The agents watched as, several yards beyond the forest's edge, conifers were pushed aside or uprooted by a hulking black shape.
"Oh, shit," Harbin moaned.
Kramer opened fire. Harbin and Williams followed suit. The hot air rang with gunfire as they sprayed the trees with ordinance.
Kramer depleted his magazine, ejected it and reached for another.
Time to eat.
Kramer reloaded, was returning the M-16's stock to his shoulder and stopped suddenly. Williams and Harbin ceased fire.
The black shape emerged from the tree line, stopping at the edge of the clearing.
Kramer envisioned the limestone idol at the stone altar. He had been wrong in seeing it as wildly exaggerated; the sculpture had been exact in its representation. He wondered if the tribesman who had created it had worshipped this demon with the greatest reverence, only to become a meal.
Two hairy forearms, which were easily three times as long as the four stunted legs behind, lifted the front segment of the creature's body fifteen feet above the grass. Two diminutive, translucent wings, obviously unable to ever lift the bulk below them, flipped nervously on its back. The wings and body were peppered with bullet holes. Dark red fluid ran thickly from the wounds.
"Our Father," Kramer heard Williams whisper to himself, "Who art in Heaven. . . ."
The creature's huge head rocked on its neck from side to side as it regarded the men. The facets of its eyes shone green in the setting sun. When its head stopped swaying Kramer knew it was looking directly at him. He trembled uncontrollably.
Go away, Kramer thought. "That's right," he said out loud.
Eaters must protect crops. Much vermin on this world, kill crops. We must eat vermin.
God, forgive me.
No God here. No forgiveness. Just host here. . .
"This is a natural world we live in. Satan rules. . . ."
Just host here. . .and Eater.
Time to eat. No forgiveness for you, vermin. Not from God. Not from Vinnie.
"LIAR!" Kramer cried. He aimed his M-16 and fired. Harbin and Williams did the same.
The rain of bullets pierced the beast's body. It roared in anger and pain and lurched toward them.
Kramer screamed over the gunfire. He wished that they could get into the helicopter, press the button and whisk themselves back to Lakehurst. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach. His skin felt clammy. His legs weakened and he fell to his knees, still firing. From the ground he found himself experiencing the battle like a stoned kid watching a slow-motion film. He was cold. His throat was dry. He knew it was crazy, but what he wanted now more than anything else in the world was a drink.
The Eater closed in as the three men fired away.
Kramer looked at the others. Williams stood his ground, his face devoid of emotion. Wittenberg lay unconscious. Harbin pulled out a new magazine, dropped it, and went to his knees to retrieve it.
The Eater, cold and merciless, was upon them.
The Eater, and a shadow cast from above.
Robert Kramer looked up and, smiling, gazed upon the face of salvation, of forgiveness.
The beast raised its head and saw the giant hovering above, felt the hot breath of the giant's indignation, and roared in defiance.
The giant responded by spitting fire and depleted uranium.
The creature screeched out hideously, caught in a stream of death from which it could not escape.
Its howls elated Kramer. "Time to eat, motherfucker!" he cried.
Torn and dying, it turned its head at Kramer's taunting, and with unrelenting savagery took several last raging steps toward him before succumbing in bloody pieces.
Seeing what it had done, the giant stopped its assault and settled to earth near the agents.
Kramer began to shiver. He was still smiling as he watched the door of the CH-53 open and four men carrying M-16s scamper out.
The rescue team ran first to Williams, Harbin and Wittenberg. One of the men knelt by Wittenberg, shook his head. He called to his comrades to bring a stretcher, turned and came over to Kramer. "Too late for him," he told Kramer, nodding toward Wittenberg's body.
It did not sink in. Kramer still felt surreal. He studied the man standing before him, looked into his face. He was young, maybe twenty-two. There was a familiarity in his facial features, in his eyes. Dark eyes, pinched close together. Serious eyes, strictly business.
When Kramer finally spoke, he said, "How's your mom, Vinnie?"
The young man's serious visage held up. "Mom's dead, Dad."
Kramer shivered again. "I'm sorry."
The young man looked surprised for a moment and then, with a look of comprehension in his eyes, said, "No, Dad. It was cancer."
Kramer felt grief churning somewhere within his numbness. It would surface later. "What year is it back home?"
"Who cut the link?"
"It was an earthquake. A freak, nothing major, but it knocked the shit out of the equipment."
"What took you guys so long to get here?"
"They tried a couple of times and couldn't get templock." Vinnie shrugged. "They gave up on you, Dad. I signed up four months ago and bugged the hell out of the deputy director until he let us take one more shot at it."
"It was your idea?"
"After what I did to you? To your mom?"
Vinnie's eyes moistened, but he held his stepfather's gaze steadily. "For a long time, I didn't miss your fat ass, but after a while . . . " He paused, as if something had caught in his throat. "I guess I still loved you, Dad. I guess I always did. So did Mom."
"I'm sorry, Vinnie."
A tear rolled down Vinnie's cheek. "I know. Me too."
Two men appeared with a stretcher, lifted Wittenberg's body onto it and carried it to the gunship.
Vinnie straightened his back, cleared his throat and said, "We've got to go, Dad. We spotted two Hinds a few miles north of here. I don't think they spotted us, though. It's better if they never know we were here. We'll get you guys into the gunship and airlift the Huey out of here."
Kramer pulled Wittenberg's camera from his neck and handed it to Vinnie. "Confirmation. Twelve years too late, I guess."
Vinnie cradled the camera. "Nah. DD I'll still want it."
He helped his stepfather up, and, as they walked toward the gunship, Williams and Harbin joined them.
Vinnie turned his gaze toward the creature's carcass. "What the hell was that thing, Dad?"
"Pest control, kid."
Williams nodded. "Right. Not the farmers. Something else."
Vinnie turned to Williams and then again to his stepfather. "Huh?"
"Nothing, kid," Kramer told him. "We don't know."
"Well, we got it on tape. HQ can look at it when we get back." Vinnie paused. "The historical staff told us that the preliminary reports from the Russian recon crews said they saw a UFO take off just after they got here. Probably has something to do with it."
"Your triffid farmers must've split," Harbin told Williams. "I guess primitives with spears were one thing, but primitives in armed aircraft just weren't worth the trouble."
Williams looked at Kramer, nodding at the carcass. "I think our friend must have been working with someone else. Do you feel it? I do. He's still out there, waiting for us to lose it and take a fall."
Kramer looked around.
Satan rules here.
"Your wife took a real beating."
"Yeah," Kramer finally said, "he's still out there." He looked at Williams and tapped himself on the chest. "And in here."
"Mmn," Williams nodded.
It was obvious that Vinnie did not understand. He looked at the creature. "Any more where he came from?"
Kramer looked over to where the beast lay. Its body was quickly decomposing.
Flies swarmed all around it.
Much vermin on this world. We must eat vermin.
"Could be, kid. I just don't know."