“I think it’s artificial,” said Woods.
“What else can you tell me?”
“Preliminary data suggest an altitude of about 167 miles when it passed over here. We’ll have better information tomorrow.”
Another graduate student, one with a thick beard and long hair but fine looking clothes appeared with a tablet. He held it out and said, “This is the best we can do at the moment. Not a lot of detail, but something.”
Wilson studied it, thinking it was little more than a blob of light on a dark background, but they realized there were stars scattered in the background and that the blob had a shape.
“It’s not symmetrical,” said Wilson.
“No, it’s not. That surprised us. Not a lot of detail here but I think we can clean up the image. That is a real object and it is not natural.”
“Then what is it?”
Dawson, who had his pipe out again, but still hadn’t managed to light it, said, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I would say that if you can prove that it is not made by us or anyone else, then you have but one conclusion.”
“I think its alien,” said Woods.
Dawson looked as if he was about to say something, but Lanning cut him off. He said, “I agree. Someone put that up there and it wasn’t us. Wasn’t anybody on this planet.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Wilson.
“Hell, it is artificial and we didn’t do it. It follows a flight path that seems to cover the whole planet, as if mapping, and it wasn’t seen until just a few days ago.”
“That doesn’t make it alien.”
Lanning tapped the tablet. “That does. We’ve never built anything like that.”
“As far as you know,” said Wilson.
“As far as I know,” agreed Lanning.
Wilson turned to Dawson and said, “I’d like to keep this quiet. We don’t have enough to go on. Just some sightings and a picture that isn’t all that great.”
“We can gather more data,” said Dawson. “We have the technology to bring this right down in our laps now.”
“But we need to make sure that we have our facts right,” said Wilson. He was thinking that the problem had moved into a higher pay grade. This was not something that he should decide.
Dawson ignored the warning and said, “We’ll keep working. Well try to clean up the image and see what we have on film, not to mention the video stream.”
Wilson nodded and said, “Good.” There wasn’t much else that Wilson could do that night. He needed to wait for the data to be analyzed, for the photographs, video and the film to be scrutinized, and for it all to be plotted and cataloged and fed into the computers. Then they would have something tangible and something that could be forwarded up through the chain of command.
The next morning Wilson arrived at the office having avoided the morning news all together. He walked into a darkened building where no one had made any coffee or brought in any donuts, but then, no one else had arrived yet. Wilson enjoyed the quiet time, using it to work through the accumulated emails, the new regulations, and the minutia of a military assignment. Sometimes nothing made a lot of sense but he had the time to try to figure it out.
Lanning burst through the door ten minutes later, slid to a stop and looked at Wilson. He said, “You look remarkably calm.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
Lanning turned on the television, stood back as the picture glowed to brightness and said, “Well, crap.” He flipped through a couple of channels until he spotted Dawson’s face and stopped.
“Turn it up.”
Dawson was smiling. He said, “We got the best evidence last night and worked to analyze it. We provided the orbital data to colleagues in other countries for verification, and when they reported that the object was seen in the proper place at the proper time, and they were able to get better pictures of it.”
Dawson faded from the screen and one of the photographs appeared.
“Dawson couldn’t wait for us to leave so that he could take the credit himself. I’ll bet that he never mentions us.”
Wilson laughed. “I hope he doesn’t. We’re going to be in it deeply if he does.”
“This is our discovery. If it is alien, the guys who found it are going into the history books.
“But we didn’t discover it. I don’t know who did. Maybe that woman we talked to at her front door. Maybe those pilots we interviewed did the other day. I just know that we didn’t find it.”
“No, we just proved it was there…”
“Actually, Dawson did that,” said Wilson.
“We had a role in it,” said Lanning, calming down.
“That we did,” said Wilson. “There will be enough credit for everyone.”
Lanning dropped into the closest chair. He took a deep breath and said, “I don’t like this. Headquarters isn’t going to like this. They’re going to be unhappy with us.”
“Not your problem. It’s mine, but if Dawson is right… If we’re right and this is alien, that none of that will matter.”
Before they got too deep into the discussion, the telephone rang and Wilson answered it rather nonchalantly, “This is Wilson.”
He then said, “Yes, sir, I am familiar with telephone protocol, but it is so early in the morning.”
Then for nearly five minutes he said nothing and looked at a corner of the room, away from Lanning who was attempting to get his attention. He tried, once or twice, to say something but never got more than a word or two out. Finally he said, “Yes, sir,” and hung up.
He turned to Lanning and said in a somewhat subdued voice, “You were right. They’re not happy with us higher up the chain of command.”
“What are they going to do to us?”
“First,” said Wilson quietly, “they want a written report about how the unbelievable breach of military secrecy could have happened and an estimate of the repercussions of it. I am to hand carry this document up the chain, advising our commander of it, but not allowing him to read it to keep from further compromising the secret.”
Lanning nodded but said nothing.
“You, young lieutenant, may assist in the preparation of said document, but you are not to be given access to any data to which you are not already privy. In other words, you are now out of the loop. This all falls squarely on me.”
Wilson looked at the computer screen in front of him. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the chewing out he’d received, if it could be classified as that. It had seemed to be more in the form of instructions on how to get all the data corralled, saved, and then made to disappear up the chain of command. Wilson hadn’t actually been in any real trouble, but wondered if that was to come down on him later.
Lanning was about to ask a question when the telephone rang again. Wilson held up a hand like a traffic cop to stop the question and answer the phone, this time in the proper military fashion. He nodded once but said nothing else. The color drained from his face and his jaw dropped, but he didn’t speak.
When he hung up, he sat for several seconds and then looked at Lanning who was afraid to speak.
“It’s down. Fifty miles from here. Message just came through.”
The flashing red and blue lights, nearly invisible from the highway unless you were looking for them, pinpointed the crash site. In the distance they could see a small fire burning.
As they turned off the road, a Highway Patrol officer stepped out and held up a hand to stop them.
When they pulled up, the officer leaned down to the open window and said, “Road’s closed. There has been an aircraft accident.”
Wilson, sitting there in uniform, in an Air Force staff car said, “Yes, we know. We’ve been called forward.”
“Sorry, sir, but my instructions are to let no one through without the proper clearance.”
Wilson took a deep breath, and said, “I have the clearance. I have all the clearances I need.”
“Yes, sir, I’m sure you do. But my orders were explicit. I’m to allow no one to pass this point.”
“Well, why don’t you get on your radio and get in touch with someone who can authorize our entrance.”
The officer didn’t look happy with that suggestion. He didn’t like his authority being challenged by some guy in a uniform that didn’t match his. But he was also aware that some of those needed at the accident site would be traveling down the road and would probably be in uniform and probably driving an Air Force staff car.
He grinned briefly and then said, “I’ll get on the radio.”
A desert camouflaged Humvee appeared over a ridge, headed down and stopped near the patrol car. An officer in a combat camouflage uniform climbed out, looked at the Highway Patrol officer and then toward Wilson and Lanning in the staff car.
Instead of walking over to the Highway Patrol car, he diverted to the military vehicle. He leaned down, looking in the window and said, “Can I help you Captain?”
Wilson saw the man was a lieutenant colonel and said, “Yes, sir. I was ordered out here.”
“You have orders?”
Wilson handed a paper to the officer who looked it over and then handed it back. He pulled his smart phone from his pocket, typed quickly with his thumbs, and then waited for a few seconds. He watched the screen in his hand and finally said, “Okay, you’re authorized but you’re not going to make it in that staff car. Leave it here and I’ll give you a ride.”
Wilson and Lanning climbed into the two back seats in the Humvee as the colonel sat down in the front passenger seat. They started back up the ridge, along a track that was badly rutted and filled with holes and basketball-sized rocks. They topped the ridge and down in a shallow valley, there were a dozen other military vehicles, about two dozen soldiers and something that wasn’t readily recognizable, at least at that distance.
Lanning stepped out of the Humvee and walked around the front. He stood staring, trying to make something out of the wreckage. He said, quietly, almost to himself, “What in the hell is that?”
There was a gouge in the ground that was about forty yards long, narrow at the point closest to them, widening out, until it looked as if something had exploded creating a shallow crater. Metallic debris twinkled in the sun and small bits blew in the hot breeze.
“What the hell?” asked Wilson, standing by the Humvee.
The colonel said, “I’m not sure what we have. It was made of metal, it has been machined, and there were little evidence of wires or circuit boards. Nothing that was easily recognizable.”
“Alien,” said Lanning. “Something from another world.”
The colonel shook his head and said, “Nothing all that radical here.”
“Damn,” said Lanning. “You talked about not recognizing it. You said it was manufactured. You said there wasn’t any wiring or circuit boards.”
“No, I said that there was little of that stuff.”
“What do you think, Colonel?” asked Wilson.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I never seen anything we launched crash like this. Oh, stuff has fallen out of the sky, but we knew that it would and most of it burned up. Nothing like this at all.”
Lanning turned to Wilson and said, “It’s from another planet. That’s the only explanation.”
There were men moving around, taking photographs. Others were standing off to the side, as if waiting for orders to move in. Overhead there were two helicopters, circling at five or ten thousand feet.
“Alien,” said Lanning again.
One of the NCOs ran up, carrying a bit of wreckage. She was wearing rubber gloves and holding the debris away from her as if it might be dangerous.
The colonel took it. He pointed to the burn marks on one side and one of the ragged edges that looked sharp enough to cut. He turned it over and the all stared at the lettering there.
United State Air Force
“Oh my God,” said Lanning. “It’s ours. They didn’t tell us. It’s ours.”
“That’s why we were given the assignment,” said Wilson. “They wanted to know how much the civilians knew. How badly compromised it had been.”
“I can’t believe it’s ours,” said Lanning, disappointed. “I really thought it was alien.”