By Stephen Thom
The van coasted through a small residential area. Gardens. Hedges. Porches. Ben fidgeted in the passenger seat.
'What is this, anyway?'
Frank lowered the volume.
'Fred Neil. He wrote 'Everybody's Talkin''. You'll know it.'
'It's good. Do you think three a.m. is a weird time for this?'
'He is good. Wrote for Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, too. Gave up music to save dolphins. I think anytime is weird for it. Might as well get maximum weird value.'
'Huh. Sounds like a good life.'
'It does. This is us.'
They pulled over beside a hedgerow.
'Pinned in 1858, he thought?'
Ben heaved the detector up, pocketed his tablet, and cracked the door. He looked round.
'Keep it quiet,' Frank hissed. He pulled the door shut. Ben heard the music volume rise inside.
He surveyed the house beyond the hedge. Posh. Fancy porch. Curtains were closed. Lights were off. He hunkered down. He hit the pavement. He stuck close to the hedge. He swung the detector. The reading screen flowered yellow and beeped softly.
He looked round at the van. Frank was nodding and tapping the dashboard.
Instant reading. Slightly to the left. He sighed. He crept up and eased the gate open. He slipped into the garden. The path wound up to the house above.
Ben stuck to the garden shadows. He swung the detector. The screen flared green. Rapid beeps. He flicked a switch and killed it. He stooped down and dug with his hands at the base of the hedge.
Bingo. His fingers wrapped around a small piece of pointed rock, wedged deep in the earth. The blunt end was encrusted with jewels. His breath quickened. The first pin. There should be three more, for an area this size.
Pinned in 1858.
He wedged the pointed rock back into the ground. He switched the detector back on and paced the garden, crunching through leaves. It took him fifteen minutes to find the remaining three pins.
He dug the last one out and placed it to the side. He wiped his forehead. His fingers were crusted with dirt. He pulled his tablet from his pocket, scrolled through a list of files, and selected one. He read. He double-checked the procedure. A light rain began to fall.
Satisfied, he pushed the last stone pin back into the earth. He felt a static pulse in his fingertips. A shimmering black thread shot from the pin in the ground. It hung in the air, crackling softly. Ben stood. He surveyed the garden. The four pins were connected by a fuzzy black trail.
A light went on in the house. Curtains opened. Ben swallowed. The porch light came on. Ben heard a soft whump sound. Everything drained of colour for a split second.
He reached for the tablet in his pocket. He looked up. He was standing in a dusty street. There was a saloon to his left. He could see the vague outlines of the pins and their black threads above the dirt track.
The saloon doors rattled in the wind. An old man sat in a rocking chair on the porch. He wore a heavy canvas jacket, corduroy trousers and a battered Stetson. His eyes were lidless. They were clear white, like tiny eggs.
Ben fidgeted. The night was cold. A horse whinnied in the distance. The rocking chair creaked. The old man leaned forward. He spoke. His voice was bassy, guttural and inhuman. He drooled. Ben couldn't distinguish words.
He took two steps forward and dropped his detector. There was something odd in the horizon. Something white. He strained his eyes. There were several strange buildings beyond the town. Weird shapes. Great white obelisks.
He turned back to the old man. He realised there were white roots snaking across the frame of the saloon. The street was webbed with white branches.
'Frank,' he said. 'Frank... '
The convoy passed through the night. Tree lines tore by. Rural sweeps. Lonely houses.
Two 4-tonne trucks pushed eighty mph. Six 4x4's flanked and boxed them in the inside lane. They dovetailed erratically, a weave of flashing lights and yellow strips.
Clouds rolled in low. Rain speckled the windscreens. A dark strip split the motorway. A barricade. The trucks screeched and slowed. The 4x4's pulled over.
Six men stood before the barricade. They wore blue boiler suits. They were tooled up with automatics and sawn-off shotguns.
The passenger door of the foremost 4x4 cracked open. A man in a suit stepped out. He approached the barricade. Empty fields framed the small strip of world.
The men spoke. They flashed badges. The barricade men gestured. One of them pulled out his phone. His fingertip traced the screen. The 4x4 man watched. He nodded. He returned to his car.
The convoy rumbled into motion. The lead 4x4 peeled right and ploughed into a wide dirt track separating the fields. The trucks and remaining 4x4's followed. The men at the barricade waved them through. They waited until the road was empty. They returned to their own cars and followed.
The trucks shook. Gravel snapped. Wheels spritzed mud. Fields gave way to massed trees. Branches rattled windscreens. The track snaked. Tyres hissed. The lead 4x4 stopped. The door cracked. The suited man stepped out. The second 4x4 stopped. The trucks stopped.
Headlights bled through the foliage. The suited man crunched round the vehicle. He ducked down. He fingered the torn rubber. He scrabbled in the dirt. He wedged up a metal barb. Sharp teeth. He tugged. He felt the line hold. Spike strips.
He spat. Rain greased his forehead. His hand moved to his waist. Men came out of the trees. He saw the muzzle. The first shot took his ear off.
The barricade men moved in from the rear. They flanked the trucks. They shot out the windows. They dragged bodies out. They moved forward through bloody glass shards. They hit the 4x4's. Men were already shackled to the bull bars.
They assembled by the first truck. Twelve blue boiler suits. A man separated from the group. He swung a bag from his shoulders. He retrieved a small black box from inside it. He placed the box on the truck's rear doors.
They stepped back. A light on the box blinked three times. The doors blew out.
Smoke coiled. The men swarmed inside. Stacked crates. They hoisted each other. They wedged crowbars. They cracked. They lifted thin, rectangular boxes out. Thousands. They looked like pool cue cases. Strange symbols adorned the casing.
A man knelt. He laid a case across his lap. He twisted. He pulled the lid off.
Smoke spilled from the opening. He hacked. He vomited. He clawed at his eyes.
The men around him scrabbled. They leapt from the truck. They returned with a bag. They divvied up gas masks. They re-boarded. The man on the floor choked and screamed. Someone shot him. They unpacked the crates in silence.
On a muddy slope by the track, a boiler-suited man twisted a case lid off. He let the smoke disperse. His face dripped inside the mask. He reached inside and retrieved a thin, pointed hunk of rock. A round, white ball was afixed to the blunt end. He turned it over in his hands. It looked like a pin. A giant pin.
Duffy lay flat on his belly. He scoped over the crest of the rise. The horses rustled behind. The floor of the playa spread out beneath him, a clay sprawl unblemished but for a single fire.
He rolled up. He nudged Wells with his foot. Wells moaned and turned in his blanket. Duffy kicked him. Wells spat. He flung the blanket off. He rose and tripped.
'You pigfucker. I done barely closed my eyes. Deprivin' an overworked man of sleep on a motherfuckin' shitty hunk of rock, I - '
Duffy clipped him round the ear. He dragged him to the precipice. Wells scoped. He nodded. They backed up to the trees. They cut the horses loose. They rode down the mountainside. Dust clouded under the horse's hooves.
They crossed the plain. The night was cold. It began to rain. Drops spat at the gravel and pooled in their hatbrims. They passed the bleached bones of some long-departed animal. The ribcage yawned like the maw of some terrible inhuman beast.
They sawed right. The horses beat the gravel spit. An orange pinprick became a flicker became a fire. The flames sheared in the wind. Duffy neckreined his horse left. Wells veered right. Duffy saw dark figures rise.
He swung his leg off the saddle. He slid and rolled. He rose reaching for his belt. The figures scattered.
He aimed the pistol. He fired. He swivelled. He rattled off shots. The horses bucked and thrashed behind him. He saw four Cheyenne down. Buckskin tunics red with blood. He ducked down. He moved close. He slid out his knife. He groped a buffalo robe. He palmed up. He went for the scalp.
Wells grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. He tottered and fell. He spat and rose. Wells was shaking. Duffy pushed the muzzle of the pistol between his eyes. Rain lashed the plain.
'You better explain yourself damn prompt.'
Wells thumbed his hat back. His face was pale. He pointed. Duffy looked.
A small Cheyenne girl stood amongst the bodies. Four sharp pieces of rock were embedded in the ground at her feet. Spectral black threads fuzzed between them. They formed a warped square around her.
The girl flickered in and out of existence. Her shape, and the world within the small square block, was ash-grey.