Eater

Part 6

Chain Border

"This must've happened during the night," Wittenberg mused, scanning the grounds through the telescopic lens of his camera. "No Hinds. They must have gone back for more supplies before the attack." He lowered his camera and nodded toward the camp. "That means no umbilicus linkup for the guys they left behind."

The others nodded in agreement. They knew there would be no umbilical link set up in one of sheds. The Communists would have made the super lucent, or SupLuc, jump with their troops, engineers and material in Mi-24s which were already hovering over the launching pad to a predetermined spot in the air, and then airlifted them to a nearby landing zone, just as they themselves had; the risk of having men and equipment materialize in the trunks of trees or in the side of a mountain was too great to attempt sending them into the past and setting them down on the ground. The umbilicus remained linked to the relay, which was integrated with the Hind; the helicopter itself was the transported object, everything else luggage. Likewise, the Soviets would not have disconnected the relay to reposition it and expected to link up again; they would have needed to transport another aircraft to create a new umbilicus. "So," Harbin said, "they weren't able to get back home or radio for backup, and the supply teams must not be due in yet, or this place would be crawling with fresh troops. But who did this?"

"Nomads," Wittenberg answered grimly.

"Doubtful," Williams said. "Where are their bodies? The Russians would've cut some of them down."

"Who, then?" Wittenberg challenged.

"The landlords."

"Who?"

"Whoever, or whatever, owns that plantation back there."

"Enough, asshole," Wittenberg said angrily. He pulled out his walkie-talkie. "Fisektsis," he spoke into it, "copy."

"I'll tell you right now," Williams said, "no man who was ever born on this earth planted those babies."

"Fisektsis," Wittenberg repeated, "copy, goddammit."

Kramer scanned the perimeter of the clearing through his binoculars.

Hungry.

He lowered the binoculars and shut his eyes tightly.

More vermin. Time to eat.

Wittenberg lowered his walkie-talkie and turned to Kramer.

"What happened to Fisektsis?" Kramer asked him, his eyes still closed.

"Unknown. Doesn't copy. We've got to get back to the LZ, get back to nineteen seventy-nine."

"If the umbilicus is still engaged," Harbin said.

Wittenberg looked at Harbin. "Of course."

"And if it isn't?"

"Then Lakehurst sends a rescue team."

"Meanwhile, between here and the Huey we've got triffid farmers to worry about," Williams said gloomily. He shook his head slowly, looking around. "This does not bode well, my friends. Satan is at work here."

Wittenberg ignored Williams. "Look, the Russian supply teams're probably due in any time now. If they show up and find us here they're going to assume we had something to do with this mess. That's the best-case scenario. Worst case is the natives catch us here doing the circle jerk." He lifted his camera demonstratively. "We got what we came for. We can't stay." He rose and began to head back, not waiting for the others to follow.

Kramer looked back as the crows squawked at each other over bits of flesh.

Bring me others. Time to eat.

No.

The flies buzzed relentlessly.

Obey me. Let you go.

Some other time.

Vinnie, Peg. Hate you.

Kramer stared ahead, motionless, breathless.

Bring me others. I change everything. Vinnie and Peg love you.

Whoever you are, you're full of shit. He touched Harbin's elbow.

You are vermin. Obey Me . . .

"Let's go, bro."

. . . or I eat you too.

Kramer, Harbin and Williams quickly caught up with Wittenberg, and the group hastened stealthily among the trees, scanning the forest for movement within the green shadows. They all had the feeling of being watched. At one point Harbin gasped at a sound coming from the bush to their left, stopped and aimed his rifle. The others did the same. After a moment they saw an ermine skitter away with a mouse in its jaws. They relaxed a little and continued south along the river.

When they reached the edge of the clearing, Wittenberg motioned the others to take cover. The clearing was quiet. The transport's cockpit was empty. The open pilot's door swung lazily in a slight, dry breeze.

When they reached the edge of the clearing, Wittenberg motioned the others to take cover. The clearing was quiet. The transport's cockpit was empty. The open pilot's door swung lazily in a slight, dry breeze.

Wittenberg drew his forty-five.

***

The Eater hovered over the scattered pieces of the vermin's carcass, tearing at the flesh, sucking it down in a machinelike frenzy. These new vermin were wrapped in strange fabric, unlike the furry outer skins of its previous prey. It ate that, too.

The host was wise, the Eater thought. It had found the vermin that called itself Kramer to be stubborn and infuriating. It had wanted that one first, but its host had convinced it to take the one that was waiting in the tiny ship. The others would then be trapped, the host had told it.

The Eater scraped bits of meat from the sclerites around its mouth and turned its thoughts to Kramer.

The Eater was still hungry.

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