Outward: Chapter 5: Star Search

Franklin Thomas was wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into.

He had always kind of believed there was some kind of government conspiracy to cover-up UFOs. Not fervently or anything, of course, and there wasn’t any particular theory that he had much stock in. Most of the stories he’d found on the Internet and heard while attending the occasional ufologist convention held within driving distance over the weekend were dubious at best. But there were just so many of them that he suspected that at least some of them must have a kernel of truth to them, somewhere. After all, even a broken clock was right twice a day.

But then the military probably used some kind of weird twenty-four hour clock, one where the numbers went from 1 to 24. Or maybe 0 to 23; he couldn’t be sure. One where the hour hand pointed straight down at noon, at least. The point was, a broken one of those would only be right once a day.

Prof. Thomas took a chug of his room-temperature coffee and tried to focus. Staring into image after image of the night sky started to mess with one’s mind after a while. No, the real point was: he had always had a sneaking suspicion that there was some kind of conspiracy afoot, probably, given the odds, and now he was in on it. Peripherally.

The magnitude of what had happened back on the farm didn’t really sink in until he found himself with a signed contract with those two military folks. They hadn’t shoved a black hood over his head and rushed him away to some secret underground bunker. Boy, that would’ve been a story. No, the one in charge practically insisted he go back to his office at the university and use whatever resources he had to figure out where the UFO had been while it was still, well, flying. Or whatever it did.

He had checked the fine print of the contract when he got back to his desk. He was no lawyer, but there didn’t seem to be any dire warnings about the horrible things that would happen to him if he didn’t keep his mouth shut about anything he saw or heard. Just that he agreed to turn a copy of whatever he found over to them. Not even the originals!

Secret government cover-ups lost a bit of their mystique, he had to admit.

Still, one couldn’t be too careful. He turned to his computer and minimized the folder full of the photographs he had found of the meteor that turned out not to be a meteor after all. He spent a minute or two hunting for the blue W on his desktop, hidden amongst a hundred other icons. He had once made the mistake of asking one of his grad students to organize his computer for him. He couldn’t find anything for the rest of the week, and eventually had to ask IT to restore an old copy of his computer from tape, just so everything would be back where he had left it.

He finally found it, double-clicked it, and began typing a note to the department secretary:

“Janet, if anything should mysteriously happen to me, you’ll find the reason on my computer. Look for the folder called ‘Fall Midterm Grades’. (If they beat you to it, they’ll never think to look there.) The password is MulderScully1. Tell everyone!”

He looked at the screen, reconsidered, and swapped the last two sentences, just to be safe. He then realized he didn’t want Janet to know his password if something didn’t mysteriously happen to him, so he couldn’t put the instructions and the password in the same note. He deleted everything and tried again:

“Janet, if you’re reading this, they probably got to me. You’ll find the reason on my computer, under the cunningly mislabeled folder ‘Fall Midterm Grades’. The world must know! P.S. the password is MulderScully1.”

And then, on a separate page:

“Janet, if anything should mysteriously happen to me, open the enclosed envelope and follow the instructions there.”

Much better, he thought. But still a little room for improvement. He deleted the word “cunningly”. Then on the second page, he replaced “if” with “if and only if”. He had spent enough time with that charming woman in the math department to have had a little first order predicate logic rub off on him.

He made a mental note to ask Janet later where he could find some adhesive envelopes.

Anyway, that taken care of, Prof. Thomas returned to the task at hand, bringing back up the folder full of images. The folder contained all the pictures he could find of meteors in the general area of where the UFO had crashed. There weren’t all that many good ones, but even the fuzzier ones clearly showed the characteristic trail of something burning up while plowing through the atmosphere. A trail that pointed directly in the direction that the object had come from.

After that, it was just a matter of following that path backwards as far as he could, relying on the amateur astronomical community to have serendipitously taken pictures of the parts of the sky where it should have been before it began its descent.

As he had found out, however, this was easier said than done. The sky was a big place, after all, and the UFO wasn’t all that big. Six, maybe eight feet in diameter? That’s not a lot of surface area to reflect sunlight. It was metal, though, maybe even shiny, at least before it started impinging on the atmosphere. A high albedo would help a little. Would it help enough?

On the other hand, maybe the part that landed was just the part that survived the descent. Sort of like an alien black box, perhaps? He looked at the meteor pictures again. They very much looked like something burning up from the friction with the air. Which would mean that it had been larger, while still in space. And if the larger assembly were similarly metal and shiny….

Heck, he had been able to see a satellite or two with the naked eye before when stargazing. It was possible.

The meteor trails at least pointed to a particular area of the sky to start looking, but who knew how far he’d need to widen the search? He stepped back to look at the broader picture. An alien device from another star — it obviously wouldn’t have come from within the solar system — landing on Earth. It couldn’t have been flying directly towards Earth; he couldn’t imagine it was even possible to aim something that precisely from light years away. There would have to be course corrections along the way. Exhaust plumes, perhaps? Those would be big and reflect a lot of light. The UFO would probably have orbited Earth first before beginning its descent. Who knew how long it had spent up there, undetected?

Undetected because no one had been looking for it, he hoped, and not because it was undetectable.

Prof. Thomas blinked a few times, then went back to comparing pictures of the night sky from before the UFO crash-landed. If it were going to be seen, it would appear as some kind of faint object that wasn’t there before. If it had been in orbit, its position against the background stars would change even over the course of a couple minutes. It would have been difficult to photograph had anyone known its flight path ahead of time. Capturing it by accident would take a real stroke of luck.

The computers down in the basement were much better at this sort of comparative star field analysis than even the most starving of grad students, and he certainly had them using his full allocation of CPU time checking the images he had found from the past week. They were especially better at correcting for the different angles and rotations and all the other discrepancies between pictures caused by how the camera wouldn’t have been in the precise same orientation both times.

But Prof. Thomas was still a traditionalist at heart, and he didn’t feel like he was really working unless he was trying to do at least a small piece of the problem the old fashioned way.

And so he spent the next hour squinting at photographs of the night sky, twisting and scaling them in his head to make the stars line up. He was interrupted when the computer chimed with the arrival of an e-mail. Eager for another break, and something besides white dots on a black background to look at for a minute or two, he opened it to find another picture of white dots on a black background.

He looked more closely. Something was off. Then he noticed it: a fuzzy patch about halfway between the center and the lower-right corner. A dim gray fuzzy patch with a slightly less dim gray dot in the center, and another such dot at the edge.

A debris cloud?

He scrolled down and found the coordinates the image was taken of in the body of the e-mail. He compared those coordinates with the list of interesting regions of the sky. They matched the search window for a UFO that was in low Earth orbit before making its descent.

Coincidence?

He read the rest of the e-mail, which turned out to be from a colleague he had shared his search window, but not his rationale, with. The plot thickened: the coordinates of the cloud lied right along the orbit of MOJO-2, which was apparently some kind of military communications satellite. His colleague hadn’t been able to find any details about the satellite, other than its existence and its orbital parameters.

Conspiracy?

The possibility resurfaced in his mind. Was the UFO in the farmer’s field actually the remains of MOJO-2? It would explain why the military had seemed so eager to remove the wreckage from the field. Were they using him to try to figure out what other people knew about what was really going on? He had to admit, it sounded like a more likely scenario than a UFO did.

He switched windows again and printed the two notes to Janet. He then jumped out of his chair to race down the hall to make sure he got to the printer first.


Chapter word count: 1,734 (+67)
Total word count: 8,959 / 50,000 (17.918%)

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