Outward: Chapter 4: Forward Operating Base

Maj Raskin and TSgt Abernathy sat around the table at Forward Operating Base Mackinelly. Outside the window, they saw the farmer’s back, as he stood glaring at the news crews waiting outside. They seemed to have multiplied overnight.

TSgt Abernathy briefly stood up, leaned over the sink, and closed the blinds, blocking their view into the kitchen. “I’m starting to have second thoughts about letting them get involved, sir,” she said as she resumed her place at the table.

“Long term, it’s better this way,” Maj Raskin replied. “If there’s one thing the media likes best, it’s a government cover-up. Or possibly a celebrity death. But mostly a government cover-up. If we weren’t completely open about it from the start, they’d be hunting us down once they caught wind that the… the…”

TSgt Abernathy looked at him blankly.

“What did we decide to call it, anyway?” he finally said.

“The object?”

“Hmm,” Maj Raskin muttered disapprovingly. “Doesn’t have much of a ring to it.”

“It’s what I’ve been calling it in my notes so far, sir.”

“What else do you have in your notes about it so far, sergeant?”

TSgt Abernathy flipped through the pages of her notebook. “Nothing much conclusive at this point. We know what it looks like. Size, shape, color, temperature. We’ll have a rough idea about weight once the crane finishes getting set up.”

As far as she was concerned, personally, the crew could take as long as they wanted on that. She wasn’t all that fond of getting even more dirt stains on her uniform. The job of trying to dig the object out of the ground had largely fallen to her so far.

“Sorry again about tracking the dirt in, Mrs. Mackinelly,” she called out.

“Oh, that’s quite all right, dear,” the farmer’s wife replied as she poked her head through the door to the living room. “You should see the kind of mess the grandkids can make after they’ve been playing out there all day. If only they could be as neat as you when they came in for dinner, dear.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

“What were we talking about again?” Maj Raskin interjected.

“Oh, right, sir,” TSgt Abernathy replied. “It’s almost certainly not radioactive, which is good. But other than that, not much. The samples results won’t be back from the lab for a while, though I’m expecting them to come back negative for any pathogens. If there were any, one of the kids would have probably come down with something by now.”

“Can we be sure about that?”

TSgt Abernathy punched a few keys on the laptop before turning it around to face her commander. “It’s about ten seconds in from that bookmark, sir.”

Maj Raskin watched the replay of the video that Prof. Thomas had shared. “I’m not sure that would be enough to–”

TSgt Abernathy smiled.

“Did that boy just lick the object?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I see.” He turned the laptop back around.

“He said it tasted like the playground slide at his school,” TSgt Abernathy added.

“You asked him about it?”

She nodded. “You asked me to collect whatever data I reasonably could about the object, sir.”

“I didn’t mean how it tasted.”

“You should have been more specific, sir.”

“Indeed.”

“Besides,” TSgt Abernathy concluded, “I certainly wasn’t going to lick it myself.”

“I suppose not.”

“I mean, it already had the boy’s cooties on it. Sir.”

Maj Raskin looked at her. “I can see someone’s certainly in a good mood today.”

TSgt Abernathy nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, sir. This is just what I was hoping for when I volunteered for this assignment.”

“Yes, well, that would explain it, then,” Maj Raskin replied, trying to remember where this situation meeting was going before it jumped the rails. He looked at the window and saw the telltale shadow of someone holding a video camera on his shoulder. “Ah, yes, right, the media. As I was saying, they’ll lose interest in the story sooner if there’s no conspiracy angle to it. ‘Military confiscates alien device, speaks at length’ is sexy, but not quite as sexy as ‘Military secretly confiscates alien device, refuses comment.’ Besides,” he continued, “how many times in our research has a government cover-up of alien activity on Earth proved to be worth the effort?”

“Not very often,” TSgt Abernathy admitted. After a pause to consider the point further, she asked, “So I suppose no Movie Night this week, right?”

Maj Raskin shook his head. “Probably no movie night for the foreseeable future.”

When Maj Raskin had been reassigned to command AFEXOCOM two years earlier, back when it had first been stood up, his first order of business was to examine all of the extraterrestrial activity that was already known at that point. Unsurprisingly, this had taken essentially no time at all. That avenue having failed, he then turned to the available theoretical research on how to deal with first contact situations and prolonged alien activity in or around Earth. Again unsurprisingly, there hadn’t been many studies on the topic, whether within DoD or the academic community. All else having failed, Maj Raskin had turned to the one domain in which speculative analysis of human-alien interactions had been thoroughly performed.

And thus AFEXOCOM Movie Night was born.

Strictly speaking, Movie Night wasn’t limited to just movies. It also included television shows, novels, short stories, and even the occasional video game. If it dealt with humans encountering aliens, or vice versa, it counted. If it took place in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century, even better. The science fiction community had considered almost every possible take on the subject, giving he and TSgt Abernathy numerous scenarios to consider, and countless approaches to take for better or worse, once they stripped away the more outlandish of the premises away from them.

If there was one constant among them, it was this: whenever the government tried to stage a cover-up of an alien presence on Earth, it had to resort to increasingly elaborate and far-fetched tactics to preserve the masquerade. And AFEXOCOM hardly had the budget for any of that.

“Anyway,” Maj Raskin continued, “leave dealing with the press to me. I want your focus to be on figuring out just what that object is. I’ll deal with everything else. Does that sound like a plan?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

“Good. Then get out there and make sure the object gets lifted out of the crater and onto the truck. If the reporters try to bother you, tell them I’ll be giving a press conference in a few minutes to field their questions.”

“Yes, sir. If you don’t mind my asking, sir, what will you be doing in here while I’m out there?”

“Everything else, sergeant,” he replied. “We both better get started.”

Maj Raskin had a lot on his plate. Mrs. Mackinelly had been excessively generous with providing the two of them sandwiches, after all. But more importantly, Maj Raskin had a lot of things to take care of.

Prof. Thomas was supposedly off combing the collected knowledge of the astronomical community about where the object might have come from. He hadn’t heard back on that yet, but it was still early. Hopefully, the fact that he was a university professor — Maj Raskin had called the university to check, just in case — meant that he was going to be at least fairly reliable, and probably not just another crazy UFO nut. Maj Raskin knew TSgt Abernathy had a file on those in case he ever needed one for some reason.

In the meantime was the problem of ascertaining the full scope of the event. Maj Raskin wasn’t willing to just assume that this object was the only one out there. If he were sending things out to other planets, he figured he’d want to send a backup or two, just in case something happened to the first one. Were there others? The planet’s surface was seventy percent or so water, and though he didn’t yet know how much the object weighed, it probably couldn’t float. Were there any sitting on the ocean floor? It was probably a long shot, but he needed to contact the Navy to ask them to keep an eye out for anything like that.

He’d also need to check through the AFEXOCOM files of Class Zero incidents, to see if maybe one of these objects had been discovered somewhere else already but been dismissed as a bogus report. Maybe they had been sent a blurry or out-of-focus cell-phone camera of another one of the spheres. Or the description had been badly translated into English. Or the formatting of the message sent to them put Time Cube to shame, and it had been immediately tossed into the crank file.

And of course there would be the deluge of new reports of almost identical events happening all over, every single one some kind of copy-cat hoax perpetrated by someone hoping to get a little attention while AFEXOCOM’s 15 minutes of fame ticked down. But they’d have to look at them all, just in case one or two would prove to be legitimate.

Worse, with TSgt Abernathy busy doing real productive work on the object they knew about, he’d be stuck going through each of the reports himself.

On the other hand, it wasn’t all bad. If the object did indeed turn out to be Something, maybe the powers that be would be willing to increase AFEXOCOM’s budget. It’d no longer be the black sheep of the Air Force if it turned out there really were aliens out there.

Maj Raskin needed this to go right. He was going to play it strictly by the book, and since he was the one who wrote the book in the first place, this put him in a good position. And who knew? If things played out right, he just might come out of all this a lieutenant colonel after all.

He smiled. Time to get to work.


Chapter word count: 1,669 (+2)
Total word count: 7,225 / 50,000 (14.45%)

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