Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Unidentified Factor - Part I

(Blogger’s Note: I was rereading Asimov’s The Early Asimov, in which he reprinted many of his earliest stories. It is interesting to see the evolution of his style. Read one of the first of those stories and then one of the last for comparison. Asimov said that he didn’t change those early stories, other than a spelling correction and the like. I thought I would reprint some of my earliest stories in a similar fashion, which is not to say that I believe I’m in the same league as Asimov. Hell, I’m not even on the same planet… however, as I started to retype the story into the computer (because it was originally written on a typewriter which dates it somewhat but it was written in the mid-1970s which dates me somewhat) I just couldn’t do it. The story needed work, so I rewrote it as well. For example, in the original story, the scene with the two pilots was two paragraphs. I expanded it because I wanted to show what was happening rather than telling what had happened. Anyway, here is the new and improved story… and note the use of our technology in it. None of that was in the original, otherwise this tale would have been an incredible piece of prediction.)


The Unidentified Factor


The ringing telephone woke him. He swore at another middle of the night calls that were becoming all too routine. At least twice a week and lately it seemed to be three or four times, Captain Philip Wilson was called at home. That was the disadvantage or being on twenty-four hour, seven days a week, call, not to mention being the unit commander.

Wilson rolled over, reached for the land line which was more secure than his cell, and knocked the receiver off the hook. He groped for it, found it, and said, “Yeah?”

“This is Sergeant Burroughs, sir. I have an ‘operational immediate’. It came in about five minutes ago.”

Wilson sat up and reached for the light. “Can you give me any of the details?”

Burroughs hesitated and then said, “Not really sir. It involves a couple of our pilots.”

“All right.” Wilson looked at the alarm clock and said, “I should be there inside of fifteen minutes. Twenty at the most. Let’s say about zero four three zero.”

Having said all that he cared to say, Wilson hung up. For a moment he sat staring at the phone, and then scrubbed his face with the heels of his hands. Again he glanced at the clock as if he couldn’t believe the time and then forced himself to stand up.

Quickly he shaved, brushed his teeth and combed his hair. Since he could see no reason for others to stay in bed if he had to get awake, he called his executive officer, Lieutenant Frank Lanning.

When the phone was answered, he said, “Frank. We have an ‘operational immediate.’ I’ll meet you at the base.” He didn’t bother to identify himself. Lanning would know who it was.

There was a brief reply which might have been a mumbled oath. Wilson hung up without waiting for more. He walked around the bed, and pulled a uniform from the closet. He looked at the wings reflecting the dim bedroom light and wondered why he had given up his flying assignment. Had he stayed in the cockpit he wouldn’t be awake at four in the morning because some citizen or a couple of pilots had seen a light in the night sky.

At the base, he went directly to his office. Burroughs was waiting with both the report and the coffee. As Wilson entered, Burroughs said, “Good morning, sir.”

Wilson took the report, then looked at the coffee and frowned. “Can you scare up a Coke instead? I think I need something cold.” With that, Wilson, reading the first page, walked into his office.

The report was actually based on incidents from three locations, funneled to his office through a larger intelligence network at the next higher headquarters. It seemed that a dozen people, including two Air Force pilots and an amateur astronomer had seen a bright point of light cross the sky sometime between 0215 and 0251.

Wilson rocked back in his chair and swore. “Why can’t these yo-yos see the damned lights at a decent hour?”

He flipped to the next page and saw that the sightings had been made in three cities located some 517 miles apart and on a straight line. The estimated altitude was something like 185 miles and the speed just over 17,000 miles an hour which made it sound like it was something in orbit, though Wilson didn’t believe the altitude estimate and if that was off, then the speed was off, unless they had some kind of radar confirmation.

Burroughs entered with the Coke. Wilson looked up and then, waving the report like a banner, asked, “Did you read this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you find anything special in it? Was one of those pilots a general or something?”

“Not that I know of.” Burroughs set the Coke bottles down and found himself a chair. That was a breach of military protocol but it was four in the morning and sometimes at that hour there was no good reason for protocol.

“As near as I can figure,” said Burroughs, “someone was impressed with the straight line and the multitude of witnesses, given the hour and the altitude.”

“So what?” Wilson picked up the Coke. “We can’t do anything about it until morning.” He stopped talking when the outer door opened. He yelled, “That you Frank?”

“Right.” Lanning stepped into the office, his black hair uncombed and his blue eyes blood shot. “What’s the great catastrophe this time?”

“You’ll love this.” Wilson slid a few pages across to Lanning and into the pool of light formed by the desk lamp. He looked at Lanning and said, “Flip on the overhead.”

Lanning read the first few lines, looked up and asked, “What are we supposed to do about this?”

“Don’t stop now or you’ll miss the best part. The altitude.”

“Oh, hell,” said Lanning. He tossed the pages at the desk but missed. They fluttered to the floor.

Wilson took a long pull at his Coke and then set the bottle on the desk. “I supposed they’ll want us on the scene as the sun comes up.”

“We could have started just as easily started at seven,” said Lanning. He flopped into the overstuffed chair set in one corner of the office, put one leg up on the arm and leaned back.

“Okay,” said Wilson. “Burroughs, make the arrangements for us to travel. We’ll want to talk to the pilots first. Frank, let’s you and me go catch a shower and shave. Meet you here,” Wilson looked at his watch, “at, say, zero six three zero.”

“Got it,” said Lanning.

Wilson finished his Coke and gave the bottle to Burroughs to recycle. He stood up and headed to the door.


The pilots, sitting in a small conference room, were a little annoyed at still being at the base. They had wanted to go home when they finished the paperwork after the flight but had been told to wait until relieved. One of them, a tall, thin man, was reading the newspaper and the other; a short, slender brunette held her tablet on her lap and was playing a game. She didn’t bother to look up when Wilson entered.

The pilot with the newspaper saw that he outranked everyone in the room, and went back to the newspaper. The other didn’t even bother to look up.

Wilson said, “Good morning. I have a few questions.”

The pilot with the newspaper folded it, and set it on the table. He didn’t bother to introduce himself. He just stared at Wilson.

“We filled out your form. We’ve been up all night and we’d really just rather go on home. I’m sorry that I mentioned anything.” He pushed a document toward Wilson.

Wilson ignored it and said, “It would be helpful, Major, if you would tell us what you saw.”

Without preamble, he said, “We were flying a loose formation, picking up a little nighttime to stay current. Emily spotted the object, the light, whatever, that looked like a very bright star. It appeared to be moving in relation to the background stars so we thought it would be fun to give chase. We started a climb, trying to get above the light but we couldn’t seem to close on it. It just stayed ahead of us and disappeared about two minutes after we began the chase.”

Wilson turned his attention to Emily, who was a captain and whose last name was Ryder, according to her nametag. He asked, “What drew your attention to it?”

She turned off her tablet and said, “I just looked and there was the bright light. Looked like a star but it brighter than anything I have ever seen, including Venus. I called Major Johnson’s attention to it and he spotted it right away.”

Since both pilots had seen it, it was clear that the object had not been a reflection on the canopy of one of the fighters. It was in sight too long to be a meteor and it seemed to react to the fighters. Both said they were impressed with the speed because the object was so far above them.

“We checked with flight following,” said Johnson, “but they had nothing on radar. No one seemed to have radar contact. We couldn’t find anyone else who saw it.”

“Why’d you report this?” asked Wilson.

Johnson took a deep breath. “Had it been up to me, we wouldn’t have said anything, but we’d queried the radar facility and they had monitored the call in the command post. The intell officer was waiting for us, per regulations. At that point we had no choice.”

They talked to the pilots for another thirty minutes, but learned nothing that would help them identify the object. Neither of them had any idea about what it might have been. With nothing to go on, with only a single bright light in the sky, devoid of detail, there was nothing more to be done.

Wilson gathered up the reports and stood up. He said, “Thanks for the help. Sorry to have held you up.”

Johnson smiled quickly and said, “Not your fault. It was mine. I shouldn’t have asked for the radar confirmation.

As they left, Wilson said, “I think we need to talk to that astronomer.”

“Amateur astronomer,” said Lanning.

“Amateur,” agreed Wilson. Then he said, “You go get us a car from the motor pool, and I’ll see what the Intel officer has to say.”


Lanning picked up Wilson thirty minutes later, outside of the Intel office. As he got into the car, he said, “Well, that was a colossal waste of time. He didn’t even talk to the pilots. He just gave the pilots the forms to fill out and then set them off to wait for us.”

Lanning said, “I just don’t understand why someone is so on fire to get an answer on this. It’s not like these things haven’t been seen before.”

“What bugs me,” said Wilson, “is why they would slap an operational immediate on this. No one seems to know why or who.” He took off his hat and rubbed his head.

“I thought our headquarters did that.”

“Nope. I checked. They received it that way.” Wilson paused and looked out the car window. They were passing a number of brick buildings that had somehow missed looking institutional. Maybe it was because they were single story and had bright white trim.

“If I didn’t know better,” Wilson continued, “I’d think this was being driven by Air Force Headquarters. There is something here that has then concerned.”

Lanning slowed for a red light but it changed and he accelerated. “That doesn’t explain what is so important about this case. It’s just a light in the sky for crying out loud. We got a hundred… hell, a thousand like it.”

Wilson shrugged. “Beats me.”


The astronomer was quick to tell them all the things that the light was not. He had a much better time reference, and he had a precise length of his sighting. None of the other witnessed added much to the case file. They had seen a light. It had crossed the sky rapidly. It looked like a satellite only bigger. No one had taken a picture, though one had tried using her smart phone. There was nothing more for them to do but return to their home station.

Back in the office, Wilson decided to review the notes, reports and other documents. He spread the papers over his desk and then turned on the computer to begin a spreadsheet. As he entered the data, he turned to Lanning who was sitting in the overstuffed chair, sipping water and staring into space. He said, “Here’s something interesting.”


“One of the times is off by ninety minutes.”

Lanning stood and walked over to look at the monitor screen. “Probably means that someone can’t tell time.”

Wilson rocked back, his eyes on the screen and took a sip of his Coke. “At the second location?”

“Okay, then the thing took ninety minutes to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’.”

Wilson shook his head. “I don’t think you’ve got the point. We have three sightings in one location. Two fit nicely but the third is ninety minutes off. Allowing for differences in clocks and time estimates by the witnesses, they should all be very close.”

“Then you’re right. Someone can’t tell time.”

Wilson picked up the hard copy and handed it to Lanning. “You read this and then tell me that.”

For the first time since they had returned, Wilson visibly relaxed. He stretched, and stared at the Coke bottle. He suddenly had an idea and sat up. “Hey, Burroughs. Come in here for a minute.”

Burroughs stuck his head in the door and said, “Yes, sir?”

“What’s the name of the astronomer that helps us out now and then?”

“Hang on a minute and I’ll get the number for you.”

As Burroughs left, Lanning turned away from the computer screen. “Unless you have something, I can’t see any significance in these, even with your ninety minute difference.”

“Something has gotten the head shed’s panties in a bunch. I don’t know what it could be.”

Lanning was no longer interested. He said, “Unless you can impress me quickly, I’m going home. It’s late and I’m tired.

He moved to the door, stepped back to let Burroughs through. “I’ll see you guys in the morning,” he said, “unless, of course, something happens.”

Burroughs looked at his tablet and said, “Name you are looking for is Dawson. Ralph Dawson. He’s at the local university.”

“Why don’t you give him a call?”

“Now, sir? It’s ten thirty.”

Wilson looked at his watch to confirm the time and tapped his pencil against the empty Coke bottle. “Yeah, now. Give him a call.”


Ralph Dawson, who looked as if he had been sent over from central casting in the role of the eccentric college professor in an old, torn sweater and long hair that rarely saw a comb, walked in, escorted by a security policeman. He asked, “What is so important that you couldn’t wait until a decent hour to call?”

Wilson walked toward the door and then said to the security policeman, “Thank you. I’ll take over here.” He then turned to Dawson and said, “Thank you for coming in so late, Doctor. Would you like a beverage? Coke? Coffee? Water?”

“No, thank you. Well, yes, come to think of it, a bottle of water would be welcome.”

Once Dawson had his water, Wilson said, “Doctor, I hope that I didn’t get you out here on a wild goose chase. I’d like you to take a quick look at some of the data we’ve assembled and give us your impression.”

Dawson took the tablet from Burroughs, saw the security markings on it and asked, “Am I supposed to see this?”

“Nothing there that would impact national security. You might say that that is our non-security security tablet.”

Dawson took it and began to read. He frowned once or twice and then pulled out his smart phone, making a few calculations on it.

Wilson almost said something about that, but realized any data that Dawson had copied would probably be in the news in the next few days. He got up and leaving Burroughs to watch Dawson, he left his office and went to the coffee pot. It was empty. He then walked down the hall to the water cooler. He got a drink of the water tepid water and then stepped outside the building. Overhead he could see thousands of stars. The massive lights of the parking lot had been turned out after ten to conserve energy, as were many of the other lights on the base. Wilson was always amazed by the sight. So many stars.

He walked back into the building and into the office. Dawson had finished looking at the reports and was now working on his smart phone. He saw Wilson and said, “There is a rather interesting relationship here.”

Wilson didn’t want to contaminate Dawson’s theories with his own. Instead he said, “I hadn’t noticed anything too significant.”

“I’m not sure significant is the right word. The big clue is the time difference in some of these sightings. The ninety minutes is interesting.”

Then, falling into his professor mode, Dawson removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. Without looked at Wilson, he said, “We have, or course, calculated the orbits for our satellites and those we plan to launch in the next couple of years. Most are based on an altitude of above a hundred fifty miles, with the speed dictated by the altitude. These data seem to fit in with what you have given me here. Adding it together, I would say that what was seen was something in orbit.”

“Doctor, are you familiar with the statement that the true test of a man’s intelligence is how much he agrees with you?”


“I mention this only because you have confirmed what I had thought. I noticed that ninety minute discrepancy as well.”

“If it is in orbit, then its path is predictable. You should be able to figure out where it will reappear.”

Wilson began to understand why someone had been pushing for investigation. Someone else had figured it out as well, though Wilson didn’t understand why they had ordered him out. It was something that should have been investigated at a much higher level.

“For my predictions to be accurate, I would like additional information.”

“But you can do it now?”

“We really don’t have enough information for any prediction to be accurate. If someone reports something tonight, then we’ll have something. I can make some educated guesses.”

Wilson walked to the window and looked up at all the stars burning holes in the sky. He said, “Tomorrow I’ll see if any of our recent reports fit into the pattern. I’ll call in a few days.” He turned slowly and looked at Dawson.

Dawson seemed to realize what was happening, what was being said. “You mean this doesn’t belong to us?”

“Not to my knowledge. In fact, I don’t know who it belongs to. Anyone who launched it would probably be celebrating their achievement.”

“What are you saying? That this comes from, what? Outer space? That we’re dealing with space aliens here?”

Wilson grinned and said, “Well, that seems to be one possibility.”

“You simply don’t have enough data to make such a suggestion. There is nothing I’ve seen to suggest that this isn’t something we’ve launched.”

Wilson was quiet for a moment and then said, “Before I called you, I took a look at the orbits of our satellites, and when I say our, I’m talking about everything that has been launched from this planet. There is nothing in orbit that would have put it over that location at that time and have been visible to either the pilots or those on the ground.”

Dawson studied his notes for a moment and then repeated. “You don’t have enough data to make such a leap. The most logical conclusion is that this is something that was just recently launched into orbit.”

“I have computer access to a wide range of data bases,” said Wilson. “I have run a preliminary scan and found nothing. Tomorrow I’ll put my geeks on it and see if there are any reports that fit into a pattern that would have brought a satellite into view at the times and locations that we have.”

“Then why did you ask me here so late?”

Wilson laughed. “Because I needed some confirmation of the theory and you came to the same conclusion that I did. Now I can look a little deeper.

Dawson forced himself up, out of the chair, groaning with age. “Then I’ll be going.”

“How much data did you download to your phone?”

Unconsciously Dawson looked at his phone. “If you want me to go further with this, I’ll need the data.”

Wilson hesitated. “It’s all classified fairly high.”

“But I already know about it. I can only make accurate predictions if I have accurate information.”

Still Wilson hesitated. Dawson was right, of course. Wilson took a deep breath and said, “I have to warn you, Doctor, that the material is classified. If the news feeds get this, we’ll both be hung out to dry.”

“I know how to keep my mouth shut, Captain. I have signed the appropriate documents when I took over the consulting duties. You have nothing to worry about from me.”

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