Something stirs in the Puerto Rican jungle outside of Arecibo, something no one has ever seen, and it is Wade Carter’s job to make sure it stays that way.
After years of inactivity, the Arecibo dish is back in business with a new transmission and receiving suspension platform. Testing is underway for the grand re-opening, and it seems as though everything is going smoothly, but then interstellar creatures make landfall and the surrounding area is engulfed in chaos.
Now, Wade Carter and his black-ops team are jumping from twenty-thousand feet to face them. With his only information coming from a battered radio astronomer trapped at the front lines and a sequestered marine biologist working furiously to unravel the mystery of their extraterrestrial origins, Wade’s mission is to retake Arecibo before the world discovers we’re not alone.
Outside of Esperanza, Puerto Rico, 0315 Local Time
Doctor Valeria Martin woke to the crack of gunfire. The thump, thump, thump pounding of her heart was like the sound of her mother’s fist against the bedroom wall when she was a child. In her groggy state, Valeria expected a muffled “Get down!” from her mother, but this wasn’t her childhood home.
If it had been, Valeria and her brother would have rolled out of bed and crawled to the corners of the room to wait. Outside, rage-filled shouting or mournful wailings would echo nearby, sometimes more gunfire, but it was never over right away. Hugging her knees against her chest, listening to the approaching sirens, Valeria would lean toward her bed just a little to see the moon through the barred window. The moon was always quiet, and if she stared at it long enough, the chaos would fade.
Valeria rubbed at her eyes as she sat up in bed. It had been years since she had last thought of the caserios, the public housing projects in and around San Juan where she grew up, whose barred windows and doors were a form of protection, a way of keeping dangers out. Strange how she equated the sound of guns going off with her childhood home. These days, she had it a lot better. Her home was still just a piss-poor choza on the outskirts of Esperanza, which was itself merely a blip of civilization amidst the jungle along highway 625, the narrow road leading up to the Observatorio de Arecibo, but it was hers, and that meant something to Valeria.
She proudly owned the seventh rectangular stretch of land fronting the southern road ringing the decrepit development. Fresh paint coated its outer walls, a gleaming reprimand to the peeling and bubbling facades around her. Even her front yard yielded little ground in its longstanding battle with the persistent onslaught of encroaching weeds.
Valeria stood and shuffled for the window. Another crack pierced the calm. She froze.
In San Juan, gunfire meant the snap of pent-up rage, the bark of a cornered man, or the swift and vengeful report of justice. Victims were an endless wash of anonymity, occasioned upon by neighbors, or someone everybody knew. Did you hear? Someone shot Pedro, the taxi driver. No! But the bullets had never touched Valeria directly. She had been lucky in that regard, luckier to get away from it all.
Splitting the blinds on her bedroom window, Valeria looked for the moon, but her porch awnings blocked her view of the sky. All she saw was a dark emptiness. Nothing stirred in her front yard. Nothing stirred beyond. The road was empty. The lights across the street were out. Aside from the hum of her window-cooler’s motor, the silence held, but that didn’t mean it was over. Someone always shot back.
Or shot themselves.
And when it would eventually end, she wouldn’t go to help. Valeria wasn’t that kind of doctor. Her degree was in Physics, earned through eight grueling years at UPRRP—the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras—a degree she bore like callouses on her soul. When she thought of the things she had given up….
Lights came on in the house across the street, the one on the corner of Calle 6. The nosy mechanic lived there, the one who had five cars in his yard, none of them running. Her car ran, and there was no chance she would ever let him get his hands on it.
Valeria’s heart stopped.
Fear lanced through her spine from somewhere deep in the back of her mind. The younger her, the child who cowered in a corner of the kitchen or behind the bed whenever shots echoed through the streets, that girl berated her for standing at the window. What if you get shot, Valeria? Get down. Hide.
She remembered to breathe.
This isn’t San Juan. You’re not a girl anymore.
Saying it in her head didn’t give her courage, though. She thought to dial 9-1-1. She retreated to the bed and unplugged her phone. Its screen lit up. 3:16 AM. No bars. No cellular coverage this close to the Observatorio de Arecibo, not when it was in operation—and thank God it was back in operation. It’s destruction, and then the years of waiting had tattered her psyche. No bars was a wonderful sight.
Besides, la policía wouldn’t come anyway.
They never came.
She lifted a couple of slats in the blinds with her fingers again. Still dark. Still—crack, pap.
Her yard lit up. A green flash came from the east as though lightning had struck, followed by a thunderous boooom! Valeria stiffened. There was a chirp and the gentle blue glow on her television box winked out, then the soft trundling hum of her window-mounted cooler began to wane.
The few lights in everyone else’s houses went out, too.
The power was gone.
It took her no time to realize the bright light had come from the power substation along the highway. A bullet must have struck one of the coils, or a transformer. She wasn’t sure why power relays were always outdoors. The ones at the Observatorio de Arecibo were indoors, protected by thick concrete walls so something like this wouldn’t happen. Now it would be days before she had power again, maybe weeks.
Guilt murmured around the edges of her more worrisome thoughts, that what was in her refrigerator would spoil by morning—a gentle reprimand for being selfish instead of thinking about who had been hurt in the gunfire, or how she could help. She should help. She wanted to help, but helping took the kind of courage she didn’t possess, and went against a lifetime of fear and scolding.
Stay away from trouble. Words her mother used all the time. If you go out there, they’ll think you’re involved. Getting involved could get you killed, or thrown in jail, or worse. Valeria didn’t understand until she was older that there were worse things than death. You don’t know what’s out there. That much her mother knew for certain. The unknown stirred in the darkness, and going outside only invited its advances.
Dread crept with her to the back door where she double-checked the locks. The protective bubble of light from her phone’s login screen kept the shadows at bay, but not her fears. There was no reason to be scared. The only difference between now and ten minutes ago, when she probably wouldn’t have thought twice about walking down the dark hall to the bathroom, was the power being out…and the gunfire.
And the eerie quiet.
The light from her phone went out. Power saver mode. She didn’t need it, she told herself. She felt her way back to the living room, bumping into the chair at the kitchen table, turning it sideways as she muttered a curse.
The chain on the front door was in place, the bolt still locking out the world, but she jiggled both to satisfy some primal instinct trapped in her psyche. Tapping the power button on her phone brought up the login screen again, and she shined its dim light around her living room to remind her where things were. She side-stepped behind the couch, wedging herself between it and the window, and pulled back the curtains to let in the moonlight. Outside, the gray silhouette of the neighborhood rose from the earth to carve through a distant glow on the horizon. There was still power on the island. She breathed a sigh of relief over that. At least it wasn’t going to be another Hurricane Maria, or Hanna.
Across the street, the glow of a flashlight bobbed and swayed behind her neighbor’s blinds, outlining the window frames. She tapped the power button on her phone so it would shut off. She didn’t want the mechanic seeing her, and she wasn’t about to go over there and ask to borrow anything. Her phone had plenty of charge, and she could get some flashlights and lanterns at work in the morning. What she couldn’t get was electricity to run a fan.
She thought about asking her boss to let her stay in the on-site quarters usually reserved for visiting scientists, but she knew there was no way any were vacant. First light on the new transmitter and receiver platform had occurred three months ago, and the facility had been gearing up for resuming normal operations ever since. It was a relief to have her job back. Not because of the stability, but because when the old Gregorian dome had collapsed, it crushed her with all its mighty weight. She had watched in horror as the cables snapped and the giant platform fell into the hillside, gouging out a huge rift not only in the dish frame, but her soul as well.
Eight…years. It had taken her eight years to earn her degree. Being chosen to work at Arecibo had been the greatest moment in her life, and only ten months later it was gone.
She stared into the darkness, hoping this wasn’t a sign of another disaster. Movement in the street caught her eye. A hobbling shadow in front of the other shadows, a staggering figure, arms wrapped around a dark, thick bundle. The muffled cries of a baby accompanied by the frightened whimpering of a woman carved its way through the louvered glass slats in her front window.
Valeria’s chest tightened. “¡Espere!” Her cry caught in her throat. She rapped on the slats, which rattled loosely, threatening to fall, flashing images in her head of the slabs of glass shattering at her bare feet. Valeria pressed her hand against them gently and swallowed the lump in her throat. The noise must have spooked the woman, who glanced toward Valeria’s house as she limped away, the bundle tight in her arms.
Valeria fumbled with her phone, shaking it as she pressed the power button again and again. Each time she did, the phone seemed to do the opposite. It wouldn’t turn on, then it quickly turned itself off when she didn’t want it to. “¡Vete aquí!”
No, don’t run!
Valeria pushed against the back of her couch and spun around, sidestepping in a frantic race for the front door.
I’ll help you.
She wanted to help. She needed to help.
“¡Vete aquí!” Come here! I’ll help you.
A sharp pain drove into her middle toe. “¡Ay!” she hissed through gritted teeth, wanting to kick the front leg of the couch a second time for stubbing it in the first place. “¡Puñeta!” She gave the couch an angry shove and clambered around it for the door.
Fumbling with the chain and locks took forever even with her phone’s screen casting light, and she managed to fling open the front door without taking her other toes with it.
“Alto!” she shouted into the darkness. “¡Vete aquí!”
But the woman wasn’t there.
Valeria leapt down the three steps and bounded from one paver to the next through the ankle-high grass of her yard. “¡Vuelve!” Come back. She waved her phone and stopped in the middle of the road, hoping the woman would see it, but the night had swallowed her whole. She stared intently into the dark, at the front yards with their spectral forms hunched in odd shapes in front of stoic buildings walling everything in.
They were just shrubs. Plants. Trees.
A groan crept up behind her. She turned, heart racing, her breath catching in her throat. Her mother’s warning echoed in her head. Don’t go outside. She expected to find someone sprawled on the ground or against the side of her car, a victim of the gunfire, blood oozing from wounds. Instead, there were two men standing in the shadows past the dim ring of light cast by her phone, each swaying, one groaning, the other mumbling unintelligibly.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “¿Estás bien?” She took a step closer to them, raising her phone.
Its light went out.
Stupid power saver!
In the dark, the nearest man swayed and took a rigid, lolling step toward her. The other man, still mumbling, bumped into the back of Valeria’s car and toppled into it.
“Hey,” she said, standing on her toes to look over the roof at him. She wasn’t as concerned for him as she was the car. “Hey, bajate de mi—”
The mumbling man continued his graceless fall, rolling over the fender and into the gutter.
“¡Oye!” She side-stepped around the hood of her car, her eyes wide in disbelief. “Levántate, idiota.” Get up.
She edged closer to the fallen man, still unsure what was going on. Was he drunk? Were they both drunk? The other man wobbled to turn, corkscrewing in place, his eyes wide, his mouth agape.
“Deja mi coche,” she said. Get away from my car.
Although her tone remained strong, her conviction was faltering. She pressed the power button on her phone again and turned it toward her car. She squinted into the darkness, unsure what she thought she saw. Her heart throbbed in her chest, her breath catching in her throat. Past the two men and her car, Valeria saw hazy, shadowy figures shambling in the street.
She looked at the two men again. There was definitely something wrong with them, and all her childhood fears massed in her chest as though her insides were wadding up like crumpled paper.
“Que se joda este....” she breathed, stepping back toward her house cautiously. Screw this.
The man in the gutter leveled his chilling gaze on her. She sensed malice, like a wild and hungry dog was bound inside him.
You don’t know what’s out there, her mother scolded across ages-old memories. Stay inside.
The light of her phone winked out again. It was like a gun going off at the start of a race. The shadowy figures beyond her car stumbled forward on unsteady legs, lurching with disjointed effort, dragging or throwing limbs wildly in an uncoordinated charge.
Valeria turned and ran through her yard, wading through the wet grass that caught between her toes. She jumped onto the landing and shoved the door open, slamming it shut behind her. It hammered into place and she turned the bolt. Noise radiated from outside and in. Her own whimpering seemed as frightening as the unintelligible moaning closing in on her front door. She had never been this terrified in her life. Whatever was out there, those men and women, they weren’t alright.
Unable to find the chain hole in the dark, she pressed the button on her phone with a shaky hand. The screen lit up again. Her hands trembled as she struggled to get the end of the chain into the hole.
The door cracked as though a car had hit it. She cried out, startled, her heart hitting the insides of her chest with the same kind of force. The thumping rose up the wall and it sounded as though someone were climbing onto the roof. She took a step back. Her eyes darted from every corner of her room to every shelf for something she could use to defend herself. A weapon. Anything. She didn’t own a gun. She knew how to use them, but refused to have one herself.
Thump! The chain rattled at whatever hit the door. She imagined a big, angry fist pummeling it. Thump. Thump. With each hit she stepped back further. Thump.
“¡Vete!” she cried. Go away.
Whump. Something else pounded on the door, hard, like someone flinging themself onto it. A deep moan from outside reverberated through with an almost mocking, drawn out parroting of her plea. “Veeee-teee.” Now the thumping came in stuttered pairs, thump-thump, thump-thump, like a beating heart.
A pane of the louvred glass in her front window shattered as a hand drove through.
Valeria screamed, a convulsive jolt of fright running up and down her whole body.
The hand clutched at the air several times before finding an end of curtain. Its fingers grasped the fabric like a vice and hauled it back out, shattering more louvres and ripping the curtain rods from the wall as it gobbled up everything through the widening hole.
She screamed again, backing against the opposite wall.
Who were these people, and why were they trying to get into her house? That was the thought foremost in her mind, not her mother’s chiding, or ghostly voice telling her to run.
Thump-thump. The pounding hands didn’t relent.
Another louvre shattered and a head lurched through the gap. A man, she realized as he turned his head toward her phone’s light. “Veeee-teee,” he groaned slowly, pressing his body forward, his hands on the glass at his chest. Crack, crack, snap, crack, the remaining panes split like toothpicks under his weight. He fell forward, spilling into her house, the back of the couch serving only to prop his head up rather than let him fall behind it.
Valeria shrieked, and this time she turned to run. Sprinting through the archway into the kitchen, she didn’t see her dinner table chair sticking out. Shouting another curse, she tumbled over it onto the floor. Pain struck her on two sides, shooting up from her shins and burning across her palms as she slapped the ground. Her phone clattered across the linoleum and slammed into the wall beside the door, its light blinking out.
“No,” she gasped and crawled forward, ignoring the throbbing pain growing across her shins.
For the love of God, please, she whimpered in her mind, scooping up the phone, feeling for its power button. It didn’t turn on.
“No,” she gasped, clutching it to her chest as she rose. “No, no.”
The thrashing in her living room and the thump-thump against the door hadn’t waned. In the nearly pitch black she fumbled to find the backdoor latch and turned the bolt as soon as she did. Only as she flung open the door did it occur to her there may be others waiting for her out back.
Nothing lurched toward her or reached in at her or moaned at her appearance. Without the light of her phone, she leapt down the three steps to the ground, hitting with an audible oomph. The buzzing of insects had died out hours ago, and the approach of dawn was still hours away, so aside from her breathing and the clubbing against her door echoing through her house, it was quiet in her yard.
Crack! Another gunshot went off, this time to the north, somewhere in the middle of the neighborhood.
She wanted to go for her car, but it was out front, and she didn’t have her keys.
Just run, she told herself.
But where? Someone else’s house?
No! Run. It was her mother’s voice, compelling her. Protecting her.
Her feet obeyed. Her back yard opened onto a long, wide field where they grew bell peppers. She ran straight into it. The plants weren’t tall enough to hide in, but if she kept going far enough, she could make her way to the road. Maybe find someone to help.
Anything but stay here.
God, just don’t let them follow me.