They went looking for the UFO. Then the UFO came looking for them.
|Gravel spat from the beneath the Jeep's wheels as it raced up the gully. Chris shoved the gearshift back into first when he hit a patch of loose dirt.
"Easy, partner," said his passenger. Jack gripped the dashboard as though hanging on for dear life as the Jeep rolled and bounced along the rough bottom of the dry stream bed.
It was nearly midnight, and the Jeep's headlights slashed the thick darkness. Once only they saw eyes shining back at them from the dark, before the startled deer bounded away. But there was no other light beneath the forest canopy, not even from the full moon that rode high in the summer sky.
But it wasn't the moon they were chasing, but another white globe, one that had drifted down toward the earth, disappearing behind the crown of a hill, even as the pale moon soared upward across the black sky. Jack and Chris had glimpsed the strange light an hour ago from their campsite, and had scrambled for their Jeep to chase it.
There was only a small chance they would find it in the tangle of old fir and pine trees, or in the maze of canyons and valleys that twisted between the hills. But that didn't stop Jack and Chris. Neither of them said "UFO!" but both of them were thinking it.
"Watch out!" Jack yelled, and Chris slammed on the brakes. Too late! The Jeep rammed into a giant log that had fallen across the gully, and bounced to a stop. The crash broke both headlights.
After sitting in a daze, Jack and Chris climbed out and looked around. The wind rustled in the dry leaves, but there was no other sound.
"How far are we from camp?" Chris asked Jack.
"A mile, if we walk straight," Jack said. "Two or more miles, if we go back the way we came."
"We won't make it in the dark," Chris said. "Not even if we drive slow." He shivered. It wasn't very cold, but he knew it was going to get colder, and he and Jack had left their jackets back at camp.
Then he felt his friend's hand upon his arm, and turned to look at what Jack was looking at it. He sucked in a short, sharp breath.
There was a white light moving through the trees.
It was high up on the slopes, but it was drifting toward them, like a bubble on a breeze. It wasn't a flashlight or a lantern. It was a pale ball, like a small moon that had fallen out of the sky and was floating over the ground.
Jack pulled Chris, and the two men ran toward it.
They stopped, though, at the edge of the gully. There they crouched and peered over the side, up into the woods. The light drifted to the side, and came out into a clear space where they could get a good look at it.
It floated high in the air, too high for them to reach. It was hard to tell how big it really was, because they couldn't tell if it was close or far away. The light that came off it was a milky white and a little blurry. It looks like a beachball, Chris thought. Then, he thought, It looks like an eyeball!
It looked even more like an eyeball when it rolled on its side, and turned a dark slit toward them. Now it looked like the eye of a cat. And it shifted from side to side, as though scanning the ground. It made a faint noise as it floated closer: a hiss like the sound of wind blowing over a sea of long grass.
Chris felt Jack's hand gripping his shoulder. "It's looking for us!" his friend said in a hoarse whisper.
Chris wasn't sure that it was, until it seemed to catch sight of their Jeep. The slit widened then narrowed, and concentrated on the wrecked Jeep as the ball drifted closer. It stopped and held its position directly over the Jeep, and glared down at it.
A dazzling beam of light shot from the slit and enveloped the Jeep. Chris and Jack shielded their eyes, and blinked the glare away when the beam vanished.
The Jeep had also vanished. Where it had rested against the tree trunk there was now only empty ground.
Chris had only time to gulp, then he and Jack were scrambling up the side of the gully. They kicked down a small rockslide as they hauled themselves over the lip, and when Chris looked back over his shoulder, he saw the lidless eye gazing back at him.
He couldn't find his breath, or else he would have yelped.
He and Jack ran into the woods, scuffing aside dead leaves and trampling through bushes. Every few yards Chris had to look back, and every time he did, he saw the eye floating behind, weaving slowly between the black silhouettes of the tree trunks and staring toward him. He paused for breath beside a wide tree, then dove away just before a beam of blue-white light shot toward him. When he looked back again, the tree was gone.
"We have to hide!" Jack whimpered as he ran.
"We have to get away!" Chris argued.
"We can't get away!" Jack said. "We have to hide!"
As he spoke, he tripped and fell into a patch of bushes, and Chris fell on top of him. For a moment neither spoke nor breathed, but only listened to the thump of their pounding hearts. Their limbs were frozen as stiff as rocks.
Then over the whisper of the night wind they heard another noise: a hiss. But now, to Chris, it sounded like the hiss of a slow fire, and he imagined a scorching flame stabbing at him like an angry finger. He crawled away over the rough ground, and climbed and fell over onto the other side of a log.
But Jack didn't crawl away with him. When Chris looked back, he didn't seen his friend, only a shadow writhing on the ground. Only a few yards away, looking this way and that, floated the glowing eyeball.
"What are you doing?" Chris hissed at Jack. The only sound that came back was a whimper. Then Chris saw that Jack was trying to cover himself with leaves. "Be still!" he called in a louder voice. Then he ducked as the eyeball lifted its gaze to glare in his direction.
When he peeped out again, he saw that the ball had risen very high in the air, like a balloon caught in an updraft, and was staring straight down where Jack, only half covered by leaves, cowered on the ground. Chris didn't want to see, but he couldn't shut his eyes or look away.
The beam of light shot out, touching the place where Jack huddled.
Then the eye looked up from the empty ground, and let its gaze rove over the forest.
It knows there were two of us! The thought left Chris frozen with cold terror. His heart almost left his chest when the ball began to float closer toward him.
He couldn't run. The thing was too close, and would get him as soon as he stood. But when he peered out again, Chris saw that it was now moving away, and looking off in the other direction.
Slowly, Chris wormed his way alongside the log, away from the ball. He paused now and then to check that it wasn't turning toward him, and he stopped for a full minute when he a stick broke beneath him, and saw the eye jerk and swivel in his direction. But at last he made it to the end of the log.
That's when he discovered that it was rotten and hollowed out.
Hope blazed in his chest, so hot and hard it almost made him sick.
Gritting his teeth, Chris pushed his feet into the log, then pushed his legs in. His heart popped into his throat when his feet hit something solid, and for a moment he thought he'd get stuck and caught, halfway inside the log, and halfway out. But with a kick he knocked the obstacle away, and wriggled all the way down inside. After a panicky minute, he was squeezed up entirely inside it.
He lay very still with the stink of rotten wood in his nose, feeling his chest rise and fall with labored breathing as he strove to catch his breath. Sweat dribbled into his eyes. There was no sound but the creak of tree boles.
After long minutes he had begun to feel a faint but firm hope that he had escaped the thing, and was wondering how long he should wait before looking out again, when he heard the sound: a fiery hiss.
Closer it sounded, and to Chris's terror a pale, white light began to creep up inside the log. By its glow he saw his hand, which he had tucked up near his face.
He craned his neck to look out through the opening into the log.
The white, glowing eyeball stared back at him. Chris clenched his eyes shut as it glowed more brightly.