Outward: Chapter 15: Vigil

The entire front wall of the room was covered in large, bright projection screens representing a wealth of complex technical data into a series of colorful graphics. The most prominent contained a computer rendering of Earth surrounded with rings angled in various ways. Along each of these rings a dot crept along at a deceptively slow pace. Deceptive because the objects they represented, thousand-pound assemblies of cutting-edge hardware festooned with massive solar panels, were actually rushing forward at several miles a second.

MOJO-5 was currently zipping high above Colorado. MOJO-8 was midway through its crossing of the Atlantic. MOJO-4 raced across Siberia, MOJO-3 across India, and MOJO-6 across Brazil. MOJO-7 sped over The Sudan. Young MOJO-9 jerked towards France as its maneuvering thrusters kicked in; a series of maneuvers over the course of a week would gently guide it into the orbit waiting for it. And somewhere over the Pacific, MOJO-2 was tumbling, its telemetry antenna occasionally pointing towards a ground station long enough to successfully transmit a status update.

MOJO-1, of course, was nowhere to be found, having finally been deorbited several months prior. It had been the only prototype model that had actually been launched into orbit, and most of its service life had been spent conducting a series of low-power test firings to validate the basic operational concept of the MOJO system. The only “real” action it had taken part in was the fateful first public MOJO firing, and even that was only because it had happened to be at the right place at the right time; the Secretary of Defense had been rather insistent on not waiting another fifteen minutes for MOJO-4 to move overhead. Nowadays all that was left of MOJO-1 was a few bits and pieces that had survived splashdown and were now display in the front lobby of corporate headquarters.

The screens next to the central display cycled through information about each of the satellites in turn. Currently the orbital speed of MOJO-3 over the past 28 days was being shown, below a graph of MOJO-5′s power reserves over the same time frame. After lingering for a minute they shifted to MOJO-9′s solar power collection efficiency and MOJO-6′s altitude above mean sea level.

All of this information was replicated on three of the four monitors ringing Nate Johnson’s desk. The fourth monitor, and the one currently holding Nate’s attention, was displaying World of Warcraft.

The job of monitoring the health and status of a one-of-its-kind satellite constellation had sounded much more exciting and glamorous before he had been hired. For the first day or two, the torrents of information at his fingertips was enough to keep him enthralled. By day three, it was still pretty interesting. By day five, he found himself checking Facebook about once every ten minutes.

The problem with the job was, well, that there weren’t any problems. If there had ever been any bugs in the MOJO command and control system, they had been worked out long before his arrival. Things just ticked along smoothly, day after day, which left him plenty of time to level up his paladin.

He briefly glanced over at one of the other screens as it flashed. MOJO-6 was beginning a preprogrammed maneuver, its reaction wheels turning in one direction so Newton’s Third Law would rotate in the opposite direction, moving its main antenna array into position. Nothing notable, just a standard part of the pre-firing sequence.

A few minutes later, another flash as MOJO-6 fired, discharging its capacitors through the main antenna array and towards some point on or above the Earth’s surface below. Soon its firing sequence would be complete, and the reaction wheels would kick in again, pointing the main antenna array away from the Earth surface for safety reasons. As a precaution against a malfunction, the MOJO satellites normally flew pointing away, so that an accidental firing — which had never happened, as far as Nate knew — would send the blast of energy harmlessly off into space.

Firings happened several times a day on average, routinely enough that it took a few minutes until there was a lull in his paladin’s battle and Nate realized an oddity in MOJO-6′s latest activation.

Specifically, that it was only MOJO-6 that had fired. Standard procedure was to have three or four of the MOJOs fire simultaneously at a target. A single energy beam didn’t by itself do a whole lot. Granted, Nate certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. But the real power came when multiple energy beams converged on a point, cramming enough energy to….

Well, Nate didn’t entirely understand the physics behind it, but he had seen Ghostbusters enough times to know the dangers of crossing the streams. Dangers if you were on the receiving end, of course. He and the rest of the crew at the secondary watch center were perfectly safe, as was whoever paid Forney Junip to fire MOJO at something.

Nate minimized World of Warcraft and dug up the day’s list of planned MOJO activations, something that the planning division e-mailed to all watch personnel on a daily basis. He was curious about who would have requested a firing of only one satellite. The sales department was trained to stress the importance of at least a three-beam convergence, both because of the huge increase in destructive power and because Forney Junip charged by the megawatt-second.

He skimmed through the list. The Department of Defense had requested a few quads in Afghanistan, presumably against some Taliban strongholds. The stated rationale for military jobs was always pretty vague. A mining company signed up for a trip in West Virginia; MOJO had proved to be a cost-effective way to do mountaintop removal. China had bought two trips of its own for similar operations in that country. There was even the rare duo, this one somewhere in Russia. That was probably a operational demonstration of MOJO’s capabilities. But no singletons.

Nate found himself trying to decide whether it was time to hit the panic button. This was starting to shape up like an accidental firing. One that had aimed MOJO-6 at something, no less. That could be very bad. Forgetting entirely about his paladin, he turned his chair to the watch console and brought up the activity logs for MOJO-6. The screen filled with brief descriptions of everything MOJO-6 had done over the past twenty-four hours. He expanded the third one down, the rotation before the most recent firing, and brought up the targeting coordinates.

Every job entered into the MOJO system ultimately come down to four coordinates used to aim the satellites: latitude, longitude, altitude, and time. There was also parameters like power level and duration and frequencies, but those didn’t factor into the aiming phase. The control system did a bunch of complicated math to figure out what angle to point each of the involved satellites at to make sure their beams converged on the targeted point at the specified time. The logs showed both the target coordinates and the alignment vectors that had been used to aim MOJO-6 just now.

Nate swiveled back to his desktop computer and brought up Google Earth. He plugged in the latitude and longitude. The globe on screen spun around to show a point somewhere in central Florida.

Crap. His hand was halfway to the panic button when he stopped short. Latitude and longitude weren’t enough to figure out the impact point of a singleton firing, since with no aerial detonation to absorb and redistribute to energy, the beam would continue on to the surface. Since the satellite wouldn’t have been pointed straight down, the impact point wasn’t necessarily match the latitude and longitude; instead, he had to factor in the altitude, then figure out where the line from MOJO-6′s position at the time of firing through the target point would strike the surface. Luckily the monitoring computer would be able to crunch those numbers for him too.

He spun back around and checked the third coordinate, the altitude. It was a large number. A very large number. Absurdly large, even. There was something clearly wrong about it. A thought struck him. He asked the computer to show the alignment vector used to orient MOJO-6 at the time of firing. Moments later, the screen displayed a graphic of the Earth, MOJO-6, and an arrow pointing along where the energy beam would be pointed.

Nate blinked. His suspicion had been correct.

Before he could act on it, one of the monitoring screens flashed. MOJO-4 was beginning a maneuver. Nate watched the screen with a level of interest he hadn’t even displayed when his guild had attempted its first raid on Molten Core. There wasn’t any maneuvering activity on the part of any of the other satellites. The system was preparing for another singleton firing. Another singleton firing that hadn’t been included on the morning’s list.

Nate rushed back into the logging system, bringing up recent activity for MOJO-4. He opened up the targeting coordinates. Another anomalous value for the altitude coordinate. He graphically plotted the alignment vector MOJO-4 had just reached. It matched the pattern.

Not panic-button worthy, Nate reflected with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief, because there certainly weren’t going to be people having the sudden delivery of a terrajoule of energy ruining their day. Disappointment, because he didn’t have a genuine reason to lift up the plastic shield and slam his fist on the big red button that would immediately deactivate the entire MOJO system.

He did, however, have an excuse to call someone up. He ran a search on the personnel database, watching the monitoring screens as they showed MOJO-4 beginning to fire. The search returned. He lifted up the handset and punched in the extension on the screen.

“Hello, MOJO operations planning, Lucinda speaking,” answered the voice on the other end. “How may I help you?”

“Hey Lucy,” he replied, “this is Nate Johnson, over at secondary watch. I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yes?”

“Who’s paying us to fire MOJO out into space?”


Chapter word count: 1,681 (+14)
Total word count: 26,452 / 50,000 (52.904%)

Outward: Chapter 14: Early Warning

Earl Raskin facepalmed. “You cannot possibly be serious,” he muttered into his hand.

“We need to have a bold vision to drive the budgeting process for the next ten years,” Ganett protested. “This is the time to get Congress to commit to the necessary funding, while we still have their attention, before we drop back off the radar screen.”

“The time for that was twelve months ago,” Riggs added, trying to find a way to lean back at the conference table. “Back when everyone was talking about it.”

“Well, it’s hardly my fault it took nine months for them to break the filibuster and fund our steering committee as-is,” Ganett said. “All the more reason to go big now, before it gets even worse.”

“There’s dreaming big, and then there’s being delusional,” Raskin countered. “If you take that plan to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, you’ll be laughed out of the room, and we’ll be dead in the water.”

“We won’t even be able to afford decent chairs,” added Riggs.

“Look,” Ganett said, erasing the marker scrawls off the whiteboard, “you have to understand the scope of the problem we’re dealing with here.”

Raskin rolled his eyes. Ganett may have had impressive credentials, but the problem was he was a NASA lifer. He saw its new Interstellar Intelligence Office as a way to finally get funding for the deep-space missions stuck on his drawing board for the next decade, and he was going to go for broke. And break them in the process.

He glanced across the table at Riggs. Career bureaucrat, he could tell. No idea how to handle himself in a chair that didn’t cost five hundred dollars. But he might be able to be made to listen to reason, if he could be kept open to the perspective of an outsider like Raskin.

“This,” Ganett continued, drawing a circle with a few squiggles in it, “is Earth. This,” he drew a slightly larger circle around it, “is orbit. And this,” he swept his arm across the rest of the board, “is our area of responsibility. The entire universe, minus some three billion trillion cubic kilometers. Big mission, big cost.”

“That’s not going to be enough to convince anybody,” Riggs said.

“Ah, but let me continue. Fortunately, most of that is empty space. Modulo things like the interstellar medium, virtual particle pairs, a bit of dark matter and dark energy, and so on.”

“You going to lose them with that,” Raskin warned.

“My point is, most of that volume we don’t have to worry about. Our focus needs to be on possible points of origin for alien activity: other stars. And assuming superluminal travel is impossible, the nearby neighborhood of stars serves as a choke point for any alien movement towards Earth.” Ganett started drawing scattered points on the board. “Alpha Centauri. Barnard’s Star. Wolf 359. A few others. Focus on those points, and we’ll have a ten light year radius early-warning system to detect aliens before they even set foot in our solar system.”

“Wait,” interrupted Riggs, “remind me again why they wouldn’t just ignore those stars and fly straight here?”

“They’d need to refuel, so to speak. The longer the distance, the bigger the load of fuel or food or whatever they’d need to lug around with them, which increases mass, which increases the fuel needed, and so on. The most likely course of action for them would be to hop from star to star and mine any planets there for resources before continuing.” He drew lines connecting the points on the board. “The laws of physics provide a bounty of choke points to focus our collection on.”

“I’m not saying this is a bad idea per se,” Raskin said, “or that it shouldn’t be our guiding vision for the rest of the century. But this is awfully pie-in-the-sky to ask for Congressional funding on yet.”

“Well, obviously, a big part of the initial budget with be for R&D.”

“And in the meantime, we’d have absolutely nothing in place as an early-warning system until we resolve the many, many hurdles to launching a fleet of interstellar probes.”

“I think you’re understating our current level of preparedness,” Riggs said. “We have pictures of last year’s alien ship from when it was still in orbit.”

“Picture,” Raskin corrected. “Singular. Taken by someone who was trying to photograph a star a hundred light years away. The Mackinelly Device was only found in it because we were able to narrow down where in the sky it might have been found.” Plus, the guy he had contracted to do the search never got back to him about it in the first place, and Raskin had only found it when the guy’s forum posting popped up in his Google Alerts. “Information we were only able to get after it had already landed. That’s forensics, not early warning.”

“What do you suggest we do?”

“Massively ramp up the near-Earth object detection program, and task it to look for alien craft in addition to rogue asteroids. It’s much the same problem space, but alien craft are likely to have a much higher albedo, which helps even more.”

“But then we’ll only find out about them when they’re on Earth doorstep!” complained Ganett.

“Whereas right now we can’t detect them until they’re already crashing on our couch! I’m not saying the NEOs should be our only project. We do need R&D to look at the numerous challenges for interstellar probes.” Raskin started ticking them off on his fingers. “Fully autonomous guidance systems. Long-lived power generation systems. Extreme-gain antennas. Physical self-repair mechanisms. And, to a lesser extent, propulsion systems that can approach relativistic speeds, and that can brake quickly enough to allow orbital insertion afterwards. But,” he stressed, “we need to make sure we can meet immediate needs first, before we sink too much money in the future.”

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Riggs said. He lurched backwards in his chair, looked confused for a moment, then lifted it slightly so he could slide its non-wheeled feet backwards on the carpet to let him get up from the table. “We’ll meet again tomorrow and I’ll run my proposed presentation the House Committee by you for your input.”

Raskin followed him out of the makeshift conference room, out of the hastily constructed secure area in the center of the office building, and returned to his office.

“Good afternoon, sir,” a familiar voice greeted him once he had stepped through the door.

“Sergeant!” he exclaimed. “Well, this is a surprise! Please, have a seat. How have you been?”

“Can’t complain, sir. Plenty of work to keep us busy these days. No more time for Movie Nights, though, I’m afraid.”

“Well, you win some, you lose some. Oh!” he said, noticing her sleeve. “Congratulations on the promotion, Master Sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir,” MSgt Abernathy smiled.

“No need to call me ‘sir’ anymore, you know.”

“No, sir. You didn’t come out so bad yourself.”

“Yes, well,” Raskin shrugged. “From what I heard the brass had some interesting discussions over what to do with me after all of it. Apparently some of them wanted my head for the situation getting as out of control as it almost did, but my guess is they couldn’t figure out a way to point the finger at me without raising question as to why they let a lowly major be in charge of something like that. I suspect the honorable discharge was to save face all around. So here I am now, sort of an in-house consultant for NASA.”

“Well, Col Newmeyer seems to respect the work you did there,” MSgt Abernathy replied.

“Who?”

“The new AFEXOCOM commander. Probably the last one, too. Rumor has it they’re planning on rolling up into USSTRATCOM one of these days.”

“Doesn’t surprise me in the least. I guess now that everyone knows aliens do exist, the mission has a lot more respectability.”

“Alien is the new cyber.”

“What does surprise me, though, is finding you here in Washington. I presume this isn’t merely a social call.”

“How do you figure?”

“The folder full of papers in your lap. And how security wouldn’t let just anyone come in off the street.”

“No, sir.”

“Well?”

MSgt Abernathy got up and shut the door to Raskin’s office. “How busy would you say you currently are?”

“Eh,” Raskin replied. “It comes and goes. Lots of talk and meetings and strategizing, not a whole lot of actual work work.” He paused. “Why?”

“Col Newmeyer wants to bring you on as a private consultant to us. Part-time, of course. Possibly some travel involved.”

“I don’t suppose you had a hand in any of this?”

“Well,” MSgt Abernathy feigned nonchalance, “I might have made a recommendation or two. But the truth is, we really could use someone with your experience on one of our current projects.”

“Oh? What is it?”

MSgt Abernathy slid the folder across his desk.

Raskin opened it up and leafed through the pages inside. “These… aren’t actually telling me anyway. They’re all read-in agreements.”

“That’s correct, sir. Col Newmeyer believes there’s a time and a place for openness. In this case, I can’t say I disagree.”

Raskin paused mid-page flip. “Huh. I don’t suppose you could give me a hint?”

“Unfortunately not, sir. Especially not here. But you do want to sign those papers.”

“Oh?”

“How long would you say we worked together?”

Raskin thought. “A year and a half, at least. Just the two of us at AFEXOCOM.”

“Right. You get a pretty good feel for a person in that kind of situation. That’s how I know you’ll want in on this. I know you don’t like to leave unfinished business behind.”

“Huh.”

“In general, I mean. Of course.”

Raskin gave her a curious look.

“Also,” MSgt Abernathy continued, playing her ace in the hole, “it would make Col Anchower livid to know you were back.”

“Hmmm,” Raskin said, leaning back. “You know, now that I’m not an officer any more, I wouldn’t be required to take any more of his crap.”

“Your words, not mine, sir.”

Raskin reached forward to pick up a pen.

“The flight back out to base leaves in two hours,” MSgt Abernathy said. “I’ve got the car waiting outside.”


Chapter word count: 1,714 (+47)
Total word count: 24,771 / 50,000 (49.542%)

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Outward: Chapter 13: Conspiracy

Franklin Thomas squeezed the lectern and silently vowed revenge on the Boy Scouts for making today the worst day of his life.

Were a cooler head to prevail, he would have acknowledged that it really wasn’t their fault, and certainly not the fault of Troop Triple-Three to have booked the Quarterfield Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center for some jamboree or whatever it was Boy Scouts did when they weren’t camping on the date that the Quarterfield Ufologist and Extraterrestrialphile Society – Treesborough had originally planned to hold a conference to debate competing theories about what had really happened on the Mackinelly farm. But no, QUEST had had to settle for the following Saturday, which wouldn’t have been a problem ordinarily, except for the conference now was taking place a mere three days after the military had blown up Applied Optics Group Research and Development Headquarters.

He was taking a real beating up on the podium, and they had scarcely gotten past the opening remarks.

“Look,” he said, addressing the already-skeptical crowd seated before him, “we all acknowledge that the United States government has a history of covering up evidence of extraterrestrial activity on Earth. We may have our disagreements about which particular events they’ve been involved in,” he continued, trying to blunt his opponent’s observation that he himself had often sided with the official government position on most of those events, “but it’s unmistakable that there are things being kept from us, and for decades our voice has been clear, loud, and unwavering in its demand for the public release of the files we know sit buried in some bureaucrat’s desk drawer.”

Some murmurings of agreement came from the audience. Regardless of the topic, pandering to the crowd during a debate never hurt.

“But what I’m saying is,” Prof. Thomas continued, “is that in this particular instance, the government paid attention in its judo class, and decided to pretend to give us exactly what we’ve been clamoring for all this time, as part of a conspiracy to conceal a far greater truth from the American people!”

“What my esteemed colleague is trying to claim,” began his opponent, some basement dweller who insisted on going by his forum handle Gorlox74, allegedly because They would be able to find him if he used his real name in a public forum such as this, “is that the military’s unprecedented public response to yet another UFO landing was a premeditated act. This is absurd! The military got caught flat-footed, and failed to send the MIBs to make the problem disappear before a series of clear, focused photographs could be posted on the Internet and distributed worldwide. They had no choice in the matter when the UFO already had ten thousand fans on Facebook!”

“My opponent,” Prof. Thomas countered, privately cringing at the thought of using his ‘name’, “is claiming we witnessed a genuine response by the military when it recovered the UFO for ‘study’.”

“They knew full-well they could hardly call it swamp gas at that point. They merely needed to buy time to come up with a plan to make the problem go away.”

“The only problem here is that it’s not a UFO at all! As this image, taken the night before the crash, shows, an unidentified piece of space debris collided with a secret military satellite, causing its orbit to begin to decay uncontrollably. Furthermore, this computer simulation shows that that satellite, starting from its position at the time of the collision, would have landed within ten miles of its known crash site. The military rushed in to recover it once the crash site became known, using the cover story of an alien landing to hide the fact that it was one of their own satellites.”

“I can’t believe you expect us to buy any of that, considering how we all know the military bought you!” his opponent shouted, thrusting a finger in Prof. Thomas’s direction. The audience gasped. “That’s right, we all watched the news clips that show you having your ‘private discussions’ with the officer they sent to the landing site. Your whole crackpot theory about crashed satellites is precisely the cover story they were hoping to pass off on us! As though the military wouldn’t have just shot it down like the last one.”

“The simulation doesn’t lie!”

“It does if the person who wrote it does! Hell, they probably even gave you exactly the parameters to feed into it that would make their little fairy tale play itself out.”

“The satellite’s orbital parameters are public information!”

“Please. Who do you think publishes those, anyway?”

The crowd hadn’t exactly started with an open mind towards Prof. Thomas’s claims, and he could see the hinges working to close it the rest of the way.

“So how do you explain the photograph of the debris cloud, then?” Prof. Thomas asked.

“Photoshop, obviously. No one with their own photographs of the supposed collision has come forward. Your one photo could easily have been doctored.”

“Mr. Four,” Prof. Thomas sneered, addressing the audience, “seems to be forgetting that evidence — false as though it may be — against my position hardly counts as evidence supporting his own. Though I don’t recall him yet telling us what his explanation of events is.”

“It’s a case of two birds, one stone,” Gorlox74 smiled in reply. “And it’s really so self-evident that even I’m a little surprised that Mr. Ivory Tower over there needs it spelled out for him. But I would be happy to oblige.”

“Please do,” Prof. Thomas replied flatly.

“First, everyone knows Congress is trying to tighten its belt, and whose funding better to slash than an organization whose official mission is to deal with situations that the rest of the government claims not to exist? So they ‘slip up’ a bit, let Congress get a little taste of what happens if the cash doesn’t keep flowing, how they wouldn’t be able to keep coming up with new ways to hide alien activity. And it seems to have worked marvelously, too. I don’t suppose you’ve happened to check the latest draft appropriations bills?”

“I generally have better things to do. A job, for example.”

“Ha. Ha. Well, let’s just say the extra zero or two in their budget line will keep them in their jobs for quite some time.”

“Funny, I seem to recall just last month you claiming that funding for school lunch programs was cover for protection money being sent to the Grays.”

“There are many pies for their thumbs to be in. But no matter. The second point is strong enough to carry the day by itself.”

“Do tell.”

Gorlox74 nodded. “Child’s play. My Exhibit A is the crater left behind by the first public firing of the military’s until-a-few-days-ago-secret orbital ion cannon. Oh yes, priming the mainstream media with stories about alien devices breaching containment made sure they were all there to get it on film. A public demonstration of the military’s new toy, with a side of now the government’s saved you from the big bad aliens.”

“I don’t suppose you could enlighten me regarding any other times the military has demonstrated a new weapon system by leveling a civilian target.”

“Oh, I’m not claiming it’s standard practice. They just saw an opportunity and ran with it. They would’ve picked out some abandoned building otherwise. It’s not as though they were going to use it on al Qaeda right off the bat. Blowing up a cave doesn’t look nearly as impressive as leveling and vaporizing a seven-story building.

Prof. Thomas had to concede, though obviously not aloud, the aerial images that had been released were sobering. Where there had been a building, there simply wasn’t anymore. Instead there was a crater, filled with the melted and resolidified remnants of what hadn’t been simply obliterated by the blast, surrounded by the charred lumps of what had been trees incinerated by the sheer heat of the explosion.

What was scarier was how, according to the reports, the target being aimed at hadn’t even been the building itself; it was a point in the air above the being where the satellites had aimed their lasers — not ion cannons, but at this point there wasn’t much to be gained from correcting Gorlox74′s minor technical error — to superheat the air and trigger the fireball and shock wave.

And what was even scarier than that was the announcement that the defense contractor who had built the system in the first place had made the following day, but before Prof. Thomas had time to reflect on that, Gorlox74′s continued prattling regained his attention.

“But the most damning nail in the good professor’s coffin,” he was now saying, “is this. As I recall, your original forum announcement about your downed satellite ‘theory’ didn’t merely claim it was just a secret military satellite, did it?”

Prof. Thomas sighed. “No.”

“It had a name, didn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember what that name was?”

“Yes.”

“And what was that name?”

He groaned. “MOJO-2.”

“MOJO-2. MOJO, MOJO, where I have heard that name before?” Gorlox74 said, pretending to search his memory. “Oh, that’s right. MOJO is the name of the orbital weapon the military used to destroy that building and, allegedly, the alien craft. Seemed like a pretty effective demonstration of a weapon that had supposedly crashed into the ground. Game, set, and match.”

Prof. Thomas slinked off the stage, accompanied by some jeers from the audience, and went straight for the door out of the conference room. His credibility in the ufologist community was pretty much dead and buried now. He had hoped he would’ve been able to leverage his initial cooperation with AFEXOCOM into some kind of inside access to get a glimpse of whatever the truth really was, but he burned that bridge by taking his findings to the ufologist community instead. Plus, the whole fiasco was hardly going to bolster his standing in the legitimate research community. Even with tenure, this latest foray into ufology wasn’t going to reflect particularly well on him.

Not unless he could find a lot of photographs to prove he was right after all.


Chapter word count: 1,698 (+31)
Total word count: 23,057 / 50,000 (46.114%)

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Outward: Chapter 12: Operation Poetic Justice

TSgt Abernathy maintained her stance outside the door to the former server room, occasionally stealing a glance at the rest of her team as they made their way back to the stairwell. There was no sign of anything trying to come through the door after them. Either the spiders had a very short-term memory, or they stopped caring about them once they had escaped the room.

She wished there were a way to figure out just what they were up to.

“Abernathy to Raskin,” she radioed. “Requesting permission to stay behind and dig up some more intel. Over.”

“Negative,” Raskin radioed back. “The President’s already given the go-ahead to … the attack. The decision’s been made. Fall back. Over.”

“How long, over?”

“Thirty minutes until … assets move into position. Over.”

Thirty minutes, thought TSgt Abernathy. It wasn’t a lot of time. But it was something.

“Sir, with any luck this is our last chance to learn about this thing. We can’t pass up an opportunity like this. Over.”

“Sergeant, you heard the order. Over.”

“Sir, please,” TSgt Abernathy replied. Unlike Maj Raskin, TSgt Abernathy had volunteered for a tour in AFEXOCOM. Ever since she was a little girl, she had stared up at the night sky and wondered if we were alone in the universe. AFEXOCOM gave her a fleeting chance to find out, or at least an opportunity to try. And now that she was here, in the middle of it, living her dream better than she had really thought possible, she didn’t want to have to let it go. “Over.”

The radio answered with the soft static of an unused channel. TSgt Abernathy let out a quick sigh and started sidling towards the stairwell, not turning her back to the door.

“Twenty-nine minutes until the attack … underway,” Maj Raskin’s voice said. “If something happens in there, I can’t … anyone else in after you. Be careful. Over.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Over.”

TSgt Abernathy pocketed the radio. Twenty-nine minutes. One mile between the building and the fallback perimeter. Assuming there weren’t going to be any vehicles available, that would be eight minutes, maybe nine, to cover the distance. Factor in another two to get out of the building itself. Buffer another five for a contingency. That left thirteen minutes to work with. She checked her watch.

She could work with thirteen minutes.

She quickened her pace and climbed up a flight of stairs, exiting on the basement level. She paused briefly when a burst of static came through the radio, but when nothing followed, she continued on her way to the lab. Might as well get straight to the heart of the matter. She pressed her ear to the door, straining to hear the telltale sound of metal on floor tile on the other side.

Nothing.

She opened the door and slid inside. The emergency lighting didn’t illuminate much, but it did well enough to show the lab was unchanged from the last time she had seen it. She crept over to the door to the anechoic chamber. Also silent. She opened the door.

The Mackinelly Device was still resting on the floor in the center of the room. She found herself a little disappointed. She had expecting the room to be crawling with the spiders as well. This was their home base, wasn’t it? Or was it just a ship that brought them here, discarded once it was no longer needed?

“Abernathy to Raskin,” she radioed. “I’m at the Device. No change in status. Over.”

The radio responded by blaring with static.

“Abernathy to Raskin. Major, do you read, over?”

More static.

What was going on out there, she wondered. She checked her watch. Six minutes before she had to start moving, but there was still time.

More bursts of static. Why the sudden interference? There hadn’t been any until Roberts was attacked. Was she being jammed? Was the Device trying to cut her off? She glanced at the door. Still no spiders. The path out was still clear, at least until the hallway outside.

As she edged towards the exit, there was a spark of pattern recognition in the back of her mind. The static didn’t sound like she expected from a jamming signal. Jamming would be constant. A roar drowning out everything else as the radio’s frequencies were flooded with energy. This was different. Bursty. Discrete bursts.

She listened more attentively. Burst. Silence. Two quick bursts. Silence. Now three. Then four. Then five. A longer silence. Then one again, followed by two.

It wasn’t jamming. It was counting.

She remembered one of the strategy planning sessions she and Maj Raskin would have back on base, long before the Mackinelly Device had appeared. One of the scenarios they considered was: flying saucer lands, and aliens step out; how do you talk to them? You don’t have any common language, no common culture, no common experience. What do you say to them where they will both realize you’re trying to communicate with them, and they’ll be able to understand it?

Elementary math. Neither could imagine how you could achieve interstellar travel without being able to count. Nor could they find any natural source that emitted integers. So: figure out a frequency they can hear, and start tapping out small numbers.

Now TSgt Abernathy found herself on the flip side of the scenario. The Mackinelly Device had noticed the radio frequencies, and was using them to count to five. Over and over. No doubt waiting for her to notice.

She waited for the next set of five pulses of radio static. Once they finished, she pressed and released the transmit button of her radio six times, slowly enough to hopefully be unmistakable. She waited.

There was relative radio silence for a few seconds, and then seven pulses of static. She replied with eight. Nine came back.

They were communicating. Only enough to signal to each other that they were capable of communicating, but that’s how you start. Given time, the plan she and Maj Raskin had devised involved transitioning from a unary to binary encoding of numbers, then introducing symbols for operators like plus and equals, then build up to passing equations back and forth to each other. Maybe by the time you say Euler’s formula and it replies with Fermat’s Last Theorem, you can start working on a way to encode “Hello.”

Time. TSgt Abernathy checked her watch. Negative two minutes before her planned departure time. Crap.

“Sorry,” she said to the device, not that it was going to be capable of understanding her, and bolted for the door. She was out of time. Less than that, really. As she bounded up the stairs two at a time, she wondered just how quickly she could run a mile. Then she realized that “one-mile radius” didn’t account for any twistiness in the roads leading out of there.

As the launched herself through the front doors of the building, she started to lift up the radio to alert Maj Raskin of what she had just discovered, but then realized it would be futile. Intentionally or not, the Mackinelly Device was jamming communications by hijacking the frequencies. Besides, she was going to need everything in her lungs to propel her past the presumed blast radius of whatever was on its way.

All thoughts about the Mackinelly Device and first contact and robot spiders and whatever was being built in the subbasement left her mind as every cell in her body dedicated itself to getting her out of there. Her feet barely touched the ground, for fear of lingering too long on the pavement and getting left behind by the rest of her body. If she made it back alive, the part of her brain not busy pumping her legs swore never to use the phrase “run for your life” casually again.

She finally collapsed against the far side of a National Guard transport marking the perimeter, gasping for air. A shadow blocked out the sunlight as someone stepped up to her.

“Good of you to join us, Sergeant,” Maj Raskin said.

“Sir,” she managed to wheeze out between breaths.

“Relax, Sergeant, you made it. With plenty of time to spare, no less.”

“Sir?”

“There’s about four minutes before the action starts.”

Right, she thought. The five minutes’ contingency buffer. It worked best if you forgot about it as soon as you factored it in, after all.

“And Sergeant?” Maj Raskin said.

“Sir?”

“After that, you don’t have any excuse for not signing up for the next 5K Fun Run anymore.”

“Sir.” She then jolted as she remembered what had happened ten minutes ago. “Sir! You have to call off the countdown!”

“Sergeant?”

“The Mackinelly Device! It’s intelligent!”

“What do you mean?”

“Unary sequence introduction protocol! That’s what the jamming was! It was trying to communicate!”

Maj Raskin frowned. “Too late for it now. One minute.”

“But sir!” TSgt Abernathy protested.

“Besides,” Maj Raskin continued, “if anything that makes it worse. An intelligent alien device taking over the building and attacking my men? My hands are tied even if there was time to call the strike off.”

“Right! How’s Roberts, sir?”

“He’s doing fine so far, fortunately. You did the right thing in there with him.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Maj Raskin checked his watch. “It’s about time.”

TSgt Abernathy picked herself up and turned back towards the building, its roof barely visible above the tree line. She couldn’t hear anything above the commotion of the crowd behind her. She looked up. The airspace was empty. She had expected to see bombers approaching by now.

The air exploded.

There was a blinding flash above the building, replacing her view with searing white light. TSgt Abernathy covered her eyes and ducked behind the vehicle. Training triggered instinct as she opened her mouth and covered her ears just before the shock wave reached the perimeter. The sound left her ears ringing, and for a few seconds it felt like the temperature had doubled. When she dared look again, she saw clouds of thick black smoke rising from where the building had been. In front of the smoke, flames leaped up from the tops of the trees, having been ignited by the heat from so close. Sirens blared as nearby fire trucks sprang to life and started down the road in response.

“What was that?” TSgt Abernathy wondered aloud. “For a second there I thought it was a nuke.”

“I’m not sure myself,” Maj Raskin replied. “SECDEF only referred to it as ‘Mojo’.”


Chapter word count: 1,761 (+94)
Total word count: 21,359 / 50,000 (42.718%)

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Outward: Chapter 11: Spider’s Web

“Alpha Team to Raskin,” TSgt Abernathy spoke into the radio, “we have entered the front lobby. Do you copy, over?”

The three looked around. With the power having been cut to the building, the only light was that streaming through the glass at the entrance, casting long shadows in front of them which the emergency lighting failed to do anything about. Aside from the crackle of the radio, the room was silent.

“Raskin to Alpha Team,” the voice on the radio said, “I copy. Proceed with your mission. Over.”

TSgt Abernathy gestured for SrA Grant to take point. The first thing they were going to do was return to the subbasement to determine the extent of the Mackinelly Device’s incursion there. They walked slowly, single-file down the corridor, SrA Roberts taking up the rear position. They didn’t expect to encounter anything on the first floor, but Delta Team hadn’t come through yet, so they couldn’t be sure. SrA Grant checked the entrance to the stairwell, signaled all-clear, and led them down to the bottom.

“Raskin to Alpha Team,” the radio crackled. “I’m having problems with the video feed, over.”

SrA Grant checked the camera strapped to SrA Roberts’s helmet and gave a thumbs-up. She then pulled a flashlight out of her uniform and switched it on, sweeping the stairwell.

“Alpha Team to Raskin,” TSgt Abernathy replied. “Our equipment’s functional down here. The building’s like a Faraday cage, though. My cell phone could hardly get a signal down here the other day either. But we are recording. Also, it’s pretty dark down here. When all this is over, OSHA ought to make a surprise visit. I’m pretty sure the escape path lighting here isn’t up to code. Over.”

“Understood, Sergeant. Don’t let your guard down, now. Over.”

The team headed for the room underneath the Mackinelly Device. The hallway was empty, though they could hear faint noises in the distance, too faint for any of the three to figure out just where they were coming from. They reached the door, and SrA Grant waved them in.

“Pretty much the same as before,” she said, the beam of her flashlight jumping from shelf to shelf.

“You’d think this would be spider central, what with being right under the thing,” SrA Roberts said.

“For whatever reason they don’t seem to be interested in what’s in here,” TSgt Abernathy replied, approaching the partially-dissolved shelf in the middle. The thick little puddle was still there, just as she had left it.

“Maybe they’re after something in particular?” SrA Roberts guessed.

“Most of the stuff in here’s junk, and they know it,” SrA Grant said.

“Alpha Team to Raskin,” TSgt Abernathy radioed, “we’re below the Device now. No change. I’m going to try collecting a sample of whatever this stuff leaking out of the Device is. Over.” She pulled a sample vial out of her pocket.

“Negative, Alpha Team,” Maj Raskin’s voice replied. “There’ll be plenty of time for that if we find the Device non-hostile. And if it is hostile, we can’t have any of it getting out of the building before we light it up. No alien souvenirs. Over.”

“We copy, over,” TSgt Abernathy answered, mostly managing to hide the disappointment in her voice. She slid the vial back into her pocket. She desperately wanted to know what that alien goo was made out of, but orders were orders. “Let’s move,” she commanded. “Next door.”

They filed back down the hall to the next door. The one she and SrA Grant had gotten a peek into before evacuating the building. TSgt Abernathy and SrA Robers placed one hand on their weapons, ready to draw them if needed. It was unlikely, but they didn’t want the spiders to interpret having guns ready as a threatening sign. SrA Grant stood next to the doorway and, with her arm outstretched, inch by inch pushed it open.

This storeroom had been ravaged by the spiders. Boxes had been knocked off of shelves and half-dissolved to get at their contents. One of the shelf assemblies had literally lost its footing and toppled over, knocking over two more as it fell. The team’s flashlights reflected off slick-looking shiny spots on the floor, without any sign of whether those were from bottles that had been spilled in the chaos or from any of the robotic spiders scampering about.

“Alpha Team to Raskin,” TSgt Abernathy reported. “The storeroom next door was harder hit. There’s about a dozen or so of the spiders there. Biggest one’s about as big as my foot. They don’t seem to have taken any notice of us yet. Over.”

“Acknowledged. Over.”

“Sergeant,” SrA Grant said, “look at this!” She shined her flashlight on the floor just inside the room. At the center of the beam one of the spiders was lying motionless on the floor. One of its legs was missing, and there was a blackened spot where it would have connected to the flat, rectangular body. She reached her arm into the room and swept the flashlight up the inside wall, stopping at the light switch. It’s plastic cover was missing, and there were more scorch marks around the edge of the opening.

“The little buggers don’t like 120 volts AC,” SrA Roberts observed.

“And here we went and shut the power off for them,” TSgt Abernathy thought aloud.

“What do you suppose is in the next room?” SrA Grant asked, now moving her flashlight from one spider-sized hole in the wall adjoining it to the next.

TSgt Abernathy thought back to her discussions with Marcus before Maj Raskin had arrived on the scene. “Server room. Let’s go.”

At least, it had been a server room, as they saw when they opened that door. The only sure sign of that now were the remnants of the equipment racks themselves, now bending over as though suffering from metal fatigue. The floor crawled with countless spiders.

“It’s a Luddite arachnophobe’s nightmare in here,” SrA Grant whispered.

It wasn’t all spiders, though. There was something on the floor in the center of the room. It was circular, only four inches high but many feet wide. It was a jumble of colors: black, silver, green. And the spiders were swarming all over it.

“Alpha Team to Raskin,” TSgt Abernathy quietly spoke into the radio. “They’ve picked the server room clean. It looks like they’re building something. Over.”

“Acknowledged, Alpha Team,” Maj Raskin replied. “Can you tell what? Over.”

“Investigating. Over.”

“Makes sense,” SrA Roberts said. “Computers are full of all kinds of different metals. Whatever it was they were looking for, they found it here.”

“But what do they need it for?” TSgt Abernathy said. “That’s the question.”

“Something electronic, that’s for sure. No idea how they’re planning on powering it up.”

“They probably know.”

“Look at the floor,” SrA Grant said. The floor’s surface glistened slightly. “What do you make of that?”

SrA Roberts pulled out a small pocket notebook. He tore off the cardboard that served as its back cover, bent down, and dropped it on the floor just inside the door, pulling his hand back quickly.

They watched it for a minute.

“Nothing,” SrA Grant observed. “Maybe it’s just alien robot spider pee.”

“That sounds pretty unlikely,” SrA Roberts replied.

“Yeah, well, take your pick,” she said, gesturing at the room.

“We need a better look at whatever that thing is in there,” TSgt Abernathy said.

“I’m going in,” SrA Roberts said. He removed the camera from his helmet and held it in front of him.

“Airman–” TSgt Abernathy began.

“I know, Sergeant. But one of us is going to have to, and I’m the one with the camera. Cover me.”

SrA Roberts toed up to the edge of the doorway. Slowly, deliberately, he lifted his left foot slightly and moved it forward a few inches before setting it back down. He then repeated the procedure with his right foot. He kept moving like this, advancing slowly into the room, focusing his attention on the floor in front of him to watch what the spiders were up to, and only occasionally glancing at the camera’s view screen to make sure the mystery object was still in frame.

For their part, the spiders seemed content to walk around him. SrA Grant clenched her teeth as one of them skittered across the floor between him and the door. He advanced farther.

“Roberts, on your two!” TSgt Abernathy half-whispered, half-shouted at him.

One of the larger spiders had stopped in front of and to the right of SrA Roberts. It lifted itself up onto what were presumably its hind legs and stood there, facing him. SrA Roberts froze, staring back at it. The spider’s body fell backwards, swinging its front legs around to land on them. It then rose up on its new hind legs, and sprayed a thin clear fluid at him.

SrA Roberts screamed and scrambled backwards through the door, his arms instinctively raised to cover his face, still clutching the camera in one hand. Once he was through, SrA Grant fired several rounds at the spider. The impact of the bullets flung it backwards several feet. She then fired in an arc closer to the floor around the door before slamming it shut.

TSgt Abernathy immediately positioned herself between the door and SrA Roberts, who was now pressing himself against the wall. She pointed her weapon at the lower part of the door, ready for something to try to make it through. “Grant, get him out of that uniform ASAP before whatever that was soaks through! Roberts, are you OK?”

“I I I think so,” he stammered as SrA Grant wrestled his jacket off of him.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” TSgt Abernathy said. “Do you think you’re good to walk?”

“Probably,” he replied.

Holding her firearm steady with one hand, TSgt Abernathy reached for her radio with the other. “Alpha Team to Raskin. Roberts was hit. Some kind of chemical spray from a spider. No effects yet, but I’m sending him out with Grant for medical attention. Over.”

“Acknowledged, Alpha Team. Over.”

Behind her, she heard SrA Roberts get back onto his feet. “Apologies for being out of uniform, Sergeant,” he said.

If he felt good enough to joke around, that was hopefully a good sign. “You heard what I told the Major. Grant, help him out.”

The radio cracked to life again. “Raskin to all teams. Mission abort, repeat, mission abort. All teams are to fall back to the one-mile perimeter immediately. Repeat, all teams, fall back. Over.”


Chapter word count: 1,762 (+95)
Total word count: 19,598 / 50,000 (39.196%)

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Outward: Chapter 10: Battle Plan

TSgt Abernathy saluted as the car door opened and Maj Raskin climbed out. He returned the salute with his free hand as his other one held a phone to his year.

“I’ve just arrived at the facility now, sir,” he said. “Yes, sir, I will keep this line open. Yes, sir.” He hung up and quickly shoved the phone into his pocket. “Report, Sergeant.”

“Sir,” TSgt Abernathy began, “evacuation of the building proceeded without incident. All personnel accounted for. With the exceptions of Messrs. Rubio, Wright, and Aaronson, they have all been sent home. Airmen Roberts and Grant are patrolling the perimeter to watch for anyone or anything attempting to enter or leave the facility.”

“Good work, Sergeant. And the two of you as well,” he said to the engineers. “If you hadn’t noticed the Mackinelly Device’s movement, the situation would have continued developing without our knowledge. As it is, we may be able to respond before we lose all control.”

“Mackinelly Device?”

Maj Raskin shrugged. “It’s what SECDEF wants to call it. I just got off the phone with him. Sergeant, have you started a file on lessons learned yet?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Here’s one to add, when we get the time: I need to have a way to contact SECDEF without the Pentagon’s switchboard giving me the run-around. That, or give me someone to report to who is allowed to call him.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Well.” Maj Raskin relaxed slightly. “Here’s the situation. Our mission is to prevent the Mackinelly Device from establishing a foothold, at any cost.”

“Excuse me, um, sir,” Luke said, limply raising a hand. “What’s a foothold?”

“An alien base of operations on Earth. Something it or they would be able to hold secure from us.”

“It would be the first step of a full-scale invasion of the planet,” TSgt Abernathy added. “A base they could use as a launching point for further attacks.”

“Exactly,” Maj Raskin continued. “An alien species capable of interstellar travel is clearly more technologically advanced than us. Our only hope to defend ourselves against them would be to defeat them before they’ve had an opportunity to get entrenched.”

“Assuming, of course, that this is an attempted invasion.”

“Yes, Sergeant, which leads into our mission objectives. Objective one: assess the intentions of the Mackinelly Device.”

“Of course it’s hostile!” Marcus interrupted. “It’s taking over the building! We barely got out of there in time!”

“The evacuation was orderly and uneventful,” TSgt Abernathy corrected. “The only alien activity we’ve observed so far are those robot spider things in two unoccupied and unused rooms. As far as we know it may not even be aware of our presence at all.”

“They’ve been walking around it for hours!” Marcus continued, pointing to his two engineers. “Doing all kinds of tests on it!”

“We have no idea whether it’s any more aware of people around it than your computer is.”

“Objective two,” Maj Raskin said, loud enough to get the briefing back on track, “is to assess the extent of the Mackinelly Device’s expansion into the facility, especially any signs that it has escaped the facility outright. Hopefully it’s still too early for that to have happened, but we need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

TSgt Abernathy nodded in agreement.

“Objective three, if the Mackinelly Device does prove to be hostile, or cannot be coerced somehow to cease its expansion: destroy it.”

“How do we do that, sir?”

“That information is on a strict need-to-know. Speaking of which, given that this is now a military operation, all civilians not serving in a law enforcement or first responder capacity are instructed to vacate the premises at once. That means you three, gentlemen.”

Marcus opened his mouth to protest, then quickly closed it again when he caught sight of the look TSgt Abernathy was giving him. “Come on guys, let’s get out of here,” he said as he started walking to the parking lot.

Once the civilians were out of earshot, TSgt Abernathy said, “I assume I have a need-to-know, sir?”

“As much as I do, at least,” Maj Raskin replied. “As we speak, the President is asking the Governor to mobilize the Army National Guard. They’ll be serving three functions. First, they’ll be taking over perimeter security from our two airmen. Second, they’ll be sending in a couple teams to help deal with Objective Two.”

“But sir,” TSgt Abernathy objected, “they’re not going to be trained to handle alien contact situations.”

“Which is why I’ll be sending them to check the upper floors, where they shouldn’t need to do anything but give an all-clear. But third, and perhaps most importantly, they’ll be evacuating everyone within a one-mile radius of the facility.”

“How come?”

“There may not be enough time to clear a two-mile radius.”

“That’s not what I meant, sir.”

“I don’t know all the details myself. Like I said, need-to-know. But from what SECDEF was willing to tell me, there are plans to destroy the entire facility as a precaution, if it comes down to it. We don’t want any civilian casualties if we go down that road.”

TSgt Abernathy noticed there was a conspicuous TSgt Abernathy-shaped hole in the plan. And she could hazard a guess how it was getting filled. “And you want to send me into the facility before it gets blown up.”

“In and out, of course,” Maj Raskin replied. “Along with Roberts and Grant. It’ll be up to your team to determine as best you can whether the Mackinelly Device is hostile and what its objectives might be. I want to know everything there is to know about it. This will likely be our only chance to do so.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Sergeant, your team is not to engage the Mackinelly Device or whatever else may be in there now, unless it engages you first. If it’s not hostile, I don’t want to make it hostile. And if there’s going to be an interstellar war, we’re not going to be the side that starts it. Maybe it will fire the first shot, but we’ll be sure to fire shots two and onward. Besides, I don’t want to tip it off that SECDEF has some kind of all-out assault in the works. Let’s not encourage it to dig in any further than it already has.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And be sure to stay in radio contact while you’re in there. If we’re going to pull the trigger out here, I want you to be able to clear out first. Your mission begins once the National Guard gets here to take over perimeter defense.”

TSgt Abernathy finished briefing her team on the assignment.

“So it’s just like beaming over to a Borg cube,” SrA Grant said as she was checking her equipment. “Don’t do anything hostile, and they should ignore you.”

“You wish,” SrA Roberts replied. “Alien robot spiders? Those are clearly Replicators in there.”

“Replicators would be no problem. Those are always vulnerable to bullets, and we’ve got plenty of those.” SrA Grant patted one of her spare magazines.

“The Borg are even bigger pushovers. You can kill them with friggin’ holographic bullets.”

“Hey, holographic bullets are just as good as real bullets if the Holodeck safeties are off.”

TSgt Abernathy took a look around. The Guardsmen had already established a perimeter around the facility. They’d be able to do a better job at it than her two airmen, she had to admit, but only because they had about twenty times as many people on hand for the job. Nearby, two three-man teams of Guardsmen were preparing for their own incursions into the facility. She was guessing Maj Raskin hadn’t mentioned to them how they probably wouldn’t encounter anything on the floors they’d be on.

“Where are Replicators going to get their hands on an Asgard mothership after wiping them out to extinction?” SrA Grant protested.

“Like they weren’t going to still going to be flying them around,” SrA Roberts replied. “Come on.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway. A Borg cube would adapt to the frequency of the Asgard beam weapon after one, maybe two hits, if the Replicators are lucky.”

“They’re only going to need one shot.”

“A Borg cube is huge and has a highly distributed infrastructure. You’d need to destroy 78% of it to knock it out. I don’t care how powerful an Asgard beam weapon is, that would take more than two shots.”

The parking lot was choked with National Guard trucks, police vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances, and news vans. She could see Maj Raskin running around, no doubt ordering them to move out past the one-mile exclusion zone before he sicced the Guardsmen on them.

“The Borg are slow,” SrA Roberts pointed out, “and Replicators are drawn to advanced technology. Beaming a Borg over to the Asgard ship would be like throwing a fat kid wearing a meat vest into a shark tank. No Borg is going to be able to so much as touch a console before getting swarmed and dismantled by Replicators.”

“Do you have any idea how many drones are on a cube?” SrA Grant countered. “The Borg aren’t going to care what the body count is. Each one they beam over is a little bit more information they learn about Asgard and Replicator technology. They’ll eventually learn enough to gain control of the Asgard ship remotely and download Borg software into the Replicators. Bam, they just assimilated the Replicators.”

“You say this like the Replicators won’t be beaming themselves onto the cube all this time. The Borg won’t realize the threat the Replicators pose until they’re taking the cube apart from the inside out and building thousands of Replicators a minute!”

“All the Borg have to do is transwarp over to Dakara and use the Ancient superweapon there to wipe out all Replicators in the galaxy, just like SG-1 did in Season Eight. Problem solved. And yes, they’ll know about Dakara, because they’ll have assimilated a Goa’uld before they encounter any Replicators.”

“You can’t just assume the Borg cube is going to be in the Stargate universe, and not the other way around.”

“The Borg don’t care about universe boundaries! Just ask Species 8472!”

“Oh for crying out loud,” TSgt Abernathy muttered. Then, more loudly, “Knock if off, you two. An Asgard ship overrun with Replicators would win a fight against a Borg cube because the Borg aren’t going to know to use bullets to kill them. And before you start, if it were a Goa’uld ship overrun with Replicators, then the Borg would win since a Borg cube doesn’t have a ring platform, so the Replicators would have no way to beam themselves over, and the Borg could slowly but inexorably take over the Goa’uld ship at their leisure. Now that that’s settled, let’s get in there and see what we’re up against.”


Chapter word count: 1,816 (+149)
Total word count: 17,836 / 50,000 (35.672%)

Outward: Chapter 9: Underneath

“What’s the situation?” TSgt Abernathy demanded as soon as she set foot in the lab. SrA Grant followed her in, stationing herself on the side of the door as SrA Roberts who, in turn, was no longer listening to his iPod.

“Over the past nine hours,” Todd began, “we’ve recorded five separate changes in the object’s position. Each time it’s dropped vertically by a few millimeters, sometimes accompanied by a lateral shift of a few micron.”

The previous night, he and Luke had abandoned their attempts to scan inside the object, and had replaced their equipment in the chamber with a series of infrared lasers aimed at varying points on the sphere’s surface, each one continuously measuring the distance between it and the laser. The results confirmed their suspicion from last night: the object was indeed moving downward. Not quite enough to notice visually, but easily measurable.

“The cause?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

Luke shrugged. “It still doesn’t look like it’s actually doing anything. I think the pallet it’s resting on is starting to buckle under the thing’s weight.”

TSgt Abernathy considered this. “That pallet’s rated to support objects heavier than it. It’s possible making the hollow for it to rest in weakened it a bit, but it shouldn’t have by that much.”

She opened the door to the anechoic chamber and cautiously stepped inside. It didn’t look like anything was different, but she could hardly push the object out of the way to take a peek underneath it to see if the pallet was damaged at all. She stepped back into the lab and shut the door.

She needed to think. She paced back and forth across the lab for a few minutes as everyone looked to her for instructions on what to do next.

Finally she said, “I want to look underneath it. You, get some men in here to lift it up. You, get that equipment out of there. They’re going to need room to move. How delicate is it?”

As Todd lifted the phone to call the crew at the loading dock, Luke replied, “Not particularly, as long as you don’t drop it or anything.”

“Good, then you,” TSgt Abernathy continued, pointing to SrA Roberts, “help him clear it out of there. Let’s move.”

Just as Luke was carrying the last of the laser arrays out of the chamber, two work men with a cart loaded with portable jacks arrived at the lab.

“Good, just in time,” TSgt Abernathy said to them. “Lift that thing up in there.”

The work men looked at each other, and then at Todd. Todd nodded at them, and the two got to work.

“You know,” Todd said, “we may be working on your contract, but you can’t just give orders to the other employees here.”

“In fact I can,” TSgt Abernathy countered. “The National Security Act of 1947, as amended, grants full authority over situations involving alien activity on earth, supplanting any other civil or private authorities, to three individuals, in descending order: the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Commander of Air Force Exosolar Command,” she recited, ticking off each on her fingers. “And the Commander of AFEXOCOM has delegated control of this particular operation to me. So yes, I can tell your employees what to do when it involves that thing in there. Is that clear?”

Todd gulped. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“Wait,” Luke said, “isn’t the National Security Act something to do with intelligence? What do aliens and the military have to do with it?”

Before TSgt Abernathy could regale Luke with tales of last-minute amendments slipped in to unrelated must-pass post-9/11 intelligence reform legislation and congressmen with strange theories about Roswell and Area 51, the room shook and a loud crash thundered from the chamber next door. She immediately burst through the door to see what had happened, followed by Luke and Todd.

The pallet supporting the object had snapped in two once the workmen had began lifting it by either side. The object was now resting directly on the floor of the chamber, stationary. At least, stationary as far as anyone could tell.

TSgt Abernathy pulled one of the halves aside to get a look at what the object had until moments ago been resting on. The hollow that had been dug into the center of the pallet to hold the sphere in place was now a hole that went clean through the pallet. There weren’t any scraps or shavings to suggest what had happened to the material that was supposed to be there. It was just sort of…

“Eaten away,” TSgt Abernathy said quietly. She straightened herself and turned to the two engineers. “Is there anything directly underneath this room?”

Luke thought. “The subbasement? I don’t know what’s underneath here, specifically, but it’s mostly storerooms and a couple equipment rooms. Never been down there myself.”

“First time for everything, then. Grant, you, Mr. Aaronson, and I are going to go down and take a look. Roberts, you keep an eye on the object. Radio me if there’s any change. Mr. Wright, you try to monitor the object as best you can. Move out.”

Before he was quite able to get a grasp of what just happened, Luke found himself riding the service elevator down to the subbasement with TSgt Abernathy and SrA Grant. He looked over and saw SrA Grant doing something with her sidearm.

“Do you really think that’s going to be necessary?” he asked.

SrA Grant shrugged. “‘Be prepared,’” she said, slipping it back into its holster.

“I thought that was the Boy Scouts.”

“Still a good motto.”

The doors slid open. The subbasement floor plan was pretty much identical to the basement’s, just with dimmer lighting and dirtier hallways. He led the other two down the hall to what, according to the plate on the door, was an equipment storeroom underneath the anechoic chamber. He swiped his badge, opened the door, and flipped on the light. He then quickly stepped out of the way to let SrA Grant enter first.

The room was full of dusty metal shelves stacked with boxes or, failing that, clumsily stacked piles of equipment. The sort of room where old or broken hardware went to die. The contents in the shelf in the center of the room, however, had a different fate. Something from the ceiling had been dripping on it.

A few metal stubs poking from the shelving’s support columns were the only sign that there had ever been a top shelf. A good chunk of the shelf below that had also been eaten away by something. There was a wide pool of something viscous atop a pile of discarded network switches on the middle shelf.

“Well there’s your problem,” SrA Grant joked.

“What is that stuff?” Luke asked.

“Don’t touch it,” TSgt Abernathy said.

“Well, duh,” Luke replied.

Luke heard a quick burst of radio static behind him. “Roberts, this is Abernathy, come in, over.”

“Was it leaking?” Luke wondered.

“Leaking, oozing, peeing, bleeding, does it matter?” SrA Grant said.

“Roberts, contact Maj Raskin. Tell him we have a situation here. Containment breach, still assessing. Over.”

“Bleeding?” Luke asked. “Like, alien blood?”

“Who else’s blood would it be?” SrA Grant replied.

“No, I know it’d be alien blood. But is it like alien blood? I mean, Alien alien.”

SrA Grant looked at him.

“No, I mean, Alien alien, like the alien from Alien. The movie. You know, facehuggers, and acid for blood.”

“Oh, you mean Xenomorphs. It’s not that.”

“How do you know?”

“A, Xenomorphs don’t build ships. B, Xenomorphs are too big to fit inside that thing. And C, Xenomorphs are fictional.” SrA Grant started walking around the room, checking the other shelving units for similar damage.

“Roger that, no change in the object so far. Be careful up there. Abernathy out.” TSgt Abernathy slid the radio back into her uniform.

“Ma’am, the damage seems to be limited to the shelf underneath the object,” SrA Grant reported.

“If it’s acid,” Luke wondered aloud, “it seems awfully specific about what it dissolves.”

“What do you mean?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

Luke pointed up at the ceiling. There was a small hole in the drop tile above the ruined shelf. “It ate through there, but only just enough to drip down to here. And then look how it’s just pooled on top of here, when it had no trouble getting through the two shelves above it. Shouldn’t it keep dissolving this too, on and on until it, um, whatever you call it when acid’s dissolving something and then stops dissolving it when the acid runs out of itself?”

“Nervous? You can head back up if you want.”

“Eh.”

“He does have a point, though,” SrA Grant added. “Besides, if it was getting dissolved, there should be a big puddle of melted stuff. It’s just… gone. Weird.”

TSgt Abernathy nodded. “Just like the pallet it was sitting on.” She wished she had a way to scoop up a sample of whatever was pooled atop the equipment on the shelf.

Luke froze. “Did you hear that?”

The other two fell silent. “Hear what?” TSgt Abernathy asked after about ten seconds had passed.

“It was a kind of metal tinkling noise.”

“I hear it too,” SrA Grant announced. “It’s coming from this corner.”

The other two converged on her position. She was staring at a shelf full of boxes, listening intently.

“It’s definitely coming from behind here,” she said. “Here, help me move this junk out of the way.” She began slowly picking up boxes from the bottom shelf and setting them on the floor behind her.

“There!” TSgt Abernathy said, pointing.

They all saw it. The shadows prevented any of them from getting a good look at it, but there was definitely movement along the wall behind the shelf. Whatever it was, it quickly slipped through a hole in the wall.

“What’s next door?” TSgt Abernathy asked.

“Another storeroom, I think.” Luke replied.

“Let’s check it out.”

The three went back out into the hallway and half-ran, half-creeped to the next door down. SrA Grant flattened herself along the wall next to the door and gave a hand signal.

“Wait, what does that mean?” Luke asked.

“She wants you to unlock the door and step back, then she’ll open it a crack and look inside,” TSgt Abernathy replied.

“All that from a… whatever she just did?”

“Just do it.”

Luke swiped his badge and stepped back. SrA Grant slowly inched the door open. “Sergeant,” she said, “you’re going to want to see this.”

TSgt Abernathy pressed her head against the door to see inside. There was more than one of them. Half a dozen, at least. They were small, and made of metal, and skittered across the floor on little feet. No, scratch that. Not all of them were quite so little.

She grabbed the handle and shut the door. She then pulled the radio out of her pocket. “Roberts, this is Abernathy. Contact Maj Raskin. Definite loss of containment. Potential foothold situation developing. Recommend evacuating and quarantining the facility. Awaiting orders. Over.”


Chapter word count: 1,855 (+188)
Total word count: 16,020 / 50,000 (32.04%)

Outward: Chapter 8: Skin Deep

Luke conspicuously drummed his fingers on the desk as he listlessly stared at the bank of computer screens and slowly swiveled back and forth in his chair. He sighed. Then he tried sighing louder.

“Problem over there?” Todd asked, not looking over at him.

“What, problem?” intoned Luke. “No, I’ve just been staring at the same thing for the past three hours. No, no problem at all.”

“Well then, keep staring at it. Watch to see if anything changes.”

“If only.”

Luke had felt better about being pulled off the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator project when he had learned he’d be studying a real-life alien thingy. Well, technically, a suspected real-life alien thingy, but it sure looked alien enough to him. There were even a few brief moments of excitement. The excitement had been tempered a bit when he learned they wouldn’t be cracking the thing open to see what was inside.

And the excitement plunged back down to zero when the sheer passivity of passive analysis had sunk in.

Right now, in the anechoic chamber next door, a dozen antennas were pointed directly at the object, each of them straining to pick up some kind of signal, or beacon, or anything, emanating from it, as the antennas continually retuned themselves to sweep up and down as much of the electromagnetic spectrum as they could. Their output was being drawn in real-time on the monitors in front of him in just about every breakdown imaginable: time domain, frequency domain, spacial domain, energy density, power levels, you name it.

And all of the results confirmed it: nothing was happening.

Which wasn’t to say the graphs were all completely flat, of course, just that all of the slightly interesting-looking bits on the graphs would be there even if the object wasn’t. That jittering bump around 2.4 GHz was the access point for the building’s wireless network. The occasional peaks over there was his phone trying in vain to contact the nearest cell tower. Reception was iffy even if he was outside. Down in the basement, it was hopeless.

By all rights, there should have been something big. Surely the object must be trying to send a signal to a mothership orbiting somewhere, or even back to its home planet, right? The kind of power needed for that would positively leap off the screen. Even if the aliens had some kind of crazy sci-fi subspace communications network or hyperspace relays, surely there must be some ordinary photons falling out of it.

“Nothing is happening,” Luke complained. “It’s not doing anything. I’m not doing anything. You’re not doing anything. He’s not doing anything either,” he said, pointing at SrA Roberts, standing guard on this side of the entrance to the lab.

“Of course things are happening,” Todd countered. “I’m monitoring the EM environment in the chamber. You’re annoying me. He’s listening to music.”

Luke looked over at SrA Roberts again. Sure enough, there was a thin white wire running from one of his ears down to a pocket in his uniform.

“I never knew iPods were standard issue,” Luke said.

Todd sighed. “All right, you’ve made your point. We’re not picking up anything, and we’ve got no idea when that will change, if at all. We might as well start with some of the other instruments. How about we start getting a good close look at it?”

Luke shrugged. “Sure beats this, I guess.”

Todd opened the door to the anechoic chamber and wheeled in a high-resolution camera assembly. He spent a few minutes hooking it up to the makeshift network of cables running across the floor to the patch panel in the wall between the chamber and the lab before returning to his seat.

“OK, let’s see what this thing looks like up close.”

The rig was essentially a remote-controlled microscope on a stick. A high-resolution camera was positioned less than an inch away from the object’s surface, flanked by miniature spotlights that shone onto the camera’s point of focus. A system of infrared lasers measured the distance from the rig to the object. Not only would this provide a topographical map of the object’s surface as the rig moved around the object, but it also minimized the chance that they would bump into each other. This was crucial, because the expensive camera would wind up taking most of the impact.

Todd flipped the system on, and he and Luke crowded around the display to look at what the camera saw.

Luke’s first reaction was to notice how dirty the object looked up close. It hardly looked like it was in mint condition to begin with, but up close all the tiny particles of dirt and whatnot were evident. Which was to be expected, of course, since the object had been half buried in the ground, and no one had dared hose it down or wipe it off for fear of somehow damaging or contaminating it.

“Hang on, what’s that?” Luke asked as Todd instructed the camera to move vertically along the object’s curvature. “Go back a bit, a little more, there!”

Todd saw it too. A minute crack running horizontally across the viewport. No, not a crack, it was too straight for that. A seam? Whatever it was, it was too small to be seen with the naked eye. The two sides fit together perfectly, with hardly any gap at all between them. Todd maneuvered the camera to follow the seam, first left, then angling upward, then right again, and back down.

“Is that what I think it is?” Luke asked.

“I don’t know,” Todd replied. “It looks almost like some kind of access hatch. Hang on, I’m going to see if there’s anything inside that square.

Todd slowly swept the camera back and forth, but didn’t reveal any features inside the square shape formed by the groove, just smooth, almost perfectly curved metal, modulo some dirt and grime.

“It doesn’t look like there’s any handle or fasteners or anything,” Luke concluded.

“But I’d bet if there’s one hatch or whatever, there’s bound to be more,” Todd said.

“Right.”

“Are you going to be able to handle the search?”

“No problem. We’re actually finding something now.”

They spent the next hour and a half meticulously covering ever exposed square inch with the camera. Occasionally one of them would go into the chamber to reposition the camera rig so that it could see a different part of the object. As time went on, they plotted out a series of similar shapes in the surface, some square, some rectangular, some circular, but all of the same microscopic thickness.

“Well there’s obviously something inside it,” Luke said. “Those hatches have to be there for a reason.”

Todd thought for a minute. “Penetrative scan time?”

“Penetrative scan time,” Luke agreed.

They spend the next half hour removing the camera rig and the antennas from the anechoic chamber, and replacing them with a different set of antennas and an emitter device that, had it been the production model, would have had some ridiculous name like InternaView 5000 XT blazoned on it. The production test model the lab had available had a simple black casing.

Either way, the device could fire photons at just about any frequency and intensity you wanted, and the antennas surrounding the target would catch the reflections and backscatter and derive information about what was inside the object. Given enough frequencies and enough angles, you could ultimately build a pretty accurate three-dimensional view of the target’s internal structure and a fairly good guess as to what it was made of.

Luke remembered having been brought into a sales meeting once to discuss the device’s capabilities. TSA had been interested in trying a few out for passenger and luggage screening. The TSA reps had started to look doubtful when Luke had explained how a successful imaging of something would take fifteen minutes minimum per target. They walked out when he then started estimating the cost of modifying it with hardware interlocks to prevent it from sending fatal doses of radiation into an unsuspecting passenger.

He and Todd, of course, knew what they were doing.

The downside to the current setup, where they had to move the emitter and devices around the room because there was no way they could rotate the object around instead, was that it would take a while until enough measurements had been taken to get even a rough picture of what was inside the object. Finally, though, after an hour of measurements and another pot of coffee, the preliminary results were available.

“This says it’s solid,” Todd announced doubtfully.

“That’s got to be an error,” agreed Luke. Check again.

“That’s what it says. Something’s not right. Hang on, let me check the raw data.”

They looked at the results of individual scans. They looked at each one separately, but as a pattern emerged, they started advancing through the set rapidly, confirming their suspicions.

“The shell is completely opaque,” Luke concluded.

Todd nodded. Some of the frequencies bounced off the object’s surface like a mirror. Others scattered off in all directions. Many of them appeared to have been absorbed wholesale. A few outliers somehow skimmed the surface until reemerging near the opposite side of the object. Todd was especially curious how it pulled off that trick, and wondered whether he’d be able to figure it out in time for designing the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, Generation Four.

“Should we try boosting the intensity?” Luke asked.

“We can try, I guess,” Todd shrugged, “though I doubt the results would be any different.”

They started running a second series of measurements.

“Wait,” Todd said, his gaze fixed on the screen. He furrowed his brow. “This can’t be right.”

“What is it?” Luke asked.

“The computer’s not able to reintegrate the most recent measurements with the ones it took a few minutes ago.”

Luke held up his hands defensively. “Well, don’t look at me, I didn’t bump any of it.”

“I know you didn’t. None of the vibration sensors on the equipment went off. I double checked. They didn’t move.”

“Todd.”

“Yes?”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah.”

The scanning system was very sensitive to movement during a scan, since the algorithms used to combine the results of successive measurements weren’t very good at resolving changed frames of reference. Movement was the only known cause of the error. And if the equipment hadn’t moved, that means the object did.


Chapter word count: 1,743 (+76)
Total word count: 14,165 / 50,000 (28.33%)

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Outward: Chapter 7: Samples

There was a knock at the door. Dr. Anika Demitrios instinctively glanced up from her e-mail, even though the door was closed and she couldn’t see who was on the other side. “Yes?” she called.

The door cracked open, and Lindsey Wellington, one of her lab technicians, poked her head into the office. “Anika, do you have a minute?”

Dr. Demitrios quickly scanned the remaining subject lines. Nothing there that was any more urgent than normal. She pushed her chair away from the desk a few inches and leaned back. “Certainly. Come on in, Lindsey.”

Lindsey opened the door just wide enough to slip through and stood there, one hand still on the handle. “How familiar are you with the ’413 job?”

Dr. Demitrios furrowed her brow for a moment. Being the chief lab technician ironically meant she didn’t spend much time actually doing lab work. Her responsibilities these days mainly fell on assigning resources to the analysis projects that came in, making sure people were getting trained and staying certified, planning the next major equipment upgrade, that sort of thing. She didn’t normally read the job requests more than necessary to estimate how many person-hours to assign.

“Not very, I’m afraid,” Dr. Demitrios replied, as she began to lean forward again. “Hang on a moment and I can bring it up.”

“No, no, that’s all right,” Lindsey quickly replied. “It’s better if you don’t, actually. I need a second opinion on the cultures we made.”

“Oh. Is there something wrong with them?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to see what you think.”

Dr. Demitrios nodded and lifted herself out of her chair. “OK, let’s go take a look.”

Lindsey led her to Lab 3, where upon the central table she found a pile of petri dishes.

“Which one did you want me to look at?” Dr. Demitrios asked.

“All of them,” Lindsey replied.

“All of them?”

“All of them. They’re all from the same job.”

“And?”

“I’d like to see if you come to the same conclusion about all of them that Judit and I did.”

“And you don’t want to tell me anything else about them because you don’t want to bias my conclusions,” Dr. Demitrios guessed.

Lindsey nodded. “I’ll go run the dishes for ’427 over to the incubator while you look at those. I’ll be back in a bit.” She then busied herself loading up a cart with another set of dishes from a table along the wall.

Dr. Demitrios turned her attention to the task at hand. She picked up one of the dishes from the table and checked it. The contamination seal around the lid was still intact. She flipped it over to look at the label stuck onto the bottom of the dish. A random-looking five-character alphanumeric code was written on it in clear block letters with a thick black marker. She picked up a few more dishes and found them in the same shape.

Good work, she thought to herself. Lindsey hadn’t been with the lab for more than a few months, and already she was turning out to be a pro at this kind of work, following lab procedure to the letter. It wouldn’t be long before she started gunning for Dr. Demitrios’s own job.

Having finished the quick inspection, Dr. Demitrios set the other dishes back down to look at what was actually in the first one she had picked up off the pile. It looked like pretty typical bacterial growth: several big dark fuzzy splotches on the agar, with plenty of smaller, fainter dots in between. She didn’t need the microscope to guess that there would be bacteria to be found even in between the readily visible colonies. There wasn’t anything especially notable about the culture, no distinctive patterns or growths that would indicate a colony of any especially interesting type of bacterium.

She set the dish down on the table, away from the others, and picked up another one. Its contents were pretty much the same as the first: a textbook example of a bacterial culture. She found the same with the third dish, and the fourth.

The fifth, however, had a seemingly clean piece of agar in it. The contamination seal was intact, and it had a sample ID written on the underside. She placed it under the microscope and looked at it under low power. She then tried sliding the dish around a bit on the specimen tray, looking to see if there was anything on it too small to spot unaided. Nothing. She switched to medium magnification, then high. Still nothing. If not for the lack of the factory wrap around the dish, she would have assumed it hadn’t had a sample swabbed across it at all.

Dr. Demitrios made a quick check of some more dishes. Most of them showed the same general bacterial growth, while a couple more looked empty.

“Lindsey, are you sure you–?” she began, trailing off when she turned around and noticed that Lindsey had already left the lab for the incubator. Dr. Demitrios shrugged, then started partitioning the dishes into two piles, one for the colonized ones and one for the colony-free ones. Once she had finished triaging the original pile, she saw that the colonized pile was much larger than the colony-free pile.

She was about to put one of the colonized dishes under the microscope when she heard the door open behind her.

“So,” Lindsey asked, “what do you think?”

Dr. Demitrios paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. “Not knowing anything about what any of these were actually taken from…” she began.

“Yes, go on.”

“I would say that that these,” Dr. Demitrios continued, pointing to the large pile, “are all collections of run-of-the-mill bacteria. Pretty much what you’d find if you left it open on a counter overnight — well, not here, obviously, but at home or something like that — or if someone sneezed on it. I haven’t looked closely at any of them yet, but they don’t look particularly remarkable at first glance.”

Lindsey nodded, a grin starting to creep across her face. “And the other ones?”

“This pile,” Dr. Demitrios said, pointing to the smaller one, “looks like it’s the controls. Dishes that didn’t get swabbed at all, to make sure there wasn’t any contamination from our lab itself. Though I don’t know why anyone would make quite so many controls. Seems like it would be a little wasteful, actually,” she added, her lab manager responsibilities starting to creep into her assessment.

“Good, good,” Lindsey replied. She grabbed a clipboard from one of the other tables along the wall, then walked up to the small, clean pile. She started picking them up one by one, reading the sample ID on the bottom, and checking it against the list attached to the clipboard.

“So…?” Dr. Demitrios asked, wondering where it was Lindsey was going with all this.

“Hang on a second, I just want to double-check that these here are what I think they are.”

Dr. Demitrios watched as Lindsey worked her way through the pile. She had clearly given Lindsey the answer she had been hoping for. Dr. Demitrios wondered just what that meant.

“You are not going to believe this,” Lindsey announced after setting down the last of the dishes.

“I’m all ears.”

“’413 was a job to look for contaminants at a… farm somewhere upstate.”

“What kind of contaminants.”

“You name it,” Lindsey continued. “The customer checked off all the boxes, and next to the ‘Other’ blank, wrote ‘Everything else.’”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. So this was to see if there was any bacterial contamination in any of the samples taken by the customer at various points around the site, from ground zero out.”

“And you found nothing,” Dr. Demitrios guessed. “Across the board, you found nothing but normal bacteria across the entire site. Though that doesn’t explain how many control dishes you ran.”

“Nope!” Lindsey was nearly bouncing up and down with excitement at this point. “Only two of those are controls. The rest of the sterile dishes were the samples taken at ground zero of the site.”

“If there were contamination,” Dr. Demitrios thought aloud, starting down the path that Lindsey had already reached the finish line of, “that’s where it’d be strongest. No contamination, and it’d be the same across the board. But with negative contamination…”

“It gets better. Judit was running a PCR on some of the samples we received, to use the DNA to take a census of what was living in each one.”

“And?”

“They all came out the same. Ground zero and otherwise.”

“Which means…” Dr. Demitrios began, starting to see what was going on.

“Which means, whatever is at their ground zero killed all the bacteria that had been there originally, but didn’t spread out at all, suggesting an extremely local cause. And,” Lindsey added, waiting to see Dr. Demitrios’s reaction.

“There’s an and?” The finish line was in sight.

“The mass spectroscopy of those samples uncovered a few unidentified chemical compounds.” Lindsey grinned.

“Such as some novel, potent, broad-spectrum antibiotic,” Dr. Demitrios realized.

Lindsey nodded.

“Huh.”

“Yeah.”

Dr. Demitrios couldn’t begin to imagine what had happened at this farm the customer was interested in where they feared contamination by something and wound up with the exact opposite, and apparently didn’t even know it. What she could understand, however, was the practical applications of a powerful antibiotic, if that’s what it truly turned out to be. It was still far too early to get one’s hopes up, of course; it could well be something that was lethal to anything. But even if that were the case, if they could figure out how the compounds worked, maybe it could be made more selective, to make it target only what they wanted. They’d also have to figure out a way to synthesize it, of course. But hey, even something that killed everything would make a terrific disinfectant.

“Lindsey,” Dr. Demitrios asked, “have you ever had your name on a billion-dollar patent?”


Chapter word count: 1,676 (+9)
Total word count: 12,422 / 50,000 (24.844%)

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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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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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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Outward: Chapter 3: Lighting the Way

“You and what army?” Luke Aaronson crossed his arms and planted his feet in the doorway to the anechoic chamber.

“Jesus Christ, Luke,” Todd Wright replied. He shook his head in disbelief and rubbed his temples with one hand. “You knew this was coming. It’s been on the schedule for at least a month.”

“And I was against it then, too.”

“I know, Luke. I was there, remember? I didn’t like the idea either. I still don’t. But we lost that battle. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

Luke tried spreading his feet a little farther apart. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop the two burly movers standing impatiently behind his coworker. Not so much because of being outnumbered three to one, or the difference in muscle mass — or really, just mass in general — between them. No, it was mostly because the door was far too wide to be blocked by one person. The movers could just walk around him if they really wanted to. He knew he wasn’t going to win.

Still, it was the principle of the thing.

Luke tried a different tactic. “Todd, how long have you been an engineer?”

“Twenty years, plus or minus,” Todd answered.

“And in all that time, how many live demos in front of the customer have you ever seen work without having done a dry run?”

Todd sighed. “Never. But we had dry runs scheduled. They just got rained out.”

“What if it rains again? The research prototype will be ruined!”

“So we’ll make another one. It’s not like we’re not ready to start production on the engineering test model anyway. Besides,” Todd stressed, “there’s not a cloud in the sky.”

“We should push the demo back. Do a dry run tonight, and then–”

“Not gonna happen. Do you know who’s coming up to see the demo?”

Luke hung his head. “Geemler,” he replied quietly.

“Exactly. Joseph freaking Geemler. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get on the schedule of the prime’s CEO? To have him make a site visit? At night?!”

Luke sighed. “All right. Fine.” He stepped out of the way.

The two movers entered the anechoic chamber. Inside there were two rolling carts. One carried a stack of computers and black boxes with wiring running out the front and back sides. On the other was a gray cube, tethered to the other equipment via several cables. It was clearly a research prototype, as marketing hadn’t been allowed to slap any sleek lines or corporate logos on it. Its only distinguishing feature was the odd texture it had, the way the light from the overhead lamps struck it and got confused which way it was supposed to reflect.

Luke and Todd had had a lot of practice figuring out how to confuse light like that. It took a quick mind to confuse light. Light’s pretty quick on its own, after all.

“Just be extremely careful with that!” Luke called out to the movers as they rolled the two carts out through the lab’s door. “It’s very delicate! And not even remotely waterproof!”

“Wheel it up to the roof,” Todd said. “There’s a big square marked out in duct tape for where it should go. You can’t miss it. Come on,” he said, turning back to Luke, “grab your gear. We’ve got two hours to make sure everything up there is calibrated.

The access door to the roof opened. The light coming through outlined a tall man in an impeccably tailored suit. He stepped out onto the roof, and was followed by a slightly less tall man in a less impeccably tailored suit. Following him was a shorter, rounder man wearing a sport coat at least one size too small.

Luke had no trouble figuring out that the first one was Joseph Geemler, CEO of Forney Junip. But clothes aside, he didn’t quite fit Luke’s mental image of a Fortune 500 executive. Or, in Geemler’s case, a Fortune 10. It was the excited grin on his face.

It took a certain kind of person to be excited about a ten o’clock business meeting on the roof of a building two time zones away from corporate headquarters. It made Luke nervous.

“Welcome, gentlemen,” enthused the marketing director that Luke never bothered to remember the name of, “to the Applied Office Group R&D headquarters!” The director shook each of their hands vigorously, and then pointed them to three executive-style office chairs that had been brought up to the roof for the occasion. They looked a lot more comfortable than the old metal folding chairs he and Todd had been sitting on until a moment ago. Probably a lot warmer, too.

“For decades,” the marketing director began, “lasers were the gold standard for applications requiring focused light. CDs, DVDs, fiber optics, without lasers, all of these would be but a dream. Without lasers, we would be unable to pass information at the speed of light. Why, without lasers, even in the information age it would still take ages to pass information across the country.” Insert chuckle here.

Luke turned his attention back to the equipment and septuple-checked the settings on everything. He had been forced to listen to the speech dozens of times. His role had been coaching the marketing director on how to pronounce the name of the product he was demoing. No, the product that he and Todd were demoing. The marketing director was just narrating.

“But lasers have limitations. They excel at pumping out light at a single frequency, photon after photon marching in lockstep, but what if a single frequency isn’t enough? What if you want the entire spectrum at your disposal? There are plenty of sources available, but the energy disperses far too readily. Just like a light bulb: pure white light, but scattered every which way. You can try to aim it in one direction with mirrors, but that only takes you so far.”

Luke had tried to get the word “incandescent” added in there, to no avail. Everyone knew modern compact fluorescent bulbs didn’t pump out true white light. At least, everyone who knew the first thing about optics did. But apparently knowing optics wasn’t a requirement for working at Applied Optics Group. Optics was their middle name! Literally, even! Luke shook his head and adjusted the aim knob by a few milliangstrom.

“Luckily, the Applied Optics Group can take you farther. Introducing the cutting edge in optical technology–”

“Please say it right please say it right please say it right,” Luke silently muttered to himself.

“– the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, Generation Three!”

This was about the time that a spotlight should shine down on the gleaming new product. But they were on the roof, and light didn’t so much gleam off it as stumble.

Luke turned on the flashlight, illuminating the gray cube. Shockingly, no “oooh”s or “ahhh”s were forthcoming from the audience.

“Allow us to demonstrate what the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator can do,” the marketing director continued. He pointed to a building several miles away, on the outskirts of the city in whose outlying areas AOG R&D headquarters was located, and continued, “On the roof of that building there is a highly polished mirror, facing almost directly back at us.”

Geemler and his two associates partially stood up to look where the marketing director was pointing. Unsurprisingly, given the distance involved and the fact that it was ten o’clock at night, they couldn’t see anything, but went along with it anyway.

“And on this rooftop, we have the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, and a standard off-the-shelf commercial flashlight. By itself, of course, the beam of the flashlight would never even reach the distant rooftop, let alone be reflected back onto this wall here. The flashlight’s output is too diffuse, spreading too widely too quickly.”

On cue, Todd twisted the neck of the flashlight, narrowing its beam so that its light shone entirely on the gray cube.

“But the Advanced Hyperspectral Collimator, composed of the latest nonlinear composite metamaterials, adaptively refocuses light across the entire output spectrum into an impossibly focused beam, effectively eliminating diffraction effects and ensuring the beam remains at full strength for mile after mile.”

“Impossible” in this case was hardly an exaggeration. Todd’s doctoral thesis had been on defeating optical diffraction effects with techniques that, even after years of working with him and even helping him to build the device, Luke could only describe as “quantum trickery.”

“Gentlemen,” the marketing director said, turning towards the two engineers, “if you please.”

Luke gulped and flipped the switch, powering the gray cube. According to the monitor, everything was working normally.

According to everything else, however, quite the opposite. The marketing director stared meaningfully at Luke.

“Just a second, here,” Luke said defensively. “I think it’s the temperature. The lab’s about twenty degrees warmer, so in theory it’ll take a little longer for–”

The collective gasp from everyone who wasn’t Todd interrupted him. On the wall, one foot away from the equipment, was a circle of light, as sharp as it would have been had the flashlight been positioned not three feet away and directly at it.

Todd exhaled.

“And just in case you aren’t convinced…” the marketing director said. With a flourish, he passed his hand in front of the gray box. Instantaneously, the spot of light on the wall was obstructed by a shadow. He moved his hand back and forth a few times for emphasis.

“Incredible,” Geemler said.

“Amazing,” the man to his right added.

“How does the delay in responsiveness correlate with the decrease in ambient temperature?” asked the man to Geemler’s left, the one will the ill-fitting sport coat.

Luke smiled. A fellow engineer. “We haven’t tested it thoroughly yet,” Luke replied, “but from this one data point, it seems roughly consistent with the performance of the Gen Two model, so I’d assume the delay with the Gen Three increases polylogarithmically with decrease in temperature.”

“Of course,” Todd added, “the production Gen Two has stages in the adaptive pathways that compensate for 99% of the thermal effect, which this prototype doesn’t have. The production Gen Three will actually have an improved version of those components, plus an optimized algorithm that reduces the time for a anti-diffraction solution by an additional 5%.”

“Meaning…” asked the marketing director.

“Meaning it’ll be even less of a problem than with the version we’re currently shipping to you,” replied Luke.

“Which isn’t even a problem at all,” added Todd.

“Outstanding,” Geemler said, standing up. His associates followed suit. “Go ahead and double our order for the Generation Three AHCs. My people will call you in the morning to work out the details.”

Geemler and the marketing director started exchanging pleasantries with one another as Luke began powering down the equipment. Marcus Rubio emerged from the shadows by the door, along with the two movers.

“Go ahead and move the equipment down to room 317,” Marcus instructed the movers.

“Um,” Luke asked, “how come?”

“We’re going to need to anechoic lab for another project that came up. Just got the call. And by ‘we,’ I mean the two of you. And by ‘two’, I mean one and a half; Mr. Wright will be splitting his time between the AHC and this new project.”

“What new project?”

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a long story. Have I ever told you two about our AFEXOCOM contract?”


Chapter word count: 1,909 (+242)
Total word count: 5,556 / 50,000 (11.112%)

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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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%)