“You know what’s bloody awful?” Jaspers remarked as we carefully drove the lead truck along the ridge, just high enough so that we could check over it and see down the hill on the other side.
“Don’t say it,” I groaned.
He did it anyway. “No bloody air support. Are we really going to keep on rolling forward this slowly, stopping so we can creep up on each hill like we’re in one of those stupid combat exercises?”
I sighed, knowing that I was just making things worse by acknowledging him, but unable to put up with more of his complaining. “So what would you have us do?” I snapped, turning to glare at him. “Just floor it until we find him, and then deal with being caught off guard when we land in a potentially deadly combat situation?”
“Better than this, at least,” he grumbled, glaring out at the desert scrub ahead of us. “That’s all I have to say.”
I fought the urge to snarl something else, something I’d regret. Of course, this wasn’t all that he had to say. Give him another five minutes, and he’d have another complaint. At least, in adding ridiculous weapons to the trucks, he hadn’t managed to also destroy the air conditioning system, or this would truly be unbearable.
The trail, at least, hadn’t been hard to find. Returning back to the mostly destroyed Blue Diamond facility, we immediately discovered that the monster, which may or may not have been Nathaniel Hobbson, hadn’t made any particular effort to cover its tracks. It left a long trail in the sand and dirt behind it as it stumped away, a flattened impression as if it was half-dragging its body over the ground.
“Doesn’t look like any tracks I know,” Corinne remarked, straightening up from where she’d been kneeling to examine them. A couple men coughed as they shifted their eyes away from where her pants had been stretched tightly across her rear. “And there’s nothing else out here of this size.”
“Then let’s see how far it managed to go,” I said, returning back to the trucks. “We don’t know whether it just kept going since it broke out, or if it’s stopped somewhere to lie in waiting. So we’re going to proceed with caution.”
That had been four hours ago. We’d kept on moving, making progress, although Jaspers hadn’t stopped complaining since the first hour.
“Really, maybe it can hear us from bloody miles away, think of that?” he said now, breaking his silence after just a couple of minutes. “It’s waiting for us, knowing exactly where we bloody are, so all this sneaking is just making us more worn out before we encounter the bloody thing.”
I fought against the urge to grind my teeth together. “Maybe we should go pick up another truck, just for you,” I suggested tersely. “You can rush ahead and be our scout, radio back to let the rest of us know when you’ve found it.”
“Nah, I can’t do that.”
Jaspers gestured up at the bolts sticking through the roof. “This one has all the weapons on it.”
I sighed, telling myself to focus on breathing. Just get through this, get to the point where combat starts. I never wanted to state that I was actually looking forward to combat, but at least it would shift Jaspers’ attention to something else, which would be a relief. I wouldn’t pick anyone else to watch my back in a firefight, but he wouldn’t be my top choice for a cabin mate on a long cruise, or any other peacetime situation.
“Captain,” crackled the radio, and Jaspers’ mouth instantly snapped shut as we both sat up.
“Here,” I said, holding down the button on the mike and then listening closely.
After a second, Henry spoke up again – he and Corinne were currently taking their turn as the lead truck. “We’ve got something up ahead,” he said. He paused, but didn’t lift his finger off the mike’s button. I could hear him breathing. “Think this might be our target, Captain. But…”
“Well, I didn’t get the closest look at this thing as it left Blue Diamond,” Henry said, and I got the sense that he was choosing his words carefully. “But this thing up ahead looks… different.”
No answer for a minute. “Think you need to come check it out for yourself, Captain,” Henry finally said.
I exchanged a glance with Jaspers. The earlier annoyance was gone, replaced by that sharpening of the senses that I knew came with a dump of adrenaline into my veins. “Any sign of it watching for our approach?”
“Nah, it seems to be staying pretty still. It hasn’t moved since Corinne and I started watching.”
I knew that Henry and Corinne’s truck was just over the next ridge. I gave our truck a little more gas, edging it over the crest until we spotted theirs up ahead. I pulled over and put it in park. Wordlessly, Jaspers passed me a pair of binoculars as I pulled the parking brake.
Murmuring a quick prayer of thanks that Sara was, at least, in Sergei and Feng’s truck, currently the one at the back of our little convoy, I crept up towards the top of the ridge. The ground beneath my feet was sandy and loose, but small shrubs and long grass grew on its dry surface, and they crackled beneath my boots.
At the top of the ridge, I didn’t have to look twice to identify the creature that Henry and Corinne had found. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, focusing them in on the huge shape.
When it left the Blue Diamond facility, I remembered the monster looking vaguely humanoid in shape; it had two legs, and what looked in the haze like arms. It seemed to move in a bipedal manner, although it dragged something, maybe a tail, behind it.
This shape ahead of us, however, didn’t look human in the slightest. If anything, it looked like…
“A mushroom, boss,” Henry spoke up quietly from beside me. I’d seen him climbing out of the passenger side of his truck, sidling over to me. “That’s what it reminds me of, if I had to pick a shape. One of the puffballs that we used to find in the old oak forests in France, the ones that had been around for centuries.”
I saw what he meant. The thing ahead of us sat in the valley between two hills, swollen and mottled with a brownish-red pattern that faded to white in some areas. It was roughly dome-shaped, although slightly flattened, and the binoculars revealed a cracked surface, as if it had once been full but had since deflated and begun to rot from the inside out. It was definitely alive, however; as I watched, I could see it pulsing, the white cracks in its outer shell seeming to swell and then shrink in a rhythmic motion.
“Unless Texas is known for some monster mushrooms, I think we’ve found our target, boss,” Henry murmured.
I nodded. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t natural – and I didn’t think, unfortunately, that we stood any chance of conversing or negotiating with it. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t at all human. Not any longer.
“Can we hit it?” I asked.
Henry looked around. “Pretty easily, unless it’s got some sort of defenses we can’t see. Roll some explosives down, and it should be easy to nail with a couple of the Stingers that Jaspers brought.”
“Don’t tell him that, or he’ll get such a swelled head,” I muttered, and Henry quickly squashed a grin. “Let’s get set up. If this thing does anything, I want us ready to neutralize it.”
“Yes, sir.” Henry saluted and moved away, as I stood there, watching it through the binoculars.
It did look like a mushroom. And I didn’t like that one bit.
Mushrooms made spores.
To be continued…