Eater

Part 4

By Reinaldo E. Grandal

After an hour and a half they happened upon a small clearing. Wittenberg told the others, "Okay. Coke-an'-smoke," and, as the group stopped to rest, he selected a tree, checked for ants, and sat down.

Kramer and Williams both slung their weapons on their shoulders and lit cigarettes. "I long for the comfort of home, gentlemen," Williams announced as he exhaled a stream of smoke.

Harbin rested his rifle on the ground, sitting back on his haunches, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. When he finally looked up and saw Kramer exhaling smoke and seemingly lost in thought, he picked up his M-16 and went to his side. "What's done is done, man," he told Kramer softly.

"Because you can't change history," Kramer said, unaware that Wittenberg was studying him casually.

"Right," Harbin said. He pointed to the Nadym. "It's like trying to dam this river with a marble."

Kramer was quiet again. He thought about Kripps and Hitchcock.

They had been sent back to 1890 Austria. A fatal accident had been planned for an infant named Adolf Hitler.

Kripps had radioed a day later. Hitchcock had fallen during the attempt and broken his neck.

Wendover's technicians had disengaged the umbilicus and tried to send a backup team to keep Hitchcock from getting killed. They could not achieve temporal lock. Finally, they had been able to lock into a time frame about six hours after Kripps had last radioed.

Kripps and the backup team had made the second attempt, and after about eight hours, the second team had withdrawn and returned to the present. The second attempt had also been a dismal failure; the child's father, Alois, had stabbed Kripps to death as a trespasser.

History would simply not allow itself to be changed.

Another team had been sent to save Kripps and Hitchcock twenty-four hours before they had been scheduled to arrive in Austria. Their aircraft had malfunctioned and crashed in flames, the feedback reverberating along the umbilicus and causing an explosion in the Wendover facility.

The techs had asked themselves: Why? The third team had not gone back to change anything.

But they had, MIT had to finally realize. Those two men, Hitchcock and Kripps, had left Wendover, Utah in 1973 and died in Braunau by the Inn, Austria in 1890. It had happened. It was history.

Kramer's throat was dry.

" . . . you can't change history. . . ."

"You son of a bitch. . . ."

Wittenberg rose, brushing off loose, moist soil from the seat of his pants. "Let's move out," he said.

He led them away from the river.

When it was almost noon and more light filtered through the clouds, Kramer looked up to see chestnut-plumed buntings in the branches. He listened to their song, sniffed at the pine scent that floated in the warmth of the day and thought for a moment that he would allow himself to smile a little when Wittenberg gave the signal to halt and maintain silence.

Before them was a small patch of space where the bush had been hacked away; only creepers and fallen leaves were strewn about. To their right they saw stones fitted neatly together in a three-foot pile. The top of the pile was flat, and upon it sat a small, gray statue, about the size of a man's fist.

"Pagan idolatry," Williams whispered.

"Nomads," Wittenberg guessed. "Turkic, Mongoloid. Who knows?"

Kramer saw that the statue had been painstakingly carved from limestone - with a flint, he supposed - and polished in the cold water of the Nadym. He squinted. Because of the oval shape of the stone he found the representation momentarily confusing. Ultimately, though, after scrutinizing its features - the bulbous eyes, the veined wings etched into its back, the small mouth ringed with needle-like teeth - he recognized it as a hideously stylized image of a much smaller creature with which mankind had become so familiar.

"Crude, very crude," Williams shook his head.

Vermin.

Kramer turned from the stone fly to see Harbin standing behind him. "What?"

"I didn't say anything."

"Oh."

Time to eat.

With eyes closed, Kramer took off his cap and ran his fingers through oily black hair.

"You okay, Kramer?"

"You're a no-good, lousy, stinkin'. . . ."

Kramer opened his eyes to see Wittenberg standing before him.

Wittenberg turned to the others. "Reconnoiter."

"Happy to be of service," Williams quipped, heading into the trees.

Harbin hesitated, studying Kramer with a concerned, almost maternalistic look, and then followed Williams.

Wittenberg turned back to Kramer. "What's wrong?"

"I thought I heard something," Kramer said. "A voice."

Wittenberg looked down, sighing, and then back up into Kramer's eyes. "I know that you've been warned recently about your drinking." He paused. "You didn't get to where you are in the Agency for nothing, Kramer. I figure that you'll be able to handle your problem on your own, that it won't get in the way of the mission." He paused. "Will it?"

Kramer put his cap back on. "No."

"Good," Wittenberg said. "I need you to. . . ."

Wittenberg was cut off as Harbin came running into the clearing. "You've got to see this," he breathed heavily.

Kramer and Wittenberg quickly and quietly followed Harbin through the bush, staying close. The shadows gave way to increased light and space.

When they stopped suddenly, they found Williams standing in a neatly shaven buffer zone, several yards wide, that separated the field before them from the woods behind.

Kramer whistled softly, and Wittenberg muttered, "What the hell is this?"

Rows of plants, perfect in their symmetry, seemed to stretch out in three directions for at least a mile on the flat terrain. Though their outer skin was smooth and spineless, with a deep avocado hue, the plants resembled cacti, seven or eight feet tall, their branches springing like plumbing from a single thick stem, segmenting up and out at right angles, groping toward the sun.

"Where the hell did these things come from?" Harbin asked the others.

"Slavic farmers," Wittenberg offered.

"Were they supposed to have expanded this far east yet?" Williams wondered.

Kramer looked around. "We haven't seen any signs of people yet, except for that altar back there."

Williams knelt by the closest plant, studying the base. "Look," he said simply, quietly. The others approached, Harbin kneeling beside him.

The tree's stem emerged from the center of a perfect dark green cross of half-exposed brick-shaped roots. From the exact middle of each base root sprang three smaller rootlets that arched up and then down into the rich soil to drink in the earth's lifeblood.

Williams pulled his knife from its sheath and deliberately, analytically, placed the blade under the apex of one of the projecting rootlets, slicing upward. A clear thick sap seeped from the severed ends of the root. The plant emitted a thin, high-pitched hiss, like a boiling kettle whistling in the distance, and its color began to fade. Harbin jumped back and Williams rose slowly. The hissing stopped. The tree had become sandy in color. Williams approached it cautiously with his knife and stabbed at the upper branches with the blade's tip, chipping away flakes of dry bark.

"Desiccated," Harbin said.

"Day of the Triffids," Williams responded pensively.

"Fascinating," Wittenberg said. He raised his thirty-five millimeter, took several pictures of the field and then lowered the camera. "And not our problem."

"You don't think this is important?" Williams countered.

"What use is it to us?" Wittenberg responded coolly. "File it for future reference. This is something for the boys back at Science and Technology, anyway. C'mon, back to work."

The agents retraced their way back to the clearing and the altar, and Wittenberg then rushed them through the forest, attempting to make up for lost time.

It was after more than an hour of relentless trailblazing that Wittenberg again signaled the others to stop. He crouched down and slowly made his way toward the trunk of a pine tree that hung over an abrupt ridge. He began to snap off shots with his thirty-five millimeter.

The others joined him and peered into the small valley before them.

"Jesus," Harbin breathed.

Kramer pulled out his binoculars and scanned the arena below. "Oh my God!" he whispered.

***

At times it wondered if others of its kind had stayed behind as well.

It remembered how its makers had not seen the vermin that infested this world as any great threat. Before long, though, they had caught a glimpse of this planet's future and had decided to leave, fearing that the vermin might one day overrun them.

With only a little persuasion from its host it had run, hidden and waited until the ship had disappeared into the clouds.

It had to remain.

It had its duties to perform.