Riley and Rachel were riding across the zip line in the cart, praying that the cable would continue to support their combined weight. They were nearly to the treehouse when Torgwal’s bedroom window went dark. A single light, located above the back porch of the house provided just enough illumination for them to climb out of the cart into the treehouse.
“It’s too dark in here,” Rachel said. “There could be Yagglasmooze. We need to turn on our flashlights.”
“No. If the Federals look out here, they’ll see the light. I think I can find the hatch.” Riley got down on his knees and felt around on the floor with all four hands until he located the hatch and opened it.
They looked down at the ground—which they could barely see—thirty feet below.
“How are we supposed to get down?” Rachel asked.
“Just pretend a Yagglasmooze is about to crawl up your leg,” Riley said.
Rachel took a quick breath and jumped through the hatch, grabbed onto the tree trunk and used her legs and four arms to scramble downward, head first. She rolled onto the grass and looked up at Riley. “Hurry up!”
Riley didn’t have time to think about what Rachel had just done, or how she had done it, or the fact that it was impossible. He just did it.
The back porch door burst open.
Riley and Rachel scrambled to get out of the light, and hid behind the tree.
A bright beam of light flooded the area where they had just been standing.
A male voice shouted, “You two need to come down from that treehouse right now. We’re not going to hurt you. We’re Federal Officers. We just want to talk to you.”
The light grew brighter as the officers walked toward them.
Riley whispered to Rachel, “We need to go. Now.” He took Rachel’s hand and led her away from the tree quietly, trying to keep the large tree trunk between them and the officers.
“Go up and check the treehouse,” a man said. “They’re probably hiding up there. If not, they’ve run out into the fields, in which case, nature will solve the problem for us.”
Riley and Rachel were about twenty meters away when she whispered, “This is crazy. I can’t see where I’m stepping.”
Riley said, “Let’s turn on our flashlights and make a run for it.”
“You honestly think we can outrun them?”
“No,” he said. “I just don’t think they’ll chase us for very long.”
“So we’ll do the skipping thing that we learned from Crinblee and Torgwal?”
“Right. On three,” Riley said. “One, two, three.”
They both switched on the flashlights that were on the belts Torgwal had given them and began to run, then skip.
“There they are!” an officer yelled.
Riley and Rachel skipped through the woods at a dangerous rate of speed, leaping high into the air, sometimes clearing the tops of the trees, dodging branches, and watching for Baljeevers.
They finally broke out into the open field.
Riley said, “Stop!”
They switched to a run, then to a walk, and finally came to a stop.
“Why are we stopping?” Rachel asked. “We need to keep—”
“Listen,” Riley said.
“They didn’t follow us—or they would already be here.” Riley unhooked the electric lantern from his belt.
“That officer said that if we were in the fields, nature would solve their problem,” Rachel said. “He was referring to the Baljeevers, wasn’t he? I’m not so sure we made the right choice. Maybe we should have surrendered.”
“So we could be tortured—or executed?” Riley turned on the lantern and set it on the ground.
“Doc wouldn’t let that happen. He’d bring us back home, right? He’d save us before they could do that.”
“There’s a ten-minute delay, remember? By the time he knew they were about to kill us, we might already be dead.”
“Our copies would be dead,” she said.
“Our brains would be dead.”
“Maybe he was lying about that.”
“About sending a part of our real brains here with our copies?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Because if we knew that anything that happened to us here wouldn’t affect us back on Earth—”
“We wouldn’t care if our copies died, because we’d know that we would wake up in our real bodies back on Earth,” he said. “I think that’s it, dammit.” Riley pulled the machete out of its scabbard. “And I’m calling his bluff.” He held the machete out for Rachel to take. “Send me home, Rachel. Your choice: a blade through my heart or decapitation. I don’t care. Send me home now.”
Rachel stepped back. “Are you crazy? Put that thing away. Maybe Doc was lying—but I’m not gonna die trying to prove it. And I’m sure as hell not gonna kill you so I can be stuck on the shitty planet all by myself.”
“Fine.” Riley slid the machete back into its scabbard. “It is pretty far-fetched though—to think that he somehow transported part of our brains along with our copies.”
“Everything he said and did was far-fetched,” she said. “We can’t take the chance that he was lying about our brains.”
“Maybe we’re not even here at all.”
“The dreaming theory?”
“That would explain everything,” he said.
“Yeah, well I don’t ever remember feeling pain in a dream before. And right now my feet are killing me.”
They heard a deep rumble in the distance.
“Baljeevers.” Rachel stepped behind Riley. “I thought the lantern would keep them away.”
“Torgwal said it probably would—unless there was a pack of them.”
Another rumble. Then a third rumble from a different direction.
They snatched their lock guns out of their holsters.
Riley said, “I’ll shoot the first one and you take the second one, okay? And one shot should do it. We don’t want to waste our batteries.”
A huge, black, freakish-looking monster ran out from the darkness.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “It’s huge!”
“Stay strong and concentrate. We’ve got this.”
The Baljeever barreled toward them on all eight legs, and then stood on his hind legs and arched his truck into the air.
The animal froze in place—just ten feet away from them. In an instant the Baljeever’s speed had gone to zero.
“Wow,” Riley said. “That was easy.”
“Riley, look out!”
He turned left and saw another Baljeever charging at them. It was moving so fast that Riley didn’t even have time to aim his lock gun. The trunk was two feet from Riley’s face when the creature froze.
“Got him,” Rachel said.
Riley felt warm urine streaming down his leg. “Thanks.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “But now I’ve got to drive a spike into their brains and kill them before they unfreeze.”
Another rumble, from behind them.
They both spun around and fired toward the noise.
They looked at each other, and must have had the same thought: stand back to back. They did.
The animal raced toward them, skimming across the ground like a gigantic caterpillar. Riley fired.
The animal froze.
Rachel turned around. “I hope that’s the last one.”
Riley held up his hand. “Listen.”
“I don’t hear anything,” she said.
“Okay, cover me while I kill them.” He holstered his lock gun and unsheathed the long spike Torgwal had given him. He leaned down to the animal’s head. “He can still see us and smell us, can’t he? Just like when we were frozen.”
“Don’t you think you should start with the first one you shot? We don’t know how long the lock will hold.”
Riley straightened up. “Good idea.” He went to the first Baljeever. “Here goes.” He stabbed the spike into the animal’s eye and thrust it deep into his skull. Riley pulled it out, and blood and brains oozed out the creature’s eye socket and he began to move.
Riley jumped back. The animal lurched forward with its trunk swinging. Riley tripped and fell down. The beast toppled over and nearly landed on top of him. Riley scrambled to his feet.
The Baljeever lay motionless on the ground.
“Dammit! That was close,” he said. “Why didn’t you shoot him again?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It happened so fast.”
Riley picked up the spike and went to the second Baljeever, who was still frozen in place. “This time, be ready, and if he starts to move, freeze him, okay?”
“And keep an eye on that one too.” Riley pointed to the third one, who was still locked, lying on the ground. He reached up and rammed the spike into the Baljeever’s eye. “Go to Hell, you stinking son of a bitch.”
Riley glanced back at Rachel. “Ready?”
She pointed the lock gun at the animal. “Ready.”
Riley yanked the spike out of the creature’s eye and jumped out of the way.
The animal did not move.
“Okay. One more.” Riley was beginning to feel cocky. He went to the third Baljeever, leaned over the animal’s head and tomahawked the spike through his brain to the back of his skull, causing a thud. “These things aren’t so tough after all.” He jerked out the spike and started to walk away. Something caught his ankle. He looked down. It was one of the animal’s paws.
Riley was reaching for his lock gun when Rachel fired hers.
Riley froze. Rachel had shot him instead of the Baljeever. The animal was still alive, tightening his grip on Riley’s ankle. How long would it be before the razor-sharp claws tore off his foot?
Rachel fired again—this time hitting the animal. It froze.
She zapped Riley again, this time in unlock mode.
He tried to step away from the Baljeever, but the paw was still holding tight. “Shit! His claws are cutting into my ankle.”
“What can I do?” she asked. “If I unlock him—”
“No! Don’t do that.” He pulled the machete out of its scabbard and lifted it over his head with his upper arms. He brought it down across the animal’s arm, severing it. Blood spewed into the air.
“God!” Rachel turned away.
The paw relaxed, and Riley knelt down down and used all four hands to carefully open the sharp claws and release his ankle. “So, apparently a spike to the brain doesn’t necessarily kill them. Be ready to fire at those other two in case the lock wears off.”
“Why don’t we just run?”
“How do we know they won’t unfreeze and come after us? We can’t outrun these bastards.” Riley went to the head of the Baljeever who had grabbed his ankle and held up the machete with his upper arms
“What are you doing?” Rachel asked.
“It’s the only way to be sure.” He brought the blade down forcefully, slicing into the animal’s neck. But it only went partway through. He hacked the neck over and over again. Blood spurted out on the ground and all over Riley’s shoes and jumpsuit.
He continued to chop until the head separated from the neck.
“Did you really have to do that? You got blood all over yourself.”
Riley looked down. “And the blood stinks. But remember what Torgwal said? Baljeevers will eat their own. So, I’m gonna give them plenty to munch on, so they won’t come after us.” He went to animal that was still standing. His neck was too high for Riley to reach, so he went around behind the beast and kicked him in the back, causing him to tip over and land face down. More chopping. More blood. But at least this one went faster. Riley was getting good at it. He imagined himself as a medieval knight.
“I hope the others don’t pick up the scent of blood before we can get away from here,” she said.
“Yeah, and I probably need to get to some water and wash it off of me.”
Riley sneered at her. “You wanna do it?”
“No. But just hurry. Please.”
He went to the last animal, and was about to take his first chop at the neck when he saw the head move.
The animal growled.
There was no time for Riley to run. He reached for the lock gun with his upper right hand.
All eight of the Baljeever’s limbs began to flail. Two of them squeezed together, clamping Riley’s legs in place. The animal’s trunk swung around and knocked the lock gun out of Riley’s hand. It landed between two of the moving arms. There was no way Riley could retrieve it.
“Lock him!” Riley started chopping at the neck as hard and fast as he could.
“I’m trying,” she said. “It’s not working! My battery must be dead!”
He continued to hack at the neck. Why was this one tougher than the others? Maybe it was Riley. Maybe his arms were getting tired. But shouldn’t he be feeling a rush of the adrenaline? The blade had barely cut through the thick fur. Was the machete getting dull?
The Baljeever’s trunk whacked one of Riley’s legs and he nearly went down. It was gradually getting stronger, coming out of the freeze. If the animal got his claws around Riley’s legs or arms before he could sever the neck, the battle was lost. Was this how Riley would die—mauled to death by an alien monster? No!
The Baljeever was gaining more strength by the second, and Riley sensed that he might have only one more chance at the animal’s neck, so he would make it count. No more quick chops. He’d use every ounce of his strength to inflict a mammoth blow. He quickly visualized it happening: the blade slicing cleanly through the neck—not stopping until it hit the ground.
Riley raised the machete over his head with his upper arms, grabbing them at the elbows with his lower hands, and pulled down with all four arms, letting out a thunderous howl, as he bought the weapon down like the blade of a guillotine.
The head fell away, rolled to face up, and the animal’s steely eyes stared up at Riley for a full two seconds before the life went out of them.
Riley’s entire body tingled. He was afraid to move at first, in disbelief that he was still alive.
“Are you okay?” Rachel asked.
The blade of the machete was buried deep in the ground. Riley released the handle and looked over his shoulder. “I think so.”
Something swooshed through the sky, fifty feet above their heads, and they ducked.
“What was that?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t know.” Riley hurried to where Rachel was standing.
A low rumble came from the woods, then another, then a chorus—no, more like an army—of Baljeevers.
“Oh, shit. Here they come,” Riley said.
“We’re dead.” Rachel hid herself in his arms.
Another swoosh, and they were instantly sucked up into the sky.