Morning was pristine, but noisy. Zeus had treed a critter of some sort and was barking. Jesse and Ruth were fighting over breakfast, Ruth demanding something more than sourdough pancakes and Jesse finally agreeing to wrap them around some rehydrated freeze dried sausage.
Rehydrated freeze dried sausage. Ugh.
"Jesse!" Angela unzipped her sleeping bag and dug around for her socks. "Make mine without the sausage." She found the rest of her clothes and pulled them on quickly. Jacob was still asleep. She left him in the tent and crawled out to find a bush.
Pancakes for six people with one frying pan took time. Deborah was eating when Angela came up to the fire with her cup to get water for her hot chocolate. Ruth was taking down her pup tent and packing her stuff. Leah was rolling up her sleeping bag. Someone had fed Zeus. Jesse finished the next pancake and called to Leah to eat, and so it went.
Angela finished her chocolate and woke Jacob. She was done packing for the two of them by the time Jesse called her to eat.
They packed everything and prepared to load the llamas. Angela checked her radio, they'd gained a bit of altitude yesterday afternoon, still no signal. She looked up to find Jesse checking his hand held. He shook his head. They weren't reaching the repeater. Maps and GPS units came out to plan the day's hike.
Leah ran her finger along the penciled in line. "There should be water here. At least I hope."
Jesse agreed. "We know there's water down below that point. This early in the year it should be wet for a long way."
"A couple hours, do you think?" Ruth looked from one of them to the other. "Do we have time to set up the shower?"
"We'll see." Angela studied the map. "It depends on how steep this part is. I think we'll want to get up to here," she pointed to a spot opposite the stream where the topography lines were farther apart, "before late afternoon."
Leah was tapping at her GPS unit. Angela watched her get up and dig though her pack to find extra batteries. "Leave the power on?"
"Yeah," Leah admitted. "I think the batteries are dead." She removed the old batteries and put in the new ones. "Still doesn't work."
Angela took the unit and turned it over in her hands. She turned it on and off, nothing happened. "I think we have the receipt at home still. It sure seems like it's broken."
"Good thing we have two more." Leah frowned at the dead GPS. "Hate to have to use nothing but Jacob's compass."
"True." Angela checked hers just to be sure. It worked fine. She turned it off again. They'd been using the one Ruth carried while they planned their route, so she knew that one was good.
They made good time climbing the rest of the way up the South slope of the valley. The South slope, of course, faced North and slightly East. It was shaded, cool, and green. As they topped the crest the world changed. They could have been in a different state. This side baked in the sun.
The ground was bare rock and gravel between clumps of prickly pear, pinon and yucca. The prickly pear cactus was in full bloom, dozens of huge yellow flowers covered each plant. Jesse got his camera out to take pictures as Jacob enthused over all the different kinds of bees crawling over the petals.
"Mom?" It was Deborah. "Mom? Look over there. Is that smoke?"
It was smoke.
A thin plume of greasy black wound up into the sky. Angela keyed her radio. Nothing. She frowned. "Leah? Get the map out. Find the location of the nearest repeater."
Leah tied her llama to a scraggly bush and got out the maps. Ruth brought her GPS unit and the two of them poured over the paper, marking locations and drawing a long thin line with a pencil.
"That's not a ridge, it's a ravine."
"Mom, we have line of sight to the repeater."
Jesse, Ruth and Leah keyed their radios. One by one they shook their heads. "No signal." Ruth keyed a sequence and each of the other radios beeped. "It's not our radios." She looked up. "Could the repeater be down?"
"Must be." Angela rubbed her forehead. "We can keep trying. I'm sure they're working on getting it fixed."
Leah rotated the map and peered at it. "Maybe we can reach a different repeater."
Angela went back to looking at the smoke. It seemed to be lessening. If she hadn't known where to look she wouldn't have been able to see it.
"Lets make our way down to the stream," she said. "Jesse and I can climb the other side and maybe get a better look while the rest of you set up the shower and fill the empty water bottles. Be sure to mark them! We'll plan on a short day today. I want to find out what that smoke is." Not a wood fire from other campers, that she was sure of. At least not unless they were burning old car tires.
The way down was a jumble of loose stones and plants that thought that needles and knives were leaves. They had to stop twice for first aid. Jacob had lost his balance and reached out only to pierce his hand on a yucca spine. Leah had slipped, landed on her butt, and put her forearm into a prickly pear. Only three spines had stuck but when they pulled them out the wound had bled. Angela's sweet and angelic children took the opportunity to write "Turn Back Or Die" on the flat surface of a rock with human blood.
The ravine held a flowing stream.
Pinon and cactus gave way to gamble oak, box elder, and drifts of half-grown rudbeckia. The rudbeckia would bloom in August, setting off the green-gold of fall leaves with its own long, twisted, yellow petals. This early in the year clematis vines were beginning to set their mauve buds and wine red penstemon clustered in the shade, leaving the sun to clumps of purple iris. Painted Ladies fluttered to spots of sun along the moist edge of the stream and away again.
"Mom?" Ruth and Jesse had caught up with the rest of them. Ruth held the lead rope of her llama out to Angela. "We think that Jesse and I should go, instead of Jesse and you. We can be up and back more quickly."
Angela looked from one to the other and then at the younger of her children who had found a log that spanned the stream and were trying to coax Zeus into walking across it.
Probably the smoke was nothing. Probably. But of the things that it could be, most of them weren't good. She sighed.
"Okay, look. I want you both to be very careful. If it's a forest fire, even if it seems to be out it could flare up. Fires move as fast as the wind. If it's people it could just be campers burning something foul, plastic or something. Don't introduce yourselves. If you see people, just come back. It could be people who aren't campers. The maps don't show a road there... it doesn't mean that there isn't one. The season is too short so I don't think it would be someone growing weed but it could be survivalist wackos." Sure, it was ages ago, but Angela remembered the news story about a "Mountain Man" who'd kidnapped a woman jogger to be his son's wife. She wasn't about to discount the possibility of psychos. "If it's survivalists they've got guns and maybe boobie traps." She stopped. The both of them had just gone glassy eyed. She sighed.
"Okay, fine, your Mother is paranoid. Just be careful, stay together, and don't approach anyone. Okay?"
"Don't go out more than an hour before heading back."
They decided to travel light, leaving backpacks behind and taking only water and snacks in addition to radios, GPS, pistols, and a map. Jesse put his Gerber multi-tool on his belt and Ruth added her hunting knife and sheath opposite her holster. Jesse had his camera and Ruth got the binoculars from Jacob, who complained.
Angela watched them go. If she couldn't handle them going off on their own now, how would she handle it when they were in their own apartments in a strange city? They bounded up the opposite side of the ravine, a race to the top, Jesse's long legs against the training Ruth had been doing at altitude to prepare for boot camp. Angela watched them until they disappeared from sight.
When they weren't back in two hours Leah climbed out of the ravine with her radio. "They're fine, Mom," she said when she climbed down again. "They said they're about halfway here. They took pictures."
An hour later they were back. Instead of answering questions, Jesse handed Angela the camera. She turned it on and started flipping through the pictures. Cactus flowers, llamas, the rock with "Turn Back Or Die" on it. The next picture was of pine trees broken off halfway up their trunks followed by a picture that appeared to be tumbled boulders and a gouge in the earth and more broken pine trees.
Jesse tapped the camera and simply said, "Ponderosa." Angela adjusted her mental image of the scope of the destruction upward. Way upward. She continued through the pictures.
There was a picture of a torn piece of metal, a wing? Angela looked from Jesse to Ruth in sharp question. Were they so quiet because they'd found dead bodies? "An aircraft?"
Jesse shook his head, no. Ruth sniffed and said, "More or less."
As Angela went through the rest of the pictures she became calmer. It was denial, she knew, but anything that helped her to function was a good thing. Telling herself it was an experimental aircraft didn't work. Telling herself that those were humans in the spacesuits failed miserably. But it worked to tell herself that none of it was real. How odd was that?
"What is it, Mom?" Leah, Deborah and Jacob clustered around, frustrated that they couldn't see the display.
"It's a stealth fighter." She said the words as firmly as she could.
"What about the pilot?" Leah was trying to see over Angela's shoulder.
"Maybe the pilot ejected."
Leah had narrowed her eyes at Angela and Deborah looked like she wasn't buying the story either.
"You're lying to us." Deborah looked disgusted.
Angela looked down at Jacob and then significantly at Leah and Deborah. "It's a stealth fighter, probably a new model. Most likely it's a big secret. Probably it's very classified. If you don't see the pictures, then you can't accidentally tell what it looks like or tell anything about it. You won't know what is important and what isn't, but that doesn't mean that someone else can't use what you say."
"We wouldn't tell, Mom." Jacob looked up at her, entirely serious.
"I know sweetie." He was the only of her children still shorter than she was, and she knew it wouldn't last long. "Did I ever tell you about when your Dad and I were in the Air Force? We both had Top Secret clearances. That means they trusted us. Even though we almost never dealt with classified material, we never talked about that part of our jobs, not even in bed at night in whispers." She could feel the presence of Jesse and Ruth at her back, feel the intensity as they listened. "Not with each other. Not with anyone else. We knew not to ask questions like that."
"If you didn't know any secrets anyway, what difference would it make?" Jesse asked. Angela turned to him to answer.
"Because we never talked about work it was all the same if we ever did have a secret. What would you think if someone who talked about the information they handled at work suddenly stopped talking? You'd know they knew something special, right?"
"What if," and now she turned to Ruth, "everyone else talked about the information they handled at work and you were the only one who didn't? It's the same thing. To keep secrets the best, everyone just puts what they do at work off limits. That way, no one knows who has secrets and who doesn't." She turned back to the younger kids.
"People will ask you about the crash. You should tell them everything that you know as honestly as you can. That's why I'm not going to let you see the pictures. Okay?"
"Okay," Leah's agreement was sullen at best. Deborah and Jacob nodded as well.
"Okay." Angela smiled widely as if a huge breakthrough had been made. "We'll camp in that little clearing that we found upstream a little way. We're going to have to let the Air Force know where their plane went down, they've lost them in the mountains before you know. You three haul everything up there and start setting up, I need to talk to Ruth and Jesse for just a little bit."
Reluctantly they went to do as they were told. Angela watched until they were well out of earshot.
"Are you two okay?"
"I'm... not sure." Jesse was pale.
"I'm trying not to think about it." Ruth crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight from foot to foot.
Angela smiled in self-depreciation. "I'm in complete denial, and I only saw pictures." She turned the camera back on and looked at the last few pictures again. "Shit."
"So what we heard yesterday was a sonic boom and then the impact?" Jesse cast his eyes upward. "And the meteorites? What were they?"
It was Ruth's turn for gallows humor. "The Mother Ship, blown to bits and burning up on entry?"
Angela closed her eyes and sucked her breath between her teeth. "Denial is a good thing. Denial is a good thing."
"Mom?" Now Jesse sounded scared.
"Seriously." Angela opened her eyes again to look at them. "Did I ever tell you kids about when I was about 13 and having nightmares about what was at the end of the universe? I learned not to think about it. This is the same. Maybe you could be like Stephen Hawkings or someone and stare straight into infinity without losing your mind, but I can't. I can't think about what this means, mostly because I don't know what it means and I'll start making stuff up and..."
Ruth put one hand on both sides of Angela's face. "Chill, Mom."
"I'm fine, really... I just have to deal with here and now, okay?"
"Sounds good to me." Jesse took his camera back. "So what do we need to do right now?"
Angela straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath and let it out in a puff. "It's been almost 24 hours, if anyone had seen it come down they'd be here by now. So we assume that no one knows, or at least that the notice of an anomaly is at the bottom of some in-box somewhere under Cheyenne Mountain where it will eventually be read and passed on to someone else's in-box. We need to get notice out."
"Provided we can get a radio signal out," Jesse crossed his arms across his chest, "what do we say?"
Angela shrugged. "The stealth fighter story is as good as any. We can get someone out here by claiming survivors or injuries to ourselves if we have to, but I'd rather get the military out here first instead of civilian search and rescue."
"So the biggest problem is getting the signal out," Ruth agreed.
"And there's something important you should know, Mom." Jesse looked at Ruth who nodded. "We think there may have been survivors for real. We thought there was some movement but we didn't see anything, but look at this." He held his camera out to her showing the picture of the creatures in the spacesuits. "The picture is really small, even when I had both the lens and program at maximum zoom, but look how they are laying."
"Someone put them there, all in a row."
"Uh huh," Ruth said. "And if you think about it... just because they aren't moving doesn't mean that these people are dead either."
"Maybe we're in denial, too." Jesse smiled and ran a hand through his hair. "On the way back, though, we decided that "people" was the best word to use."
Angela thought about it. "I think you're right."
People. She could deal with people, no problem.