Outward: Chapter 6: Delivery

The tractor trailer slowly backed up to the loading dock of the Applied Optics Group Research & Development headquarters, as a car pulled into the lot and parked alongside. TSgt Abernathy climbed out of the car, followed by two airmen. They followed behind her as she climbed up the steps into the side door of the loading dock. Inside, she found the foreman waiting for her.

“Good morning,” TSgt Abernathy said, stretching out her hand.

“Morning,” the foreman replied, shaking it.

“I have a deliver for you,” she said.

The two airmen unbolted the rear of the truck and heaved the door upward. Just inside, secured to the bed of the truck with a series of heavy ropes, was a crate.

“So, that’s it, is it?” the foreman asked.

TSgt Abernathy nodded. “The device is in there. Don’t open the crate until you get it moved into the lab.”

“Is it dangerous?”

She shrugged. “Depends what you mean. As far as we’ve seen, it’s completely inert. But on the other hand, it’s a big heavy metal ball. The crate’s mostly there to make it easier to handle. Big wooden crates don’t roll around nearly as much as big metal spheres. You don’t want to wind up with an Indiana Jones situation on your hands.”

“I suppose not. How delicate is it.”

“It survived freefall through the atmosphere and an uncontrolled crash landing. So, not very. But it’d be nice if you didn’t dent it up too badly.”

The foreman nodded. He signaled to a forklift driver on the other side of the loading dock.

“While you get to work on that,” TSgt Abernathy continued, “the three of us will go down to the lab and brief them. I don’t suppose you could give us directions for how to find it?”

The foreman gave her the directions. She nodded to the airmen and they again fell into step behind her as she navigated the facility’s hallways, over to the main elevators, down the the basement, then through another series of corridors before arriving at Optics Research Lab B. She pressed the buzzer on the side of the door and waited for it to open.

“Ah, greetings, come in, come in,” the man inside the lab said, holding the door open for the three of them to enter. “I am Marcus Rubio. I’m in charge of most of the labs on this floor of the building. Over here,” he continued, pointing to the other occupants of the lab, “is Mr. Todd Wright, one of our top electromagnetic engineers, and next to him is Mr. Luke Aaronson, another one of our expert researchers.”

Todd stepped forward to shake each of their hands. “Pleased to meet you,” he said.

Luke reluctantly did likewise, nodding silently to each of them.

“I am Technical Sergeant Susan Abernathy,” she introduced herself, “and these are Senior Airmen Barton Roberts and Marilyn Grant. They will be providing security while the device is here.”

“That’s very generous of you, miss, but–” Marcus began.

“Sergeant,” TSgt Abernathy corrected.

“Sorry, Sergeant, but that will not be necessary. We have our own security personnel who are more than adequate for the task.”

TSgt Abernathy stifled a grimace. “Adequate” did not particularly inspire confidence, especially while she still had to qualify assertions regarding the safety of the device with words like “probably” or “to the best of our knowledge.” She didn’t want to rely on whatever rent-a-cops Applied Optics Group contracted their security out to to protect the device from people. Or, potentially, people from the device.

“Air Force policy,” she said. “They’ll stay out of the way unless they’re needed to handle a situation.”

“Of course,” Marcus acquiesced.

“So where is it?” Luke interrupted.

“It’s on its way now,” TSgt Abernathy replied. “Your job will be to find out everything you can about the object. Noninvasively. No cutting it open or drilling into it or sanding it down or scraping anything off or anything. You shouldn’t even need to physically touch it.”

“So what are we allowed to do with it?” Luke grumbled.

“You’re the EM experts. Do whatever scans you have with whatever equipment you have available, as long as it doesn’t run the risk of doing any damage to whatever might be inside of it. So, don’t go microwaving it. If you’re ever in doubt, ask me before you do something.”

“What do you think is inside it?” Todd asked.

TSgt Abernathy shrugged. “Honestly, as this point we have no idea. There aren’t any hatches or openings in it, so we haven’t had any way yet to look inside. That’s your job. You’re our eyes, so to speak.”

“If you had to guess?” Todd pressed.

“Some kind of alien technology, would be my guess, assuming it is indeed alien. We haven’t yet definitively ruled out some kind of elaborate hoax, though. Maybe there will be some ‘Made in China’ tag in it somewhere. I’d like to know about anything like that too.”

“Sergeant,” interrupted SrA Grant, “it sounds like it’s here.”

They fell silent, and could all hear the sound of something heavy being rolled down the corridor outside. TSgt Abernathy gestured to the airmen, and they each took hold of one of the doors and held it open, allowing the workmen outside to roll the unopened crate in on some kind of heavy-duty industrial cart.

“Go ahead and move it into the anechoic chamber,” Marcus instructed the workmen. “We’ll unpack it in there.”

“Anechoic chamber?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

“Yes, it’s a type of room where the walls are designed to minimize reflections of–”

“I know what an anechoic chamber is, Mr. Rubio. I’m just surprised you plan on using one to X-ray the device.”

“Oh. Well, it helps reduce spurious backscatter from the equipment,” he explained, quickly shooting a look to Todd and Luke not to interject.

In fact, Applied Optics Group had never expected to have to actually do anything on the AFEXOCOM contract. It was written almost like an insurance policy; AFEXOCOM had agreed to pay them a fixed yearly fee, and in return AOG agreed to perform full-spectrum analyses of any suspected alien devices that AFEXOCOM recovered. Management had been sure that the contract was free money. Who would have guessed that the Air Force would find something they were willing to publicly state — he had seen replays of the AFEXOCOM commander’s press conference and everything — was possibly alien in origin?

As such, AOG hadn’t done a single thing to actually prepare for fulfilling their end of the contract. When AFEXOCOM had come calling, he got stuck with the task of scrounging any available resources from other projects. It just happened that the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator project was winding down the research phase of its current development cycle, so he was able to yank away lab space and a couple employees from it.

Obviously, he couldn’t let AFEXOCOM catch wind of any of that. They might not renew the contract at the end of the year, and management was pretty sure that one-in-a-million chances couldn’t happen twice in the current five-year plan.

Still, he better remind his engineers again not to talk about any of the project management details while any soldiers were in the room.

The sound of crowbars pushing against wood came from the anechoic chamber. The two airmen stayed by the door while the rest of them went inside to watch the crate being dismantled.

The industrial cart, its load having been lowered onto the floor in the center of the chamber, had been rolled into the far corner of the room. The two workmen were starting to pry apart the seams of the crate.

“You can go ahead and leave the bottom piece of the crate there,” TSgt Abernathy instructed. “They’ll need it to keep the object from rolling around.”

“It rolls?” Marcus asked.

“It’s round. I haven’t tried pushing it, though. I wouldn’t recommend you do, either. No touching, remember?”

“Yes, we wouldn’t want to damage anything,” Marcus replied, secretly more concerned about the walls of the anechoic chamber than whatever was awaiting them in the crate. Electromagnetic anechoic chambers weren’t cheap, he thought as he looked around. “Aaronson, what the hell are you doing?”

Marcus had spotted Luke standing a few steps away from the crate, holding his cell phone in front of him as the two men worked away on the crate. “Recording an unboxing video,” Luke replied innocently.

“Stop for a second,” TSgt Abernathy commanded. “No, not you, you two,” she said, pointing at the workmen.

Confused, the two workmen stopped trying to loosen the top panel of the crate.

TSgt Abernathy turned to Luke. “Do you have enough light in here?” Seeing the similarly confused look on his face, she continued, “I know the pictures my phone takes always come out looking dark. The walls in here make the ambient light a little weird.”

Luke’s face turned red, and he sheepishly started to put the cell phone back in his pocket.

A realization dawned in TSgt Abernathy’s head. “Oh, no, I’m not being sarcastic. I’m serious. For some reason unboxing videos are the big thing. And how often do you see some big alien thing getting unboxed? I bet it’ll get a million hits on YouTube by the end of the week.”

Marcus gave her a blank stare.

“It’s not like the public hasn’t seen it before already. You should’ve seen how many news crews were there when we were hoisting the thing out of the ground. No harm letting people see the progress we’re making. Could be historic. Man,” she continued, shaking her head and grinning, “an unboxing video. The major will kick himself for not having thought of it himself.”

Marcus gestured to Luke to continue recording. “Just try not to record too much of the walls,” he cautioned. “They’re proprietary.”

Luke once again pointed his cell phone at the scene in front of him, and the workers continued dismantling the crate, quickly finishing removal of the top piece. As they carefully slid it off the top and onto the floor, Marcus reflected on how much different working directly with the military was compared to being a sub on a defense contract like he was used to.

Luke repositioned himself to get a better angle as the workmen pried one of the sides of the crate off of the others. Inside, still nestled within three walls and the floor of the crate, each of them with a circular hollow in the center, rested a metallic sphere.

“There she is,” TSgt Abernathy commented. “Still in one piece. Good. I’ll check in on you in a little while to see what you’ve found.”

Chapter word count: 1,787 (+120)
Total word count: 10,746 / 50,000 (21.492%)

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