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Fourth of July

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Fourth of July Banner by Knowmefirst0.jpg  Fourth of July by Tarlan - Art by DanceswithGary

The Beginning

Jack always thought alien invasions were the realm of science fiction and Hollywood blockbuster movies so when everyone was recalled to duty immediately he had no idea what was truly happening, figuring it was just another warning of more terrorist attacks; he almost turned around. Before then he had noticed the crackle and the breaks in transmissions on the pool car radio, usually only as bad as this when the networks complained of sunspots. As he drove from Seattle's U.S. Marshal's Office Jack barely heard half of the call made direct to his cellphone from his supervising agent due to the interference, but he caught the gist of it, and it seemed too incredible to believe.

The whole world seemed to be holding its collective breath as the news feeds on every radio station talked of nothing but some massive strange object that had been spotted by astronomers all across the world. After passing the Moon the object had now broken up into thirty-six smaller parts, though each part was still fifteen miles across according to the reports, and they were heading for different parts of the world. He really had no idea what the difference was between a meteor and asteroid and he cared even less, but Jack didn't need to be a genius to figure out it wasn't either, or any other natural event. What he did know was that this had intelligent intent and design because these ships were heading towards the major population centers like Washington DC, London, Paris, and Moscow to name but a few.

It didn't sound good.

According to the radio one of these thirty-six gigantic spaceships would be pulling into a stationary orbit above New York within the next twenty minutes. However, Jack had other things on his mind right now. He was on a fugitive hunt of a slightly different kind, pursuing his missing daughter who had taken it into her head to run away... again. He wished he understood why as it wasn't as if she had a terrible home life like some of the street kids he had come across over the years. Her mother adored her and even though he was no longer living with them, Jack tried to see her as often as he could. Admittedly his work didn't help but between pursuing felons, prisoner transports, and protecting witnesses as his job as a U.S. Marshal, it meant he worked long hours and sometimes spent weeks away from home.

He pulled over to the side of the road when his GPS stopped functioning altogether, and for a moment he debated on whether he ought to turn around and report for duty at the local Seattle office, or head back to the airport and from there to Los Angeles. Or he could delay for just a little longer and carry on towards the next bus station. Back at the Seattle office Jack had seen the footage of Zoe getting onto a Greyhound just outside the airport, heading north towards Canada. His sense of duty to his country was calling to him but he also had a duty as a father, and the bus station was barely twenty miles further north along the highway. He was so close. Too close to give up on her now, aliens or no aliens.

"Damn it," he murmured.

He had lost too much time already but was still hoping he could catch her before she got to the border because once she crossed into Canada he would no longer have the jurisdiction to take her back home to her mother, by force if necessary as she was still a minor. He would be tangled up in red tape and diplomatic regulations, and by the time he had untangled that mess she would be long gone. The thought gnawed at his stomach so he drove off quickly, taking advantage of the lighter traffic due to everyone's preoccupation with the aliens, and he covered the remaining distance in less than 20 minutes at high speed with the siren's wailing and lights flashing.

The bus station was busy but many of the people were crowded around a store front watching the alien drama unfold on heavily flickering TV screens. He was distracted for a moment as images showed the first of the ships breaking through the mass of fiery clouds and coming to a halt right above the Empire State building in New York. A second ship was shown hovering over the White House, casting a huge shadow over the city. The President was recommending everyone stayed calm in their homes, trying to prevent a panic but news reports from the streets showed fender-benders and grid locked cars, with even the emergency services unable to get through. Jack couldn't blame people in those cities for panicking as something was really weird about all of this - besides the giant spaceships in the sky. The next footage showed the spaceship coming to a halt over Los Angeles, and people waving placards and dancing on top of the Bank Tower. All of this had happened in the last ten minutes and the media was running this story on repeat on all stations and channels.

A flash of blond hair caught his eye, tearing his attention away from the TV screens, and he sighed in relief even as he pushed through the crowd towards the petite, blond-haired girl who looked so much like her mother. Among the noisy crowd she didn't spot him until he had her arm in a strong grip. Zoe yelped and struggled, calling for help, and when someone looked like they were about to intervene on Zoe's behalf Jack pulled out his badge.

"U.S. Marshals. Back off."

He guessed most people had more than enough to concern themselves with than one girl getting arrested because the man backed away without a protest, hands raised in a placating gesture before tuning away altogether and disappearing off into the crowd. Zoe huffed out in annoyance and Jack barely registered her token resistance as he pulled her from the crowd and back towards his official loan car. He pushed her into the secured back and moved into the driver's seat, pulling away smoothly as he headed back towards Seattle.

"Damn it, Zoe, this was not a great time. The world's under attack."

Plus he'd had 4th of July plans that included steak, beers, and the game, and maybe a little extra fun between the sheets with Ethan if he played his cards right. His mind went off on a tangent at the thought of the guy he had met last weekend who seemed to be giving off all the right signals. Jack had tried not being gay, and he had a beautiful daughter to show for it, but the toll on him and Abby had grown heavier with the passing years until it became unbearable. They finally split a year ago and it had been liberating to find the occasional male partner for a one-night stand, though he missed the closeness and security of a relationship. Abby had told him to keep looking, promising him he would find someone who could give him everything he needed, and he was glad she had heeded her own advice.

Through the rear-view mirror he saw Zoe's eyes grow as big as saucers in disbelief, "You think they came all this way just to attack us? Someone's been watching too many science fiction movies."

"Yeah," he replied sarcastically, glancing back at her through the rear-view mirror, "And I'm sure the Native Americans said the same thing when they saw the ships off their coastline."

Zoe huffed in exasperation, crossing her arms in a gesture so familiar, reminding him of her mother when they argued, it made Jack roll his eyes.

The drive back to Seattle took an hour longer than he anticipated as the roads were getting busier with most of the traffic heading out of the city. Jack guessed he must have caught the early evening rush hour. He checked the clock on the dashboard and sighed heavily and called the despatcher at the Seattle field office. "

"All flights... L.A. have been sus...nded temp...rily."

Jack frowned s he tried to make out the words through the interference. "Any idea for how long?"

"We don'... further informat... is time, Agent Car..."

The radio died altogether and that was when Jack saw the sign for a local truck-stop diner. He decided to pull over. Airport food was usually overpriced anyway, and as he hadn't eaten since the night before, discounting the complimentary packet of peanuts on the flight from L.A., he was starving. Jack managed to grab a table in the busy restaurant and checked out the menu after accepting a coffee from the waitress, and handing back the mug she had placed in front of Zoe.

"Not for you," he said, and ordered her a glass of water much to her disgust.

"I need to go to the bathroom," Zoe demanded.

"Uh-Uh. Not alone."

"And where am I going to run off to? According to you the Earth's about to be attacked."

He truly wanted to trust her but she had given him the slip last time by making out he was some child molester, and he had almost taken a beating before he managed to show his badge. Yeah, this was the second time she had run away in the past month. If not for this business with alien spaceships he would have bypassed the airport altogether and driven all the way back to L.A. to give himself a chance to figure out why Zoe was behaving so badly. Jack hadn't exactly told Zoe why her parents had given up on their marriage though he was pretty sure she had overheard one of their arguments just before he left, and he wasn't sure how much her mother had told her in his absence. Probably not a lot. What he did know was it was exhausting dealing with a 'troubled teenager' so he was sure Abby could use the break.

It had nothing to do with his dislike of flying, which was a necessary evil in his line of work.

Abby was the psychologist so of course she blamed Jack for everything even though she was the one who had 'helped him break through the years of denial' and figure out he was bisexual with a stronger leaning towards his own gender. She could hardly blame him for wanting to explore this new side of himself, though he never did anything more serious than look at other guys before they signed the divorce papers. He had made a vow to Abby and while they were still married he had kept his promise. The divorce papers had gone through four months ago. Irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, irreconcilable differences, incompatibility. He guessed that was the more polite way to say, 'My husband has figured out he prefers guys'. Unlike him, Abby moved on long before the marriage was dissolved, but he couldn't find it in his heart to blame her. As for Zoe, she had always been a handful though the running away was new. It had started not long after the papers were signed, and the new guy, Greg, moved in with Abby.

He ordered their food and while they were waiting for it to be cooked, Jack checked out the washroom facilities and waited right outside much to Zoe's annoyance.

Of course Zoe tried to pull a fast one at the diner...again by claiming he was some creep who had 'touched her', though he did notice she waited until she had finished eating before making the accusation. This time it took him a little longer to convince the short order cook he was not some child molester, catching up with her before the truck driver could pull out onto the highway.

"Look, I don't want no trouble, Marshal. She seemed like a nice kid."

"Yeah," he replied sourly because she looked angelic, and had done since the day he first saw her, cradling her tiny newborn body in his arms.

He took her back into the diner and zip-tied her to the seat this time so he could finish his meal, gaining respectful nods from the other occupants before everyone's attention was pulled back to the TV for live coverage of 'first contact'. A weird helicopter took off with light panels, looking like the helicopter from the Close Encounters movie.

"Oh!" he yelped along with everyone else when the helicopter exploded into a ball of flame, too shocked to say 'I told you so,' to his equally shocked daughter.

Any belief that these aliens had come in peace was shattered in that moment. Less than half an hour later, as he was settling his bill and preparing to hit the road, footage from the live feed showed the base of the spaceship opening. An intense beam of light struck the top of the White House and the feed cut out seconds later as it was hit by a wall of flame from the exploding building. Another feed showed the same horror in New York. Jack turned to see Zoe looking ashen, her eyes wide and scared.

"Mom?" Zoe asked, and Jack felt sick to his stomach as he recalled there was another of these ship hovering over L.A., and if it had attacked at the same time then Abby could be gone too.

The attack on Earth had begun and 'home' was gone. He settled Zoe into the back seat and sat behind the wheel for a moment, trying to figure out what to do next. He could report in at the Seattle Office but news came of another ship moving into position over San Francisco and firing on the city. If it followed the coast north then Portland was the next major population center, then Seattle. It seemed counter-intuitive but as most of the traffic was heading out of Portland, the road going into Portland was a lot lighter. He decided to take a gamble and drive south on I-5 until he reached Portland, then head east on whatever road was clearer before going south again towards Bend in Oregon. Jack knew that area after an extended fugitive hunt last year and he figured they might be able to find somewhere to wait out the attacks until it was safe to head back into L.A. to look for Abby.

With a plan in mind he started the car and joined the flow of traffic heading south.

****

The Wall of Flames

Nathan was in Washington D.C. overseeing a project connected to an object found on Earth that was possibly older than this universe when the massive spaceship came to a stationary orbit above the White House. The Artifact was already on its way to Global Dynamics and he had planned to accompany it, but instead he was pulled into meetings alongside other respected scientists and advisors. However, Nathan knew everything spoken was either second-hand information or pure speculation. Despite his aspirations for power he was a scientist first and foremost and he wanted answers to the questions now spinning around his head.

What was the aliens' intent? Were they benevolent or aggressors?

Some people were naturally suspicious especially considering the placement of each of the thirty-six 'smaller' ships. But, equally, the aliens might have recognized the fragmented leadership on this world and not wanted to offend by singling out a single country. Nathan had to admit he was uncomfortable with the placement and the lack of communication following their arrival. No one could find anything even remotely resembling the back and forth of communication on any frequency, and the silence was unnerving, adding to the unsettled feeling that was rippling across the world.

So how were they communicating between themselves? Were they the same as the aliens who had crashed near Roswell back in the 1960s? The autopsy of the dead aliens had revealed no vocal chords. Doctor Okun, the lead xenobiologist at Area51, was convinced they used some form of telepathy. If that was the case then Nathan wondered at what distance it worked. Were the smaller ships close enough to each other to allow that form of communication? Was the mothership close enough?

There was a final question spinning in his head. Nathan needed to know if it was a mere coincidence these aliens had arrived so soon after the discovery of the Artifact.

Someone suggested trying the same method used in an old science fiction movie to communicate with the aliens.

"We could use patterns of light to see if they respond."

"Well, Doctor Stark?" President Whitmore asked.

He shrugged. "It has its merit as a simplistic language, and if they copy the patterns then at least we'll know they want to communicate."

Whitmore frowned at Nathan's unenthusiastic response, possibly reading between the lines and hearing his concerns regarding the aliens' motives. Nathan liked Whitmore. He was not the usual slimy political type - a businessman or economist concerned more with lining his own pockets than in providing benefits to the American people. Whitmore was ex-military, a former jet pilot, and had likely studied strategy especially in aerial combat. He had to possess the same doubts as Nathan with his instincts screaming at him that something was wrong. He would also recognize humanity was at a distinct disadvantage with inferior technology compared to the aliens. If the patterns of light drew no friendly response from the aliens then no one in the room had much else to offer other than to wait to see what happened next. For Nathan it wasn't reassuring in the least and from the look on Whitmore's face the President shared the same concerns.

Nathan knew it would be interesting to watch the light show just to see if there was any reaction from the aliens so he was sorely tempted to stay, but other than him, none of the scientists present were privy to the secrets held within Eureka and Area51. Either of those two think-tanks might already have the answers to some of his questions, and be in a better position to provide answers for the rest, so he excused himself, requesting fast transport to Eureka. The Global Dynamics helicopter was made available, setting down on the lawn right outside the White House ten minutes later. Nathan looked up as he stepped out of the building. It was disconcerting to be in the shadow of the spaceship when its intentions were unknown so he was not surprised to find the other passenger seats fill with Eurekans who wanted to head 'home' to their loved ones.

"Doctor Stark," they greeted him courteously with worried smiles and respectful nods as he took his seat.

The helicopter lifted off at around the same time the first contact helicopter drew level with the alien ship, and as the spaceship opened, displaying a thin horizontal band of brilliant blue light, Nathan decided he wanted to stick around just a little longer to see how it panned out. He instructed the pilot, Major Garcia, to turn back and hover close by so he could watch. Nothing happened for the longest time... until with shocking speed, several piercing laser beams struck the first helicopter and the two helicopters flanking it, turning them into a fireballs. Nathan heard the gasps of the other passengers but ignored them, focusing instead on the increased activity on the ground.

"We should head back-."

"No," Nathan interrupted Garcia. "Head for Eureka. Fastest speed."

The aliens had tipped their hand, revealing the superiority of their weapons and their hostile intent. Nathan knew he would be more useful to the President in Eureka, looking for a means to counterattack and defend the planet. As the Global helicopter banked away sharply he could see the President's helicopter landing on the White House lawn, hoping Whitmore had seen the sense in heading out of D.C. rather than wait in the shadow of a hostile craft.

Ten minutes later, when they were miles from the White House, heading due west he heard Garcia through his headset.

"Oh my God!"

Nathan noticed the increasing red glow and angled to look behind them through the window, breath catching at the wall of fire heading straight towards them.

"UP!" he yelled, "GO UP!"

He knew they couldn't outrun the fire storm and there was nothing below to protect them but this was no ordinary helicopter, constructed in Eureka, so he hoped they could rise above the devastation fast enough. He felt the heat as the outer edge of the fire storm reached them, heard the struggle of the engine and rotors, and the screams of the people sharing the danger with him. Suddenly they were back in clear skies and Nathan could see the expanding ring of fire below them. Instinctively he knew the epicenter would have been the White House. It was gone along with the city, its suburbs, and the half a million people who had lived and worked there.

"Keep heading west."

"Yes, sir."

"The ship's moving, heading south towards Charlotte or Atlanta," Nathan noted solemnly because it was clear now the aliens were trying to annihilate them, using the ships to cull the largest population centers first and then probably launch ground troops to mop up the rest. This was an invasion, or worse, a colonization where they wanted to get rid of the indigenous population. "How we doing, Major?" he asked the pilot.

"We took a battering but I can keep her in the air for now, sir. By the way, good call, Doctor Stark."

He didn't bother to answer, his mind already turned to the hundreds of thousands dead in D.C. alone. If the aliens had coordinated their attack then there were thirty-five other ships causing equal damage elsewhere across the globe. Countless millions had likely died in the opening salvo and more millions would die when each ship reached its next target, and then its next. By his calculation they could destroy the majority of the world's largest population centers in less than two days. Even though it seemed hopeless, he had to figure out a way to stop the aliens because humanity was on the verge of extinction.

Nathan ignored the discussion and hysteria going on around him and focused on what little data he had available, looking for something that might point to an Achilles Heel.

"New York has gone... and Los Angeles too," Doctor Sniffon wailed as she received an update from the ground. "Oh God, there's another ship heading towards San Francisco."

Even damaged this helicopter could manage almost twice the air speed of an ordinary helicopter so they made good time, but without knowing the aliens' tactical and full technological ability Nathan was unwilling to risk leading them straight to the location of some of the greatest scientists on the planet. He had to protect what could be humanity's last hope for survival.

"Head to Portland, Major."

"Sir?"

"If they're tracking us I don't want them to know exactly where we're headed."

"Yes, sir."

By the time they reached Pendleton, just over two hundred miles due east of Portland, the Los Angeles spaceship had moved south along the coastline to level San Diego and Tijuana, and now it had turned inland towards Las Vegas. In the meantime the other ship had reached and devastated San Francisco. Nathan figured it would likely head north towards Portland and Seattle next. He had no idea how the rest of the world was faring but he suspected it was doing no better than them. From the strained voice of the air traffic controller, Portland airport was in chaos with people trying to get out of the city before it was their turn to be annihilated, though where they hoped to flee was questionable as Nathan suspected many of the world's major cities were already gone, and the rest would soon follow.

It made sense to order Major Garcia to follow the I-84 and land at a military base just south east of Portland rather than risk the airport. By now night was falling and as the helicopter followed I-84 all Nathan could see was the headlights of barely moving traffic as anyone with a car and common sense headed out of Portland and Seattle. All the smaller roads were busy too and Nathan was starting to rethink his plan of being able to commandeer several vehicles from the military to get the small group of scientists back to Eureka.

Unfortunately this wasn't the only thing not going to plan. Nathan had spent the last three hours wondering if they were on borrowed time as more and more warning lights appeared on the cockpit display. When the latest started flashing red and the helicopter's engine began to stutter he knew their luck had run out and they had to land soon, before they crashed.

He made a call to Global Dynamics. "Allison, I need you to send a helicopter-"

"Nathan? I thought you were..." She cleared her throat. "Nathan, we don't have one to send. They've all gone."

"Damn it," he muttered. "Let me know if that changes."

"Nathan?"

"It's okay, Allison. I'll figure something out. We'll be fine." Nathan switched back to Garcia. "Major, stay near the I-84 and get us as far west as you can before you have to put her down. See if you can reach Hood River then follow the road south towards Parkdale," he ordered.

He was fully aware they could have shaved time off their journey by going across country but below them would be mostly empty stretches of land. He could not risk being left stranded in the middle of nowhere if Garcia had to take them down in a hurry. Nathan could only hope Garcia could nurse the helicopter as far as possible, until they were close enough to persuade someone to either let them take their vehicles, or be willing to drive them into Mt. Hood National Forest where the small think-tank town of Eureka lay hidden. By now he could feel the disconcerting vibrations shuddering through the helicopter, tensely counting off the miles from the lights of the small towns they passed as they followed I-84 towards Portland. Another red light came on and this time Garcia could do nothing to keep her in the air.

"We have to land."

They landed in a clearing just a few hundred feet from a fast-food diner just off I-84 in Hood River. It was packed and Nathan's hope of persuading someone to part with their car began to wane. People were darting about everywhere, shouting demands, and grabbing whatever was available before racing back out into the parking lot to join the mass of slow moving vehicles heading away from the coast.

One guy stood out among the crowd.

Nathan approached the booth in the far corner where a petite blond girl was cuddled up to the man, possibly her father. Both looked a little shell-shocked as they watched the mad rush of people. Occasionally the man took a sip of coffee. He was a good looking man despite a slightly disheveled appearance, but as Nathan approached his blue eyes latched onto him with laser precision and intrigue. So not so shell-shocked after all, Nathan mused. The people opposite in the same booth seemed to sense a change in the atmosphere, or maybe it was Nathan's hard look that put them even more ill at ease; they shuffled out of the seat and disappeared into the crowd. Nathan sat down opposite the man and decided to get straight to the point.

"I need a car."

"And go where?"

"Portland."

"Your poker face isn't as good as you'd like to think," the good-looking guy replied with a wry twist of his lips and a smile that almost reached his blue eyes.

So the guy was astute too, Nathan thought, and that was when Nathan noticed the glint of metal beneath the jacket, from a sidearm.

"You a police officer?"

The man pulled out a badge and placed it on the tabletop. "U.S. Marshal Jack Carter."

Nathan reached into his inner pocket slowly and pulled out his government credentials with a hastily drawn up letter from President Whitmore requesting all assistance was given to the bearer. Carter took the documents and read through them quickly. His eyebrows rose when he read the letter, and he looked back up at Nathan.

"So, Doctor Stark, how can I be of assistance?"

"Marshal Carter, do you have a car I can commandeer?"

Carter's jaw twitched. "Yeah and no. I have a car but I'm driving," he insisted.

Nathan was going to argue but he could see the determination in the blue eyes and knew it would be a waste of time, and they had precious little of that to spare. From the blast radius in D.C. he knew they needed to be underground at Global Dynamics before the ship reached and leveled Portland, or they would not survive the inferno.

"Then lead on," he replied airily, standing up and waiting for Marshal Carter and the girl to get up.

Nathan caught up with Major Garcia at the door.

"Doctor Stark, I managed to find a car. It'll be a very tight squeeze but-."

"Not a problem, Major. Marshal Carter can take three of us in his car." Nathan glanced around at the growing panic as news reached them of a ship heading towards Portland. "I suggest we get moving immediately."

****

Finding Safety

Jack wasn't quite sure how he ended up in Hood River. He had simply followed his gut instinct to get off Interstate 5 as soon as possible and head away from the major cities on the back roads. Without a GPS he had to rely on those same instincts to avoid the snarl-ups, but his Police-taught skills gave him the upper hand in skirting some of the problems they encountered, even if that meant organizing a few men to help him push broken down cars off the roads to clear the way for the traffic. He had given a lift to one couple after their car broke down, offering to take them as far as Hood River. From there they wanted to keep heading east while he was still planning to go south towards Bend. After driving for so many hours, first in pursuit of Zoe and then avoiding the panic around Portland, Hood River was a welcome break if only to sit and think without worrying about the mass of cars around him, so when he spotted the diner it made sense to pullover and grab a coffee and a hot meal, and maybe some extra provisions if there was anything left. Going back to L.A. was now fully out the question after seeing more footage of the devastation, desperately aware very few could have survived the fire storm. The city was gone, along with San Francisco just a short while earlier, and all the towns along the Californian coastline between them.

The couple had been seated opposite him, sharing the booth as they finalized their plans, but they didn't stick around after Mister Tall, Dark, and Handsome stopped beside him. Jack could sense the authority in this guy, as if he was used to getting what he wanted, but Jack was no push-over. If this guy had a Presidential order/letter then he had some place to go, some Government bunker that might be safer, at least for a while.

After promising Stark a lift Jack was so glad to find his car exactly where he had left it. From the ignition wires hanging down and twisted together someone had tried to hot wire the car but then abandoned it when they realized it was out of gas. If they had thought to check the trunk they would have known gas wasn't a problem as Jack had learned the hard way to carry spare when on fugitive hunts. After all, it didn't pay to get stranded in the middle of nowhere even if, or maybe especially if the fugitive in question was his daughter.

He was tempted to make Stark sit in the back but someone from Stark's party would have to navigate, and as Stark seemed to be the man in charge it was logical for him to take the passenger seat leaving Zoe in the back with two very anxious looking people; apparently they were both scientists too.

"So... Where to?" Jack asked.

"We need to head south towards Parkdale. I-35 is just east of here."

"I-35 is barely moving. Been a few crashes."

Stark huffed. "There's been no traffic reports since the satellites went down."

"Don't need them. Lot of people moving through that diner passing on news of their journey so far. Which roads are blocked, which are slow but still moving."

After waiting for the other car to catch up with them, Jack joined the I-84 heading towards Portland in the opposite direction to the majority of the traffic as most people were heading away from the city.

"So where were you headed," Stark asked a few minutes later.

"I was planning on going south to Bend. Find a place with only a few people and hold up in one of those vacation cabins in the forests or mountains." He had gone through survival training so knew he and Zoe stood a better chance than most of making it through this away from civilization. Jack glanced sideways at Stark, taking in the handsome profile, the dark curly hair and beard, and the intense blue-green eyes. "You know these aliens are not going to stop at the major cities. If it's an invasion then ground troops with air support come next to mop up the smaller towns. Once they've killed off most of the indigenous population - us - they likely won't bother hunting down the stragglers."

Stark said nothing but his grim expression showed no shock or surprise.

Jack left the I-84 turning south onto suburban streets, then west, and south, taking the quieter residential roads until he reached Highway 281 just before it crossed the creek, using the directions he had memorized from a map on the diner wall while waiting to get served at the counter. There had been no waitress service because the serving staff had left, running off to be with their families and leaving the owner and his family working alone. The owner told him several stories overheard from other travelers. Yeah, people liked to tell him things. He just had one of those faces and smiles that put people at ease when he wanted.

Stark had remained silent through all the turns, and sighed when he realized what Carter was doing to avoid the snarl-ups on I-35 but Jack's words must have been playing on his mind.

"I think it's obvious the aliens don't want us or they'd have thought of something more creative to keep us alive and enslaved. They want the planet, and we're just in the way," Stark replied eventually.

Jack glanced quickly into the rear-view mirror to check on Zoe, making sure she was fully occupied by the people sitting with her before responding. "I don't think they're here to colonize or they'd be more considerate with the extermination process - gas or bio-warfare instead of weapons of mass destruction. I think they're here to strip mine the planet."

"You may be right."

It was a long drive on unlit roads, mostly heading south until they reached Parkdale.

"Head west towards Mount Hood."

The road heading into Mt. Hood National Forest was almost empty. Jack could feel the tension in Stark as the second hour passed, wishing the scientist would pass along some of the information someone was feeding him through his cellphone. It was a wonder the thing still worked at all and it had to be on some special Defense communication network as Jack had lost contact with the U.S. Marshal's hours earlier. Whatever it was Jack hated being left in the dark, and he wasn't just referring to the lack of street lights on these back roads. He spoke too soon for as they topped a small rise in the road Jack saw a distant red glow on the far horizon, a stark reminder of the mass destruction leveled along the coast line.

"Okay, Stark, what's going on?"

"The ship's moving up the coastline from San Francisco."

"Yeah, I know that already." Jack tried not to stare at the distant glow that had to be the moving ship, now fully aware of why Stark had been so closed-mouthed. He gritted his teeth. "So I guess Portland's definitely next on the hit list."

"Probably. And we need to be where we're going before it reaches there."

"Why?"

Stark shrugged nonchalantly. "No reason."

"Oh, come on," Jack wheedled in exasperation. "I'm a big boy. I'm sure I can handle it."

"I'm sure you are, Carter." Stark smirked, and did Stark just check out his package? Before Jack could say anything Stark's expression turned grim as he warred with a decision. "We're in the blast radius, Carter. If we don't get to... where we're going in time, we'll be incinerated along with the rest of Portland."

Jack slammed on the brakes, hearing cries from the back seat accompanied by Stark's curse as his hand slapped the dashboard, the cellphone dropping from his hand into the foot well. Jack was fully aware the other vehicle would be braking sharply too though he knew it was just far enough behind not to be a problem.

"Then why the hell aren't we turning around and heading east as fast as we can get?"

"Because if these aliens are here to strip mine the planet then we can't hide forever, Carter. Ahead is a government facility full of some of the best and brightest scientists in the world, and maybe they can figure out a way to stop these aliens before we become extinct."

Jack stared hard at Stark, hating that he'd put Zoe in further danger but also aware Stark was finally telling him the full truth, that there would be nowhere safe even if these creatures left them alone. They would tear the planet to pieces and then move on to strip mine the next world, and what was left behind might not support any life let alone human life. Jack had extensive driving training in all conditions, needed for high speed pursuits in his job, so he took off at a faster pace, quietly hoping the car behind could keep up but knowing he had to take the risk of driving a little faster than deemed safe along these unlit back roads if they were to reach this government facility before the blast from Portland hit them. He had a few hairy moments when the road curved unexpectedly, and again when a dark shape bounded across the road in front of them, missing the car by just a few feet. Part of him felt sick to the stomach knowing the deer had avoided one death but couldn't avoid the wall of flame that would be heading their way soon after.

"Hang a left," Stark ordered.

Jack almost passed the side turn because he was certain it hadn't been there seconds earlier, but of course it could have just been his tired eyes playing tricks on him, with the side turn momentarily concealed by the deeper shadows. A little further on they passed a sign for a small town called Eureka, and soon after Carter was driving along an empty main street where not a single street light was on and not a single person or car could be seen. It was creepy, like a modern-day ghost town, and he half expected to see tumbleweed blowing across his path.

"Don't slow down. Keep going," Stark insisted. "We're running out of time."

A few minutes later Jack shouted in fear when Stark slid his foot over and pressed down hard on the gas when they reached a deep ravine where a dilapidated bridge had partially collapsed. Instead of plunging to their deaths the car sped onward through some kind of invisible barrier that made his skin tingle, and onto a completely whole and perfectly safe looking bridge that spanned the ravine.

"What the hell!"

"Holographic image to dissuade unwanted visitors."

"Oh, and you couldn't have, oh say, warned me?"

"No time, Carter. The ship's already fired on Portland. We have less than six minutes before the fire storm hits us, and even with your admittedly good driving skills it will take us half that time just to reach the building."

As if summoned by his words the sky ahead started glowing redder like a strange sunrise, growing brighter with each passing second. The road leading to the front of the building was mostly clear so Jack put his foot down harder on the gas, only weaving occasionally around a poorly parked car in the over-filled parking lot. He pulled up in front of the building with a screech of tires causing a pungent smell of burned rubber, and Jack was out of his seat and pulling open the rear passenger door before Stark had got one foot outside. Jack pulled Zoe out and started running with Stark and the others into a large, round reception area, following Stark towards an elevator. The few seconds it took to slide open the door seemed like an eternity and they all bundled in, twelve of them crammed in like sardines in a tin can. Jack felt his stomach twist a little as the elevator descended at high speed, seeing the digits flicking over as they dropped into the very depths of the Earth, or so it seemed, reminding him of the Tower of Terror ride in Disneyland. Except he wasn't strapped in but instead he was crushed up against the back wall with Stark, feeling the hard planes and tightness of muscle that proved Stark was no soft-bellied scientist, that he worked out. If the situation wasn't so dire then Jack might have enjoyed the experience but he had Zoe tucked against his other side, her small arms wrapped around him and her face buried against his chest for protection. A jolt had everyone tensing, and Jack clenched his fist in the expensive material of Stark's suit jacket, holding Stark tighter even as Zoe gasped and held him tighter still in return. He had visions of the elevator going into free fall, wishing he hadn't put the memory of the Tower of Terror into his head, but instead of falling to their doom the elevator stopped smoothly 23 levels down and everyone spilled out when the doors opened.

They were greeted by a beautiful woman with smooth, coffee-colored skin. She greeted them all, hugging two of the returning scientist and let all of them head off into the complex without an escort. Now, only three of them remained in the elevator car and as Jack released his unintentional hold on Stark's jacket, Stark stepped forward.

"Allison! Surprise!" he stated as he stepped out before Jack and Zoe, and Jack couldn't tell if the beautiful woman was annoyed or relieved to see Stark, perhaps a little of both.

"Cutting it fine, Nathan. Portland's gone, and so is the town," her eyes rose towards the ceiling, "And the building above us."

Stark looked contrite for a moment as she reminded him of the devastation high above them. Millions had died already today, and Jack knew countless more would perish in the days to come unless the invaders were stopped.

She continued, "The President made it out of the White House and onto Air Force One just in time. They're heading towards Area51."

"About time he was told. The D.O.D. should have let him know as soon as the first ship was seen and identified," he admonished, and by the slightly guilty expression crossing her face 'Allison' understood exactly what Stark was saying, even though Jack didn't have a clue, except... Area51?

"Nimziki cautioned for patience, wanting the President to have plausible deniability while we were uncertain of the aliens' intent."

"Yeah, well, we know their intent now," Stark added almost brightly but definitely tinged with sarcasm.

Jack knew Albert Nimziki was the U.S. Security of Defense so it was all starting to fall into place. "Roswell," he murmured, and glared at Stark. "The alien crash landing was real, wasn't it? That autopsy..."

"Was an obvious fake documentary to discredit the leaked reports and cover-up any eye witness accounts," Stark replied in an offhand way.

"Yeah, well I think your cover's been blown wide open."

"Wasn't my call, Carter," Stark replied softly, and Jack saw his eyes cut sideways to Allison. "Then or now."

She turned to Jack. "Marshal Carter, I'm Dr. Allison Blake, Department Of Defense liaison. If you would follow-."

"There's no time for paperwork, Allison," Stark interrupted. "I want to see all department heads in fifteen minutes, and get me Doctor Okun at Area51. I want a full report from him on the ship. This way, Marshal," and he walked off, expecting Jack to follow.

Jack raised both eyebrows towards the once again infuriated woman but it was obvious from her lack of verbal protest Stark was the person in charge.

Though he hated following after the other man like a puppy on a leash, Jack couldn't see many other options, especially as he needed to know how this place was going to keep his daughter safe. Thinking of her reminded Jack how quiet Zoe had been since learning of the fate of Los Angeles, and of her mother. He had been so intent on driving through the heavy traffic, full of terrified people taking stupid risks, then along the dark back roads, looking for a way to keep her safe he hadn't noticed her not talking back to him, voicing her opinions. Instead she had sat quietly in the passenger seat reading the local map he'd picked up from the diner just outside Seattle. Her only words had been directions, getting them off the interstate and onto the less used back roads, which he'd followed all the way down to Hood River. The traffic was still heavy and slower going than he would like, but at least they had been moving away from Seattle and Portland. At the diner she had made no attempt to leave his side and he had to force her to stay in the booth while he queued to give his food order, promising he would not leave her sight.

"You okay, sweetie?"

She nodded, tucking herself back against him as they followed Stark, as if she could not bear the thought of not having him close. In his line of work he'd seen this plenty of times before and knew she was still in shock, scared of losing the only other person important in her life - her dad. She was barely fifteen after all, and despite her bids for independence by running away, she was still just a kid. They reached a plush office and when Stark turned and saw Zoe holding her dad so tight, his eyes softened and his voice gentled. Stark was a tall man and Jack could bet he used that height to intimidate on occasions, but not on this one. He crouched down so he was level with her eyes.

"Zoe, isn't it?" She nodded. "Zoe, I need to speak with your dad alone. How about you go with Doctor Blake and let her show you the cafeteria? You can bring us back some coffee."

Her eyes narrowed. "You have a coffee maker over there," she stated, head indicating towards the other side of the office. "I'm not a kid. Anything you have to say to my dad you can say to me," she added breezily.

Instead of getting annoyed Stark grinned at Jack. "I like her. She's got spunk." He turned back to Zoe and this time he treated her like an adult rather than a kid. "Okay, here's the deal. Your dad and I need to talk alone about what's happening out there, and the part he can play in keeping us safe while we figure out a way to stop these aliens." He straightened up. "And if that's my predecessor's coffee supply then it will taste as foul as it smells." He looked to Allison Blake. "Tell me I'm not just assuming Vincent has already taken over the cafeteria?"

Allison rolled her eyes in annoyance, and nodded. "And by the way, I'm not your assistant, Nathan. You can get your own coffee."

"Touche," he murmured but at that moment a younger man stuck his head through the doorway.

"Did you want me to fetch you some coffee?"

"You must be Fargo. Take Miss Carter with you... and take your time."

"It's okay, Zo." Jack smiled at her. "I'm not going anywhere without you."

Back at Hood River when Stark slid into the booth opposite with his easy smile it was as if he was heaven sent, arriving at a crucial moment when Jack was still considering all his options and finding most of them wanting. Looking back, Stark had never promised them a safe haven and yet there had been something about him, something so self-assured it made Jack believe Stark knew exactly where he needed to be to ride out the attacks in safety. After seeing the rest of Stark's group outside the diner he hadn't needed to be a genius to recognize two military trained men who could have overpowered him with relative ease, taking his car from him by force if necessary, though not without a fight, and Jack had learned to fight dirty when it counted. No one would have come to Jack's assistance though, too concerned with saving their own skin.

With the world falling to pieces around them Stark had withheld a few potentially vital facts on the road but he had never outwardly lied to Jack, and once they reached this government facility Stark could easily have denied him and Zoe access and left them outside to be incinerated. No one would have stopped him as Stark was definitely the man in charge, but he hadn't ordered any of those actions against Jack and Zoe, even going so far as to support Zoe on her other side as they raced to the elevator, making Jack wonder if her feet had even touched the ground on that race from the car.

Jack had taken a gamble on this handsome stranger with not just his own life but with Zoe's too, and fortunately it seemed to have paid off for now. He knew he would have to continue trusting Stark despite a certain smug arrogance about the man, and yet despite Stark giving him and Zoe this safe haven, Jack didn't feel too beholden to him because Stark would never have reached here before the wall of fire if not for Jack's and the other military guy's driving skills. With all of this in mind Jack gave Zoe another reassuring nod as she left with Fargo.

Much to Stark's poorly concealed irritation, Allison remained behind, one perfectly sculptured eyebrow raised as if to dare Stark to try to send her away again.

"Now that's settle we need to find a way to stop the aliens." He glanced at his wristwatch. "The department heads will be here shortly and I need to check on a few things." By now Stark was behind a glass desk that turned into what looked like a computer screen as soon as he touched it. "Allison, let me know when the President reaches Area51."

"He should be landing anytime now."

"Whitmore's a straight shooter. He's not going to be impressed when he finds out what the D.O.D. has been hiding there for the past seventy years," Stark added, "And more specifically for the last two days."

"Yeah, he could have evacuated the big cities before the attack rather than tell people to stay in their homes. Millions might still be alive," Jack remarked.

"And go where, Carter?" Stark shrugged. "Up into the mountains with no food, no equipment? There are only so many empty vacation homes," he added a little snidely because Jack had confided the idea brewing in his mind on the road. "You'd be worrying more about the people around you killing you than the aliens."

It was a sad indictment of human behavior but as a U.S. Marshal Jack had seen too much of the bad side of human nature to totally disagree. It didn't make it right though as most people were innately good and would have offered a hand of human kindness, but there was always the element of desperation that could turn even the nicest person into a killer. He knew even he would kill to protect his daughter and the people he cared about, though he liked to hope he would explore other options before resorting to violence.

Allison announced, "The President is in Area51... and he's not too happy. Okun will be joining us as soon as he finishes showing him the 'Freak Show'."

"Freak show?" he asked but both Stark and Allison Blake ignored his question.

People started filing in a few minutes later and Jack sat quietly as they all started to talk at once using terminology he couldn't wrap his head around even though he tried. The office walls turned transparent and various images were projected onto them as visual reports of progress - graphs, equations, and even some video footage. Jack winced at the scenes of destruction, and his only consolation was from knowing most of the victims would never have known what hit them, vaporized in seconds.

Ten minutes after that, on a really bad quality video conference call, some manic looking white-haired doctor mentioned a satellite engineer called Levinson who had found a countdown code embedded in Earth's own satellite feeds. Something about the aliens needing line of sight to coordinate the start of the massive attack. It was the only reason why Airforce One had been in the air with the President safely on-board with only minutes to spare when the White House and the rest of D.C. was destroyed.

In the meantime the massive ships were heading towards their next targets. According to one General they were looking at the destruction of every major city in the world within the next 36 hours and Jack could see from Stark's expression no one knew how to stop them.

****

Area51

Nathan sent everyone back to their departments to keep looking for solutions. He felt the tension throughout the facility as the ship moved from Portland, traveling directly towards their location, only breathing in relief when it passed over without faltering before changing course and going north towards Seattle and Vancouver. He had forgotten Carter was still with him and yet he found it weirdly comforting to look up and see him sitting there. Carter had a coffee in one hand and his daughter pressed back up against his side, asleep. Looking down Nathan noticed an untouched coffee placed near his hand and he took a sip. Cold, but even a cold coffee was better than nothing, especially if it was one of Vincent's brews.

He noticed Carter's confusion.

"We took a big risk talking with Area51," he explained. "If the aliens had intercepted the communication they could have traced it and obliterated both facilities. We can't take that risk again, which is why Okun has shared everything he's discovered so far."

"So we're on our own now. Divide and conquer."

Stark sighed deeply. Even though Carter's intelligence nowhere reached his own yet he felt this strange connection between them, warm and almost familiar. He knew it was because Carter had a similar air about him to someone he had known years ago when he first began experimenting with different partners, different genders. He knew Carter was no Harry but he had the same open, all-American, Apple Pie look about him - exactly Nathan's type. Nathan didn't need to ask if Carter was gay as the man had definitely checked him out once or twice both in the diner and in the car. Yet, if it was only sexual attraction between them then Nathan would have been game for a quick thank God we're still alive fuck, just to release some of the tension that was crippling his thoughts. Although he had not ruled that out completely Nathan surprised himself by wanting more. Perhaps it was seeing Carter with his daughter, and then seeing Allison again, reminding him of how it felt to be part of a relationship, part of a family. Allison was a strong woman, determined, beautiful, and incredibly smart too, but he had needed something more than that, and she had wanted more than he could give and wasn't prepared to settle for less. And why should she? It was why she had ended the shambles of their marriage.

Although Nathan liked both men and women he discovered he wanted someone physically stronger, someone who could be as dominant as him, yet willing to both take and submit. He wanted someone who was an equal, but not necessarily in the intelligence department. He had a feeling Carter could give him exactly what he craved but now was certainly not the time to ask. Except if he couldn't ask now when humanity was on the verge of extinction then when could he ask?

"So... we're like the Native Americans with the Government-backed Fracking companies at the door," Carter stated softly.

"Sadly, a good analogy."

"Do we have anything in our favor?"

"Hope?"

"Yeah, not so reassuring," he remarked. "Maybe you should try old school... smoke signals or Morse code," Carter added.

Nathan blinked in surprise at the simple and so overlooked solution to their communication problems, but Allison chose that moment to return. Her single nod confirmed what Nathan had hoped, that Carter's record was good enough to give him the necessary clearance for what Nathan had in mind.

"Marshal Carter, we lost our Sheriff. He was in New York when it was attacked." Stark seemed genuinely saddened by the loss. "We never got on too well but he was a good man." He cleared his throat. "We have military security here at Global Dynamics, but with the whole of the town now living in the underground bunkers we could use civilian law enforcement to handle... domestic issues." Stark looked across at Allison. "I'm sure the D.O.D. would agree. Right, Allison?"

"Under the circumstances it's a good idea, Nathan. There are a lot of scared people here, including families with children, and not everyone takes kindly to military enforcement."

"So you want me to become the Sheriff? Answerable to who?"

"Whom."

"What?"

Nathan raised his hands with a smile, deciding to leave the grammar lesson to another day. "To the town's representatives."

"Not to you."

Nathan looked a little pained but he nodded. "No. Not to me... or to the D.O.D.," he added.

Under the circumstances Carter had little choice but to agree yet at the same time Nathan hoped he could see the benefit in having a separate civilian police presence representing the people rather than the military, or the corporation. According to Carter's enlistment records it was the main reason why he had chosen law enforcement rather than the military academy all those years ago. Though liking guys might also have been a major factor in that decision. It likely sounded like a demotion but was actually a promotion, and at least Carter would have a valid position inside the facility.

Jack nodded slowly. "Okay. I'll be your sheriff."

"If you don't mind remaining here a little longer, Sheriff," he emphasized Jack's new title, "I'll see if Fargo can find you and your daughter some quarters until this is all over and we can rebuild the town."

****

A New Sheriff

It was hard to believe only two days earlier his main concern was chasing down his daughter after her latest 'running away from home' episode. Within two days he'd witnessed the arrival of aliens, answering that old question of whether they were alone in the universe, and then seen the annihilation of over half of the world's population in less than a day. This guy, David Levinson, turned out to be an MIT computer genius who had no ambitions, working for one of the media companies whose satellite got hijacked and used against them all. He had spotted the hidden signal and later figured out a way to use that same code base against them by hacking into their systems and writing a virus program to bring down the shields surrounding the alien ships; the shields that had made every human means of attack useless. Of course he had needed to fly into space to deliver this virus, and a nuclear warhead, and barely made it back safely.

President Whitmore had led the attack on the 36 smaller ships, coordinated around the world using Jack's suggestion of Morse Code. Apparently a small alien fighter ship which had seemed unresponsive for decades, had come to life once the mothership arrived. The leaps in knowledge over those intervening years meant humanity was not so far behind and Eureka was in the process of creating weapons using all the information Okun had sent on the aliens and their technology.

"Their Achilles Heel was the very weapon they were using to destroy our cities," Henry explained.

Jack liked Henry as he was affable and willing to dumb-it-down for Jack. He had a feeling they would become great friends.

They had all gone outside to celebrate, watching as the previously anticipated 4th of July fireworks were replaced with showers of debris from the mothership streaking through and burning up in Earth's atmosphere. Of course it wasn't over as many of the smaller fighter ships had crashed onto the planet and their occupants would need to be rounded up or eliminated. He could see Zoe standing with a group of kids her own age, looking a little more animated even though he could feel the shadow of grief hanging over both of them. Just because he was no longer married to her mother it didn't mean he loved her any less, and he hoped she had found some comfort in Greg's arms in those final moments before L.A. was destroyed. He wished he could have the same comfort now, to grieve the loss of people he had loved or cared about, and the millions - billions - of others who hadn't lived to see the aliens defeated.

It turned out space inside Global Dynamics was at a premium. Jack had ended up spending the past two nights sleeping on the couch in Nathan's office, which transformed into a large bed at the flick of a switch, while someone with a girl of a similar age had agreed to take in Zoe until Fargo could find a place for Jack and Zoe to live until the town was rebuilt. Nathan hadn't seemed to mind in the least and Jack had found it strangely calming to fall asleep to the sound of Nathan working barely ten feet away. He had even persuaded Nathan to take a few hours to catch up on some sleep, promising to wake him if anything vital happened.

Nathan drifted over to stand by Jack's side.

"So, Carter, how were you intending to spend your 4th of July?" Stark asked as they stood side-by-side staring up at the 'fireworks' in the sky.

It had all seemed so complicated before, trying to juggle his daughter and his own hopes and expectations for today. He had spent a few nights before the unexpected road trip worrying over how he was going to approach Ethan, just in case he didn't react the way Jack hoped, though Ethan had never come across as the type to resort to physical violence and he had been giving off all the right signals. Now all that worry seemed so pointless and a waste of time and of energy. Jack turned and looked at the handsome man standing beside him, appraising him slowly to leave no shadow of doubt over his intentions.

"I was planning to have a steak, a few beers, watch the game, the fireworks..." he trailed off, licking his suddenly dry lips nervously before going on. "And then persuade a guy I kind of wanted to know better to hit the sheets with me." He smiled softly at Stark, tinged with sadness. "I got a steak sandwich earlier, and the fireworks." Jack glanced back up at the sky for a moment before shrugging. "No beer, and there won't be a game, probably for a long time." He smiled again wryly, noticing Nathan's intrigued expression and decided to go for broke because maybe they both needed someone to hold onto tonight. "But you're a guy I'd kind of like to know better. You interested in hitting the sheets with me?"

Nathan smiled brightly and leaned in, framing Jack's face with his hands as he kissed Jack firmly, leaving no doubt in Jack's mind that he was on-board with Jack's invitation.

"No game, true... but I do have beer."

Much later, as they settled down to sleep with Jack's head tucked into Nathan's shoulder, his body and mind no longer feeling so numb and lost as he took comfort in the man lying beside him, Jack felt Nathan nuzzle the top of his head and heard a soft whisper, "Happy 4th of July, Jack."

It was an anniversary he could never forget, and ten years later they still celebrated it the same way.

Fourth of July by Knowmefirst0.jpg

END