Outward: Chapter 1: Arrival

The door to the glove compartment slipped out of Major Raskin’s hand and fell open as the car suddenly lurged forward. Its contents, having been hastily crammed inside, now began to spill out, pushed forward by the repair manual and tire gauge and everything else that was supposed to be in there. Maj Raskin gingerly picked up one of the items that now lay on the glove compartment door.

“I don’t remember putting these on the checklist,” he said.

“No, sir,” Technical Sergeant Abernathy replied, keeping her hands on the wheel and her eyes fixed on the bumpy dirt road in front of them. “But the infirmary found a bunch of surplus boxes full of them in storage. They were happy to have me take some off their hands.”

Maj Raskin held the paper facemask in front of him by one of its thin elastic straps. He wasn’t impressed. “I can imagine why they wouldn’t want them.”

“Apparently they had requisitioned way too many a while back. They need the room for other stuff now.”

“H1N1?”

TSgt Abernathy shook her head. “SARS, I think.”

“Huh,” Maj Raskin replied. “I can’t even remember when everyone was all spun up about that.”

“2003, sir.”

“Huh.” Maj Raskin held the mask up a little higher, letting the sun shine on it better. Or rather, through it better. He realized he had never actually seen a paper facemask this close before. He didn’t know whether it was supposed to be that translucent, or if it was just a consequence of being made by the lowest bidder. Maybe that’s why the infirmary had been able to buy so many. “Do you suppose it’d work?”

“Paper doesn’t go bad,” TSgt Abernathy replied. “At least, not on that kind of time scale. I mean, it’ll decompose eventually, given the right circumstances. Or the wrong ones, I suppose.”

“Thank you, sergeant, but that’s not quite what I meant.”

“If we’re going to use them, we should probably put them on now. The GPS says we’re almost there. Not soon enough,” she added under her breath as one of the tires found a rut.

“I think not,” Maj Raskin replied, shoving it and the rest of the masks back in the glove compartment. “We don’t want their first thought when they see us to be worried about contamination from it.”

TSgt Abernathy nodded. “Better not tell them what we’ve got in the back, then, sir.”

The back seat was dominated by a large trunk containing two hazmat suits. Unlike the facemasks, they very much were on the checklist, although reflecting on it now, as Maj Raskin sat uncomfortably in the passenger seat, it wasn’t as though they were going to precisely get into them without getting out of the car and exposing them to whatever might be out there. And more to the point, they would be fully exposed to whatever might be ahead of them by the time they discovered that hazmat suits would be a good idea anyway. He made a mental note to take the hazmat suits off the Class Two checklist, then thought better of it and made a paper note of it in his pocket notebook.

They say no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. His investigation plan hadn’t even survived the road trip.

“We’re here, sir,” TSgt Abernathy announced, bringing Maj Raskin’s attention back to the task at hand.

He surveyed the situation. Their car shared a clearing with five pick-up trucks, two SUVs and, much to Maj Raskin’s dismay, two large news vans, each with an tall antenna hoisted on the roof. “No sign of the target,” he said.

“The target should be out in the pasture beyond the corn field, according to the tweet,” TSgt Abernathy replied. “It should be somewhere over… there,” she pointed. “Ish.”

Maj Raskin groaned. He wasn’t sure what annoyed him more: that his team’s first mission was launched by something someone posted on Twitter, or that Twitter had managed to scoop the official reporting channels by at least thirty-six hours. Official reporting that cited Twitter as its source. It made him feel old.

“Unfortunately, none of the images posted on Flickr had any useful geotags on them, so I can’t be more specific than that,” TSgt Abernathy said, rummaging through a folder full of printouts that she had retrived from the back seat. “And the Facebook fan page someone set up for the target was of no help at all.”

They were interrupted by a knock on the driver-side window. A little girl with pigtails was standing outside. Her right hand rejoined her left one behind her back, and she slowly rocked back and forth on her heels expectantly.

TSgt Abernathy rolled down the window. “Hello there,” she smiled to the girl.

“My dad says parking to see the UFO is ten dollars,” the girl replied.

“Is that so?” Maj Raskin asked doubtfully.

“My dad says that it’s to pay for all the damage to his Goddamn field from everyone walking around to see the UFO,” the girl said sweetly, a little too perfectly to not be rehearsed. Maj Raskin suspected someone’s father was coaching someone to get money from the attention.

“It’s not a UFO,” TSgt Abernathy said.

“My dad says it sure is the genuine article.”

“No, I mean, it has to by flying to be a UFO. That’s what the F stands for. If it landed in your dad’s field, it’s not a UFO any more. It’s just an unidentified object. A UO. And if we’re able to identify it, then it won’t be unidentified any more, and it’ll just be an O.”

The girl looked confused. TSgt Abernathy had a way of doing that to people. Maj Raskin knew firsthand.

“Just pay her the parking,” he said with a sigh.

As TSgt Abernathy searched her wallet for a $10 bill, Maj Raskin climbed out of the car and stretched discreetly, glad to finally be out of the car after a five-hour drive. The base’s motorpool never did procure its vehicles for comfort. Such was the cost of not wanting to put this kind of mileage on his own car. He saw the little girl skipping back towards the nearby farmhouse as TSgt Abernathy got out of the car as well.

“Sergeant, you go on ahead and start looking at the target,” he said. “I want to know if it was worth coming all the way out here.”

“And you, sir?” she asked.

“I’ll go over and talk with Farmer Brown over there to–”

“Farmer Mackinelly,” she corrected. “Esau, if I remember correctly.”

“With Farmer Mackinelly over there,” Maj Raskin continued, “to make sure he fully understands the situation now that we’re here. I’ll join you once that’s taken care of.”

“Yes sir.”

As Maj Raskin began walking towards the farmhouse, TSgt Abernathy opened the car’s trunk and pulled out a pelican case. Carrying it towards the field, she saw a roughly arrow-shaped wooden sign with “UFO” scrawled hastily on it, pointing down a path through the corn. One less thing to worry about, she thought as she walked down the path. She soon came to a grassy field with several people standing roughly in the middle of it.

As she approached, she quickly surveyed the situation. One of the people was slowly walking in wide circles around something on the ground. A tripod stood near him, its camera presumably pointed towards the target. Off to the right, another two tripods with four people milling about nearby. They suddenly became more animated as she approached. They must have noticed her uniform.

She braced herself for the inevitable.

“Ma’am! Ma’am!” the reporters called out to her as they ran across the field, their respective camera crews scrambling to detach the cameras from their tripods and catch up.

TSgt Abernathy tried her best to pretend not to notice them until absolutely necessary. She also managed to stifle, just barely, her instinctive urge to reply, “Don’t call me ‘ma’am,’ I work for a living.”

The nimbler of the reporters thrust a microphone in front of her face, finally causing her to stop. He then brought the microphone back to his mouth just long enough to ask, “Ma’am, what is the Air Force’s take on the UFO landing?”

“No comment at this time,” TSgt Abernathy replied in her politest monotone.

“Are the rumors true that this is all part of a secret military coverup?” the less nimble reporter asked.

“No comment at this time.” How exactly did they expect her to answer a question like that anyway?

“Do you believe they come in peace?”

“No comment at this time.”

“How big a threat does the UFO pose to the surrounding community?”

“No comment at this time.”

“Are there any questions that you can comment on?”

“Look,” TSgt Abernathy finally said, seeing that this wasn’t going to end unless she said something to them. “I just arrived five minutes ago. I haven’t even seen the object yet, so no, I don’t have anything I can comment on, unless you want to hear me talk about my opinions regarding the available radio stations out here.”

The reporters reflected briefly on this. “Ma’am, what are your thoughts on Krash 98′s recent format change from adult contemporary to–”

TSgt Abernathy resisted the urge to facepalm. “And even if I did,” she continued, “it would be inappropriate for me to discuss such things while on duty. My orders, on the other hand, are to assess the situation. Once I’ve done that, I would be happy to–” She reconsidered. “I would be available to answer your questions to the best of my ability. Until then, I would appreciate it if you kept your distance and allowed me to carry out my mission.”

“Keep our distance because of the imminent danger the UFO poses–”

“No, keep your distance so that you stay out of my way.” She really wanted to make some quip about the only dangerous thing out here being herself, if they didn’t leave her alone, but Maj Raskin had made clear during the mission briefing the ramifications of saying anything that could be taken out of context or quote-mined. “Thank you.”

That seemed to satisfy the reporters just enough to get out of her way. As she continued towards the target, she glanced back and saw the crews mounting the cameras back on their tripods and aiming them towards her. She was going to have an audience, it appeared.

Outstanding.


Chapter word count: 1,752 (+85)
Total word count: 1,752 / 50,000 (3.504%)