Outward: Chapter 2: Surface

The man harrumphed. “I was wondering how long it was going to take for the MIBs to show up,” he muttered, conspicuously keeping his attention on the object on the ground.

“It’s really more of a sage green,” TSgt Abernathy corrected, gently setting the pelican case down on the grass. “Also, I know the ABUs aren’t all that flattering, but I’m not a man either.”

The man hazarded a glance behind him. “There’s also only one of you, I guess.”

“Wrong again. The commander’s off talking to the proprietor of this farm. For now it’s just you, me, and the two news crews behind us.”

“And this.”

TSgt Abernathy took a few cautious steps towards the object. It was a large metallic sphere, half-buried in the ground. It sat in the center of a small dirt crater, most likely the result of its impact. The grass surrounding the crater looked a little scorched, but aside from the crater itself the damage to the pasture looked fairly minimal. That was promising.

She slowly crouched down to get a better view of the sphere itself. It looked like it had survived the presumed impact unharmed, at least superficially. The object still looked spherical, and there weren’t any obvious cracks or gashes in its surface. No protuberances that suggested that something had been mounted on the sphere and broken off. In fact, other than some dirt and smudges, the sphere looked almost featureless. Very curious.

“Huh,” she said.

“What?” the man asked.

“It looks like a big ball of metal.”

“What do they normally look like?” he asked, a little too casually to be natural.

“Beats me. This is the first one we’ve come across. But I mean, why would anyone make a big ball of metal? What’s it supposed to do?”

“So you admit someone made it.”

“Well yeah, obviously. I don’t know of any natural process that would produce something like this. But it doesn’t look like it does anything.”

“What’s it supposed to do?”

“Something, right? It’s not like anything we would send into space somewhere.”

“We?”

“People. Look. There’s no engine nozzles. No antennas. No solar panels. It’s just… smooth metal. Weird.”

“Alien.”

She stood up and turned to him. “Hang on, who are you anyway?”

The man took a step back. “Who wants to know?”

She straightened herself. “Technical Sergeant Susan Abernathy, United States Air Force, senior investigator, Air Force Exosolar Command.” She paused. “Your turn.”

“I think I’ll pass, thank you.”

TSgt Abernathy looked at the man. He was tall, with a graying beard and similarly graying disheveled hair. He wore an oversized unbuttoned flannel shirt as though it were a lab coat. She then looked at the tripod next to him.

“How long has that video camera been running?” she asked.

“Going to start confiscating evidence from the witnesses now?”

She rolled her eyes. She bent down and popped her pelican case open. “Can I get a copy?”

The man remained silent as TSgt Abernathy shoved a couple handfuls of something into her uniform’s pockets and then began pulling out some equipment. She removed a small box attached to a long stake and shoved it into the ground.

“What’s that?” the man asked.

“Hey, I asked you two questions and haven’t gotten answers back,” she replied, slipping a pair of headphones around her neck. “That’s not much of a way to work as a team.”

“Since when are we a team?”

“We both want to figure out what that thing is, right?” She plugged the headphone jack into a black box with a wand attached.

“Well…”

“It’s not like you’re hiding anything from me, anyway. Like the first thing I’m going to do when I get back to base isn’t going to be looking through our files on ufologists to see if you come up.”

“What makes you assume I’m one of them?”

TSgt Abernathy gave the man a dumb look, then pointed at the object in the ground. “Besides, you called me a MIB. To anyone except ufologists, the only thing they associate with that term is a Will Smith movie.”

The man began accusingly, “So you are–”

“I know what you’re going to say,” she added quickly, fiddling with the controls on the box staked into the ground, “and the answer is no. Ever since Day One it’s all the crazies sending us letters demanding we release them files that don’t exist about all the secret alien spacecraft we have hidden beneath Wichita or whatever. Sometimes I think the only reason AFEXOCOM got stood up was so the FOIA people would have someone to take the ufologists off their hands. Guess who gets stuck dealing with all of them. Not the commander, that’s for sure. The list is just so I know who not to bother sending another form letter to.”

The man considered this. “It’s not like I do this full-time, you know.”

“I should hope not. That’s my job.”

“I have a real job, too. I’m a professor of astronomy at Western State. This is more a hobby of mine.”

TSgt Abernathy nodded. “This thing here is a differential GPS. It’ll let me measure down to the centimeter where I’ll be taking soil samples from. You know, to see if anything interesting leaked out of whatever it is. Don’t touch it. The survey team will wring my neck if I break their equipment.”

“And the headphones?”

She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “People tend to freak out when they hear a Geiger counter click. Like there’s no such thing as a background level of radiation. Don’t tell the reporters. If they ask, tell them it’s a mil-spec iPod or something.”

The amateur ufologist nodded. TSgt Abernathy put the headphones over her ears and began walking in slowly widening circles around the object, taking notes on a pad of paper every few steps. She then began scooping little clumps of dirt out of the ground at various distances from the object and placing them in individual vials, carefully labeling each with the time and location they were taken. Once she ran out of vials, she returned to the pelican case and slowly slipped each one back into a padded cut-out. When she stood back up, the man thrust an SD card in front of her face.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“A copy of about twenty hours’ worth of video. Don’t get too excited. You’ll see a bunch of people come by to look at it, but it never does anything.”

She slipped it into her pocket. “Thanks. Now I’m going to take a few swabs of the object itself. You better stand back, in case something happens.”

“I’ll pass.”

“Your funeral. For all we know it could be a bomb that didn’t go off.”

“I thought you said it didn’t look like anything people would make.”

“Maybe aliens have a different design aesthetic,” she deadpanned. “Maybe they are horrified by what our space probes look like and want to wipe us out before we send anything else out past the heliopause.”

“Still not worried. The farmers’ kids were climbing all over it yesterday, and nothing seemed to happen.”

TSgt Abernathy stopped mid-swipe, still holding the cotton swab against the metal sphere. “Huh.”

“I’m pretty sure one of them licked it, too.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you.”

“Check the video.”

She sighed. “Well, I better keep swabbing it anyway, just in case.”

She did so, taking several samples from various places on the surface of the sphere. As expected, nothing happened. She was just placing the last sample vial back into the pelican case as she heard footsteps approaching. She looked up, and quickly raised herself to full height and saluted.

“Sir!” she said.

“As you were, sergeant,” Maj Raskin replied as he came to a stop. Next to him stood a man TSgt Abernathy assumed to be Farmer Mackinelly. The farmer’s face was a mixture of impatience and annoyance.

“I’m just about done with my initial analysis.”

“Report.”

“The object certainly is real, sir. That’s it, right over there.”

“I see,” Maj Raskin said, leaning closer to it. “Definitely not swamp gas. Or Photoshop. Or Jupiter. You’d be surprised how many cases cross our desk that are like that,” he added, turning to the farmer. “Once we even came across a web page with pictures of a full moon, claiming it was an alien mothership. Of course, things like that we can dismiss out of hand without making a trip out.”

The farmer grunted.

“It doesn’t appear to be a hoax either, sir. Or if it is, someone went to an awful lot of trouble to make it realistic. The impact crater is consistent with a low-velocity, high-momentum impact from high altitude.”

“Normally when people try to fake an impact crater, they think bigger is better,” Maj Raskin explained to the farmer. “They try to pass off a little chunk of metal in a giant crater. Nothing falls that fast.”

The farmer grunted again, losing interest in feigning interest.

The news crews were quietly pointing their cameras and microphones at the discussion. Maj Raskin glanced at them.

“It’s also impressively solid,” TSgt Abernathy continued. “It’d be an awful lot of work for someone to place it out here deliberately.”

Maj Raskin nodded. “And from talking with Mr. Mackinelly here, he strikes me as the honest type. I couldn’t imagine him or one of his farmhands perpetrating a hoax like that.”

TSgt Abernathy knew what he meant. Had it been a hoax, the farmer would surely have been advertising the object a lot more. Looking at him, he positively embodied the desire for all these strange people to get off his land and let him get back to work.

“That settles it, then,” Maj Raskin concluded, taking a step back and turning to better face the camera. More loudly, he continued, “It appears we have here a Class Three potential extraterrestrial incursion into terrestrial space. And, under my authority as commander of Air Force Exosolar Command, as granted by the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, I am taking command of the handling of this event. Mr. Mackinelly, as we discussed earlier, I am assigning you the responsibility of continuing to secure the object until we can mobilize the appropriate resources to take it off your hands. Furthermore… wait, who are you?” he broke off, pointing towards the man.

“That’s–” TSgt Abernathy began.

“Professor Franklin Thomas,” the man replied, “professor of astronomy at Western State University.”

“And part-time ufologist,” TSgt Abernathy added. “He’s been here almost the past twenty-four hours studying the object.”

The farmer grunted in agreement.

“Mr. Thomas,” Maj Raskin said, “I don’t suppose you have any sabbatical time coming up?”

“What do you mean?” Thomas replied.

“It seems to me your time here makes you the world’s foremost expert on the object. You’d be an asset for my team.”

“I…”

“We’ll pay you.”

“Um… deal?” Thomas said.

“Excellent,” Maj Raskin said, rubbing his hands together.

TSgt Abernathy turned to Maj Raskin and lowered her voice. “Are you sure about this?”

“If this is as big as I think it could be,” he replied, “it’s going to take more than the two of us working on it.”

“So, the three of us, now?”

Maj Raskin shook his head. “It’s time to call in a few contracts.”


Chapter word count: 1,895 (+228)
Total word count: 3,647 / 50,000 (7.294%)

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