Charlene wiped her face with a damp towel while she sat next to her mother on the hood of a rusty old car. Everything was still dark, but the moon provided enough light for them. “Are we still taking off, Momma?” She watched her father, who was fussing with the airplane they’d borrowed from Shafter-Minter Field—her father called it borrowing, but Charlene was certain it was stealing. The airplane was a four-place high-wing model that cruised at a hundred forty miles per hour. The plane was slower than most but faster than driving to their destination.
“I don’t know,” Amelia admitted and pulled Charlene into her lap. Her voice wavered on the last syllables, but she kissed her daughter’s temple.
“I’m hungry, Momma.”
“I know.” Amelia canted her head and asked, “Can you wait another hour?”
Nodding, Charlene tried her best not to whine or be needy. Both her parents were stressed and tired from tonight’s events. After they crashed their car on the highway, they gathered what they could from the SUV’s cargo area and walked to Cawelo until they made it to the local airfield. Cawelo was on high alert and the residents were becoming more frantic by the minute. Thankfully, the few people at the airfield paid little attention to them.
“How about some water?” Amelia reached into the backpack at her feet and retrieved a metal water bottle. She offered it after flipping the straw out.
Charlene drank enough to sooth her belly, then returned it to the pack. After she zipped up the pack, her father approached them.
“I’m pretty certain the mags are bad,” Charles said to them, but his attention was on Amelia. “Not that it matters since there’s only five or ten minutes worth of fuel left.”
Amelia shook her head and asked, “Who ties down their airplane with empty tanks?” Her eyes were narrow and annoyance rolled off her. She ignored Charles’s smirk.
“If we ever meet the owner, we’ll have to insist they keep their tanks filled for the next time we steal it.” Charles chuckled at Amelia’s perturbed look.
“I thought you said we borrowed a friend’s plane,” Charlene said, her attention flickering between her parents.
Amelia dipped her head and remained quiet.
“We did,” Charles replied without hesitation. He shifted on his feet, then placed his hands on his hips. “We’re going to have to walk from here, Amelia.”
“You don’t think we can find fuel here?” Amelia argued and indicated all the work trucks around them. They had landed on a long dusty road that was part of a nursery. She and Charlene were seated on a junker car in a long line of vehicles belonging to the company that owned the lands.
“Maybe.” Charles scanned the area but shook his head. “Even if I can siphon fuel from a vehicle and find gas cans in one of these trucks, I’m not sure the 172 is rated for road fuel.” He frowned at Amelia. “The 150s were better known for using road fuel.”
“And that was before ethanol,” Amelia complained and gave a low sigh. “Do you have any idea how far we are from Edwards?”
Charles retrieved his cell phone and started to tap on it. All around them was barren desert, except for the nursery behind them. Its silver greenery stood out under the moonlight. He hooked the back of his neck and murmured, “About eighty miles.”
Charles peered up from the phone’s bright screen and said, “We’ll walk to Rio Bravo and see if there’s a car we can borrow. It should take us forty-five minutes or so.”
“That’s assuming the sonic wave didn’t affect that town too,” Amelia said and slid off the car’s hood. She turned to Charlene, held out her arms, and helped her off. “Otherwise, we will be walking all the way to Edwards, which could take days.”
“About thirty hours, give or take,” Charles said in a strained tone, which caused Amelia to grouse.
“I like walking,” Charlene said, in hopes to quell both her parents. She smiled big when they looked at her.
Charles returned Charlene’s smile, but his was much smaller. “Let me grab our things.” He hurried to the airplane, ducked under the wing, and reached into the back where Charlene had been sitting earlier. He returned with their bags and handed them out. Charles adjusted two of them on himself, then said, “Let’s go.”
Amelia took Charlene’s hand, and then the family set off on their walk to Rio Bravo. Charles guided them through the nursery’s property before they made a right onto a paved road. Everything was fairly quiet, as it was four in the morning. On occasion, Charles checked his phone but then would tuck it away. At one point, they crossed a bridge over a river and walked through another nursery. It wasn’t until they were on a two-lane highway that they knew they were close to Rio Bravo. When a few of the cars passed them rather closely, Amelia picked up Charlene to carry her for the remainder of the journey.
After an uphill walk on the highway, they arrived in the small town of Rio Bravo, which was outside of Bakersfield. Charlene was certain it would be easy from here, but her hopes sank when she saw the town was dark. She tightened her arms around her mother’s neck and worried her lower lip.
“Why is the electricity out?” Amelia asked her husband.
Charles looked at his phone and frowned. “I haven’t been able to pick up a cell signal since we landed. I thought it was just the area we landed in.”
Charlene knew her mother and father had off-line maps on his phone—road and aviation; they needed both when flying airplanes. But the lack of other communications, like calls, text messages, and internet, was scary to Charlene. “How are we going to call Aunt Belle, then?”
“We’ll find a way,” Charles replied and offered her a smile.
Amelia shifted Charlene in her arms, but Charles clucked his tongue once at her. He took Charlene from her and settled his daughter against his left side.
“Most cell towers have generator backups,” Amelia reminded and fished out her own phone. She tapped the PIN into the screen, then frowned at it. “Damn,” she murmured and shoved the phone back in her jeans. “This means they have EMP weapon technology.”
“I know.” Charles stopped along the side of the road and searched the local area.
“What’s EMP?” Charlene asked her parents but looked to her mother for the answer. Her mom was really smart, like a genius. That was why NASA loved her mother.
“It’s an abbreviation for electromagnetic pulse,” Amelia replied, but her attention was fixed on the same area as her husband’s gaze.
“What is elec-tra magna pulse?” Charlene asked as a furrow pulled across her brow.
“Electromagnetic pulse,” Amelia corrected. She didn’t say anything else and touched Charles’s lower back. “Do you hear that? It’s the same type of engines we heard last time.”
“They’re coming,” Charles said with panic. “We have to find a safe spot in case they—”
“This way.” Amelia hooked her husband’s free hand and dragged him away from the highway. They darted around the start of a chain-link fence and approached a tall white fence that separated them from rows of houses. There was a tree nearby, and they used it to climb up together. Charles hopped over the fence first, turned, and was handed Charlene. He set her down, then made sure Amelia made it over next.
“We should see if we can find a vehicle,” Charles suggested.
“None of them are going to work,” Amelia said in a tight voice.
“We don’t know that for certain.”
“Maybe if it’s from the 1950s,” Amelia hissed and fisted her hand while she strangled the backpack’s strap. “All cars from the 1960s and onward had some amount of electronics in them.”
Charles sighed and clasped Charlene’s hand. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.” He was about to say more, but the dim roar overhead grew louder. All three of them ducked underneath the tree’s overhead branches and gazed upward at the night sky. To their left and right were two homes that appeared quiet, but someone must have lived there.
The rumble grew louder over the passing seconds, overtaking the pounding of Charlene’s heart in her ears. A strange airplane without any wings glided over their heads like a helicopter, except there was no prop wash like a rotorcraft. Charlene was very familiar with the sound of rotorcrafts after going to different airports with her father, including Air Force bases.
The huge vessel whispered past them. Its steel-gray exterior reflected the moonlight and heat washed down from it, most likely from the massive engines on the belly. The aircraft didn’t fly much farther and started to descend off to their right.
“Charles?” Amelia demanded with urgency. She hardly ever called her husband by his proper name, unless it was serious. Charlene was pretty sure this was serious. “Why are they landing here?”
“I’m not sure,” Charles replied, forced to somewhat yell. “But I don’t think we should wait to find out.”
The strange aircraft was using an open field within the private community as a landing spot. The field was long enough for the aircraft to nestle itself, but it didn’t appear to be shutting off its engines. Instead, it sat there for a few minutes while Charlene and her parents hurried across the lawn alongside a home. They stepped onto a paved street just as the aircraft started to lift off again.
“They’re not practicing landings,” Amelia quipped to her husband. She reached to her side and then brandished a handgun. After flicking off the safety, she edged closer to her husband and Charlene. “I hope you’re right that we can find a car.”
“We saw some drive by,” Charles reminded. He tightened his grip on Charlene’s hand but loosened it when Charlene whined at him. “Sorry, honey.”
The aircraft’s movements caught their attention again. It had turned ninety degrees, drifted forward, and come to another hovering position. This time, it held its position above the ground and started to drop lines.
Charles frowned and said, “Come on.” He followed the street, but it was taking them closer to the aircraft. “We can cut between these houses for protection.” After Amelia’s nod, he guided them to the left and across an empty lot, but he stopped short.
Charlene looked to her right and gawked at the aircraft that hovered about a hundred feet off the ground. However, it wasn’t ground below the aircraft; it was a lake. The black lines were, in fact, tubes that were in the water. Even from a distance, the soft suction sound indicated that the aircraft was drawing the water out of the lake.
“They need water,” Charles said in soft realization.
“Natural resources,” Amelia agreed and kept her gun pointed at the ground. But she raised it when a two-legged creature emerged alongside the house across the street.
Charlene squealed and ducked behind her father’s legs for a minute. She peeked around and studied the bizarre alien. At least, she assumed it was an alien. Under both the moonlight and the aircraft’s lighting, Charlene could make out the strange creature. It appeared to be tall, according to its long legs. Its skin was as fascinating as it was creepy. The alien reminded Charlene of mythical tree creatures, but the mean kind. The mean kind that would probably tear children apart, limb by limb.
The alien hissed between its exposed teeth and carried a rifle-looking weapon in its hands. As it moved toward them, its dark attire shone under the light. When it drew close to the street, Charlene awed at the alien’s natural crown that was swept back like wings but colored a soft red, similar to the rest of its face.
Amelia shifted and pointed her gun at the alien, prepared to shoot it. But her target was diverted by a random stranger yelling and barreling out of the house they were standing near.
“Get ready to return to Hell, you alien shit!” The man was in his robe and sported an automatic rifle, which he unloaded on the alien.
Charles scooped up Charlene and started to run. Amelia was right on his heels. Whatever crazy scheme the robed man had in mind, it was sure to bring more aliens to the area. The gunfire echoed through the community and signaled the start of warfare. Charlene tucked her face into her father’s neck but the gunfire echoed in her head. She dug her nails into her father’s shoulders and tried to breathe.
“This way,” Amelia insisted and pushed against Charles’s shoulder. She was breathless and her boots pounded in rhythm with Charlene’s heartbeat. But they slowed down and came to a stop on the street. Charlene heard yells and screams from different people. She lifted her head and discovered flickers of light shooting through the air.
“W-We need to hide,” Amelia said.
“Somewhere safe,” Charles seconded, then pointed at something.
Charlene curled her fingers into the collar of her father’s fatigues. To her left, she watched the streaks of light shoot through the air followed by a few wrenching screams. She knew people could die, but she had never heard it, much less witnessed it. The people’s screams were piercing and raw, leaving her trembling against her father.
Amelia was leading them as they cut across an empty lot between two new homes. Then they were back on grass at the rear of another home. Amelia raised her gun alongside her head and approached a large shed. She tested the right door’s handle, which turned without hesitation.
“Be careful, Amelia.” Charles half turned, which kept Charlene from seeing the scary fireworks toward the lake. After a minute, Amelia returned and ushered them both into the darkness of the shed. A few strands of moonlight filtered through the three tiny windows toward the rear.
Charlene noticed a push mower near the door. Farther back was a motorcycle that had three wheels, like a kid’s tricycle. Normally, she would be excited about such a machine, but she wanted nothing more than to be back in her home, safe and in bed. “Poppa,” she whined and hiccuped against his shoulder.
“Sssh.” Charles threaded his free hand into Charlene’s hair. “We’re okay, honey.” He went deeper into the shed. “Amelia?” He handed Charlene over to Amelia, who tucked away into a corner.
Charlene cuddled into her mother’s body once they were seated on the floor of the shed. She peered out and heard her father searching the shelves of a tall rack. “Poppa?”
“I’m right here.” Charles uncoiled a rope and started to loop it through the door’s opening mechanism so that they were locked inside of the shed. Once he was finished, he joined them on the floor and pulled out his own handgun. He set it down within reach.
“Are the aliens killing everyone?” Charlene asked in a shaky voice.
“We don’t know, Char.” Amelia kissed her daughter’s temple and propped up her legs around Charlene. “But we have to stay quiet in here. Okay?”
Charlene nodded against her mother’s shoulder. A nearby scream made her jump and whimper.
Amelia murmured softly in Charlene’s ear and ran her hand over Charlene’s stiff back. But a sudden bang caused her to flinch and grab the handgun, which clicked. Charlene trembled harder and clenched her thighs together as she felt the urge to pee, but she didn’t want to embarrass herself or make herself and her mother wet. Then she felt her father’s strong hand and his temple against hers.
“Remember our last fishing trip at Big Bear Lake?” Charles whispered.
Charlene nodded and squeezed her eyes shut harder. She pictured being on the boat with her father in the early morning, right at dawn. At first, she had been grumpy about getting up before the sun, but her father insisted it was the best time to go fishing. Charlene whined the entire walk down to the jon boat and even on the cruise to the best fishing hole. However, her first try at catching a fish brought her a big one. Her father had been right!
“And how I caught more fish than you,” Charles said in a playful tone.
“I caught more,” Charlene argued and peeked out at her father. She saw his warm smile even in the dimness of the shed. Her mother continued to rub the back of Charlene’s neck. “I caught six and you caught five.”
“No, that last one was mine.” Charles grinned, then flinched from another boom in the distance. For a second, a white light flared and washed through the shed from the row of little windows before everything faded to darkness once more. When Charlene hid her face again, Charles said, “Keep thinking about our fishing trip. Okay, Char?”
“Okay, Poppa.” Charlene clung harder to her mother, who hugged her back. Amelia began to hum in Charlene’s ear, somewhat washing out the distant rumbles and sparks of electricity beyond the shed. Charlene kept her eyes closed and imagined being back on Big Bear Lake with her father. It was one of her fondest memories from vacation with her parents.
Between hums, Amelia turned her head, kissed her daughter’s temple, and murmured, “I love you, Charlene.”
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