"UFO's? I can tell you unequivocally they do not exist." - Anonymous Air Force officer
Bob Tolliver, feature writer, sports reporter, photographer, general columnist and proofreader for the weekly Sierra Chronicle ("Covering Gold Country Events Since 1932") shut the front office door behind him, shouted, "It's me!" toward the editorial inner sanctum and grabbed his coffee cup. It was, he thought, the beginning of a typically quiet Mountain Springs news day.
During his tour of duty with a major metro paper, stories rose up gnashing their teeth and howling for attention. Here, they crept into his life from the Sierra Nevada foothills but he didn't mind; life in the slow lane appealed to him: community news, an occasional automobile accident, weddings, crop news, a hotly contested Friday night high school football game or spring track meet, each important to someone among Mountain Springs’ 1,758 residents.
Tolliver poured a cup of coffee as Carter Pressman, the Chronicle's publisher/editor yelled, “You’re late!” Tolliver entered the editorial inner sanctum.
Pressman sat staring at his monitor, fingers racing over the keyboard, bald head fringed with straggly red hair, his beard flecked with powdered sugar from his breakfast pastry. Pressman pointed his beard at the single doughnut resting atop the humming laser printer and Tolliver grabbed it, dunked it into his coffee, took a bite and pulled the stack of press releases and announcements from his "IN" box, thumbed through them, and dropped them into Pressman's "IN" box.
Pressman stretched. "What do you make of this?" He handed Tolliver a handwritten note paper-clipped to a faded newspaper article.
The incredibly neat and perfectly spaced cursive message was brief and to the point: "'Majestic' was real. Contact me if you want the entire story about the Roswell crash."
Tolliver blinked with surprise. "It's signed Gardner Addison, PhD." He looked at Pressman. "The return address is LaPorte, a wide place in the road up north along Hwy -21 near Quincy. What's Gardner Addison doing there?" He turned the note over, saw, “Meet me July 9, Castle Air Force Base, aviation museum” accompanied by a neatly drawn map of the base with a red line wending its way through a network of roads to a precisely lettered “warehouse” with an “X” drawn on the small rectangle located at the farthest reaches of the facility.
Pressman shrugged. "Who the hell's Gardner Addison?"
"Gardner Addison is . . . was an M.I.T scientist who was allegedly the head of the team studying the wreckage and bodies after they'd been moved from New Mexico to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio," Tolliver said. "He dropped from sight about a decade ago. He’d been on the project from 1947 into the mid-70s.”
“Wreckage? Bodies?” Pressman threw him a puzzled glance.
“The Roswell incident? The famous UFO crash back in ’47?”
“I vaguely remember something…”
Tolliver peeled the note from the brown newsprint bearing the headline, "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer." It was from the Roswell Morning Dispatch, dated July 8, 1947. Tolliver read the story aloud.
"The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the co-operation of one of the local ranchers and the Sheriff's office of Chaves County.
"The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the Sheriff's office, who in turn notified Major Jesse A. Marcel, of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence office.
"Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher's home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters."
"Well?" asked Pressman.
"You're the science expert around here. What do you think?" Pressman found Tolliver's interest in science useful when he covered the use of predatory insects for agricultural pest control or the genetic modification of bovines to produce more milk or aircraft noise testing by low-flying 727's over the local row crops, vineyards and orchards.
"Okay. UFO researchers have insisted for decades that the government's covered up the Roswell event, the crash of an alien flying saucer, and hidden the bodies of aliens supposedly found with the wreckage." Tolliver tapped a finger on the handwritten note. "This is big news about 'Majestic'."
"That was the code name for the Roswell crash and subsequent retrieval and analysis of the disc and bodies." Tolliver waved the clipping gently. "This is a real piece of history."
"But is it true?"
"Hmmm, good question. Hundreds, probably thousands of books and articles have been written about the Roswell crash, most jumbled fantasies with the 'facts' arranged to support their author's point of view." Tolliver grinned. "But the general feeling among Roswell cognoscenti is that something happened in 1947, an event the military and the government have lied about for more than sixty years."
“The ‘X-Files’ syndrome,” Carter muttered.
Tolliver frowned at the note. "What gets me is why Addison contacted the Sierra Chronicle. We're good but hardly a big-time mainstream paper."
"Probably because of the Point Reyes Light’s expose of the Synanon murder plot back in ’79," Pressman said. “Remember?”
Tolliver did. The Light was one of the few small town weeklies to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. The paper had published a series of stories and editorials about Synanon’s abuse of its tax-exempt status and violence that culminated with the attempted murder of a lawyer.
“Synanon put that big rattlesnake in a lawyer’s mailbox and The Light revealed the cult leaders had planned the attack,” Tolliver said. “So Addison figures…”
“…we can do the same with a big story because we’re less cynical than the big rags,” Pressman said. "I want you to follow up on this. Who knows, there could . . ."
". . . be a Pulitzer in it for us," Tolliver finished.
"Hell you never know. This Majestic thing could put us in the running for one if it's true." Pressman's forehead slipped into a furrow. "Get the hell down to…?”
“Castle Air Force Base near Atwater.”
“Yeah. And talk to Addison." Pressman said. “We'll run the story front page."
"I'm on it." Tolliver took the note with its map and the clipping and emerged from the air-conditioned comfort of the Chronicle office into the dry heat of a typical foothill summer day.
The next morning, Tolliver drove south on the rough black ribbon of State Highway 99 through the heart of California’s vast Central Valley. The files on Addison and Majestic he’d gleaned from searching the Internet until nearly dawn fluttered on the passenger seat, weighed down by his Nikon digital camera as Turlock disappeared into the almond and walnut orchards behind him.
"Majestic was real". The phrase hung in his mind, a Siren's lure pulling him past the dry towns of Delta and Livingston toward his meeting with Addison.
The situation wasn't what he'd expected; Majestic had been classified "Beyond Top Secret" and now he had a map of Castle Air Force Base with an isolated outbuilding or hanger at the north end of the base circled in blue highlighter. It seemed a major breach of national security was about to occur and despite feeling uneasy he also had the adrenalin rush that accompanied breaking a Big Story.
Addison's neat handwriting along the bottom edge of the sheet instructed Tolliver to “Enter at the first gate and take the access road to Building 13.”
Castle AFB had been on the Pentagon's hit list of bases targeted for cost-saving closure. Like many others, it had become an anachronism following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the Cold War. However, a very successful air museum remained in what was otherwise a ghost base.
"Atwater-Next 4 Exits" said a green and white sign and he turned onto County Road J-7, ignored signs directing visitors to the Air Museum until he swung onto the access road. Pale dust rose around him and he raced the cloud to an open gate in the chain link fence and drove through it to the single building in the expanse of dry grass and uneven rows of derelict airplanes awaiting restoration and their place in the museum.
He squinted at the cannibalized C-54 slumped on splayed landing gear, its four engine nacelles empty, most of its dull aluminum skin peeled away, revealing the fuselage’s skeleton of pale green bulkheads and longerons.
In the shade beneath the transport’s wing was an L-19 Bird Dog with its cockpit windshield painted over; a battle-scarred World War Two Douglas Dauntless dive bomber: and a Grumman TBF Avenger with a giant AB-23 painted messily on its faded blue cowling faced the distant runway where a Cherokee 175 chugged into the sky.
"X marks the spot," Tolliver said as he neared the small hangar-like structure. Flaking green paint revealed corrugated tin walls; a row of air conditioning ducts snaked over the roof; two faded blue and white Chevron Av Gas pumps stood guard to one side. The place was surrounded by a wide strip of oil stained cement-hardstand inside a slumping cyclone fence with another open gate. Spirals of concertina wire topped the fence.
No guards or official vehicles were anywhere in sight. A mud-streaked black 1988 Bronco parked near the gas pumps was the only sign of life; a tall man leaned against its front fender.
Tolliver pulled in beside the Bronco and Gardner Addison, PhD. stepped away from it, a pipe clenched in his teeth, the bill of a San Francisco Giants cap shading watchful eyes. The tall, sunburned scientist didn't look like someone about to expose the most explosive story since the Manhattan Project. Tolliver grabbed his camera bag from the back seat and turned to Addison.
"Bob Tolliver, I presume?" Addison said, shaking Tolliver's hand with a strong grip. Pale wings of white hair stuck out from under the hat and an assortment of fishing lures hung from its bill.
"The one and only." Tolliver blinked away sweat and looked around. "Where is everybody?"
"What do you mean?" Addison asked.
"The other scientists, guards, Air Force personnel."
"Hell, they're gone, Tolliver. Majestic is . . . well, it's not low priority exactly. It's zero priority. Has been for more than a decade."
The lean scientist glanced at his watch and grimaced. "Crap!" He motioned impatiently for Tolliver to follow. "The Rainbows and German Browns are running in the Mokelumne River right now and frankly, I'd rather be trout fishing."
"Me too," Tolliver muttered as he followed Addison to the building.
Addison paused before the large unmarked door and selected a key from a huge key ring. Heat rose from the asphalt and bounced from the corrugated wall of the building and Tolliver squinted through the oven-hot wave at Addison wrestling with a massive padlock that opened reluctantly with a screech of rusted metal. With one hand on the door handle, Addison looked over his shoulder and smiled. "Are you ready for the truth, Tolliver? The truth isn’t out there, it’s in here." He nodded toward the door.
"Sure, the truth and nothing but," Tolliver said. The camera bag strap cut into his shoulder and it was hotter than hell on the concrete. "What's inside?"
"For God’s sake, don't you read your mail? What do you think is in here?" Annoyed, Addison grabbed the lock and clanged it against the thick metal hasp.
"Photos, documents, pieces of wreckage?"
Addison rolled his eyes. "Not quite. The disc is here, our one and only, honest to God flying saucer." Addison grunted, slid the big door open and disappeared into the dark vertical slot. Tolliver hesitated, then followed.
The interior was not merely dim as any unlit building would be on a hot July afternoon, but black as if light had been sucked down into a hideous, endless pit where alien things gibbered and raved. The sensation jolted Tolliver backward as it raged through him.
"You feel it, don't you?" Addison's voice was close and Tolliver jumped, startled.
"You sense its . . . aura or whatever it is," Addison whispered. "Some who worked here had intense and horrible visions and nightmares. Why? Because we intuitively sense the absolute strangeness of this …thing. Behold the Eighth Wonder of the World!"
Addison rolled the door shut, hit the light switch and there it was.
The disc was spotlighted by circles of orange illumination beneath a row of low-hanging overhead lamps supported by a chaotic wood scaffold of rough, thick beams and blocks. Its surface was seamless, a uniform dull gray, its lines were smooth and classic: two huge metal pie plates placed face to face. The left side was crumpled, torn, thin metal skin peeled up, flayed and ripped, the framework beneath a confusion of narrow, shredded "I" beams, looping intestine-like tangles of conduit, wiring and weird segmented bulkheads. A low crystal-like dome topped the ship and a row of three windows of the same material was inset along the edge facing Tolliver. In the shadows near the hangar wall tarpaulins hid bulking, oddly angled shapes.
A subtle and unsettling aroma filled the building; Tolliver's mouth suddenly filled with saliva and he choked slightly.
"Yeah, it stinks," Addison said calmly. "It takes getting used to." He puffed his pipe, clouds of blue smoke encircling his head. "I smoke whenever I'm near the damned thing. It takes the edge off the stench."
Tolliver dropped the camera bag and sucked in Addison's secondary smoke. Cherry Blend. It did help; his nausea faded.
"Ah . . ." Tolliver said. He swallowed and tried again. "Incredible! My god, it's…it’s real!"
"Of course it is. Take a good look, grab some photos, walk around, poke it, prod it, check it out," Addison said. "I worked on this son-of-a-bitch for almost 50 years and . . ." He shrugged. "Do whatever you like."
Tolliver approached the disc warily and reached a trembling hand to it, his eagerness to touch an alien artifact warring with his visceral fear of the completely unknown.
"Go ahead. It doesn’t bite….much." Addison’s voice seemed far away.
In the shadow beneath the Roswell spaceship, Tolliver’s trembling fingers slid over the curve of cool metal and the ship stung his fingertips as if a charge of unknown power linked his flesh to it. The sensation was ugly, offensive and different, completely beyond his experience. He jerked his hand away as if burned.
He scrubbed his hand on his jeans and backed away from the hulking disc, out of its shadow. “What was…?” Shuddering, he looked at Addison who shrugged. A few deep breaths later, Tolliver said, “It’s big.”
"It is that," Addison gestured at the ruined disc. "Adjusting for the damage, it's just an inch under 50 feet in diameter, about the size of a WW II P-38 Lightning fighter’s wingspan." He pointed to the dome. "Including the dome, it's 15 feet thick." Addison stroked the metal skin thoughtfully.
“Christ, doesn’t that bother you?” Tolliver fumbled while attaching a wide angle/macro lens to his Nikon.
“Eh? Oh…you get used to it.” Addison dropped his hand, blew smoke rings, and looked around as if returning from a daydream.
"I've got to get some photos." Tolliver slipped a small portable tape recorder into his pocket, clipped the tiny microphone to his collar and pushed the record button. He’d recovered enough to be reasonably professional. "Will it fog the images or erase the tape?"
“No. It has a very low, fluctuating magnetic field about the same as a transistor radio. It won't damage your images or tape. We know that much, at least."
Tolliver put the Nikon's viewfinder to his eye and moved around the spaceship, the flashes of the strobe absorbed by the strange ambience of the place.
40 shots later, Tolliver ran a hand over his face and stared at his sweat-drenched palm.
"It has . . . it makes me . . . I . . ." Tolliver gulped a breath. Addison chuckled.
"You're feeling the alien-ness of it. If you stay in here too long, it does bizarre things to your mind," Addison said. "I've never been comfortable around it, never, in all the years I’ve studied it. It’s from . . . out there and it overloads our senses. You're good, Tolliver . . . or lucky. Most who worked on Majestic puked within moments of entering its…ah…sphere of influence."
"What's under the tarps?" Tolliver waved a hand at the canvas-covered piles.
Addison said, "Come and see."
Like a magician revealing his assistant floating in midair, Addison drew back the tarpaulin with a flourish. Dust blew up around them and Tolliver sneezed. "Look upon them and marvel," Addison whispered.
Four small coffin-like refrigeration units with transparent lids gleamed in the pools of light. A snarl of wires and hoses led from each to a junction box on the wall. Photography forgotten, Tolliver whistled between dry lips as he leaned close to see into the containers.
Each held a small, four foot-long humanoid clothed in a one-piece dull-gray metallic uniform snugged around the body. "Jesus, they look shrink-wrapped," Tolliver muttered. Addison smiled through his pipe smoke. The four-fingered hands captured Tolliver's attention immediately: two incredibly long middle fingers opposed by flat, segmented thumbs which curved inward as if holding tight to an invisible tool.
Then Tolliver saw their faces and the eyes. He threw up.
"Let's get out of here." Unperturbed, Addison led Tolliver into a small office near the entrance. Tolliver dropped heavily onto a patched leather couch, head in his hands, gasping for air. Addison threw a switch and cool air gushed from a wall vent; he reached into a drawer of the battered metal desk in the center of the room, pulled out a small towel, wet it in a sink against the wall and handed it to Tolliver who wiped his flushed, sweaty face.
Addison kicked the heavy door closed, retrieved a red thermos from another drawer and filled a Styrofoam cup. He offered it to Tolliver. "Here, this’ll help."
Tolliver killed the drink in one gulp and gasped, gratefully aware of his scorched palate and the fiery bloom of Scotch in his belly. He watched Addison with watering eyes and said, "They're alive."
Addison sat on the edge of the desk contemplating the disc through the sound and odor-proof double-paned glass windows and door behind Tolliver. "Yep. I think the damn saucer and those crewmen are alive somehow. That's one of the theories we couldn’t prove and one of the curses it brought us."
He withdrew a leather portfolio from an old oak filing cabinet nearby and pulled out a fat manila envelope. "Look at these." He dropped it onto the couch beside Tolliver.
Tolliver shook an assortment of photos onto the couch. He fanned them like a poker hand and gasped. Looking out at him was Robert Oppenheimer, the dark, brooding face of Nils Bohr, a cheerfully puzzled Linus Pauling, a cynical Richard Feynman, a scowling Edward Teller and . . .
"Albert Einstein?" Tolliver tapped the top photo. "And is that . . . ?"
"Sure is. Marilyn Monroe came along with Albert to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, stayed a few days while he worked, then left. I think she was bored," Addison said.
"My god. Marilyn Monroe did have an affair with Einstein after all!" Tolliver shook his head in amazement.
“A nice lady. Met Albert her after a USO tour during the Korean War.” Addison shrugged. "In the late forties, early fifties, we called in the Los Alamos gang to give us a hand. After all, they'd created the atomic bomb, and were still working in the field,” Addison waved at the spacecraft beyond the window, "And this became their next challenge. With the atomic boys working on that damned disc, we were convinced it wouldn't be long before we'd know the secrets of the stars." Addison's short explosive laugh was loud in the room. “How do they look in those photos?"
“Wha…?” Tolliver studied the faces. Marilyn was beautiful, blonde and buxom. But then she didn't have to think about that thing. "Uh . . . I'd say they're frustrated, confused and generally pissed off."
"Isn't that my question?" Tolliver slid the photos into the envelope and offered it to Addison.
"What the hell, keep them." He tugged at the bill of his baseball cap, avoiding the barbs, thinking for a moment.
"Take a look at this.” Addison lifted a device resembling a miniature green and black plastic meat grinder from the desk. He handed it to Tolliver who turned it over and over carefully, trembling fingers sensing the alien form and unnatural balance.
A fluted, conical bell flared at one end, a slot and handle with three triangular blue buttons adorned the other. Tolliver looked at Addison. "What is it?"
"What do you think it is?"
"A weapon? Or . . . uh, a tool of some kind?" Tolliver ran his fingers along the concave valleys of the bell and felt the familiar shiver of electricity.
"It could be one . . . or both . . . or neither," Addison said. "Frankly, I don't have the faintest goddamn idea what it is. It's too damned foreign to our experience. We couldn't take it apart because the material is too tough, won't burn, gouge or dent, and it can't be cut or filed or drilled and it’s impervious to X-rays, MRIs, lasers, sound waves…we even hauled in an electron microscope and had a go with that. Nothing. Acids? Nothing. We could probably blow it up with a nuclear device, but what the hell would that prove? That we could destroy it?” He sighed and pointed the stem of his pipe at the thing. “Those buttons depress, but in what order to activate it? Or do they activate it?"
Addison glared distastefully at the thing in Tolliver's hands. "We think its electrical charge - about a millionth of an ampere - is somehow linked to the user. Maybe their hands gripped the handle in a specific pattern as those buttons were keyed in proper sequence."
Addison recited the litany of possibilities: "Or the current links the thing with the user's electromagnetic field, or it's keyed to the molecular activity of their suits, or maybe the whatsis senses the shape of their hands in conjunction with everything else. I sure as hell have no clue." He laughed bitterly. "Or perhaps not. Who the hell knows? And those dead bastards were no help at all."
Addison slapped his hand on the desktop. "They had the bad luck to get themselves killed and we had the misfortune to find them. Dead aliens tell no tales. We never learned anything from them."
Tolliver looked over his shoulder at the spaceship. "I think I'm ready to take a closer look at...them."
"Right," Addison said. "Just don't spend too much time looking into their eyes. Something about those eyes..." His voice drifted into silence.
"Yeah, I noticed." Tolliver picked up his camera. “Shall we go?”
The coffins were cold, their transparent lids jeweled with condensation. Addison plucked a grimy rag from a convoluted piece of wreckage and wiped away the moisture. The two men knelt beside the sarcophagi, Addison watching Tolliver with interest as he squinted at the bodies.
"They all look the same." Tolliver moved closer, the lens of his Nikon thunking against the metal coffin, his eyes moving from body to body.
"Male or female?"
Addison shrugged. "We don't know."
Addison laughed. "Oh, autopsies were ordered, x-rays requested, analysis of every kind demanded by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush and even Obama and on down through the chain of command. The NSA, CIA, FBI and the rest of the alphabet soup agencies were all over us for years. We were swamped with claims, calls, demands and orders for physical examinations internal and external. Organs and their functions, the size of their brains and the convolution percentages compared to brain size and weight, how their eyes..." Addison found himself lost in the elongated, almond shaped, dull black eyes, eyes that absorbed all color, huge dark whirlpools as distant as the reaches between the stars . . .
His pipe fell from his mouth, bounced off the coffin and clattered to the floor.
"Oh shit." Addison returned from the blackness with a grunt to see Tolliver staring at him with concern.
Addison flashed an embarrassed grin, retrieved his pipe, pulled in a deep breath. "Sorry. They still get to me. We tried to determine how their eyes functioned, how their vocal chords operated, if they have any, their skeletal structure, lymphatic system, or its equivalent, what types of bacteria they carried, how they digest their food, what they eat, how long they live - just an estimate would be fine, the boys from Majestic 12 told us - the form of their musculature, respiratory system function, metabolic rates, everything. Hell, we were supposed to determine if they pissed and crapped and screwed."
Tolliver laughed nervously. "Did you? Do they?"
Addison’s sigh was barren of hope. "Beats the hell out of me." He unlatched a coffin lid. It popped up with a hiss. Tolliver covered his nose and mouth with a hand and flinched away from the icy fog rising from the coffin.
"Not to worry, their stench isn’t as bad when they're on ice. Now, that one over there," Addison nodded at the far coffin, "He . . . she, whatever . . . was in bad shape, crushed inside those steel overalls, held together, in fact, by the suit. And did it ever stink! Like nothing you can imagine. We were gagging for a week even wearing masks with portable oxygen supplies."
He glanced at Tolliver'. "The fog's dissipated. A good photo opportunity." As Tolliver lifted his camera, Addison gripped his arm. "Don't worry about the eyes now. If you look at them through something like a camera viewfinder or see them in a photograph, the effect is neutralized." He blinked as the strobe fired.
Tolliver worked the macro lens rapidly between wide angle and close up, muttered under his breath and fired away at the small bodies.
Frame: elongated, hairless, smooth head. Frame: huge, lidless, black- as-space eyes. Frame: two vertical three-inch long, red-rimmed slits in the center of the "face", apparently nostrils. Frame: the straight, disturbing, yellow fringed slash of a mouth. Frame: the bulbous torso sheathed by the one-piece suit. Frame: the ugly, flat hands with their sinuous tentacle-like fingers. Frame: the emaciated legs with two knobby protrusions where knees would be and the miniature feet split like an ostrich's hoof.
"Got 'em," Tolliver stood and stretched. "Now, tell me: what are they?"
"That's the Big Question. And I don't know the answer. Just like the thing you saw in the office and this spaceship, those suits are impervious to every method we tried to get them open. Can't cut, burn, saw or rip them. X-rays, Magnetic Resonating Imagery, sonograms, CAT scans . . . nothing penetrates these suits."
"But that means . . ."
"Yeah. We don't know anything about the crew either."
"Their flesh . . . surely you can cut it or scrape it or . . ."
Addison rummaged in a nearby toolbox and handed Tolliver a tool resembling a tiny spatula or putty knife with razor sharp edges. "Here. Take a whack at it yourself."
Tolliver shoved the edge of the tool hard against the creature's forehead. The blade skittered over the surface, making no impression at all.
"It's hard as granite. Are they all like this?"
"Every one." Addison stood, looking down along the line of coffins. "Those bodies were hard before we froze them. Is the rigidity and solidification caused by death? Or is it their natural form? Were they alive and solid as a rock courtesy of some unknown metabolism?" Addison eyed the pallid alien and clenched his fists. "The little bastards were in these positions when they were found with the wreck in the New Mexico desert. Whether they crawled from the wreckage or were thrown free I think their autonomic systems took over and solidified the bodies…perhaps to preserve them for a future rescue attempt. I don't know."
"A rescue…" Tolliver looked over at the disc, the humped piles of debris and the four coffins. He tapped a finger absently against the shutter release of his camera. “How about inside the saucer?”
"Why don't you go in, poke around, pull whatever levers you see, push buttons and then I'll explain more." Addison waited expectantly, pipe smoke drifting away from his head.
Tolliver stared at Addison. "Are you nuts? What if I . . .?"
"Activate something?" The scientist sounded aggrieved and gave Tolliver a quick glance that said, Haven’t you listened to what I’ve been saying? "I don't think you'll go zooming off to Aldebaran. Or even Escalon. I can see the headline now: 'Intrepid newsman enters flying saucer and lives to tell the tale!'" He bowed and made a sweeping motion at the disc, mocking it. "Go ahead, chance of a lifetime. The entrance to the interior is on the wrecked side."
"You've been working too long on this," Tolliver said as he moved into the shadows on the far side of the disc. Addison snorted.
A wood ladder mounted the scaffolding and ended in a small platform nestled in the twisted metal of the ship. The boards creaked underfoot as Tolliver went up the risers. He paused at the top, surrounded by the jagged black mouth of the gash. Whatever had caused the crash had done a job on the saucer, he thought and realized he couldn’t enter without light. He looked down at Addison standing at the base of the ladder, one hand on the rail, teeth exposed in a grin.
"Go ahead." Addison appeared bemused by Tolliver’s hesitation.
"I need a flashlight."
"Step up and see the funhouse from the inside!" Addison barked like a carnival pitchman. "Step right in and see the light! Go on, go on! Time's a'wasting!"
Tolliver stepped forward and the interior flared like a brilliant, fantastically decorated Christmas tree. “Jesus!” He jumped back and the blaze of colors blinked off. Forward: lights on. Backward: lights off. It senses me and automatically turns on, he thought. Laughing like a child, Tolliver stepped into the whirling brightness.
He stood in a circular corridor winding right and left around a central shaft with pearlescent, glowing slabs extending vertically along its length; the light moved upward in pulsating waves, and a dull thudding beat against him.
Globes of gold, red, green and purple at the ends of twisted pencil-thin crystal stalks blinked sequentially around the inner wall, their light disappearing behind the shaft and zooming out from behind it to whirl around again, around and around. Tolliver shook his head against the hypnotic movement and walked slowly to the left accompanied by the fusillade of light from the globes on his right and a seesawing cataract of twinkling, diamond-like pinpoints on his left. The smooth floor was alive with bright undulating veins throwing out sparkling ripples with each footfall.
The dome glittered above him, shooting thin ruby searchlights into the corridor, the beams glinting off panel and floor in a wild tornado of illumination. Something plucked at his hair – wind? Here? He swung around, suddenly afraid, seeing the black doll-eyes of the crew who had traveled the trackless reaches of space and time in this incandescent craft, eyes and minds needing the light to protect them from the madness of the voyage, their exploration of worlds spinning through the insane expanse, the black immensity, the bleak infinity of the universe alone alone alone...
Tolliver staggered backward, screaming, arms flailing and striking the globes, kindling in their illumination squirming dark growths that quickly grew into black tumors eating the light as Addison's hands clutched his shoulders and pulled him back into the world.
"This is getting to be a habit." Tolliver held out his empty cup. "Fill 'er up."
Addison said, "A toast to . . . um… the unknown and the benefits derived therefrom." Their Styrofoam cups squeaked together in a salute to the hulking enigma in the hangar. They gulped the Scotch.
"Thanks for the warning, Addison."
"Some things are best experienced, not explained. If it’s any consolation, you look as angry as everyone else who’s been through it." Addison lit his pipe. "It's good that you experienced the light show. Other than the stench and the anxiety and fear the disc produces, it's the only other occurrence provided by the ship that humans can feel. With continued exposure, you almost get used to it. The patterns are very interesting, they almost form recognizable formations, star systems, I think. But nobody was able to stay inside long enough to verify any theories."
"How about video, still photography, motion pictures. Just send a radio controlled cart in there with cameras mounted on it . . . a Saucer Cam." Tolliver grinned.
Addison raised an eyebrow. "We weren't stupid, Tolliver. We tried every method of radio controlled, umbilical-connected, hydraulically activated, video directed, laser guided remote control known to man." Addison seemed ready to spit. "When the lights go on in the disc, whatever Saucer Cam being used stops working. It's as if the damn spaceship has an espionage lock-out system that senses any recording device and shuts it down. All we get are static, crazy lines, jumbled images and no sound. That's the only place your camera won't work, not that you remembered to use it anyway."
Addison's expression moved from anger to hatred as his eyes traced the outline of the disc. "But I guess we are stupid, because we don't know how anything in or on the disc functions! And we know just as little about the crew!" His eyes snapped around and fixed on Tolliver.
"More than fifty years just on the verge, the edge, the brink of understanding . . . and not being able to. The scientific greats of the Twentieth Century were as effective as squirrels reading Shakespeare's sonnets."
Tolliver stared at him. "All that time and we know nothing more about this spaceship than we did the day we found it? How’s that possible?"
"Think about it. It's too far beyond our feeble reasoning abilities. We're Neanderthals trying to analyze a space shuttle." Addison’s glum gaze swung back and forth from ship to Tolliver. "Arthur C. Clarke's axiom is true."
"He once said that the technology of any truly advanced civilization would seem like magic to a race of lesser intelligence. There," Addison motioned toward the disc, "is the magic."
Addison sighed. "And I'm the poor bastard who's been the sorcerers apprentice for fifty years without learning how to do the tricks." He looked at Tolliver with haunted eyes. "This goddamned flying saucer holds secrets we'll never understand, the keys to travel through space and time! How did they navigate in interstellar space? Is the secret of faster than light travel hidden in the disc? Are black holes the gateway to interstellar travel and did the aliens use them as gates between points in space-time? Do they bend space? Create wormholes in the fabric of spacetime? Weaponry undreamed of. Propulsion systems of unimaginable power." Addison spread his arms, embracing the image. "We have everything right here!" He clenched his fists.. "And, like the Wizard of Oz flying off in his balloon, we don't know how it works."
The air conditioner clattered noisily, battling the blazing summer heat outside.
"Why are the disc, wreckage and its crew here?" Tolliver said at last. He crushed his cup and tossed it across the room into the wastebasket.
"Nice shot. To answer your question: nobody knows. That’s government, Air Force, military bureaucracy for you. From Roswell to Fort Worth to Kirtland Air Force Base to Los Alamos to Wright Patterson to Area 51 and now the dead end, file-and-forget box at Castle AFB." He placed his empty cup in the exact center of the desk blotter.
"Like any other government project, Majestic assumed a life of its own and just rolled on, funded automatically as a Black Budget item, grinding along through the years," Addison said wearily. "As time passed the government had more important issues to deal with than a flying saucer nobody could understand: the Cold War, the Evil Empire, Kennedy's assassination, the Space Race, Vietnam, the Middle East, economic upheavals, the Gulf War, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism . . . everything became more important than this damnable thing. If the government can't use it sooner or later they lose interest."
“But how? How could something this monumental just slip past the government? The military? The spy agencies? I mean, this is an actual flyingsaucerwithaliens, for God’s sake!” Tolliver leaned forward. “Atwater is a backwater. How can this get lost and end up here?”
“Happens all the time,” Addison said. “Governments are by their very nature, too large and too cumbersome to keep track of everything they know. Let me tell you a story about a government ‘secret.’”
Back in the late fifties – Addison said – he and his young son were ardent model airplane builders and fliers and like most modelers, they subscribed to the bible of the hobby, “Model Airplane News.” A monthly feature was an aircraft three-view drawing, along with information, by Bjorn Karlstrom.In the April 1958 issue of Model Airplane News there appeared a Karlstrom three-view plan of the then-top secret Lockheed U-2 spy plane along with the notation that the aircraft was ” …rumored to be involved in spy missions over Soviet bloc nations.”
“If anyone had cared to look, information about the ‘top secret’ airplane and its equally ‘top secret’ mission was available two years before Gary Powers was shot down over Mother Russia,” Addison said. “The Pentagon, Air Force, CIA, NSA and other agencies were shocked to discover their plane was well known to modelers across the country!”
“Well, that’s an isolated…” Tolliver said.
“No, it isn’t. My uncle was an Air Force pilot in World War Two and because of his contacts within the Air Force he knew details about the SR-71 Blackbird when the aircraft was only a rumor.” Addison shrugged. “As a matter of fact, the SR-71 was flying from Area-51 and my uncle told me about this years before the Blackbird was declassified. Swore me to secrecy, too.”
He shook his head. “Secrecy? In the government? This thing has been through Project Blue Book, Magnet, Moon Dust, Second Story, Sigma, Sign, Snowbird, Tora, Majestic 12 and VIST. And you find it strange it’s gotten lost? Hell, the government doesn’t know what it knows.”
Tolliver felt as if a great weight had settled onto his shoulders as his anticipated story of amazing scientific breakthroughs culled from the wreckage of this legendary spaceship began to unravel. "Worthless!" he groaned.
"Oh no, not worthless, not at all. Our spaceship and those little aliens saved us and the world, Tolliver, saved us again and again."
Addison ignored Tolliver’s doubtful look.
"Oh yes, we may be dolts when it comes to understanding aliens and their technology, but that doesn't mean we haven't used our friends from outer space."
"Back in the late forties and into the eighties when the Russians developed their atomic weapons and the cold war got hot and stayed that way, our powers-that-be leaked enough information, along with photos, to confirm the existence of the disc. That, along with hints of advanced technology gave the Russians pause. We let them know about the incredible power of our spaceship and made it clear we wouldn't hesitate to use that power if they became too frisky with their nuclear arsenal."
"We fed information to Soviet agents about the weapons and the propulsion system and the material the saucer is made of. Over four decades we proved to our enemies the U.S. of A. did possess an alien spacecraft and were implementing its incredible technology, technology so advanced that no country would dare attack us and risk swift retribution via our extraterrestrial means. As long as we had the spacecraft and they didn't, we had the upper hand. Oh, those were decades rich with irony!"
"And we denied everything to our own people," Tolliver said.
"Of course. That thing allowed us to hold our ground throughout the cold war by threat and innuendo. And now our enemies have become crazies who don’t give a good goddamn about flying saucers or advanced technology, so the primary reasons for ultra-secrecy are gone. The aliens and their craft served their, and our, purpose."
"Then why continue to keep it a secret?"
Addison shrugged. "Back in the late 50s there were some in high places who felt strongly that revenge-minded aliens could be on the way to Earth."
"With that in mind, I suggested the government implement Project Ozma and SETI so the public would think we were actively searching for aliens, rather than making excuses for our behavior." Addison snorted and leaned back as Tolliver slid down farther into the musty cushions of the couch. "The message insists we're friendly, the crash wasn't our fault and any aliens should go easy on us if they have revenge on their minds. Provided extraterrestrials do decide to show up here, of course."
Tolliver started to speak; Addison held up a hand. "Then again, there might not be aliens on the way. How can we predict anything when we still don't comprehend a single damn thing about our alien spaceship after decades of trying? For all we know, those jokers were already dead and the ship is their race's way of burying people in space. Or perhaps humanity's too worthless and stupid for them to even care about our finding the disc."
"Man, that's depressing," Tolliver said.
"How do you think I feel?" Addison leaned forward, jabbed a finger at Tolliver. "It's been six decades of . . . of sensing an idea or a feeling just at the edge of awareness or having a phrase on the tip of your tongue and you can't quite get it."
Tolliver suddenly said, "The Rosetta Stone. You didn't have the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone."
"Right you are." Addison smiled. "We never had a common denominator as a key to unlock its secrets. Just one small hint, a tiny corroborative element and we'd have solved the mystery. There's no Voyager-type record on that baby."
"Wait a minute," Tolliver said. "How about alien abductions? The Gulf Breeze sightings? Bud Hopkins? Jaques Vallee? Betty and Barney Hill? Travis Walton? Alien contacts all over the world?"
"How very ‘X-Files’,” Addison said. “Well. Those incidents could be real but none of those so-called 'contacts' can be proven. Here, we've got the proof, we just don't know what the hell it means."
Addison went to a row of tall cabinet doors and opened them one by one. Inside were books, thin and thick, of various widths and lengths, their seamless metallic covers flowing with iridescent patterns and an unnerving, flowing script. Addison pulled one from a stack, passed it to Tolliver.
Surprised by its lightness, he felt the telltale electrical charge again but excitement and curiosity overwhelmed the feeling. Mysterious, swirling, curved glyphs formed what might have been the title. He opened it and flipped through page after page of densely packed blue and green writing, jagged blocks of undecipherable text, diagrams and madly arranged graphs, all meaningless, every parchment-thin page crowded with sub-rosa mankind would never understand.
"Yes, books, hundreds of them. This is only a portion of the whole. I don't know what the government did with the rest…probably lost ‘em. Why would aliens need or use books when they undoubtedly had electronic information storage? Where are the floppy discs? The memory cards? The USB drives? Their laptops? iPods? Kindles? Maybe this thing was a traveling library…or maybe they just enjoyed reading."
"Can I . . .?" Tolliver began.
"Sure. Keep the book, take the photos and here," Addison said, nudging a large, heavy cardboard box toward Tolliver with his Redwing booted foot while pointing to similar boxes stacked against the wall. “Take these too. Everything you need to know about Majestic is in here, photos, documents, schematics, unabridged, uncensored, the works. You might find it interesting."
Tolliver leaned back and looked at the ceiling, picturing the ship tumbling through Earth's atmosphere, damaged, falling, the crew dying, the desert of New Mexico whirling up to strike a violent death's blow and the terrible silence consuming everything.
He decided it had been a good news day.
Outside, Addison leaned against the locked hangar door, arms folded across his chest, sliding a boot back and forth in the parking lot dust as Tolliver deposited his equipment, books and boxes in the trunk, back and passenger seats of his car. He walked over to Addison and said, "Well."
"Hell, you'll probably get a Pulitzer. It'll be more than any of us who worked on Majestic ever got. Feel free to use my name."
Tolliver gave him a startled look. "Uh . . . what'll happen to you?"
"Do you think anyone cares about me, or Majestic, now?" Addison looked wistfully toward the northwest where the Sierra Nevada and streams of trout awaited. "The government will deny everything, of course, declare it to be the ravings of a UFO lunatic while insisting Majestic never existed. It doesn't really matter because Majestic's time has passed. The world in which it mattered no longer exists."
He waved his pipe. “For something to be remembered, it has to work, do something, make a difference.They’re all gone now, the scientists and military men who worked on this….and with the documents lost or destroyed or still Top Secret…hell, no one’s given this a second thought for at least twenty years.”
Tolliver felt a tingle of relief. This would be a Big Story after all. "What'll happen to the saucer and the bodies?"
"I think they'll become part of the space travel display at the Air Museum here. An ignominious end to a majestic program, don't you think?" Addison smiled.
Tolliver pictured the disc flanked by the blunt, heroic shapes of the restored and gleaming Douglas Dauntless and Grumman TBF Avenger or perhaps a Lightning. The tourist families ooh and ahh as they file past – not too close, though; can’t have visitors vomiting and running screaming from the exhibit – and the children point excitedly at the tiny bodies and the big spaceship while their parents urge them to hurry, driven by disturbing images of a cold, merciless darkness and fearsome, lonely death.
"It's going to be interesting," Tolliver said.
"That it will be, my friend. Write it, print the photos, enjoy the hullabaloo. As for me," Addison straightened his shoulders, "I'm going fishing."
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