ben added, “I tried to talk to the game warden guy at the hunting supply store in town about animals missing but every time we got to talking another customer would come in. I know I got my part said but he didn’t seem to listen or take me seriously, I think we sound like crackpots or stoners or something talking about all the animals in town coming up dead or just gone.”

We stood there in a close group near the woodpile for a short time. Ben reached into his pocket to pull out a few wood matches. We stared at his hand then at each other. I stepped back towards the corner closest to my house, then Beth did the same on her corner.

Ben stood by the pile of wood in the street with two matches in his hand. He looked down, then behind him over at the gas can, then reached down to the zipper on front of his jeans, pulled back the flap, struck the matches upward on his zipper lighting them, took a couple steps backward and tossed the flaming wood matches onto the pile which immediately went WOOSH and became a huge flame in the middle of the intersection.

I looked around at all three houses and Patton’s barn and garage. The entire town was lit up by the fire, but I knew it wouldn’t last long. For about a half minute nothing happened, then one by one porch lights came on.

Tiny glowing embers flew upwards towards the sky. The wood crackled and snapped. Ben stayed on his side of the fire, Beth on hers and I stayed over by mine. I could hear voices coming from houses as our parents slowly walked outside to see why there was a bonfire in middle of the intersection, the exact center of Oakton.

Things got ugly fast.

Ray Brown, Ben’s dad was the first. “What the Sam Hill is going on out here?” He yelled as he walked across their yard towards the street. He was heading right towards Ben and the gas can.

Then came Harvey and Gwynn, Beth’s folks. Harvey was first walking right towards Beth. I saw their worthless dog follow them out into the yard. Made me chuckle that they actually got her out from in front of the TV. I’m referring to Daisy not Gwynn. I couldn’t hear them talking.

There was some loud discussion started in Ben’s front yard I couldn’t make out since the fire was crackling too loud and it was right between me and them, when all of a sudden I got spun around by my father and he didn’t look happy.

“What’s this all about?” He said looking mighty pissed off, Dad even had a vein in his forehead bulging out he was so mad.

“Look Dad, we got a big problem, all of us. You gotta talk right now! No more hiding. See, they’re all here. It’s bad, really bad. They’re all gone.”

“Why can’t you just leave well enough alone? This is bigger than you and me combined. Is all this because of Mel’s dog? You still freaking out about some aliens or something eating your little sisters dog, is that what all this is for?” He said yelling at me, arms rose in disbelief. I could tell he saw Harvey and Ray but didn’t want to be seen making eye contact or punching me out either but I could tell he was angry and getting madder by the second.

“No dad! You gotta listen! This is not about aliens or crap like that. All the animals in town are gone! We’re under attack!” I screamed back at him but I just knew down inside that it wasn’t gonna work.

Dad stopped and looked all around town. We both turned to look at Beth arguing with her parents in the corner of their yard, Daisy was standing by Beth, she had one hand on the back of her neck. Harvey and Gwynn turned to look at Dad, he looked back but they never spoke. Hell, Dad didn’t even nod or smile or wave or anything.

The fire was still burning and crackling like crazy. We could see Ray and Ben in the street at the corner by the gas can arguing but couldn’t make out what was being said. I saw Ben’s arms gesturing wildly, then I saw Ben point at the Meeks, they all glanced at each other but never moved.

Dad grabbed my shoulder turning me towards the west, he pointed to Meek’s back yard where the light over the paddock clearly showed Bullet was standing by the fence watching our gathering. He pointed to the horse, then the dog next to Beth and said, “All the animals are gone, huh? Mister animal detective?” He yelled in my left ear.

“They tried!” I said loudly back at him.

Dad had a look of frustration and anger but didn’t want to make a public scene so he did what I thought he would, he turned towards the barn and walked back across the yard shaking his head side to side. I knew exactly what he was thinking. I figured there’d be another yelling match downstairs from my bedroom again tonight.

When I was a little kid, before Mel was born we had three bedrooms on the ground floor. Once Artificial Intelligence on farm tractors came out and Mel was about four they remodeled the attic into two bedrooms and a bathroom, now instead of being at far sides of the house from each other my bedroom is right above theirs. I can hear all their fights. There’ll be one tonight I just know it.

I thought about walking over to help Ben but my mind was numb plus I know when I get real mad I don’t think too good. So I stood my ground on my corner and watched as Gwynn first, then Harvey followed by ‘Daisy the Wonder Dog’ went back inside. Beth turned to look at me with tears in her eyes. She had about the same luck as me.

I turned to see Ray grab the gas can, shove Ben hard once in the shoulder and walk back towards their barn. Ben bent a little at the knees and made two middle finger gestures at his father as he stormed across the yard. His mom never came outside.

I just barely caught a glimpse of Ben’s shadow from our fire across the entire side of his house doubly flipping off his father as he walked across the yard. A twenty foot tall shadow of him flipping off his dad, made me grin. I’m sure his dad saw it.

We all slowly walked towards each other looking down. Ben had been crying too. We huddled near the fire which was a little smaller than when he tossed the matches.

With our boot tips we slowly moved the firewood towards the corner on Patton’s side then kicked them one at a time into the ditch which still had some standing water.

Beth walked into me. I pulled her in and held her. Ben walked up beside us and laid his head on her shoulder and put his hands on our backs. I could smell smoke and some gasoline fumes. It was starting to get cold without any more fire. There was steam and smoke coming from the bits of firewood in the ditch. The hottest chunks hissed as the water doused the last glowing embers and more smoke slowly rose towards the sky.

Without saying anything we all knew it was going to be up to us to deal with whatever was coming, our parents were too old and stubborn to talk to us or each other.

I pulled my right arm off Beth’s shoulder and slipped it on Ben’s back squeezing the back of his neck, he did likewise. Our foreheads were touching. Ben had stinky breath still from dinner. Luckily we had history, the three of us.

I leaned in and placed a kiss on Beth’s cheek and patted Ben on the butt like we do in football practice, Ben turned to walk home.

Beth and I turned in unison towards the west still somewhat emotional. I took her hand but when we got close to the bus shed I got an idea, and stepped inside releasing her hand. She followed me sitting on the other side.

“So what are we gonna do now?” She asked.

“I’m stumped. I’m also as prepared as I can get. Nobody else at home thinks we have a problem except Mel, but she’s a baby.”

“I also got a horse and dog to look after, they’re vulnerable and they’re both my responsibility, so that limits what I can do.” She added.

“Well, the good news is there’s four of us against whatever is out there.” I offered.

There was a brief pause. Beth raised her head slowly and asked, “Four of us?”

“Yep. You, Me, Ben, and Bullet. How old is she now?”

“She’s seventeen. Her birthday was three weeks ago.” Beth answered with a bewildered look on her face. “Why is she in the count?”

“Because of her size and utility. As much as you may not like it, we may end up needing her if something bad goes down. Like I said before, you should keep her inside until we figure out what’s going on.”

Beth leaned over to stick her head out the door of the bus shed to see if Bullet could be seen in the paddock, “She doesn’t like to carry two riders, it’s bad for her.” She added.

“Not to worry, I’m not making any plans, just considering everything.” I replied trying to put her at ease. Beth is very protective of her animals. In my head I estimated the two of us combined were still less than two hundred seventy pounds. She should be well able to carry us.

We sat there in the dark bus shed not talking for a moment when I got a vision of when we used to ride her to go fishing along the big river.

“Remember when you taught me how to ride?” I asked her.

Beth turned to look at me, then slowly smiled again. “Yes I do, when was that? Fifth grade?”

“Yeah, somewhere around there.”

“Yep, a little, that was a long time ago. I’m surprised you remember.” She added.

“We rode her down to the river because your bike was broken or something and your parents weren’t home. You were in front, I held on from behind.” I reminded her trying to get her to tell the story.

“Yep. We got part way and you asked to ride in front, so we stopped in a ditch along the road so we could lower her a little, then we both slipped off, then I helped you get on, then you pulled me up behind you. We rode the last two miles down to the river.” She reported smiling more and more.

“Yes, and you wouldn’t tie her up at the river because you wanted her to get the grass she wanted and you were convinced she wouldn’t wander off, and you were right!” I replied.

Then Beth added, “We never caught any fish worth bringing home, so we rode her back, first with you on front to that same spot, then I was in front in case my mom was home when we got back. Yep, I do remember. She does like you doesn’t she?” Beth asked.

“Who?”

“Bullet!” She replied with a chuckle.

I was wondering who she was talking about, her mom or her horse. I remember holding on to Beth wishing she could be more like a girl friend than my twin sister but I kept that to myself.

“I guess she sort of is like one of the neighborhood teenagers.”

“I know you two are really close, and Daisy too.”

“Yep, they’re part of the family.” She answered.

We sat there for a while leaning back into the walls with our knees intertwined in the tiny bus shed. “We better go inside, I think we both got some crap to face with our families.”

Without speaking we both got out of the shed heading towards our homes in opposite directions.

All the way across the yard I told myself that if he starts any crap with me I’m gonna keep right on going up stairs ‘cause I know Dad won’t follow me up to my room no matter how mad he gets.

I got inside just in time to see Mom’s car round the corner. Dad must still be in the barn tending to his only true love, his Deere 8360. While I slowly trudged up the stairs I had a picture in my mind about Dad and his 8360 in wedding clothes getting married, with Mom as their maid of honor!

In my room I kicked off my boots onto the shoe drying tray and flopped onto my back, rolled to the side, turned on my alarm clock, and shut off my lights and just laid there on my back staring at the faint light on my ceiling coming in the window from the lights behind Beth’s house, hoping to be sound asleep before the yelling started downstairs.

+

I laid there thinking that this was not the time for any of us to give up. If we were being invaded we had no choice but to defend ourselves. The best thing to do now was to come up with some sort of Plan-B.

I rolled onto my side with my eyes closed thinking about who or what was after us and what all we knew so far. Didn’t seem any weapons were being used. That cat in the bag didn’t look sliced or butchered, it looked like it got cooked and pulled apart with something blunt, sort of like how Bullet got cut up too. Next thing I knew it was a few hours later and I was waking up but it was quiet downstairs.

Chapter 5. The Coming Storm.

I woke up Saturday night around 9pm after a nap.

My room was dark and cold, the window was still open a little. I looked around. My PC was on; the only light in the room was from my twenty four inch display. My rifle was still leaning against the wall by the door. I got to my feet and glanced out the window at Beth’s bedroom window.

I stared north towards their house while I pushed my window shut then checked messages on my device. One was from Ben; he was ‘ready for all contingencies.’ He loved using that word!

The weather radar was displayed on my computer screen. There was a line of storms that stretched from Amarillo to central Colorado moving slowly north-east, towards us. There were flood warnings posted for the entire Missouri and Platt River basins from South Dakota to St Louis. We had severe thunderstorm and tornado watches for the entire eastern half of Nebraska. We were in the bull’s-eye for the heaviest potential rainfall.

I went downstairs to check on dinner leftovers. The meal Dad and I had earlier was like five hours and one bonfire ago. My stomach was talking again. The rest of the house was dark and quiet.

By 10pm I was back in my room, back at my window looking at Beth’s window. Beth saw me and waved. I lifted my arm to wave back so I turned to get my rifle and walked back holding it up to my chest. We can see each other above the waist.

Then Beth stepped away from her window but returned seconds later with her pride-and-joy crossbow and a smile. I laughed. I really like her, she’s lots like me. We never argue, always get along. Sometimes when we’re alone we complete thoughts for each other. I know almost everything about her and she does with me too. We never keep secrets, never have. Too bad we can’t be ourselves around our homes when the old folks are home.

I turned away towards my desk to slip on my headband flashlight then walked down stairs and out the kitchen door, around the house and into the yard below my bedroom window. The only windows on this side of our house were my parents’ bedroom windows and mine above theirs. Their shades were pulled, I was safe.

She disappeared from her window only to emerge stepping out the back door carefully walking around the puddles towards the street. I slowly walked to the foot bridge. It was dark enough outside that nobody could see us.

Like walking on a balance beam I crossed the footbridge then sitting inside the school bus shed. Beth arrived seconds later in black sweatpants and a heavy gray University of Nebraska hoodie. She sat by the door on the other bench. As soon as we made eye contact and smiled, she reached in her sweatshirt pocket pulling out a tiny bottle of bright pink nail polish and a flashlight, then kicked off her shoes and landed both her feet on my lap. I’ve done this for her many times before.

In all honesty we’ve always treated each other more like family than anything else. Since my junior year she caught my eye in a whole new way. Here lately, she’s looking more and more like a woman than a sister.

“What you thinkin bro?” Beth asked while I was painting her nails. She had a tiny flashlight aimed at her toes for me.

“I think I got a serious problem, Dad is still in total denial, plus now he’s really mad at me.”

“Same with mine. Dad thinks it’s some deadbeats from the reservations trying to steal horses or something.” Beth added.

“Is Bullet gonna be okay?” I asked her but she knows I’m not much of an animal person.

“The vet let us bring her home tonight. She got IV fluids and antibiotics; she should be back to normal by morning.” She said dropping her first foot back to the floor, I was already on the second set of toes.

“That’s good; we may need a riding horse.”

“I hope not.” I looked her in the eye just then ‘cause I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, like her baby should never be rode too seriously or carry two skinny kids at one time or something?

“You lose any more cats?” I asked her.

“Don’t know, haven’t looked. You?” Beth asked me.

“Mel’s dog’s still gone. She didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout the barn cats.” I said but trying not to sound freaked out. I pushed her other foot off my lap and handed back the nail polish bottle.

“I got a really bad feeling about this, especially with the flood warnings.” Beth added.

“Beth, we’re four, count ‘em, one two three four miles from the river.”

“John, there’s a dry river bed that runs from the r i v e r all the way around our hill! We’re surrounded by the old Missouri River bed. The Winnebago Creek bed runs right around us, it’s the old Missouri River bed. Hell, in 1840 this hilltop used to be part of Iowa! When they buried their dead here this place was east of the river. We’re only as safe as the flood controls up river from us. Do I gotta spell it out for ya?”

“No. I’m freaked out about enough right now.” I answered.

“Don’t be. We live on ground that’s higher than anything for miles in every direction. It’d take an Old Testament style flood to fill our basements.” She said holding her arms out just like her father did arguing with her at our bonfire in the street earlier today.

“Maybe it’s just the thought of another historic flood and all the hassles and the closings and the mud and the sandbags and doom and disaster talk for week after week, then the mosquitoes, and all that crap.”

“Hey there bro, winter’s not even over, don’t fret the mosquitoes just yet, it’s only March!”

“So what about all these animals disappearing, what’s goin on round here? You seen anything new today?” I asked repeating what we both already knew.

“I was taking a close look at Bullet’s back legs; it looked like she got scratched by something over and over until she bled. No knife cuts, no stabs, nothing, just scrapes like severe scratches or something. That’s why she needed the antibiotics more’an anything. Doc said she only lost a little blood, maybe a quart, but she weighs almost half a ton (500kg)!”

Just then I got a picture in my mind of Bullet sneaking out from the paddock and casually strolling down to where the best grass grows but accidentally getting her lead stuck on a headstone and cutting her leg by bumping into the other nearby stones trying to free herself. I kept those thoughts to myself.

“Say, I got an idea, your folks still home?” I asked Beth.

“Yeah,why?” She asked.

“Let’s go for a walk, take a look around.”

“Like where?” She asked as her face lit-up.

“Up to the cemetery?” I said pointing out the bus shed doorway to the north.

“What you thinkin?”

“Call it a hunch.” I couldn’t fully explain right then, I was still getting an idea in my head. I knew we needed to explore on the north side of town but I couldn’t say why.

“Meet me by my driveway in ten minutes.” She jumped to her feet running across the street, trying to go around the puddles in her yard running around the back side of their house where she disappeared. I headed for my room to get my little hunting .22 caliber pistol to stuff in my pocket and my hunting knife strapped to my lower leg. Got my leather Indian-style jacket and cap and headed out to the street. Nobody else was up inside.

I walked down our driveway to the street, turned left heading north. I could barely see Beth walk down her driveway standing in the street waiting on me. I bet she’ll be similarly equipped. She had on her camo gear, her crossbow and arrows on her back with a wide leather strap. Her weapon had a tiny targeting laser built-in the stock too. It made a large targeting cross ‘+’ with scale markers instead of just a simple red dot.

We both turned to walk towards the cemetery. The area was quiet. Maybe a distant car could be heard splashing down a far off dirt road. It was cloudy, humid and getting colder. It smelled like distant rain. It smelled musty outside. All we heard really was our shoes crunching on the soggy dirt road.

We walked down the gradual hill towards the cemetery. There was enough light from the sky to barely see where we were going. The sun set almost three hours ago and there’s no street lights in our town but the clouds kept it a little lighter outside reflecting the city lights from Rulo and Falls City (the town without any waterfalls).

I really wanted to hold her hand but was too afraid to just do it. We were walking slower than we might in school occasionally brushing against each other’s arm. To be honest we were spending more time looking and listening. We were trying to be invisible on our little spy mission, no flashlights were on, just our crappy human night vision. It was hard to see much of anything. The world was just shadows and different patches of gray and black but we knew the area between her house and the cemetery really well.

Just then I spotted something large, dark and moving along the street. We were only maybe twenty yards from the cemetery; ‘it’ was on the other side of the road. Beth saw it too. We both froze in fear, hearts pounding, breathing fast, sweat beads forming. She silently pulled her crossbow and one arrow slowly over her shoulder to take aim.

I reached for my flashlight and the power button.

As softly as I could I whispered, “You ready?” and she replied, “Ready.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could barely see the crossbow was at her shoulder ready to fire.

“Got you!” I screamed as the flashlight came on illuminating a medium sized female white tail deer who stared briefly into my light then bounded off to the east away from the cemetery. Then another one bolted from the cemetery, clearing the short stone wall in a single leap, across the street running after the first one. Too bad it’s not deer season. My heart was pounding, Beth lowered her weapon. I clicked off the flashlight.

She pushed it back over her shoulder but kept an arrow in her left hand. The large strap over her shoulder meant all she really needed to do was yank the strap which pulled the crossbow over her head right into her grip, slam the arrow on top and was ready to shoot in about one and a half seconds, much faster than me digging the pistol out of my pocket, hitting the safety and taking aim. Her competition-grade crossbow was a gift from her father. Like I said, she’s quite the tomboy and a very good shooter too. I guess you could add machinist and marksman to her list of attributes too.

This time she lowered her right hand taking my sweaty left hand in her grip. We were like two scared kids not like two sweaty high school seniors who knew each other since kindergarten.

Inside the cemetery we went our separate ways briefly as we walked to relative’s graves to pay our respects, then meet on the stone bench way in the back.

“You know, no matter how many times I come here during the day this place still gives me the creeps at night.” We sat close to each other, thighs touching, holding hands on my leg.

“Yeah.” That was all she said with a sigh as she leaned into me. I could feel her trembling from the cold and the adrenaline boost.

“If there’s two deer standing here eating means there’s nothing else goin on y’know.” I reminded Beth trying to put her at ease.

“Yeah, it’s a good sign, ‘cause they’d run from about anything ‘cept maybe a raccoon or a mouse.”

“Okay, let’s talk, take an inventory of what we know and don’t know.” This is a chat we’ve had before for other problems, same exact script. It’s something we’ve done together since we were little kids trying to overcome a problem. We sort of compare our notes out loud to each other just to see what we’re missing or wrong about.

“For a few days, since the snow started to melt, small animals have started to disappear, dogs, cats, come to think of it I haven’t seen any critters around here ‘cept those deer since last weekend. Maybe one or two barn cats is all, but I don’t think I seen any of them in a couple days now either.” Beth clearly summarized everything we both knew.

“I got a really bad feeling ‘bout this Beth.”

“Which part, the animals or the floods?”

“Both, maybe they’re connected, maybe not. I have no idea.”

“What should we do?” Beth asked.

“I think you should keep Bullet inside and be ready for anything.”

“What you thinking?” Beth asked.

“I don’t know, but something’s making my stomach tied in knots, like I never get this way.”

“I’m not that far behind you.”

We sat for a few moments in silence staring off into the very dark cemetery while we were both thinking. It was still too dark to see much of anything. Just enough light to slowly walk back out to the street without walking into any headstones.

“Hey Beth, what do your folks tell you about the location of the old town and the Indian graves?”

“Oh, that old story again?”

“Can you just tell me what you were told?”

“Dad said the old town was located on both sides of the road all around this cemetery sort of going up the hill towards where we live but it went along the river a bit, like there was a foot path that’s gone now. He said we needed to understand that back then the river was about the only way to get from town to town. That’s why Oakton was right here back then.”

“And the Indian graves?” I asked trying to keep her talking.

“Dad said they’re over more like behind Ben’s place towards the north-east.” She said raising her arm pointing towards the east from where we were, across the street from the cemetery and a ways into Ben’s field.

“I wonder what happened to the headstones?”

“He said the Pawnee never used grave markers but they did bury their best warriors laying their corpses inside reed canoes to carry them up the river to an afterlife.”

“Seems like a waste of raw materials.” I answered.

“It’s religion to them and besides I think they had nothing but time on their hands most of the year.”

“I wonder how many are buried out there?”

“Dad said about a fifty, maybe less but they go back to the 1500’s maybe earlier. I think this was the reason this site was chosen for town since there were already humans living here trading. The Pawnee were first. Then came the white settlers and explorers like Lewis and Clark. The first railroads in the 1860’s changed everything, so did some of the bigger floods.”

“Let’s walk some.” We walked for a moment towards the cemetery gate. Then I spoke again. “Gotny ideas?”

“I dunno? What we need is to find some remains. That’d tell us a lot.” As usual, Beth comes up with the best plan.

“What about the one you just buried?”

“The back legs were gone.”

“That’s where most of the meat is on a small animal.”

“Exactly.” She said.

“Maybe we should explore more. Like a search party. Probably take a closer look at Patton’s old place and their basement too.”

“Good idea John.” We kept walking.

We both found our way out of the cemetery and onto the road heading towards home. I switched on my flashlight shining it towards where she said the Indians are buried. There was somethings sticking up from the ground in the field on Ben’s property.

“What’s that?” Beth asked raising her arm to point at some stumps sticking out of the field. About all there was on the field was the remains of last year’s soy bean plants.

“I have no idea.” We started walking on the soggy field towards something sticking up maybe a hundred feet from the road.

“Looks like a tree stump.” Beth said scratching the side of her head.

“Looks like a bundle of twigs or small branches or something but it’s hard as a rock.” I shook it but it wouldn’t move. The ground was clearly disturbed like someone’d recently tried to dig it up. “I think the frost is gone from the ground now, everything’s getting dryer in the fields, just like Dad said.” We both looked at each other by the light of my little LED flashlight.

“Shine it around.”

I turned on my flashlight to shine all around us in a circle in every direction. We saw a few more stumps sticking up and more signs of digging.

“Guess I never paid good attention to Ben’s field before but I don’t remember there being anything growing here cept beans and corn for the past few years, do you?”

“No, I agree, just crops.” Beth replied with a worried tone.

“Something’s wrong here, I think we should be headin’ for home.”

“Let’s go.” She agreed. “I’m starting to feel sick to my stomach too.” She mumbled out loud to herself.

This time I got some nerve and took Beth’s hand to steady us as we walked back towards the street. Without talking much we made it to the street then to her driveway then to the barn near their place.

Beth got the end of the hose, turned it on to rinse the mud off our boots and pant legs. We didn’t talk much.

I gave Beth a quick brotherly hug and headed for home. Off in the far distance to the south-west I could see flashes of lightning up high in the clouds but it was way too far to hear any thunder. That was hours away yet. Since we’re up so high we can see further than almost anyone else in the county. The Richardson County Sheriff’s deputies like to come here to watch the sky for tornado clouds because of our elevation. We’ve never been hit but it came close a few times.

By the time I got home it was 9:41pm. I checked the weather radar on the computer. The storms were getting closer but seemed to stall over central Kansas. They do that sometimes because of the change in elevation and the location of the jet-stream overhead. On the news the big topic was the flooding that was slowly moving down the Missouri River towards us. Rulo was forecast to reach flood stage tomorrow night, Omaha late tonight. They called for twelve feet above flood stage; the walls were built to twelve feet above flood stage. It would be a long night for lots of people.

I set my boots on the electric boot dryer by my desk then laid on the bed to listen and think about what we saw. All I knew was something was very wrong outside but the old folks were way too busy to pay attention to a few missing cats and dogs or anything that might involve the neighbors or might make them get near the others. It just pissed me off, that childish attitude they all had.

Chapter 6. Spiders!

I stayed in bed for a while thinking about stuff but I knew I was about as prepared for whatever was about to happen as I could be. Problem was my family was really laid back about all the stuff going on, except for Mel. We don’t talk much really.

Why don’t we talk much you ask? Because she’s in sixth grade and I’m a senior in high school. That’s why. We live on different planets.

I switched on the radio to the AM talk station from Omaha to listen to the locals up-river talk about flooding.

Flood warnings and evacuation information was all they were going on about. Council Bluffs, downtown Omaha, parts of Offutt Airbase and Plattsmouth were being evacuated now. The thing I was also listening for were reports of missing animals.

Nebraska City and the entire Platt River basin were under flood warnings with evacuations expected to start overnight. Our county, Richardson, was under flood warnings until Thursday with evacuations anticipated, already ordered for Rulo. All the state parks near the rivers were closed or already under water.

There were evacuation centers in towns and cities all along the river being established, some opening right this moment.

I got up to use the bathroom then stopped back by my window. Beth’s room was dark. I thought about using our old bat signal. We used two-color laser pointers to shine on the wall in each others rooms if we needed to talk. Mine was in the desk drawer, I knew right where it was. We used green for routine talk and red for emergencies.

The laser was right where I remembered, in the front corner of my top desk drawer. I twisted the base to insert two new batteries then aimed it at her far bedroom wall, window to window.

At first I placed a green dot on the wall of their house near her window, then slowly moved it across the wall and in her window. I hit it for maybe ten seconds then released the button. Her curtains were open but the room was dark.

With the occasional flashes of lightning from the distant storms I could briefly see the entire scene outside.

Back to my desk from the bottom drawer I got out my old 3rd-generation (3G) Russian made night vision scope to look again in the yards. That’s when I saw it. There was something small and shiny on the peak of their roof straight above Beth’s window. It reflected the light from the IR LEDs on my night scope, only man made stuff would do that, except maybe ice and eyeballs.

It seemed to be sitting at the peak of their roof not moving. My scope isn’t the greatest device but I thought the legs looked a bit like the one I saw her display on her dad’s CAD software that ran the 3D printer. The distant lightning helped show its outlines even more.

I decided to investigate further.

Outside in our backyard I was able to move in the darkness but not attract any attention from my family and it seemed the ‘thing’ on their roof didn’t respond to my movements either. But when I turned on the IR illuminator on the night scope the spider raised-up on its legs running along the peak of their roof towards the other side of their house. Then I heard the faint sound of rapid tapping on metal roof sheeting, then silence, except for the sound of the wind in the leafless dormant trees.

Changing course in the yard I walked over the ditch on the footbridge to take a seat in the bus shed near the corner to listen for a while, sort of a surveillance mission, call it a brief neighborhood watch.

The shed has a tiny window facing the south to watch for the approaching school bus (in Falls City Schools the students call them ‘Bananas’ since they’re about the same color). The door faces north towards Beth’s house. My grandfather built it, my dad sat in it during his school career, now it’s my turn. But my time’s almost done.

I sat there for a time just listening to the wind, watching the distant lightning light-up the neighborhood giving me a quick look at the yards, trees, and the street. I started to hear a faint clicking noise like a tiny metallic horse running down the street, when the lightning flashed I caught a view of two of the mechanical spiders running down the street heading to the east, running side by side rather quickly, they seemed to be unaware of me in the shed. I saw tiny lenses on the front and a short thin wire stub antenna sticking up above the body.

Leaning towards the door I could see faint light in Beth’s bedroom window, so I switched on my scope into targeting mode and flashed a green spot on the ceiling of her room, which was about all you could see in her window from the bus shed. Then the light went off.

Pretty soon the sound of the metallic spider legs on the unpaved street returned. With the help of lightning I saw one of the spiders return to the spot in front of the bus shed door, turn its body upwards. The reflection of the lightning on the optics of its tiny electronic eyes briefly showed someone or something was checking me out, so I waved at the spider. It responded by lowering its’ body into a relaxed position but remained motionless, watching me. Or so it appeared.

A brief green flash on the bench just in front of my knees told me Beth flashed the bat signal back at me from her window. I waved and smiled at the spider but it remained motionless. I wasn’t sure how to react, was it a toy, spy, or a weapon? I knew some of hers had a short spear on front but all that would do is inflict some pain but mostly fear if you knew it was there.

Raising my night vision scope to my eye I decided to check it out with the green phosphor display of the IR scope.

The spider had eight legs, I think it was actually a shiny looking metal, not sure really since the night scope isn’t color. But I got glances of it from the lightning earlier, just never a really good look at one of ‘em.

Its legs resembled tiny barn roof trusses, looked like it could get broken easily. The legs had tiny actuating motors using the new linear polymer actuators they came out with in 2023 that uses electrically fired flexible plastic that contracts with a charge, acting just like a tiny muscle.

Biggest problem with them was they built-up heat but at our current outdoor temps it should be no problem for her machines. Best part was there’s no electric motor sound at all!

The two body segments were nearly shaped like small bird eggs. You could see the two optical lenses on front. There was a long spear like thing mounted to the side of the body like a long sword that stuck out in front further than the legs could if they were extended, maybe it doubled as an antenna but the tip looked very sharp like a shot needle.

These were supposed to be able to operate on their own but I had no idea if she could use them as spy cameras or not, so I played along. I smiled again and waved at the spider. It lifted a left front leg tapping the dirt road twice shifting its weight but remained motionless.

Just as an experiment I raised the scope, hit the button to light up the green laser, moving the green dot to one of the lens spots on front of the body. When the green spot hit the lens the spider raised up and ran off making a faint clicking sound as it left towards the west.

I leaned out the door looking towards Highway 73 but couldn’t see or hear the spider drone any more. I’d had enough of my neighborhood watch so I went back inside, into my room. Laying on my back in bed I think I fell asleep around 2am listening to the sounds of the wind outside. At least the dripping noises from the melting snow was gone.

+

Sunday Morning.

At 8am my mom woke me up with a loud knock on the door. Twenty minutes later I was eating cereal in the kitchen. At least today it wasn’t like a funeral parlor with Mom and Mel mourning the disappearance of her dog. I actually didn’t think they were that close since he wasn’t allowed in the house anyway. Maybe they were. I had no idea how much time she spent with the dumb animal.

Now if you want to see a really dumb animal you should see Beth’s indoor dog, they named her ‘Daisy.’ She’s a three year old Irish Wolfhound that does nothing all day except eat, sleep and watch TV. Daisy is huge, taller than Beth. The dog’s nose could reach the ceiling fan pull chain if she wanted to. They had her trained to poop and pee in one area in their yard then come right back inside. She’d also fetch the newspaper in the driveway and answer the front door when the Jehovah’s came to town. She could press buttons to open and close both doors when she wanted. Luckily for the Meek’s she preferred the sofa to the great outdoors. What a waste of fur.

One time at school Beth told me how Daisy dealt with peddlers and religious people at the door. She’d look out the window then press the button opening just the inside door then stand there with her tail swaying, most of the time the peddlers would panic and run away.

Sometimes people wouldn’t get intimidated by her size and get all, ‘oh look at the beautiful doggy’ so Daisy would press the other button to open the storm door and let them in to pet her. More than once her mom came home from the store to find Daisy entertaining strangers in the front room! Sometimes she’d come home to find dog biscuit crumbs on the floor and strange magazines or copies of the Watchtower on the sofa but Daisy was acting like nothing had happened. ‘Visitors? What visitors?’

Mom had the little monitor on the kitchen counter showing the weather station in Omaha. It showed the line of storms had died down then re-formed this morning. They were now about eighty miles south west of us and heading this way slowly. The channel scrolled evacuation centers all along the river out to ten miles. We were in the region served by the Falls City DHS facility in the old North Elementary School on 25th Street. I went there years ago.

“What they sayin about them?” I asked her about the storms.

“Might be in Omaha this afternoon, they’re moving slower than spring weather usually does.”

“How much we gonna get?” I asked.

“Maybe an inch or two. They got flooding in Colorado and Kansas, but so far they’re not as strong today as yesterday. Your father says we’re gonna flood either way.”

“I thought we’re too high?”

“He doesn’t mean our yard, he means in the area, the low lands, he thinks the old river bed may fill up.”

“That’d take a lot of water.”

“Yep, and it won’t go down quickly either because of the reservoirs in the old creek bed.”

“Huh!”

“Better ask your father if he needs any help, avoid trouble later.”

“Think I might just do that.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Thanks Mom.”

I put my plate in the sink and went back to my room. I got two messages, one from Beth. I opened that first.

‘Got intel back from the swarm last night, saw someone in the shed, was that u?’ So I logged into Oakton Chat and had a short go-round with the neighbor. It was a public forum so either of our parents could see our chat later on if they wanted. I wasn’t worried.

‘The swarm? What’s that? Yes, it was me. Was I recog’d?’

‘Yes. The Swarm is two or more of them running and working together, radio-linked, fully autonomous. You registered as a friend but I’m not sure exactly why.’

‘Maybe because I’m irresistible?’

‘Oh brother!’

‘Maybe it’s because they saw me in your barn when we were talking by the 3D printer. You ready for the storms today?’

‘Yep. Dad’s got the monitor on WXO.com and Mom’s baking storm cookies.’

‘My mom’s crock potting a roast big enough to feed a small army. Speaking of army, how many’s in the swarm now?’

‘That’s kinda like top secret.’

‘More than ten?’

‘Maybe. Why?’

‘Curious s’all.’

‘How’d your Mom’s fudge turn out?’

‘Funny Bethany!’

‘Couldn’t resist.’

‘ttyl then.’

‘k, bye.’

And just like that we dropped off network chat. I glanced out the window with a smile on my face. I’d rather be in her room right now instead of chatting across the net with her.

Out in the barn I talked with Dad to see what he needed, of course routine chores were the orders. We don’t have any animals or grass to cut since it’s still winter, so I checked oil in the engines of our two ATVs and in both my parents cars and the farm truck. Dad does his Deere tractor service.

Back in the house I emptied all our trash and recycling out to the big bins and finished the dishes from breakfast for Mom then went back to my room.

+

Around 10am I heard her truck rumbling down the street, looks like Bethany is back home from town. The sun was gone, our skies were totally cloudy now but the temps were still up. The dial thermometer on the barn said it was sixty degrees outside just now. At least the ground was starting to dry out a little and the streets were mostly dry too, the frost must be totally gone now from underground.

I decided to run an intel mission so I got into my cammys and went to the barn with my hunting rifle and several mags in my side pockets. Nobody inside paid me any attention. Like a couple days ago I headed north for the cemetery on my ATV, riding slowly I was looking into the fields to the east where Beth and me saw those weird stumps coming up from the ground. The two we saw before were gone but new ones were coming up. They were all about two to three feet tall now and kinda pointy too.

I kept going down to the lowest spot on this road, thinking to myself like I was traveling back in time riding right into the Missouri River and back up the other shore entering Nebraska.

My mission carried me up the far side of the old river bed so I could survey the entire scene from that vantage point north of town. Off in the distance to the south-west the clouds looked heavy and gray. I could see the slope of the north side of the Oakton hilltop, which was mostly Brown’s property. It was dotted with maybe ten of these weird stumps and a few places that looked like someone or somethinghad been digging in the dirt recently.

I could see the Brown’s place, the Meek’s and their barn. I could almost see our home too but it was blocked by Beth’s house and a few rows of dormant trees. I could hear a distant woof-ing, sounded like Daisy must be outside doing her business. She had a really distinctive deep bark for a girl dog I thought.

Not much else seemed changed really from my last trip out here. I decided to keep going to check out the big river. I knew I had enough fuel so I went further north until this road ends at County Road 715, then head east until it ends where there’s a trail down to the river. I wanted to see how high the river water was. There’s a strip of land you can park on and fish from along the Missouri River. There’s good shade from the maple and cottonwood trees. We go target shooting down here sometimes too.

The trip isn’t really that far, maybe three miles.

By the time I got to the end of the road I could already see the river and holy crap was it high. The entire strip of land we used to fish from was gone under what looked like ten feet of water. Only the tops of the trees were above water. The water was about twenty feet below where I was standing but it could easily get this high and when it did, Hell was gonna freeze over.

I knew another trail that stayed on high ground that paralleled the river so I could follow it to where Dad said the old river bed sits that goes around Oakton. It took almost a half hour following the winding trail. Looked like not too many people have been here since hunting season last January. The ground was pretty wet still, but it’s rocky so the mud wasn’t as bad.

I finally got there. The old riverbed today is called Winnebago Creek. It heads from the Missouri River west towards Oakton, it circles around our hill then goes back south-east towards Rulo where it’s called Bean Creek. Wish I had a GPS with me so I could see exactly how high we are above the river. My device is at home but there’s no signal out here anyway and GPS won’t work unless you’re connected to the maps server. What I need is a little handheld unit, I wonder if Dad has one I could borrow?

I could see the river was already backing-up into Winnebago Creek. There’s no homes anywhere near here so there’s no levees. They don’t care if it floods because it’s too hilly and wooded to farm anyway. Looks like the river’s almost a half mile up into the creek already, and climbing.

Heading for home I drove on the county roads which got drier the further from the river I got. It took me twenty minutes to get back. I filled the gas tank first thing then hosed it down to get the mud off the fenders. Dad was inside watching re-runs of college football on ESPN.

“Hey Dad, I went to the river to see how far the flood’s made it up into Winnebago Creek.”

“How’s it look son?”

“The water’s over a half mile in-land so far. I rode along 657 over by Aragos’ Farm. The creek’s full and running over the road by the S-curve already. While I was there watching I saw it rise half an inch in less than twenty minutes. I never seen it this bad before.”

”Yep, and it’s gonna get worse, the rain hasn’t even started yet.” He grabbed the remote to change the channel to the radar on channel 6.2. The line of storms looked only maybe forty miles away now, looks like it was moving faster too.

“Where’s Mel?”

“She’s outside on my quad looking for any signs of her dog I think.”

“Somebody’s gotta tell her to stay away from the creeks.”

“You mother and I did before she left.”

“How long she been gone?”

“Maybe a half hour now. You sound worried.”

“Dad, you should see the water crossing the street like I did. I think we might get stranded up here if the whole creek fills up like the 1910 flood. I wonder if that’s possible?”

“Of course it is. No matter how high you made a flood barrier, sooner or later mother nature’s gonna top it. I think this is gonna be one for the record books.”

“Crap!” I turned for the stairs going back up to my room. The PC was on, so I messaged Ben and Beth to tell them about the water in the creek heading towards us. I’m sure I sounded alarmist but I never seen a flood like this before.

I got no immediate reply so I switched to the news net from Omaha to watch updates on the flooding. I found one channel on VRnet.com with someone sandbagging in downtown Omaha.

This guy was wearing his glasses, I could see what he saw, I could hear what he heard on my VR headset.

I could watch as he filled sandbags at the back of a dump bed truck. The process is a lot faster and easier than the old days. We use conveyors and skid loaders so the days of shoveling sand into fiberglass bags and tossing heavy sandbags in lines of volunteers is long gone but you still need to be able to drag a bag of sand for about six inches or more. Even elderly guys volunteer now.

VRnet was really popular for the past few years, it also lead to the demise of lots of many old media news networks and lots of news propaganda outlets (like Fox and CNN). What Youtube eventually did to end many TV networks, VRnet did to end lots of the news and social media nets. I read a census report that 81% of print daily newspapers were gone now. All we have locally is a free weekly ad-based one tossed onto our driveway.

Most current events today are live, unedited, first person video (FPV), on-demand. This is how we watched, this is how we knew what was going on with the flood, this is how we stayed one step ahead… as long as you had signal.

For many years in the cellular industry emphasis was placed on style, size, features, memory, and screen resolution. But after the bombings on the US east coast and the rise of VR after 2018, the quality of the radios and antennas in the device became the most important ‘cause without signal you ain’t got nuthin. Before then we mostly forgot that our dev’s were really just fancy walkie talkies.

The sound of thunder was getting closer and louder than my VR headset which brought me back into reality. Time to pay close attention.

Chapter 7. Terror in the Dark.

While I was laying in bed thinking about stuff I heard an odd sound up on our roof. My bedroom and Mel’s are on the second floor. I can hear the rain on our steel roof, I kinda like it. Mel hates it.

I thought the rain was further away from what I saw on the display in the living room a few minutes ago. The rain sounded odd, like a ticking sound the more I listened to it. I stayed flat on my back for a little longer listening for the sound of thunder.

I stood up and went to the window to lift the shade. I about wet my pants when I looked out to see two large mechanical spiders hanging on my window screen with their bodies tilted looking right back at me. They looked just like the ones I saw running down the street a while ago. I jumped back as I gasped, “Oh Jesus!” to myself. Raising my hand to my neck I had to gasp a few times they startled me so badly.

They appeared to be hanging there using tiny needles on the bottoms of their feet watching my room trying not to be noticed. Like a seven inch diameter spider could be invisible! I got an idea why they were there. I think they are trying to locate my home base, where to find me when I might be of use to them. My heart was still pounding in my chest.

I raised my hand to gently wave at them. Both of them raised the tip of one front leg off the screen briefly. I took that to be a response but it also registered as being like creepy. Guess I’m not a big fan of animals, spiders or drones.

Just then I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Expecting to see Mom walk in my room it turned out to be Mel going into her room, closing her door. She always slides the lock when she goes in her room. I turned back to the window but now I could see more spider leg tips around the edge of my window screen. I had no idea how many there were.

I turned to walk to my closet, grabbed a baseball bat and headed for the stairs then outside. The entire sky flashed with lightning as I stepped out the kitchen door. Around the back side of the house I slinked quietly. Never felt any rain drops, the ground looked dry. Made me wonder if the sounds I heard on our roof were Beth’s spiders on a spy mission.

Over to the north side of our house I saw the spiders were gone from my window screen and none were to be seen anywhere. I turned to look at Beth’s place but it was quiet, all the first floor windows had lights on. They must be eating or something. The shadow of Daisy ran past one window. Worthless animal.

Back towards the kitchen door I turned to look at the sky, which was getting dark, the sun was setting about now. It smelled like rain. In my room I checked the radar, we were only a short distance from the leading edge of the storms, maybe thirty minutes or less till it rains. Since I was still dressed I went back downstairs to the barn to fill up the tank on both quads. Dad was sitting in the living room watching the news or something with Mom. Everyone was going on about the flood.

I went back to my room, back to lying on my bed with stuff to think about. Slowly, the sound of thunder approached Oakton. Slowly, the flashes coming in the window became brighter. I had the shade up, curtains open, it flashed in the entire room. It didn’t last long before I could hear the sound of the rain on the roof over my room. I listened as it became harder, then the sounds of the wind picked up as the front moved closer.

It was still winter but this was more like a spring thunderstorm, sometimes they get fierce. After all, we do live in Tornado Alley. I’m guessing the conditions today aren’t right for tornadoes but we could get a lot of rain and lightning.

The rain fell real hard for a while. It came down on our steel roof like the roar of a powerful surf or something. I dozed off for a while.

Sunday 7pm.

It was a brilliant flash which woke me up, a huge crash immediately after it. A tree must have got hit in town. I paused to listen for a limb or tree trunk cracking but all I heard was a big increase in the rain as if the thunder shook the clouds. My heart was still pounding from the enormous thunder explosion only a couple hundred feet from my ears.

Oh wait, I know what got hit. It was the power line again. My room was dark, the computer was off, the house was silent except for the rain sound. We must have lost power again. How lovely.

Looking out the window I saw we weren’t the only ones in the dark again. It must have struck the power line running towards Highway 73. The wind was way up now. I could see those tall old oak trees really bending. The rain was still very heavy, like the outer spirals of a tropical hurricane, ‘cept not as warm.

Something caught my eye over in Brown’s yard, thought it was Ben running across the yard but he hates the rain. By the next lightning flash there was nothing to be seen. But I swear I saw a boy or a man, someone running across their yard just then.

Downstairs there was little activity. Mom had a flashlight on, Dad was outside or in the bathroom, Mel was helping Mom light some candles. The computer in Dad’s office was on, so was his desk lamp like nothing was wrong. Like me, his motto was ‘always be prepared.’ He had a large UPS keeping his desk lamps and computer up and running. I walked over to shut it off since he wasn’t using it and there was nothing minimized. We might actually need that power for lights or something later if the power company is too busy to get to us soon.

Lights were on in the barn, Dad must be out there firing up the generator or something. I got my rain gear from the hall closet and went outside to survey the town. I saw several lightning bolts strike the field on the other side of Brown’s house. The rain gauge on the post in the yard already showed over an inch, which is amazing in only about thirty minutes.

You could see candle light in Meek’s and Brown’s places but nobody else was outside. Who else would stand outside in the rain staring at the neighbor’s houses but me?

There were some intense flashes in the sky, looked like they were just a little north of Oakton and holy crap were those thunder crashes ear splitting. Wish I could buy a stereo capable of that performance!

I walked out to the street to see if there was a transformer on a pole on fire or something since you can see all the way to Highway 73. Nope, no smoke or fire. There’s one farm between us and the highway, it looked dark too.

The rain picked up so I went back inside. I never saw Dad anywhere.

Back upstairs into my room I laid on my bed to listen and think. Not sure how much time went by, I must have dozed off again.

Sunday 9:55pm.

The rumble of new thunder woke me up again. Plus something else had changed, the power was back on in the house. Either that or Dad had the generator running out in the barn.

I got back up on my feet, turned on the PC to check the weather radar. Based on what was going on outside, I’d say another line of storms must have formed right over Falls City.

Looking out my bedroom window I was checking out the neighborhood lit up mostly by the flashes of lightning. What I saw scared the crap out of me, like a scene from some nightmare.

First, I could see Bullet running lose in Meek’s yard only wearing her bridle. She looked terrorized running circles around the house. Then something even more horrific caught my eye. In one brilliant but short flash from the storm clouds I caught a glimpse of something so totally wrong, it looked like a shiny wet person was squatting on the roof of the bus shed, like a guerrilla fighter hiding in the trees.

I stood there with my hand on my chest, heart pounding, sick to my stomach, the feeling of raw terror pumping huge amounts of adrenaline into my veins. I waited for another flash of lightning, which never seemed to come. So I darted across the room grabbing my rifle and a magazine off the desk, then back to the window. I panicked, didn’t know what to do. I wanted to scream or do something but it seemed I was frozen in the spot at my bedroom window waiting for the storm clouds to flash again.

Then it came. FLASH! I stared right at the bus shed, there it was again, the outline of someone looking totally covered in black slimy mud or grease or something. No hint of clothing I could see or any details, but it was definitely a person on the roof of the shed, crouching down moving his head side to side like a soldier on reconnaissance duty. He looked small compared to the size of the shed.

Now it was dark. I was still frozen with fear. Next flash was far off but I think I saw the man or boy was gone from the shed roof but I caught a glimpse of him running down the middle of the road heading east towards Patton’s property.

I turned to run out of my room grabbing my .22 cal pistol too along the way. I also grabbed the bat signal, the rest of my mags and my device, running down the stairs, around the kitchen table, across the mud room out the door into the yard.

The barn was lit up but nobody was around. Around the back corners of our house, I kept close to the side walls stepping into what would be Mom’s flower gardens this spring. Right now I couldn’t care less. All I could think about was being quiet and invisible. Luckily I still had my cammo stuff on. My heart was still pounding in my chest, the rain dripped down onto my head then ran across my face, down my cheeks. I could feel a trickle of cold water running down my shirt right over my spine and across my chest and stomach.

I thought my heart was pounding so loudly it could be heard all over the yard. The lightning flashed again with moderate thunder, but nobody was in our yard as I peeked around the corner of the house towards the bus shed.

Standing there leaning into the corner of the house, slowly getting wetter I realized the water was coming from the gutter leak above me, so I stepped back-the dripping on the top of my head stopped.

I heard the sound of something across the street by Beth’s house and could barely see Bullet was still running like a crazed-terrified animal around their house again and again. The bat signal laser was in my pocket. Fishing it out without lowering my aim at the bus shed I pressed the button aiming it straight inside her bedroom window on the far wall. I pressed it numerous times to make the light flash on and off and shake a bit to make a large red smear on her wall.

It felt like the tip was getting warm, it was about the longest I ever ran the laser before. You could see an occasional red flash as rain drops fell through the beam on its way to Beth’s room across the street.

A huge weight was lifted when I caught a glimpse of movement in her room. I think I could see a sliver of pale face in the corner of her other window, I knew she was looking around to see what was up. I started moving the light around in their yard so she’d look down and see her horse on her next lap around the house.

Leaning forward again to survey the entire scene of our yard, the road, and Beth’s yard I made a mad dash for the road heading straight north. Never tried it before, not even in football practice. I ran as fast as I could, jumped, and stretched my legs making it across the ditches along both sides of the road without crashing onto my face.

I kept up the mad dash, panting, holding my rifle out in front as I headed as fast as my legs could manage for the corner of their house to assume basically the same spot there as I just left at my place. Bullet ignored me as she rounded the house another time.

The sound of Meek’s squeaky backdoor opening was something that slightly soothed my aching pounding heart. I nearly smiled but my chest still heaved with rapid breathing from my forty yard dash over to their house.

“What the…” was all she said as Bullet rounded the house again in a panicked race to nowhere. At least she’d be more likely to survive if she wasn’t standing still; horses are after all prey animals designed for flight as their primary defense.

On the next go-round, Beth started running and caught the lead as Bullet ran past. It took some skilled handling and calm speaking but Beth got her under control and headed back for the paddock, I followed still breathlessly panting. Did I mention that Bullet got her odd name because of her speed?

“What happened?” She asked.

“I think we’re under attack!” I yelled at a whisper as the skies flashed and the rain continued a moderate rate. “What we’ve been afraid of? It just started!”

“What you talkin about?”

“I saw it, scared the crap outta me! There was a guy on the roof of the bus shed. He jumped down and headed towards Patton’s old place.”

“What you mean?”

“I saw some dude, all shiny and black like he just crawled out of a bucket of oil or something on the roof of the bus shed about two minutes ago. The lightning was all there was to see with, he’s crouched down like a guard watching for stuff. Then I saw him running up the street about as fast as Bullet, he looked kinda small for a man.”

She stood staring in my eyes to see if I was kidding, but terror was written all over my drenched body, lit only by the flashes of lightning from the storm clouds above Oakton. She pulled the gate to the paddock shut while watching my face. I had rain water and hair almost in my eyes so I paused to wipe my entire face dry with one hand, but I must have looked panicked to her when I did it.

Just then it hit me that it was this guy from the bus shed roof that probably spooked Bullet, maybe the same person who sliced her leg the last time. I didn’t mention that out loud, just flashed through my brain but it made sense, Bullet knew but she couldn’t tell us, except by her actions, but it all fits.

10:02pm.

What we didn’t know at the time was in Brown’s field something far far worse than any of us could have imagined was happening right now.

As the rains fell and softened the soil the ‘stumps’ we saw earlier were slowly steadily rising from the mud. At first they looked like tree sapling trunks but were actually the bows of ancient reed canoes the Pawnee once made for their deceased warriors buried in their cemetery.

They would dig burial pits a bit larger and shaped like their reed canoes, the deceased Pawnee warriors were placed in the dug-out area, wrapped and preserved with oils and spices then buried whole.

Slowly, by the light from the storms overhead the shapes of several reed canoes slowly raised in unison towards the heavens. First one started to move, then another.

Then in their rider compartment area appeared the muddy blackened top of someone’s head, then another, as they slowly rose towards the stormy sky. Only God and Mother Nature herself were witness to the horrific events unfolding at the old Pawnee burial grounds north of Brown’s house.

Now the reed canoe hulls were about three or four feet high, pointing straight in the air. Partial faces were visible as if a deceased Pawnee warrior was still laying in the dug-out. The storms seemed to intensify as if on command from the Indian Gods as now heads and necks could be seen during the flashes of lightning.

Then shoulders and chests appeared, coated in slimy black mud the bodies of the warriors emerged from the mud as they clung to the inside of the very reed canoes they intended to someday ride to their places in heaven but were now returning as warriors to protect their sacred lands once again.

The storms worsened, the rain fell harder as if in celebration of the births unfolding in the farm field nearly alongside the rapidly filling dry creek bed just to the north. The entire loop of dry creek bed surrounding three sides of the Oakton high-ground was rapidly filling with Missouri River flood waters.

A few more minutes went by as the four warriors rose past their knees from the earth that had kept them safe for hundreds of years was now giving them up as the nearby flood waters rose far above anything they had seen before, except at the time they were alive and this was the normal location of the mighty river.

No man witnessed the births. Each of the small skinny warriors opened their brilliant white eyes stepping away from their reed coffins. Their canoes continued their re-birth; rising from the native soil that always provided them life since centuries ago when the Pawnee and the buffalo herds were all there was in this part of the Great Plains.

The soldiers crouched and ran for a nearby tree as one by one their reed canoes fell over ready once more for service. The Pawnee spoke in whispers speaking also with their hands in gestures and faint spoken language. One turned his head, then all four quickly crouched low to the earth.

Another soldier ran to join them from the south-east. The men hugged briefly but remained in a low crouching huddle speaking slightly in an odd dialect no living man could understand today. The rains slowed to moderate but the sky continued to flash as the storm morphed into an electrical event with flashes of lightning every second, sometimes faster. It was an impressive display of nature, the rare electrical storm. The rain continued to fall as the tips of more canoes started to emerge from the field.

Behind the closely huddled Indian warriors the water from the flooded Missouri River had already reached Oakton. Once again, first time in over one hundred years the Fricke Cemetery was less than fifty feet from the river’s edge. It was as if time had flung itself backwards. The Pawnee seemed to recognize the terrain but the old town was gone, and the new homes were strange, huge, vulnerable, and on their sacred lands. They had but one thing to do, protect their sacred mound from the invaders. The plan was set; it was kill the invaders. The men separated heading in different directions around Oakton. Their only weapons were stone tipped spears, rocks fashioned into cutting blades, and cunning as well as experience killing buffalo with their bare hands, they were experienced hunter-killers without remorse.

Chapter 8. Spears Flying.

Sunday 10:08pm.

“You sure that wasn’t Ben you saw?”

“I know what Ben looks like we’re on the football team, remember? Showers, practice, parties, do I gotta spell that out?”

“Got it. I wonder if this guy is what spooked Bullet?”

“That’s what I was thinking. Maybe he’s the same guy that sliced her leg and tied her in the Fricke?”

“Let me talk to that jerk just once.” She said pulling her crossbow over her shoulder to right in front of her chest. In that moment I knew we were like a two-man army. Too bad for him because Beth and me worked well together.

The lightning was intense and rapid just cloud to cloud stuff now but it was like one or two every second. You could almost see like during the day.

“Where’s the swarm?”

“Probably inside the barn on their charging platforms.”

“Do they activate on their own or something?”

“Should, but the power was out for a while I’m not sure what they’re doing right now.”

“Crap. You should put the horse in the barn and lock the door.”

“Good idea, come-on.” She motioned for me to follow towards the barn door, she slid her crossbow over her shoulder. I could see a brilliant red + on the ground and the back of her legs as she walked, her finger brushing the trigger activates the spotting laser briefly. I smiled to myself as I followed behind her thinking to myself, ‘that’s my girl!’

Beth like me was in long cammo with a baseball cap, hair in a ball on the back of her head. We entered the barn which was dimly lit by one tiny bare bulb in the corner.

First, she stopped by the computer near the 3D printer and opened what appeared like a settings panel I never seen before. I watched from behind her as she appeared to change a setting that controlled the swarm putting them into full combat ready mode, then clicked on ‘.’ Within a second I heard the sound of many tiny machines coming to life somewhere near us in a dark corner of the barn. Then she headed for the barn door. I followed but stopped short, as she slid the wooden arm across the door and pulled the door inward to let Bullet enter the stalls area. They had room for about four horses in here but seldom kept her inside except for severe weather but they had a covered outdoor area Bullet seemed to prefer.

I was about five feet behind watching as Beth dressed like a soldier, lit by flashes of lightning from the intense electrical storm overhead suddenly stepped back away from the doorway, ripping the crossbow over her shoulder slamming an arrow in the breach and screamed,

“Off the horse! Now!” “Off the horse right now or die!” I never seen her this angry before but she raised the crossbow to her shoulder taking aim at something apparently sitting on her horse, taking control of Bullet during the brief moment we walked inside the barn, which meant he was probably watching us the whole time. This guy seems to like spying on us from roof tops. He could have been right above us the whole time!

“Beth!” I screamed. She never turned as I slowly moved closer. She never lowered her aim and stood frozen about eight feet in from the side paddock doorway about as poised to defend us and Bullet as any woman could be.

I moved closer. The staccato flashes of light made the scene even more horrific and surreal, she was like steel, a steel soldier right at the very edge of no return. Now only a few feet behind Beth I could see the shape of a man outside. He appeared small, maybe just over five feet tall, totally blackish and slimy like he just escaped from a Texas oil well blow-out.

He slid off Bullet in one movement to his feet at her side. Now I could clearly see he was a short man, shaved head, white eyes and teeth, but shiny and thin. He looked like the one I saw on the bus shed roof minutes ago.

There was a brilliant flash and a huge clap of thunder as one lightning bolt must have struck something nearby.

I saw him lower his head and dash towards us. Time seemed to slow. What must have taken two seconds now seemed to last for twenty or more as everything became like crystal clear slow motion. I noticed a long stone tipped spear in his hand. I could see the light from the storm reflecting off his wet shoulders. During his first big footstep his entire front side was lit up by the brilliant red cross that marked him as a target. Beth’s aim was dead on, hyper-accurate as always. The targeting laser shone a large vertical + on this man, it ran from his knees to above the top of his head and across his chest from arm to arm. Luckily for him he probably never felt the stainless steel twin blade broad head arrow tip as it penetrated his left chest wall, probably slicing through two ribs, his heart and aorta, lung chambers and two more ribs as it exited below his shoulder blade.

On the back end of each arrow Beth uses an LED lit nock which effectively turns each one into a tracer round. The red light briefly blinked as the arrow easily passed through his body and out the other side.

The man stopped mid-stride, now only ten feet from us. He raised his hand to the barn door frame falling forward to the floor with a thud, nose first into the concrete. A tiny exit wound clearly visible on his back. Blood pumped straight up in the air to a beat, as the round fountain-like stream pulsed high-low but got gradually lower and lower as the life blood drained from this odd little man.

The arrow tip Beth uses is designed for deer hunting. It has horizontal and vertical razor blades that are designed to cut the major arteries exiting from a deer heart thereby dropping its blood pressure nearly immediately causing it to pass out and die rapidly. The trick to using them is to hit the heart or as close as possible to it.

The spear he held slowly rolled from his hand as his grip relaxed.

I stared briefly at his body wondering who or what he was. Beth was rigid with fear but had the clarity of mind to quickly reach behind her to grab another arrow identical to the first one.

Quickly she reloaded as she slowly lowered the crossbow illuminating the dead man on the barn floor at her feet, now the large brilliant red laser + was on the top of the man’s head. You could see it jiggle as she shook with the same fear that raised my pulse too.

“Oh Dear God!” She cried in a soft scream inside her mouth. I slowly stepped up to her side; we touched arm to arm briefly. I stepped ahead and pushed the guy twice in the shoulder with my boot. His body responded by shaking like a large lifeless sack of jello. He looked very dead. I glanced out the barn door to see Bullet standing watching the entire scene, staring at Beth and me while the arrow was stuck in a fence rail on the far side of the paddock.

The brilliant red LED on the rear tip of her arrow swayed in the air forming a small red circle in the air.

Leaning my rifle against the wall of the barn I went outside into the rain, grabbed the man’s ankles and pulled him back outside into the muddy paddock while Beth stepped out taking Bullet’s lead pulling her inside, I rolled the body onto it’s back to look at the face. Blood was still oozing from the small chest wound. His wide-open and expressionless eyes stared towards the flashing storm overhead.

We went inside the barn with the horse and shut the barn door. I picked up my rifle and turned off the safety, making sure I had a round in the chamber. Beth was leaning into Bullet’s face hugging and holding her while the animal stood by leaning her head into Beth in a tender cross-species moment of affection. Bullet understood what happened. She probably knew more about who this guy was than we did.

In that brief moment the war had officially begun. We’d both exchanged fire, blood was now spilled on both sides.

“Will you explain to me what that was all about?” She still looked terrified but she was still about the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

“Like I said, we’re under attack, I think this is what happened to all the dogs and cats in town too. We have no idea how many of these guys there are?”

“Oh holy crap, I never done anything like this before, who was that guy? Why’s he so small, why didn’t he say anything?” Beth nearly shouted almost out of breath.

“Maybe he couldn’t, I have no idea Beth, but we gotta protect our families, they’re all in danger right now!”

“Oh Hell! We gotta go wake people up. We need Ben. Got your device?”

“Yep, right here.” I pulled it from my pocket; I had one flickering bar signal strength, typical for out in the barns. If only that repeater was another twenty feet higher I’d have three signal bars instead of less than one. I pressed some spots to wake it up, only had a little battery left. I pressed contacts, then Brown, then Ben, and called. It rang and rang so I left it go hoping to raise anyone inside Brown’s house. When it went to voice mail I hung up and re-dialed. One time I txt’d Ben trying to get his attention but he’d sleep through almost anything.

10:12pm.

We left the barn; she locked the door behind her. I ran as fast as my long legs could carry me to the south towards home, she headed for the back door of their house. I soared across the ditches, one at a time. It must have been the hand of God that got me all the way without falling. That’s kind of my confession; I’m not the most coordinated wide receiver on the Varsity Tigers.

+

I found out later that Beth ran into their house straight for the living room sofa to wake up their dog Daisy. She told me all she needed to do was slap her on her thigh and yell, “Dog! Guard!” Then across the house she ran into her parent’s bedroom. Her speech was rapid and hard to understand when she woke both parents to tell them what happened but they refused to believe, nor did they want to go out in the rain to see the body of the alleged tiny dead man laying in the horse dung in the paddock.

She left the room for upstairs to get the rest of her arrows and her flashlight from her room. Then she ran downstairs to watch my house from their kitchen window after making sure all the outside doors were locked. At least her parents were up and talking but still not believing what she said. Her mom said later on it reminded her of when Beth had nightmares. It was just like when she was a child and came running in their room at night in a panic.

+

In my home I went to my parent’s room and tried waking them but Mom was too groggy from her sleeping pill to respond much, Dad was missing from the bed which panicked me worse than anything.

I grabbed the phone on the kitchen wall to call 911 and yelled at the dispatcher that we were under attack in Oakton but left the phone dangle on the wall refusing to waste the time to explain anything to the stupid dispatcher.

10:16pm.

I ran to the barn, which was dark now but the tractor doors were wide open. I pulled out my flashlight aiming it all around and saw my father lying on the floor with a small puddle of blood by his arm. I ran up to him, his eyes were closed, he looked dead. So I ran back in the house to the kitchen and picked up the phone. The dispatcher was still there trying to get someone to talk to her.

I explained we were under attack by an unknown number of strange people, small stature, armed, that they had killed my dad in the barn, we needed EMS and armed police back-up. She asked me who was attacking.

“Listen please! I just told you everything I know. The whole town is under attack, we need EMS and we need armed help right now!” I screamed into the phone then let it drop back to the wall so she could listen and identify where the call was coming from.

An odd colored light coming in the kitchen from the living room windows caught my attention. I ran into the living room looking out the front windows to see Patton’s barn fully engulfed in fire. “Oh dear Jesus!” I spoke out-loud. They keep an old tractor in there and some hay but that’s it really. I could see the top of the concrete foundation of their old house visible by the light from the rapidly growing barn fire. The tops of some flames went way above the tree tops.

Back into the kitchen I picked up the dangling phone, “better send the fire department too, Patton’s barn’s on fire now.” She responded by asking, “Did you set the fire?”

I made my voice really calm and low now. “Look, I know you’re struggling with all this. Just send everything you got to Oakton and forget all the dumb terrorism crap. We need the national guard or something.” I spoke into the phone receiver then dropped it to the wall again.

The light from the fire was getting brighter and brighter. No matter how much it rained, the barn fire was too intense to be doused by the rain now.

Sprinting back upstairs, I opened Mel’s door turned the lock button and pulled it shut quietly. She’d be safe for now so I went back downstairs.

Crossing the living room into Mom’s room she was back asleep, not able to overcome the effects of her sleeping pills. I looked out their window at Beth’s place, pulled my bat signal out and shone it in every window of their house on this side. She fired her laser back at me when I hit the right window. We both flashed green at each other as if to say ‘affirmative.’ On the way out their room I pushed the button locking her bedroom door behind me.

I turned for the kitchen, then back outside, along the back wall to the corner where the leaky rain gutter was. I saw Beth emerge from her back door, make her way to the corner of the house, then like twins, without speaking we both ran to the bus shed. Again I cleared the ditch in one leap landing firmly footed in the street. Beth did likewise but she looks much nicer doing it.

10:19pm.

“What’d you get?” I asked in a low but upset voice.

“Folks are up but not subscribing. Dog’s awake and ready.”

“Ready for what? Watching TV?” I asked thinking any time spent on the Daisy was a total waste of effort.

“Will you stop hating my dog please?”

“Sorry. I found Dad on the floor in the barn, I think he’s dead. I didn’t have time to stop and pay my respects. Mom’s too gorked on meds to wake up. I think our best bet now is to wake Ben. Gotny ideas?”

“I got one. But we gotta run for it. Then I think we should come back here.”

“I called 911 but I think I sounded too much like a drunk or something, I don’t think she believed me. I think being inside here is not a good tactical idea, we’re trapped and this shed would burn as easily as Patton’s barn.” Beth sat there across from me looking deep in panic and thought. She was breathing fast and chewing on the corner of her lower lip. She was still cute as hell, with little flashes of lightning and fire across her face.

“Okay, I got it. Let’s make my barn base of operations for now. But first we haul ass up the street to Brown’s and wake up Ben.” Beth commanded with a tone of anger in her voice and on her face.

“How you gonna do that?” I asked.

“Watch me.” She stood up pulling her arrows from their tube on her back over her left shoulder, that’s when I saw it. One of them had a blunt lead tip, like getting shot by a bean bag round or something. ‘Good thinking’ I thought to myself.

We took off, Beth in the lead, me behind, heading east on the county road towards Brown’s house. We didn’t know at the time that about three hundred feet behind me was another tiny man with a stone tipped wooden spear in his hand, crouching as he silently approached from behind us.

We ran as fast as we could, stopping in the street half-way between Brown’s house and the barn fire. I flashed my bat signal in the window of Ben’s room while Beth loaded the blunt tip arrow onto the crossbow. The red + appeared on the wall of their house and moved directly to the second story bedroom windows. She raised the stock to her shoulder, tilted her head to the sights and squeezed the trigger, instantly re-loading with a real arrow.

With a loud crash Ben’s upper storm window exploded into shards falling two stories to the ground. We stood huddled in the street watching in anticipation for what seemed like a long time, then Ben appeared shaken and pale at his window, I yelled, “We’re under attack!” He lifted open the lower window all the way up. “Get out here with your stuff now!”

I could see him glance at the barn fire directly behind us, then the shirtless Ben disappeared, then reappeared wearing camouflage in his shattered bedroom window. He pointed to our left and shouted, “What’s that?”

We turned to look down the county road to the west further than the bus shed to see a tiny man lurking in the shadows lit only by the lightning and barn fire slinking slowly towards us. Just like the first one, this guy was short, holding a spear or something in his hands, also totally blackened like the other ones. It was impossible to tell if he even had any clothes on.

In a commanding and deliberate move, Beth took one large step sideways to clear me, raised her weapon placing a large red + on the slowly approaching man. I grabbed my flashlight turning it on in his face then down his body. He was about too far for my flashlight to make a big improvement but you could see he was black and slimy like he just crawled out of a barrel of used tractor oil. He had a bowl haircut and weird markings on his face and chest, his pace slowed when he recognized the crossbow in Beth’s arms.

I could see out of the corner of my eyes as she lowered her head to sight him with the scope in addition to the large laser + all over his front. I pulled my rifle to my hip and tapped the trigger slightly activating the laser pointer placing a red dot on his belly as he very slowly approached, now only about one hundred twenty feet from us in the middle of the intersection walking at a steady pace still right towards us.

I heard running feet behind us. I prayed it was Ben and not a sneak attack from behind while the decoy attacked from the front.

10:27pm.

“Guys! I’m here.” He shouted from his yard as he ran to join us. You could see lights coming on in his house. At the same time lights were coming on in Beth’s house too. I heard her father’s truck starting up in the driveway. Way off in the distance beyond the approaching tiny man I could see fire truck lights as our first rescue turned off Highway 73 towards Oakton.

That was a couple miles away yet and they had no idea they were entering a war zone unless that stupid dispatcher conveyed all the information I gave her. Ben joined us from behind putting his hands on our shoulders as he took stock of what was unfolding on this wet gravel road.

I glanced to look at him, like us he was cammo from head to toe but only had one rifle and a flashlight. He turned his on aiming at the still approaching man now only eighty feet away and closing.

“Better stop asshole!” Ben yelled from behind us but the little man kept coming.

“Ben, keep an eye out for attack from behind.” “Got it!” he replied turning his flashlight all around, but with all the light from the barn fire there was little need.

Just then we all heard a click and buzz over by Beth’s house. Their front door opened out as some huge black thing escaped from the house racing towards us standing side by side in the middle of the street.

The sky flashed and in the light from the barn fire I could see some huge animal running so fast it was just a blur heading right towards us. My heart started racing as I got a glimpse of death heading right at us.

I saw Beth suddenly raise her crossbow and fully extend her left arm pointing right at our approaching attacker. The dog must have seen her gesture.

The rapidly approaching animal changed course, sideways to us right towards the slowly approaching man, now only sixty five feet away. We could see his brilliant white eyes and teeth; we could see lots of details of his body as he approached.

In a flash of lightning I think I saw it was Beth’s worthless dog Daisy in the street running full speed in a lateral course at our attacker. She must be doing forty miles an hour (60kph) in a dead out, pedal to the floor dash. In the final second she let loose a combination screaming growl and bark. The dog seemed to leap-up in the air in order to smash her mouth into the side of our attacker’s head.

“Daisy no!” Beth screamed at the horrific sight as her best friend, companion, protector, brutally attacked the man in the street. We saw him jerk sideways. He never saw it coming.

Beth raised her crossbow at the trees above the road.

We watched in horror as the one hundred eighty pound dog attacked the man in the street, going mostly after his head. She first impacted the side of his head, I think we all heard a crack. It looked like he got hit in the side of his head with a large mallet and probably severed his spinal cord in the process. His ear about slammed into his shoulder then splashed down onto the wet roadway, then in a flash he was on his back as the dog leaned down grabbing his throat with her teeth, shook side to side with a few quick snaps and in one movement removed a huge chunk of flesh from the front of his neck. Blood sprayed towards the clouds as the sky flashed again and again. The man’s legs jerked with a seizure as Daisy dropped the mouth full of fleshy meat onto the tiny man’s chest.

Way off in the distance, under Daisy’s belly you could see the red lights of the fire truck slowly closing in on our location.

“Daisy go home!” Beth yelled down the street, but the dog was having none of that just yet, this was her moment.

Daisy stood like a giant dog statue staring at the twitching corpse in the street maybe fifty feet from us. Her fur color changed from black to grey depending on what lit her up, the barn fire or the electrical storm above Oakton.

“Ben, how’s it look behind us?” I said over my shoulder. I could see him turn his head towards us and towards the east, his front was facing the barn fire, he turned his head side to side as fast as he could.

Beth’s father backed his truck down the driveway in a fast maneuver, then lurched forward towards Daisy near the intersection. All of us were on the east-west county road, just east of the intersection.

I watched as Harvey rounded the corner in his big diesel Ford truck heading towards Highway 73 and the approaching fire department truck, yelling out the window, “I’m gonna intercept the fire department!” Beth again yelled at Daisy to go home, but the animal looked to be deliberately ignoring her, insisting on doing what she was born to do, be a pack animal with Beth being the other member of the pack. This is what she was born to do.

“Oh crap John, I got another one on your six!” Ben screamed backing up into us with another small man approaching from the east; this one had two things in his hands, like wooden spears or some kind of weapon.

Beth spun around slamming another arrow onto her crossbow as she mightily pulled back the line to prepare it to fire again. I raised my rifle taking aim. The man raised his arm throwing one spear towards the sky which I immediately lost sight of.

In a flash I shoved Beth sideways towards Ben’s house and jumped back towards the barn fire a few feet. Ben turned to run but took the spear in his left thigh. He crumpled over then fell face first onto the muddy road and laid there groaning loudly in pain, both hands holding his leg in agony. I glanced at Beth, then back at Ben who was already trying to yank the spear from his thigh and was starting to look angrier than in pain.

“GO! Just go get ‘em John!” He mumbled with agony stressing his voice as he was slowly wiggling the spear from the side of his thigh lying in a bent heap on the drenched dirt road.

Beth regained control. The small man like the other two was running in a moderate trot towards us with his other spear poised to throw. I re-aimed, fired one shot, which spun the man around, stopping him briefly, he lowered his arm to his side, then raised it with the left arm pointing right at Beth. I fired again, but missed. “Those that live by the sword get shot by those that don’t.” I mumbled out loud to myself.

“Let me!” she screamed. “Daisy!” She called, the dog looked up but stayed by the first man.

A large red + appeared on the approaching man’s silhouette and like the first one, Beth fired about the same moment as he loosed his last spear. Just then I turned to look at the dog just in time to see a different spear fly into her back leg from a yet-unseen attacker who must be in the shadows in Ben’s front yard or maybe out in the street.

Chapter 9. Blood in the Streets.

Sunday 10:31pm.

Daisy let out a wounded animal yelp that seemed to echo around and linger in the air but immediately caused a gasp from my mouth and tears in my eyes, I could barely see.

Again my brain went into slow motion mode. Responding only to the sound of her dog in agony Beth spun around. She turned so fast her hair became partially un-tied like a long blonde streak following her head as her entire body turned towards the intersection in a fluid like movement. Beth shoved her crossbow over her shoulder as she raced towards Daisy. Her long legs stretched-out, her boots biting into the rain soaked street as she accelerated towards the dog fighting back tears the whole way. I think she tried to cry the dogs name but could only gasp for air, like me. I don’t think any of us was prepared for one of our group being injured.

I turned back towards the east to see the man stop running. With my brain still seeing everything in slow motion I saw him drop to his knees, then to his face. His feet kicked up briefly then fell back to the ground with a hose-like stream of blood pumping and pulsing from his back. The spear he threw hit inches from my left boot, sticking out of the street. In the distance behind him the glowing red end of Beth’s arrow slowly lost altitude coming to rest on the street hundreds of feet beyond our attacker.

I could hear Beth starting to cry loudly as she fell to her knees next to Daisy.

Looking down at Ben just ten feet from me I saw him grit his front teeth together like he does when we’re in practice pressing weights in the gym. He put one hand on his thigh the other grabbed the spear. He grunted and growled towards the sky then yanked the stone arrowhead from his thigh. There was a blood soaked area on the side of his cammo pants about the size of a doughnut. Ben briefly closed his eyes then rolled over and tried to get up. Even during our games, Ben never lets teammates help him back to his feet.

I turned raising my rifle aiming at Ben’s front yard and began shooting into the darkness. I sprayed the entire yard with hot angry ceramic bullets until my mag went empty. Hitting the button the magazine fell silently to the ground at my feet. Grabbing another from my side leg pocket I inserted it into the receiver on the bottom of the rifle I loaded it and chambered the first round. I loved the clunking sound it made when it yanked the bullet from the magazine and shoved it into the end of the barrel, ready to fire.

‘Screw this,’ I thought to myself as it appeared we had disintegrated into every man for himself by this point. Standing in the street gave us no protection so I took off in a run towards the south-west corner of Ben’s house.

My legs stretched out as my boots gripped the street. I gained enough speed to clear the ditch landing safely with a splash in his soggy front yard.

Just then I saw Harvey Meek’s truck come flying back into town on the county road, in reverse as fast as he could. In the back of his truck was a man dressed in dark clothing carrying a large pack. As they closed-in on the center of town I caught a glimpse of large letters on his shirt that said EMS. ‘Oh thank God,’ I thought to myself. The two men leaped from the truck when they got to his daughter on her knees by the wounded dog. I could see the dog on her side as a pile of fur with a long stick aiming up in the air. Beth was on her knees with her face smashed into the dog’s face trying to give some comfort to the wounded animal.

Beth’s father yelled out loud that the fire truck couldn’t get to us because of the flood waters went across the roads but this one paramedic agreed to risk his life and swim across the icy river water to help us if he could but the rest of the crew refused to risk it. I could barely see his clothes looked totally soaking wet. He must be freezing. I don’t think either of them realize they’re in the center of a war zone. Shots have been fired and there’s already a body count.

I took off running towards the corner of Ben’s house as his father stepped out the front door with his big old flashlight. He shone it around the yard illuminating a small guy standing on Beth’s long concrete driveway.

At the same time, that guy took off running down Beth’s driveway towards the barn, towards Bullet.

Ben’s father and I paused for a second to glance at each other then chased after him the best we could. The small man pushed the gate to the paddock wide open. I saw him throw open the door reaching in grabbing Bullet’s lead pulling her just outside the doorway and literally leaping up onto her back. By this time I was halfway down the length of their driveway. While I was on the run I glanced over to see Ben was on his feet slowly limping towards Beth, her father and the paramedic tending to the injured dog.

What I saw next was something I only seen in sci-fi movies. As the small man tried to coax the horse into movement it looked like several shiny things were on the edge of the barn roof right above them. Within seconds the horse acted like it was being attacked by bees or something. In the lightning and Ben’s Dad’s slowly approaching flashlight I could see the small man on Bullet was slowly covered in shiny moderately sized mechanical spiders. They were dropping from the barn roof edge just above his head.

He began to scream in agony as each one used its tiny needle tipped feet and frontal spears to poke hundreds of holes in his blackened skin producing a wave of red liquid slowly leaking down his chest, arms, and face.

It crossed my mind briefly; this guy has no saddle—he’s about to find out how this female Spanish Mustang got named Bullet! Beth told me Bullet is a direct descendant of actual pony express horses from back in the 1860s.

The horse was having none of it. She took off out the paddock across the back yard just like when she was running around the house a little while ago. Me and Ben’s father turned around running back down the driveway towards the street.

Within seconds Bullet rounded the front corner of their house heading north across the yard and driveway towards the Fricke Cemetery. Ray raised his light as they crossed the driveway, the small blood-gushing man holding on for dear life as the Spanish Mustang quickly reached full speed.

Bullet was running northwards passing through the rows of oak and apple trees that run along Meek’s driveway. I think she was trying to get this guy knocked off her backside but he ducked too.

I got to the front corner of their house in seconds raising my rifle, taking aim, slowly holding my breath as the spotting laser came on. Gently I let out my breath as I leaned into their house for stability, squeezed the trigger, as the rifle barrel jumped skyward and a huge crack momentarily deafened my right ear. The only shot I could take just then and avoid hitting the horse was a head-shot which made for a really small, bouncing target, but I’m a pretty good shot, especially with this rifle.

I gently squeezed the trigger then closed my eyes, turned to look at Ben’s dad confident that my round would hit the intended target.

10:36pm.

Later I was told by Ray Brown that he slumped over falling backwards head first off the panicked horse running as fast as her legs could take her towards the cemetery, just like last time. The small man landed in a crumpled heap just out of our view down the hill to the north. Ben’s father turned to look back at me, smiled, nodded and winked. We haven’t actually spoken to each other in almost ten years now.

Ray Brown took off running back towards his front door. I joined everyone else attending to the wounded animal. Now I could see Ben limping around Beth and the men tending to the wounded dog, the only light from the barn fire and the dissipating electrical storm.

I slid my rifle over my shoulder. I got down on my knees right next to Beth laying my hand on her shoulder patting her gently next to her crossbow strap. In that moment, I felt something really strong for her but I didn’t have time to linger. It was like a brand new feeling for her. Daisy raised her head to see the crowd of humans gathered around her trying to save her life, she was panting from the fear and pain.

Ben pulled his shirt off over his head to lay it under the dog’s head so her tongue wasn’t lying on the muddy roadway.

The paramedic started to tend to the wound, it didn’t look too bad. He already fashioned a tourniquet on the dog’s back leg and pulled out the spear. When he loosened the rope it didn’t gush blood, which meant she probably didn’t get any arterial injury. He dressed her wounds so I got up to tend to Ben, his Dad running to his aid near us in the street. Ben never said anything about his injury until after Daisy was taken care of.

I briefly leaned into Ben putting my arm over his shoulder and pulled him firmly into me. We didn’t need to speak just then but I did see that his blood stain was much larger now. I’m sure Ben knows I’m proud of him.

10:51pm.

I pulled the knife from its sheath strapped to my leg to slice the leg of his cammo pants. It looked like a flesh wound on the outer side of his thigh. Ray and the paramedic placed gauze and wrapped lots of layers around it. In a few minutes they helped Ben to sit in the back of Harvey’s truck. The men and Beth lifted Daisy off the muddy street laying her on her side in the back of the truck next to Ben. I grabbed Ben’s shirt from the street tossing it to him as the truck slowly rolled towards their driveway.

I took off for our barn. I ran in the door but the part Dad was in was rather dark, so I got to my knees to gently shake him. “Dad?” He immediately opened his eyes and started trying to get to his feet. His rifle was only about fifteen feet away on the front of his ATV. “I thought you were dead!” I shouted to him. “I’ll explain later.” He barked back as we both took off for different parts of the battle.

“Everyone’s in the horse barn!” I yelled at him as he climbed on his ATV pushing the start button. The lights came on immediately as the motor began to whine and gain speed.

I hopped on the quad heading out the barn to the side of the house, into the kitchen, picked up the phone. The dispatcher was still there on the line wanting to know if I wanted to hurt myself.

“Listen, you moron, now we have wounded, and dead. We need medical airlift helicopters and an emergency vet. There’s four dead in the streets.” I dropped the phone running back to the quad, racing across the yard, over the ditch and into the road heading north after Bullet.

I twisted the throttle as far as it would go reaching about seventy miles an hour before I got past the end of Meek’s driveway. In my headlights I thought I was starting to see the shape of a horse on the street ahead on the left.

Something caught my attention as I sped past the end of Beth’s driveway. I thought I saw a large pile of pieces of shiny scrap metal near the end of her driveway but I was so focused on getting to the Fricke I couldn’t stop to check it out.

And before I caught up with the horse I passed what looked like another small dead body along the road. It was a small oily blackened man that I must have shot when I emptied my clip earlier during the battle.

10:56pm.

Bullet ended up where I thought she’d be; at the cemetery where the better taller sweeter grass always grows. In the headlights on the quad I saw the creek bed was completely full, over fifty feet wide of muddy ice cold water. Four reed canoes were lying along the bank of this temporary river. I turned the quad heading into the field where Beth said her dad told her the old Pawnee Cemetery was.

I saw several large holes and what looked like three more things slowly oozing up out of the ground with partial bodies like the other tiny men that attacked us. I ran to the ATV. There were a bunch of sandbag ties in the tool box on the front rack.

As I jumped off the ATV I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be Dad on his ATV running around town, I think he was hunting for more of our invaders. Then I took off at a fast run across the field towards the emerging canoes.

I grabbed the still dormant Pawnee warriors by the wrists dragging them across the muddy farm land to the nearest oak trees and bound them, wrists and ankles to the tree trunk.

I was immediately overrun with nausea, dropping to my knees as if pushed by the Gods down to pray in front of the line of emerging Pawnee Warriors, I lowered my head to barf right there in front of the resurrecting bodies. Again and again I was wracked with intense waves of nausea.

11:01pm.

After the nausea left me alone I sort of looked around to visually survey the area. I got to my feet, spitting on the ground and wiping my mouth with my arm. I turned to look at the quad, but to my horror saw a short skinny pair of human legs walk in front of the headlight.

Reaching down I picked up my rifle taking aim but realizing I couldn’t shoot my own ride, I started to duck and run for the river’s edge then towards the Fricke Cemetery.

Circling around the perimeter of the scene and away from the bound warriors I ran fast for the only cover out here, the limestone block walls of the Fricke Cemetery.

Crossing the street with the water to my right I curved towards the cemetery and literally dove over the short block wall into the grasses along the inner side of the perimeter wall where I became as still as the earth, waiting for the coming attack. I realized right then just how alone I really was. I wanted to cry but it wouldn’t come. I thought only of Beth and my own fear of death.

I could hear Bullet just outside the cemetery wall making sounds. Surely with her large night vision eyes she could see exactly what was happening. There was a background of thunder from the fading electrical storm making it hard to hear much of anything nearby with an almost constant rumble from the clouds above me and the drops of rain splashing on the headstones or falling softly to the grass of the Fricke.

I heard Bullet start to get more agitated, her shod hooves kicking pebbles on the street. I knew this was my signal. I slowly slid my rifle to my chest then up by my chin ready to fire at the cemetery entrance, but I kept my finger off the trigger lest I reveal my hiding place by switching on my targeting laser. I wondered how many rounds I had left. Too bad it’s not like the movies where the good guys always know. I was too freaked out to remember.

By the flashes of light from the clouds I saw the shape of a small man silently slowly sneak in the cemetery gates, spear in one hand, knife edged rock in the other. The sight so horrific I could barely breathe, I wanted to scream for Beth or Dad.

11:07pm.

He stopped to listen. I was perhaps fifty feet to his right, on the cold wet ground trying to melt into the limestone block wall and weeds. He twisted his head looking exactly in my direction then over at the horse. My heart was pounding.

That’s when I heard the now slightly familiar sound of clicking on the road. Bullet alarmed with a snort and some horsey sounds I took to be a warning for me but she was also giving away his presence. I could hear her slowly inch away. She knew. Then the clicking suddenly sped-up. I could see in the lightning the small man at the cemetery entrance turn towards the horse and raise his arm to throw the spear into Bullet. Instead he began to move as if he was swatting ants off his arms and legs. Then he seemed to be overwhelmed with the sudden onslaught of insects from the ground.

I heard Bullet move closer to me, I could also hear the movement of the flood waters not forty five feet away from my shoes.

The warrior in the cemetery entrance started making noises of panic as he struggled with his insect attackers. Then a rapid sequence of lightning showed he was under attack by the swarm. I was being rescued by an entire army of autonomous drone spiders. They literally ran up the attackers legs all the way to his face. As he swatted one off three more climbed up his legs, poking holes the entire way.

Swatting them off, they landed on the soft grasses at his feet, righted themselves and quickly returned for another attack. I think I could see more than a dozen insects. The more he struggled the more arrived from the nearby fields and down the street. Some were jumping off nearby headstones trying to land on his face.

The goal of the swarm was to run all over him, cover as much skin as possible. With each step of their tiny feet they buried a surgical steel needle into his skin causing hundreds of pin pricks. More and more blood would ooze from his body. The ones with spears attacked larger veins in his lower legs and the rest tried to puncture his eyes, ears, and face. I think their actual goal was to inflict pain, fear, and later death by overwhelming infection.

He seemed to be suddenly stuck in one spot but then I heard a new and different mecha sound.

This was more like the sound of a rapid mechanical clicking, something I think I heard a version of before but I wasn’t sure what was going on. I also heard the short chirp like a camera strobe charging between each of the louder clicks. The small man flinched as if being stabbed repeatedly, twisting and bending in agony but too scared to fall down and die easily.

Soon, the man started screaming in panic as the waves of blood ran down his arms and legs. He was bleeding to death by a thousand tiny holes. His high pitched voice echoed around the cemetery as his silent attackers kept up the massive assault. It was obvious I would not be firing a shot in this fight so I rose to sitting on the ground by the cemetery wall, the top of the wall about even with my shoulders. My cammo gear was totally soaked and cold now. I was trembling uncontrollably.

The noise of something clicking on the limestone block behind me got my attention. Looking over my shoulder I saw one of the spiders watching what I was doing. I raised my hand to wave, it responded by lifting the tip of one front leg off the block wall briefly. I got to my feet as the Pawnee soldier dropped to his knees, his blood pressure now too low to support awareness as he fell forward and slowly died. His eyes wide open and unblinking staring towards where I was hiding by the limestone block wall.

11:12pm.

By the time I got near his body the spiders were almost gone, Bullet had moved closer as if to witness the end herself. She snorted to me. I took her lead walking her by the block wall. By the cemetery entrance gate up on the pillar I saw one of the attack spiders Beth had created but never spoke of. This one was poised aiming at the lifeless man on the ground. This spider had only half the body but had a tiny gun mounted on top, this is the one that could fire a hundred sewing machine needles at high velocity. It would fire at your heart, eyes, throat, and neck trying to put you out of commission as a soldier in a very short time. She made only one of these platforms. It probably saved my life.

The odd looking spider right next to the gun mounted unit looked like a box on spider legs. It must be the combat supervisor computer drone she mentioned building that arrives on scene to direct operations from a high observation point for all the units in the swarm to avoid un-necessary duplication or actions and place the shooting drone in safe and effective firing locations.

I never rode bareback before but was about to give it a try. I didn’t think she’d let me guide her home from on the quad, so I slipped on top of the horse from the block wall and rode her home leaving the idling quad running in the field by Ben’s place where several reed canoes were still emerging from the ground.

I caught a glimpse of several of the tiny spiders running towards the barn on the street as we galloped past. I didn’t need to guide Bullet, she knew exactly where to go. And with me on back, she avoided the trees turning into their yard at a much slower pace.

I could see Dad off in the distance on his ATV patrolling the perimeter of town still looking for more attackers.

As we passed along the side of Meek’s house I could see a growing line of emergency vehicles stuck on the far side of the creek bed, they couldn’t get to us. As I approached the paddock gate I heard some rifle shots off beyond Patton’s property, about ten shots in rapid succession. Oakton looked and sounded like a war zone.

11:29pm.

Bullet was back in her paddock. Ben and Daisy were in the barn being tended to. The place still smelled like melted plastic. About ten minutes later my Dad slowly walked in Meek’s barn with his rifle over his shoulder to join the rest of the neighbors. Shortly after that Beth’s and Ben’s moms came in frantic and tearful at the sight of our injuries.

While we were trying to figure out what to do with the wounded dog the paramedic was telling us he never had a four legged patient before.

Dad leaned into my side for support as they tended to their wounded dog. Ben was sitting on the edge of the PC desk with his one bare leg hanging out. Beth was cleaning the dog’s face while Adam repaired Daisy’s leg. Everyone was mindful of the large teeth.

Beth held the dog still while the EMS guy pulled the wound edges together with five stitches after a really deep cleansing with sterile saline from the army medic kit he had. They put a large beach towel like a sling under her stomach and helped Daisy limp back inside their house up to the second floor, into Beth’s bedroom and closed the door. It’s been years since I’ve been in her room. She had a small mattress on the floor which was the dog bed.

Only after Daisy was done did Ben let them look at his wound. The paramedic carefully cleaned the wound and taped the edges together telling us it would probably need to be cleaned out at the hospital once they could fly a helicopter into town which was impossible until after the storm passed.

Monday 1:20am.

While this was going on we discussed the flooding. The barn was still on fire. We were trapped on the hilltop; nobody up here owned a boat or even a canoe. I explained what I’d seen, the attacks, the reed canoes, the burial sites. We counted the dead and talked for a while. The storm was almost over. On the floor of the barn the remaining members of the swarm entered the barn using the cat door walking to their charging stands all on their own.

6:09am.

The sky was starting to lighten up with the approaching morning.

I finally got a chance to see it. From the center of Oakton we were surrounded by flood waters from the Missouri River, all this way, four miles. There was no way we could drive out. No way any rescuers could drive in to us until the Missouri River flood waters receded days from now. The state police landed two helicopters about an hour ago to investigate the deaths of what turned out to be nine dead Indians that were buried hundreds of years ago in unmarked graves on the Brown’s farm.

7:25am.

Not too long after the first helicopter landed with state police investigators, Beth, Dad and I were handcuffed and held apart in our homes while they took statements from our families about how so many people died in our town in the past twenty four hours. It didn’t take long until we were released.

Because the entire story sounded a bit supernatural, the police decided to keep the TV stations from landing in town and interviewing Beth and me or getting up-close photos of the bodies being hauled off in inflatable police boats over the flooded roads.

The main police dude at the scene told my dad that he didn’t want to have to explain that a group of kids killed several people that were buried hundreds of years ago. Too many people would panic, too many weirdos from around the world would arrive if the story got out. So we agreed to keep the whole story to ourselves for our own good. They took off our handcuffs and advised us to remain available to detectives for the next couple of weeks.

He also said there would be a team from the university arriving tomorrow to map out a plan to excavate the entire site. They would also keep a guard posted at the site for the next few weeks, twenty four hours a day. We were to report any other changes in the soil all over Oakton to state police right away.

By 9am Ben was airlifted to the hospital in Falls City.

By 10am white plastic body bags covered the dead and Daisy was limping around the house on three legs but well enough to eat and ask for the TV to be turned on.

At 10am we refused to allow the Omaha TV station to land a helicopter, since this was a private matter now. Three news helicopters and two small airplanes flew over that morning trying to shoot video of sheet covered corpses scattered around our town.

At 11am Dad was airlifted to the hospital along with a load of state police leaving. A boat had pulled up to our street to start removing the dead in body bags to the state police morgue in Omaha.

The warriors I captured during their re-birth were found dead still strapped to oak trees near the north side of Brown’s house. No cause of death was ever mentioned to us but I always suspected Beth’s armed spider might have finished them off with one precisely aimed shot each which would only appear like a tiny red dot on the chest, front and back.

At 5pm everyone was back home by boat. Dad got three stitches in his head and face and one bag of IV antibiotics. Daisy was transported by boat then truck to the vet clinic in Falls City. Local police posted armed guards at the Pawnee burial site day and night for weeks after the storm.

Monday 2:00pm

That afternoon Ray Brown invited the whole neighborhood over for a cook out. Boy oh boy did the crap hit the fan at that gathering which everyone attended. It came from someone nobody expected. The anger was palpable. I got sick to my stomach again briefly.

Chapter 10. Conclusion.

Monday 5:30pm.

The Brown’s served burgers, brats, fries, Pepsi, chips, dip, potato salads, coleslaw, veggie trays, and lots of beers for the men folk.

It was a gathering I never thought I’d live to see, six former enemies having supper together in someone’s backyard in the cool late afternoon as the sun went down.

Food was flying fast. We had some help. There were a few of the Nebraska State Police investigators with us sharing in the meal. Since about ten people died here some investigations were in order, we had no problem proving our innocence.

That’s when it hit the fan.

Bethany Meek, the most beautiful girl at Falls City High School, mediocre volleyball team member, lover of animals and cutting edge technology stood to speak like I have never heard from her before. By the time she was done everyone (including me) had tears in their eyes. Nobody could say a thing because they all knew she was right.

5:51pm.

Without warning Bethany stood to speak to the group while everyone was eating:

“I wanted to speak to all of you, the residents of the wonderful town of Oakton, or New Oakton as our ancestors called it after the flood of 1910 destroyed what was left of the old town. And now we all know where the Pawnee are buried putting to rest the whole question that’s lingered over this town for over one hundred years.”

“First, I want to thank Paramedic Adam for risking his life crossing the flooded street to come to our aid during the battle.” She gestured to him. Adam stood as the crowd softly applauded him and he sat back down as Beth continued her unexpected speech.

“I want you to know that several humans died here today because of us. I shot two of them myself and I’m just a nineteen year old farm girl.”

“And you know why I had to kill people today?” She said pointing at her parents, Ben’s parents, and my parents. Inside my head I was like ‘go-Beth, go-Beth’ because I knew where this was heading.

“It’s because your childish feud has kept five generations of good people from speaking to each other, from listening to each other, from working together as a community, and from listening to your kids when they tried to tell you that something was wrong in our town!” Tears were dripping from her eyes, her chin was quivering as she fought hard to squeak out every last word. I never heard her scream, red faced angry, furious at anyone or anything before, ever! Inside I was still all like ‘go-Beth, go-Beth! Meek my ass, this girl was on-fire pissed off!

She continued, “Your selfish feud caused the carnage here today. And today it must stop, its pure childish crap and nothing more than that. I would expect this on the grade school playground but not here, not in my town!” She continued screaming, slowly rotating to make eye contact with to all six parents on the patio behind Brown’s house.

Ben’s father got to his feet and started to speak in his defense but she quickly interrupted him, moving to stand only a few feet away from him. She raised her hand pointing her finger at him and continued yelling.

“Silence!” she said slowly pointing at him then the rest of the parents,“All of you should be ashamed! What if that spear got Ben just a couple inches over and cut an artery? Daisy nearly died protecting your town while each of you hid in your homes because you didn’t want to face the neighbors!” She continued yelling around the patio.

“End it! End it today or so help me I will! All of you are guilty, every one!” She paused briefly staring around the patio making eye contact with each parent. The area was mostly silent except for sniffling and crying.

“Today is when it stops, the feud is hereby over! I demand it! You grown-ups owe each of us kids and my dog an apology!”

Her fists were clenched tightly; pale-white the normal color disappeared long ago! Her face and shirt were wet with tears. Beth’s entire body was visibly trembling. Not a single person had dry eyes. My mom had her face in her hands over her lap.

Beth turned and stormed off, running out of the yard towards her house. I jumped to my feet and followed. Everyone else stayed at Brown’s as they should have.

I caught up with Beth in the paddock next to Bullet, they seemed happy to be together. I let myself in the gate; she turned to see me walking up to her.

Beth turned stepping quickly into me, buried her face into my shoulder and cried and cried. I held her tight, one hand on her back and the other on her head. After what seemed like three minutes she quieted down to just sniffling, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her eyes and blow her nose, just like a farmer’s daughter.

It clicked in my head right then, what I always suspected, one hundred percent sure now.

She wiped her hand on her overalls and walked back to me, leaning in laying a gentle kiss on the side of my face, I hugged her to me tightly. I’d been wanting to do this for about four years now.

We stood there for a moment smiling and staring into each other’s eyes. It was hard to believe all we’d been through today.

“I love you John.” Then she looked down as if afraid I might reject her advance.

“Funny you should say that because I just figured out I feel the same about you.” We both held our hands slightly forward taking each others with a warm grip and smiled then kissed for the first time. We slow danced together, mouths pressed, lips touching, hands joined, only the sounds of the horse breathing and the wind in the giant elderly dormant Oak trees overhead.

After a while we pulled apart. I heard a click and a buzz from her house as Daisy let herself out the back door to use the grass. We watched as the wounded but recovering dog went about her business after limping slowly across the back yard.

“What a fantastic beastie she is!” I whispered to Beth. She reached down to hold my right hand with her left hand.

All on her own Daisy returned to the sofa and her favorite TV shows on the DVR. I laughed thinking about how much dogs have changed from when Oakton was founded. What perfect love she has for Beth. What a great role model. Then I asked her, “So what prompted you guys to get such a big dog?”

Beth answered, “It was my mom’s idea. She said she longed for the pitter-patter of little feet, so she got a puppy.” She says it’s cheaper and you get more feet.” I looked at her for a moment before she grew a huge grin on her face. We grasped hands laughing softly and headed back towards the street.

We walked back to Brown’s party and were met with standing applause from the townspeople. We kissed briefly in front of them which drew verbal cheers.

I actually did see each family get around to a brief face to face meeting with the others and verbally apologize for perpetuating the feud and ignoring their reports of disappearing animals in town. There was lots of hand shaking and hugs exchanged, as the time went by the overall sound of party turned more festive.

Slowly, the party ended as the Archers and Meeks walked home. Beth and I were happy to see the adults all hugging and shaking hands again when it came time to leave. Email addresses and phone numbers were exchanged freely everyone promising to stay in touch from now on.

Epilogue:

The flood receded much slower than it arrived. It took three days until roads to the north, west, and south were above water again, then another two days for them to dry out enough to drive on. The Flood of 2029 wasn’t totally gone from Richardson County for a week or more as the crest of the water slowly moved down the Missouri River towards the Mississippi River north of St Louis.

The county highway department later proposed raising one of the roads so we could have access to emergency services the next time we get big floods. They said it would cost about thirty thousand dollars to place steel tubes and raise the road bed. That’s a big expenditure for a once every fifty to one hundred year flooding event.

On the first day the road to the west was above water the county highway department came in with large dump trucks and unloaded tons of large crushed rocks to build it up and make it usable a couple days earlier.

Once the county roads were safe to drive on, more police and forensics investigators arrived. One of them discovered the skeletal remains of numerous cats and dogs in Patton’s old basement. When their place burned down a few years ago they left the house foundation intact, a full size concrete basement, in their yard. It appeared the Indian scouts used those as food until the rest of their group was re-born from their sacred cemetery. The remains of animals we lost were buried in one mass grave in the ground near the Fricke Cemetery with a marker Harvey made on his 3D printer.

For most of 2029 there were always at least three office trailers, one large tent, and two chemical toilets along the street where the old Oakton town once stood. Using ground penetrating radar in addition to locating the buried Pawnee they also mapped and marked the locations of over half of the original buildings from the original site of Oakton.

That fall the University of Nebraska excavated the entire field, almost two acres uncovering thirty three boats and skeletal remains, along with other non-combatants in ceremonial dress. The entire collection is housed now in a museum in Falls City in the old Ford dealership building downtown.

Five years later Ben, Beth, and I graduated from University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL). Beth and I were married, Ben to a girl he met at school. Beth went on in school to get her Masters and now teaches CAD-AI and advanced materials engineering working towards her PhD. I opened my own consulting business in Falls City specializing in agri-tech. The unfortunate side effect of autonomous technology and remote control-sensing means not only can my father run his tractor from home, but someone in Nebraska can now run a farm in Africa or India and visa versa. Our company sells and services that.

Beth and I purchased a used modular home placing it behind their barn on Meek’s property where we now live planning to raise a family and keep up both farms some day. Beth still works for the university from home on the net. She uses two of those new laser cameras to create a 3D image which is 3D projected in the lecture hall at UN-Lincoln. At home we converted one of our rooms for green screen use. The entire room; ceiling, floors, walls, all video-effects green, with studio lighting and sound too.

This room allowed her to appear with any superimposed background, in her case it was usually the front of the lecture hall she was being shown teaching in.

We extended the paddock so Beth can spoil Bullet with treats from the kitchen window. That animal is so totally spoiled.

My sister Mel grew-up and moved to town where she manages a pet and farm animal supply store. It was the first store in the state of Nebraska to offer fresh hot foods to go for cats from a drive-up window. She says they’re the only customers that would never complain about finding a hair in their food.

Most of us kids stayed in Oakton to someday raise another generation of Meeks, Browns, and Archers, this time the stories of the feud will never be passed along and we made the parents swear to never tell the story.

Each year on the anniversary of the storm and war we celebrate with a big party in Brown’s barn, it gets bigger every year. Last year we invited the university archaeology team to join the festivities since they spent over a year as our neighbors in large tents on Brown’s farm while they removed some of the Pawnee remains destined for the museum.

After graduation I had that darn network repeater on Highway 73 raised by fifty feet on a galvanized utility pole, now we have four bars everywhere inside and can even make calls from our best fishing spots along the Missouri River.

We named Bullet as chairperson of keeping the grass trimmed in the Fricke Cemetery, she insists it tastes better. It must be the rich Nebraska soil here.

Daisy passed away at eight years of age while we were away at college, her ashes are buried in the Fricke, only dog to make it in there. Someday Bullet will be in there too, just like me and Beth. The headstone for Daisy clearly states how she risked her life to help save many humans and animals from death. It boldly proclaimed ‘Hero Dog’ right near the top.

In 2035 all three families split the cost of having fiber run from Highway 73 to Oakton, now we run about 90mbps over the wifi. Ben and his wife bought the old Patton residential cut-out and are going to have a new house built on their old foundation which raises the population of Oakton to eleven, with more coming.

By the old Pawnee grave site, along the road, almost across the street from the Fricke is a small park, a monument, and a place for the existing Pawnee to come and pray. The site is being added to the national historic register due to its connection with the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.

Bethany is still the hottest looking woman I’ve ever seen. It still drives me crazy when she dresses in her old overalls and lets down her long blond hair, then shakes her head with a sultry grin for me. We are very much in love to this day.

The end.

Please note: all of the events, places, and people in this story are fictional.

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Oakton

Oakton is the fictional story of a group of teens from rural Nebraska. Set in the near future (March, 2029), these three best friends find themselves trapped in their tiny home town during historic river flooding and powerful thunderstorms which unleashes the spirits of numerous Pawnee warriors wanting to reclaim their sacred lands. Past town conflicts have created an environment where the adults refuse to speak but the teens are secretly best friends. Now they must battle together using the resources at hand to fight for their lives and protect their families, while their parents refuse to believe something could really be wrong in town. The teens may be outnumbered but they have at their disposal: two rifles, one crossbow, a dog and a horse, robotic spiders, and a strong friendship.

  • Author: Boris B. Chen
  • Published: 2016-02-13 08:40:20
  • Words: 38589
Oakton Oakton