They drift through space in their own orbit unrelated to the orbits of the planets, the stars, or the galaxies. Their colonies stretch for thousands of light years, and have no shape; they may be elongated, or they may be circular. They may even be cubed; or their shape may be a combination of shapes like a dry but wadded paper towel.
They can be detected, but only by using the most sophisticated of instruments, and then only by the most advanced space faring societies. Otherwise, they are invisible and undetectable.
They can be killed. Sometimes they drift into the path of a star and they burn. Sometimes they drift in the void for too many eons and they dissolve. Sometimes they drift into the path of a spear of gamma rays from an exploding star and they are sterilized. If they are detected by a space faring society that understands what they are and has the capability to do so, they are usually sterilized.
They cannot procreate on their own. They must have a host. A star with an unfortunate oxygen and water bearing planet must spin its way into their web. Even when they are fortunate to infect such a planet, it takes years for them to coalesce in the atmosphere. While they coalesce, they must disguise themselves as a pollutant. But once they have coalesced they can become semi solid in a very short time; as short a time as twenty four hours.
"Something's wrong," Mike said.
"No, shit, dude," John answered.
The two teenagers were sitting on a ledge just inside a large depression carved into the side of a granite rock that was part of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range. It would have been called a cave, but it was open to the air except for a large alcove room tucked back on the east side. The ledge extended for several feet out from under the rock. The late May sun was trying to cast its rays inside the depression, but the boys were far enough back so that the heat could only reached their feet.
“Do you think they're coming back?” Mike asked.
“Why wouldn’t they?” his friend answered.
Before them was a long gentle, green grassy slope that slanted down to a small river which entered the valley from the east. The swift cold river flowed west through the valley until it vanished into the tall green fir trees where it continued many miles until it fell down into the Southern California central valley. It was a large stream really, but the water was rushing too quickly to wade through, and it was much too wide to jump.
“Maybe their jeep crashed,” Mike hazarded a guess.
“Maybe Jackie is right?” John answered. “Maybe, they can’t get back.”
On this side of the river, stood the five cabins of the boys’ camping area plus the corrugated metal roof dining hall, and the Administrator’s A-frame cabin. A narrow wooden bridge spanned the river. On the other side of the river were the five cabins of the girls’ camp, the parking lot with the large yellow bus, and the beginning of the gravel road which led southeast over a small hill and then southward through the mountains until it reached a paved road leading southwest towards Bakersfield.
“Maybe their jeep fell into a canyon. Maybe they’re all dead,” suggested Mike.
John frowned. “I wish you would quit saying stuff like that, dude,” he groused. “When they come back, we’re going to have to listen to those lectures. And they’re going to force us to have fun. Can’t you just kick back and enjoy the day? Hell, check out the view from here, Mike. Look, Desi is coming from the showers. Wow!”
Sometimes, the boys felt like they were in a long oblong bowl running east to west with the camp on the east side. On the west side was a long meadow through which the river rushed. Most of the meadow was on the girls’ side of the river. Violets, marigolds and chickweed dotted the meadow. All around the bowl, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada stood watch. The bare peaks of the chiseled mountains were covered with pristine white snow. Lower down, the slopes were forested by groves of southern foxtail pine. Closer to the camp grew stands of bristle cones and white bark.
"When do you think they're coming back?" Mike asked.
"I don’t know," muttered John, as the well proportioned girl that he was watching disappeared into her cabin.
The trouble had started a week ago. The first indication that something was wrong came when the ancient post office jeep had not made its daily delivery of mail that the boys and girls usually received from their anxious parents. That same morning the camp radio and their cell phones seemed to be having a problem. For some reason, they would not connect with the world outside of the valley.
After a few more days of the same, the Camp Administrator had decided to travel the thirty miles to the nearest post office, pick up a backup radio, and collect the late mail. Three of the four counselors had elected to go with her, and take a well deserved break from their rambunctious charges. They had expected the trip there and back to take a little more than two hours due to the narrow winding road. They had left the last counselor, twenty year old Jackie, in charge of the forty eight boys and girls. That had been six days ago. There had been no sign of the adults since then, and again today the mail jeep had not arrived.
The first night after the Administrator and the other counselors had not returned, Jackie had insisted that they were late, and that everyone should go to bed as usual. The next evening, Jackie had suggested that the road was probably blocked by a landslide, and that the adults would be back as soon as the road was cleared. Since then, they had waited.
"Something's wrong," said Mike again.
"Yeah, but what?"
Mike was thirteen and John was almost sixteen. Mike was fair skinned, sandy haired and a little short for his age. John was a brown Latino with black hair, and he was a foot taller. The two typical California boys had become fast friends the first day of camp in spite of their age difference.
"Eric knows how to work the radio phone. We should ask him to try to call someone," Mike suggested.
"Yeah, but the radio phone is in the Admin's cabin," argued John. "And her cabin is locked."
Mike looked at John. "It's been a week," he replied. "Something's wrong, John. And Jackie probably won't care if we go into the Admin’s cabin."
John looked depressed at that statement. For the first three days, Jackie had frantically tried to keep their minds off the missing adults. Then she had gotten real quiet, and she had stopped trying so hard to pretend that nothing was amiss. Today, she had refused to get out of her bed for a long time, and then after she arose, she had refused to leave the counselor's cabin.
"Jackie won't care," Mike repeated. "Let's go talk to Eric."
They found Eric in the dining hall. The cinder block dining hall was one quarter kitchen, and three quarters dining area. The kitchen appliances consisted of a large propane refrigerator, an oven, a stove, and two large freezers. The dining area contained several long white plastic tables and many white plastic chairs.
Eric was sitting on one of the plastic chairs engrossed in a paperback book with his feet up on a cardboard box. He was rocking back and forth on the hind legs of his chair, which was threatening to topple over. Eric was a small African-American boy with short curly hair about Mike's age. Many of the other campers considered Eric to be a nerd.
Cardboard boxes were stacked along the windowless north wall of the dining area. The boxes contained packets of condoms, diaphragms and birth control pills. These items were there due to the purpose of the camp.
The camp was a creation of a religious organization called Abstinence and Protection. AAP, as it was known, had created the camp as a place to promote the value of abstaining from sex, but also to familiarize middle school and high school boys and girls with birth control methods. The organization had planned to hold several three week camps this year. The current group of boys and girls were the first campers. They were supposed to take some of the condoms and a few of the diaphragms with them when they left. The idea was that they would share what they had learned with their friends.
The Camp Administrator was a doctor. Those girls who were at least sixteen years old were supposed to have been offered physical examinations and birth control pills with the consent of their parents. But the real emphasis of the camp was on abstinence, not just for moral reasons, but because the creators of AAP believed that the emotional repercussions of sexual intercourse were too difficult for young teenagers to contend with in the present societal environment.
As Mike and John came into the dining hall, Eric put the old dog eared book aside and tried his cell phone again, only to receive a no-service message from his phone.
“What are you reading, nerdo?” John asked.
“’Tunnel in the Sky’,” was Eric’s choppy answer. He was not particularly fond of John.
“Scifi?” John asked.
“Yeah. Some real old stuff. Like from Verne and Wells’ time.”
"You can work the radio phone, huh Eric?" Mike asked.
"Yeah, if it wasn't locked in the Admin's," answered Eric, who added under his breath, 'Doofus.'
Mike looked at John who looked back at Mike. Then John sucked in a breath and looked at Eric.
"Let's go," he said.
Eric looked at him blankly. "Where to?" he asked, puzzled by the command.
"Come on," growled John, giving Eric that special ‘bigger boy’ look.
Like all smaller boys, Eric knew that look. He shrugged, stood, and sullenly followed Mike and John. They led the way to the Administrator’s A-frame cabin. For a minute, Mike and John studied the sturdy lock on the structure.
"Think you could bust it open with your shoulder?" Mike asked.
"I think I could bust my shoulder," John answered, frowning at Mike. Eric rolled his eyes and waited patiently.
"We could break a window," Mike suggested.
"Hey!" Eric exclaimed. The other boys looked at him.
"Got a better idea?" John asked.
Eric glanced from John to Mike. He ducked his head and scuffed a toe.
"There's a key under the mat," he muttered.
John gave Eric a menacing look, and then he lifted the mat and retrieved the key. He opened the door, and Mike and John went inside. After a moment Eric followed, after looking around anxiously to see if anyone was watching them.
The A-frame cabin consisted of the living area below a large loft. There was a steep staircase at the back of the cabin leading to the loft. The cabin had a double bed, and it had a sink which was fed by a small water line that was connected to the main water line serving the dining hall.
The main water line, made of PVC pipe, ran down from the river. It had a large washable inline filter just before the junction of the two lines. Gravity provided the pressure for the kitchen sinks, bathrooms, and the showers in the dining hall building. A solar pump provided additional pressure to the A-frame's sink.
There was no bathroom in the cabin. The Administrator used a portable toilet just like the campers, except that she used one which was reserved just for her and the female counselors.
The other furniture in the cabin consisted of a small sofa, two chairs, and a large desk. A large red tool chest sat against the wall at the back of the cabin. On the desk was the radio phone. It had circuitry for several frequencies.
John handed the radio phone to Eric. Eric tried all the frequencies. Although there were some suspicious noises, they could not make out anything that sounded like a real voice. On each frequency, Eric asked if someone could hear him. He tried repeatedly. After a half hour, he gave up.
"Maybe it's broken," John said. Eric looked at him.
"I don't think so," he replied.
"So why can't we hear anybody?" Mike asked.
Eric took a deep breath, and then he looked at Mike. His eyes had worry in them. "Maybe...maybe there isn't anyone to hear?" He asked the question with a look which suggested that he would be happy to hear them make fun of that idea.
All week, Mike had avoided thinking this very thought. Get up, play, do your chores, eat, play some more, and then go to bed. He had followed the camp routine. The adults would be back. His parents were at home. He had avoided considering any other scenario. But now, he had to face a terrifying possibility.
"There's something very wrong," he said, his voice shaking.
"Yeah," agreed John glumly.
"Do you think our parents are all right?" whispered Eric, his stomach fluttering.
Mike really wished that Eric had not asked that.
"We've got to do something," Mike said.
"Let's go talk to Jackie,” John suggested.
"All right," Mike replied, but privately he didn't think that Jackie knew what to do any more than they did.
They left the Admin's cabin, walked past the dining hall, and tromped over the wooden bridge to the girls’ side of the camp. Eric followed along silently. Mike and John ignored him.
Of the cabins on each side of the river, one on each side was reserved for the counselors. Two counselors shared each cabin. The counselors slept in comfortable double beds, instead of the bunk beds used by the teenagers.
The three boys found Jackie lying in her bed, on top of her covers, staring at the canvas ceiling. Although the campers and counselors had brought sleeping bags, all the beds were covered by a mattress cover, two sheets and two heavy woolen green blankets. Some of the campers preferred to sleep in their sleeping bags. Others used the blankets, so they wouldn't have to roll up their bags at the end of the three week camp.
"Hey, Jackie," John greeted her.
The young woman looked over at him listlessly. Jackie was a young woman with blond hair and a slim build. She was usually quite attractive, but her face and eyes seemed red and swollen now, and she was emitting a faintly unpleasant odor.
"Hey, yourself," she replied as she glanced at them, and then her eyes turned towards the canvas ceiling again. The boys looked at each other.
"Um...Jackie, when do you think the Admin will be back?" John asked.
"She'll be back when she's back," Jackie answered in a dull voice. She had heard this question often in the week since the other adults had disappeared. She closed her eyes. John looked at Mike helplessly.
Mike took a breath and then spoke firmly. "Jackie, we think that something is wrong. Something is really, really wrong, Jackie."
"There's nothing wrong. Now go away," Jackie ordered.
"But, Jackie, Eric tried to get someone on the radio phone. There's no one there!" Mike's voice was rising with a hint of panic, as he tried to get through to the young woman.
"You stay out of the Admin's place!" snapped Jackie. "Now go away." She turned her head towards the wall.
The boys look at one another.
"So what's the lecture about tonight?" John asked.
"Just leave me alone," she demanded, as she turned and pulled a blanket over her head.
The muffled reply sounded almost like a sob.
Defeated, the boys left her cabin. Outside, several girls were standing around waiting. They followed the boys until they were far enough away that Jackie could not hear them talk.
"She's been like that all day," said a black eyed girl named Makayla. "She just keeps saying that the Admin and the other counselors will be back soon. I'm really getting scared.”
"Me, too," a girl named Kathy said, with a quiver in her voice.
"Do you think she's right?" a third girl asked.
The boys looked at one another.
"Not really," Mike admitted.
"When do you think our parents will come looking for us?" Makayla asked.
"I don't know," Mike answered. Kathy choked back a sob.
There was nothing more to say. The boys crossed the bridge to their side of the river. Eric went back to the dining hall, while Mike and John walked west along the river. Trying to distract themselves, they discussed which of the three girls that they had just left, they liked best. They avoided the subject of the missing adults.
At one point, they sat down and watched some girls who were practicing archery on the other side of the river. The girls were using hay bales. The boys were supposed to practice as a group also, but there were no male counselors to lead them. These girls had obviously decided to practice on their own. Another girl was running around the huge crude track that had been plowed around the meadow and flattened by truck tires.
"Who's the girl running?" Mike asked.
"I'm not sure what her name is," John answered.
"Yeah, but she's no Desi."
"How old is she?" Mike asked hopefully.
"I think she's fifteen," John replied.
Mike grimaced. He had discovered that fifteen year old girls generally showed very little interest in thirteen year old boys. As it grew dark, the boys walked back up the river to their cabins.
Since there were no adults around, the boys were starting to stay up later and later at night. That night, after the other boys had retired to their bunks, Mike went back to the Admin's cabin and retrieved the key. He let himself into the cabin, and he checked the radio phone again, only to find that they had neglected to turn it off. The battery was dead.
Disgusted, he laid it back on the desk. Turning around, he saw the bed. He took a step and stood by the bed for a minute. It looked comfortable. Slowly, almost cautiously, he lay down on top of the covers. He could see out the high window on the front of the cabin. The stars were bright, and he watched them for a time.
After a while, he got up and removed his shoes, socks, pants, and flannel shirt. Wearing only his t-shirt and briefs, he got back into the bed and crawled under the covers. He felt like he was doing something that he shouldn't, but in a strange way he felt like he was at least doing something other than just waiting for something to happen. He quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, Mike awoke late. He put on his clothes, and he went outside. He locked the door, but as he was about to place the key under the mat he hesitated. After a moment, he put the key in his pocket.
Mike went to the dining hall looking for John. The kids in the dining hall were installing a new box of milk in the milk dispenser. AAP had purchased large bags of dry cereal, cases of canned food and a lot of boxed milk that they usually mixed with powdered milk, and they offered the most common canned vegetables and fruits. Mike found John wolfing down his second bowl of cereal. A boy he didn't know well, but whose name he knew was Jacob, sat on the other side of the table.
Mike looked at John for a moment, and then he asked, "What are we going to do when our food runs out?"
John paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth. He looked unpleasantly surprised at Mike’s question. He stared at Mike, and then he slowly finished eating the spoonful.
Carefully, he sat his spoon down, and then he asked, "All right, dude, I give. What will we do when the food runs out?"
"Whatever we do, we better think of it now. How will we keep warm this winter?"
John looked even unhappier at that question. "Maybe some other adults will show up to help us. Not the Admin and the counselors, but some other adults."
"What if the adults who show up don't help us? What if they just take our food? What if they're the kind of adults who hurt kids?"
John scowled. "Man, you are really pulling me down this morning. Let me finish eating before we discuss the end of the world, okay?"
Mike went outside and walked down to the river. He walked downstream until he was opposite the bales of hay that were used for archery practice. He stared thoughtfully at the bales for some time, and then he went back to the dining hall. He walked around the building until he came to the storage room on the east end, and then he entered the room.
In the storage room, mounted on a rack of two by fours, was the overhead tank for the hot water that was produced by the solar panels covering the roof of the dining hall. Under the rack were several barrels holding empty aluminum cans that had contained fruit juice and diet soda. The only soda that was served to the children was diet soda. The boys seldom drank it, but some of the girls did. The boys and most of the girls preferred the cans of sweetened fruit juice.
Mike took several empty cans from a bin, and then he went back to the Admin’s cabin. Once inside, he looked through the tool chest until he found a pair of metal snips. Carefully, he cut apart an empty can and flattened the aluminum. Then he cut out a piece of metal in the shape of a spear tip.
Mike left his work on the desk, and he went outside after making sure to lock the door. He walked east until he was deep within the forest. He searched for and found an old fallen tree with straight branches. When he was satisfied, he broke off a branch that was about as long as he was tall, and went back to the cabin. Inside he found a box cutter in the tool chest, and he used it to split the end of the branch. He forced the blunt end of the aluminum spear tip into the split.
Mike left the cabin again and crossed over the bridge. He walked down to the hay bales. Standing a ways from a bale, he grasped his newly made spear, and he threw it at the bale. When it hit the hay bale, the spear tip and wood broke apart and the aluminum tip bent.
It would take Mike several days and many trials to get an aluminum spear head which would not bend, and to discover how to fasten it to a branch so that it would not come apart. Eventually, after folding a layer of aluminum around two other pieces of aluminum, he made a spear that would penetrate the heavy bale. By using a file, he was able to get a very sharp edge on the side of the spear tip. He weighted the spear by attaching fishing lead to fish line and wrapping it around the shaft, just under the spear head.
On his way back to the Admin’s cabin, he met Jacob at the bridge. He was about to pass by, when the other boy called his name. Mike looked at Jacob and saw that Jacob was wearing his backpack, and that it looked full. Mike did not know much about Jacob, except that the other boy always seemed to be going off by himself. Mike thought that Jacob was a year older than he. Jacob had black curly hair like Eric, but Jacob’s eyes were hazel instead of black.
"I'm hiking down the road," Jacob announced.
Mike looked at him blankly.
"Where to?" he asked.
"As far as I can go," Jacob answered.
Mike was alarmed. "Hey, that might not be such a good idea," he responded.
"Well, I'm going," Jacob replied.
"Are you going to be back before night?"
"If I find someone."
"What are you going to do if you have to stay out overnight?"
"I've got my sleeping bag. It's down filled. I'll be warm."
"You got food?"
"Enough for three days."
Mike stared helplessly at Jacob. He did not know what to say. This was stuff for adults to consider. This was not stuff for a kid like him to be worried about.
Feeling defeated, Mike said, "Be careful, okay?"
"Okay," Jacob said, and then he walked away. But after a few steps he stopped, and turning back he said, "Hey, Mike. Thanks."
"See you," he said more cheerfully than he felt.
Jacob turned and walked away. Mike watched him climb the low hill, and when he disappeared down the other side, Mike went back to his cabin to work on his spear.
While Jacob was gone, Mike practiced every day with his spears trying to find the best design. John and Eric joined him. Two other boys, Peter and Howard, expressed interest in what he was doing, and they also began to build spears. Between the five boys, they found a design that was sturdy and could easily pierce the bales. Each day, they practiced throwing their spears.
Late in the afternoon of the sixth day since he had left, Jacob returned. Jacob was hungry and exhausted. There was a bleak look in his eyes. As he approached the camp, he noticed five boys out by the bales. When he realized that Mike was one of them, he turned that way, and went stumbling down to the bales.
Mike had just thrown a spear, hitting the paper archery target that the boys had fastened to one of the bales, when he turned and saw Jacob. At once, he hurried over to the returning boy. Jacob was so spent that he was struggling to remove his backpack. Mike quickly grabbed it and took it from him.
"Are you okay," he asked anxiously.
"I'm just tired. And really thirsty," answered Jacob in a weary and raspy voice. "I need a drink of water real bad. I didn't drink anything since last night. And I never ate yesterday or today."
"Pete, run up to the hall and get some water and food, quick!" commanded Mike. Pete nodded and swiftly ran to the dining hall.
"Did you find anyone?" asked Howard eagerly.
"Howard, let him drink something first," Mike said.
Howard grimaced, but he nodded. Mike understood Howard’s impatience, but he had gotten more and more worried each day that Jacob had not returned. Now that Jacob was back, Mike was more relieved than anxious for news.
Pete was fast, and shortly Jacob was drinking a bottle of water and devouring a sandwich. The others waited patiently while he regained his strength. Presently he finished eating, lay back on the grass, and sighed sounding very sleepy.
"Well?" John asked, unwilling to be silent any longer.
"I walked three days," Jacob began. "On the morning of the third day, I didn't eat any of my food because I wanted to conserve some. That afternoon I found it. The fog, I mean. It was about four o'clock. I know because I checked my watch. I was about a half mile past the seven thousand feet sign. The elevation marker, I mean.
“The road started going down real fast. I saw some fog ahead of me. It was real strange because it was level. I could see over it. It looked like the ocean, except that it was brown, and there were no waves. There was a deer standing next to the road, close to the fog. I stopped to watch it. Then it walked into the edge of the fog. The fog was only by the ground there. Then it walked down farther into the fog, so its feet and part of its legs disappeared. Then I saw its head come up, and it tried to, like, jump out of the fog. It fell down with its head and shoulders out of the fog. I could see it was trying to struggle. It was making strange sounds. Then it stopped moving. I think it was dead. Then I saw the body of the deer moving backwards into the fog like something was dragging it. Then it was gone. “That really scared me. I was, like, not breathing and my heart was pounding. I watched for another hour, and I saw a bird fly very low over the fog. Something came out of the fog and grabbed the bird, and it disappeared. It was so fast, that I couldn’t tell what had happened. I climbed a little hill next to the road, and I looked over to the other side. There was more fog. It's like we're on an island in an ocean.
“That's when I turned around and started back. I felt sick to my stomach, and I didn't eat anything that day, I only drank water. I tried to conserve my food and water on the way back, but then I ran out."
The faces of the other boys grew grimmer and grimmer as Jacob told his story. Mike felt the hairs on his arms and on the nape of his neck stiffen. John was thinking about the Admin and the counselors who had left to find some help. Had they driven into the fog?
Mike drew a breath. "Well," he said slowly. "Now we know."
"We'll have to tell the others," said Howard.
Mike nodded. "Yes, but not today. The sun’s going down. We'll tell them in the morning."
"Why not tell them now," Eric asked.
"Better to get scared in the morning than at night," John answered. Mike nodded.
"You come with me," Mike said to Jacob. "The rest of you; well, just don't tell anyone, all right?" There was a chorus of agreement.
Mike and Jacob walked up to the Admin’s cabin. As they were entering they heard a shout. Jacob was too tired to turn back, but Mike looked towards the shouter. It was Ralph; at seventeen, one of the oldest boys in the camp. Hurriedly, Mike shut and locked the door, just as Ralph arrived at the cabin.
Mike told Jacob to lie down on the bed. Outside, Ralph was banging on the door and demanding to be let inside. Jacob pulled the bed covers over his head, and soon he fell asleep. Mike ignored Ralph. He decided to climb the ladder leading to the loft. Upstairs, he found two separate futons. He laid down on one and waited until Ralph gave up and went away.
Sometime after midnight, Jacob awoke and insisted on returning to his own bunk. Mike accepted his decision reluctantly. He hoped no one was awake in Jacob’s cabin who would try to get Jacob to talk. He thought it would be better for everyone to hear the story at the same time. He walked with Jacob to his cabin. The night was bright, because the moon was just past half full, and there were only a few thin wispy clouds in the sky. Mike was unsettled as he returned to the Admin’s cabin, and he wondered if John, Pete, Howard, and Eric were getting any sleep.
Mike’s late night anxiety caused him to sleep later than usual the next morning. Shortly after he left the cabin, he realized that one of the boys had talked. He wasn't surprised. He hadn't expected that news of this sort could be kept quiet for long. As he made his way to the dining hall, he heard boys whispering about monsters and aliens.
There were a lot of boys in the dining hall, and Mike could see why. Jacob was there eating a bowl of cereal. Many boys were pressing close, trying to talk to him, but John, Pete, Howard, and Eric were fending them off.
"Tell us what happened," a boy angrily demanded.
"Shit!" John exclaimed. "At least let him finish eating his Cheerios!"
Mike walked past the clump of boys, and he stepped on to the platform at the end of the building.
"Hey!" he said in a loud voice. Everyone stopped talking and turned to look at him.
"Jacob's going to tell everyone what he saw. Give him a few minutes. Some of you need to go down to the girls’ camp, and tell them that we're having a meeting."
"Who died and made you Chief?" someone sneered. Mike looked to one side, and he saw that it was Ralph who had spoken.
"Do you think Jackie will come up here, if you tell her what's happening?" Mike asked Ralph.
Ralph shut up. Everyone knew that he liked Jackie. He hesitated, and then he stood and left the room. Mike truly hoped that Ralph could get Jackie to come and listen to Jacob’s tale. Jackie was the only person available who was close to being a real adult.
Jacob finished eating and took his bowl and spoon to the kitchen window. Mike noticed that no one had done the dishes for days. While they waited, a few of the girls began to trickle in, and soon there was a crowd of them entering. Mike did not see Ralph or Jackie. Jacob stepped up next to Mike, and then Mike stepped to one side.
"Hey!" Mike called out. The teens stopped talking.
Mike continued. "Everyone come close so that you can hear him." The boys and girls crowded up against the podium.
Jacob told his story in a plain, flat tone of voice. By the time he finished some of the kids were weeping, others were just sniffling. Mike looked down at his feet. He felt worse than when he had heard Jacob’s story the first time, just from hearing all the crying. He felt like crying himself.
"Bullshit!" someone yelled. Mike looked up. It was Ralph, and the older boy sounded as if he were about to panic.
"You're so full of crap! You never went there. You never saw anything. You're just making this up, you and Chief there."
Jacob stared at him. Then he said, “So go see for yourself. Go stand in the fog if you don't believe me."
Ralph looked angry and frustrated. "Screw you," he snarled, and then he left. Mike still saw no sign of Jackie.
"Are you telling the truth, Jacob?" a girl asked quietly.
Mike realized that she was the girl he had seen running around the dirt track. He had learned that her name was Yuie. She was Asian-American, and she had long, straight black hair, large lovely dark eyes, and a fair complexion.
"Yeah, it's true. But I don't know what the fog is or where it came from," he answered.
"It must be aliens," a boy suggested.
"Oh, right," sneered another boy. "And NASA or nobody else saw it coming."
"Maybe it's something the Russians invented."
"Or the Chinese."
"Whatever it is," Yuie answered. "There are monsters in it, real monsters." At that, everyone fell silent except the few kids who were still crying. Mike saw that Kathy was one of them.
"Whatever it is," Mike said. "We have to decide what to do. We don't know if anyone but us survived the fog. We don't know if anyone is coming to rescue us. If they are coming, we don't know how long it will take them to find us. We can drink water from the river, but what if we run out of food? What if we are still here when winter comes? It's going to freeze. It's going to snow. What are we going to do?" For minutes there was no response.
"We can cut back on the stuff that we are eating," a girl spoke slowly.
"Yeah, we've been pigging it lately," said another.
"But how can we stop anyone from just getting food for themselves?" a girl asked, and the other girls looked at Mike.
Mike had been thinking about that same thing. "We might have to put a guard on the food," he suggested.
"A guard?" someone repeated. There was silence.
"I've got to roll up my bag," someone said.
Slowly the teenagers drifted away. Most of them did not seem open to any discussion of their future. Mike felt frustrated. He felt like most of them were afraid to tackle the dangerous predicament that they were facing.
After a while, the only ones still in the dining hall were Mike's group of boys and Yuie. After talking it over, they decided to make a list of the problems that they would need to solve.
"First on the list is the food," Mike said. "We have to ration the food. We have to figure out how to get more food."
"We could hunt game," Yuie suggested.
"Do you know how to hunt?" Pete asked. "If you catch something, do you know how to cook it?"
"Not really," Yuie admitted. "I can shoot a handgun or a rifle," but I've never hunted."
"There's forty-nine of us counting Jackie," said Mike. "Ask around. Someone must know something about hunting or about cooking animals."
"I do," said Jacob. They looked at him with surprise. "I hunt deer and birds with my Dad. I know how to cut the patches off, and how to gut them, and how to skin them. If we can kill a deer or a bird, I can get it ready to be cooked."
"All of us are probably good at something," said John. "We should make a list of what we know."
"And we should ask everyone else, and make a list of what they know, too," suggested Howard enthusiastically.
"I'm great at video games," offered Pete with a laugh.
They all chuckled. Pete was popular, especially with the girls, but also with the boys. The handsome, blond, blued eyed boy had a great personality, and he always made the people around him feel better.
"Could we live in here during the winter?" Eric asked. They looked around, seeing the dining hall for the first time as a possible shelter.
"It's pretty small for forty-nine people," Howard observed, scratching his short red hair.
"And it's got a metal roof," Mike added. "It's going to get real cold in here, I think."
"But we have the oven and stove to keep us warm," Eric argued. "And we have propane in the tank."
"I wonder how much propane is in the tank," said Howard. "How long will it last?"
Yuie knew the answer. "I heard the Admin say that she would have to order a refill at the end of next year."
"And they weren't planning to use it during the winter," Mike pointed out.
"So they were planning to use it for two years in the summer," said Howard.
"How cold will it get here?" Eric asked.
"Below zero degrees, my father said," Howard replied.
"Will our sleeping bags keep us warm enough?" Mike asked.
"Some of the kids have mummy bags for below zero temperatures," answered Yuie. "Most of us just have bags for about twenty degrees. If we're stuck here, we are going to need a lot of wood to make fires."
"I think we need to save the propane for as long as possible, and use it to run the frig during the summer," said Mike. "We probably won't need it for the frig during the winter. Stuff will stay cold enough if we cover it with snow."
"So we stop using the oven and stove?" Yuie asked. "People aren't going to like that."
"Well, we gotta have some rules if we're going to stay alive," Howard stated. There was silence.
"Yeah." Deep in thought Mike replied slowly. "That's the hard thing. We've got to have some rules. And we've got to have some way to enforce the rules."
"There's a barbeque in the back," said Pete. "We could at least start cooking with wood."
"No one is using the stove now, anyway," said Eric. "I think most everybody is eating out of cans without heating it up."
"How much food do we have?" Mike queried Yuie.
"I don't know," she replied.
"We have a lot of hamburger patties," said John. "And there are a lot of hot dogs and buns."
"We have milk for awhile. Most of it is boxed, but some of it is frozen concentrated so we have to mix it with water. And they were cutting it with powdered milk so we have a lot of that," Howard said.
"Yuck, so that’s why the milk tastes so weird," Pete complained, and then he added, "There are a lot of bags of rice and flour. Most of the other stuff is in cans, like beans, fruit, and corn."
"Don't forget the weenies," Eric said.
"We'd never forget you," joked John as Eric scowled.
"Let's disconnect the stove for the time being. And keep this to ourselves," said Mike. "And let's get the barbeque out of the storage room and build a fire in it. If we keep it going, maybe people will get use to using it." They all agreed. John volunteered to disconnect the stove.
"Too bad the cave only has that one part that's really a cave," John mentioned. "That would be way big for us." There was a chorus of agreement.
"What if we made it into a real cave?" said Mike thoughtfully.
"What do you mean?" Eric asked.
"What if somehow, someway, we put a front on it?" said Mike. "We could all live in it for the winter."
"Just get a couple of girls to live with you in the Admin’s cabin," cracked Pete. "You'll be warm and happy all winter."
Yuie exclaimed, "Shut up!" without any real anger as the boys laughed.
"Seriously, what about the cave idea?" Mike asked again.
"What could we use for a front?" Eric asked.
"What about taking the canvas tops off of the cabins and using them?" Pete suggested.
"Too cold," Yuie replied.
"Could we pile up enough rocks?" Howard asked.
"Maybe," John replied.
"We could use logs," suggested Mike. "There are hatchets and axes for chopping wood in the store room. What if we cut down a lot of small trees, and leaned them against the top of the cave?"
"I don't know if small trees would be tall enough to reach to the top of the cave," Eric replied, thinking that the idea was dubious at best.
"What if we used a combination of these things," suggested Howard. "What if we piled up rocks high enough so that small trees would reach to the top of the cave?"
"Too bad they didn't build the cabins in front of the cave," John said facetiously. "Then we would already have a front." The others stopped talking, and they looked at John. Then they looked at one another.
"We could move the cabins!" Howard exclaimed.