Barely visible against a pitch-black sky, two parachutes float towards the ground.
If all goes to plan, neither will ever reach it.
Ejections seats are a marvel of aviation engineering, and are responsible for saving many pilots and aircrews who would otherwise have died in or out of combat. Months of grueling training was required before the pain-wracked pilot hanging limply within his parachute harness first touched the controls of a real combat airplane, and years more before he abandoned his last.
Yet, despite all that expensive training, time, and effort, getting shot out of a cockpit, and slammed into a brick wall of air that’s moving, relatively, at multiple hundreds of miles per hour, is something even the best equipment fails to simulate with any accuracy.
Groaning in agony from several bruised ribs, and a partially dislocated right arm, the pilot struggles to maintain a clear head and accurate countdown, of his last forty-seven seconds of life. That’s how long it should take for the bomb hanging from a parachute beneath his to reach its one-thousand foot altitude triggering height.
“forty-five, forty-four, forty-thee”
The bomb’s parachute was designed not to aid in aiming the weapon, but to slow its descent so that the aircraft dropping it could safely escape the blast from a greater height, and at a far higher speed. Something this pilot intentionally failed to do.
In his mind, it’d be better to vanish in a mushroom cloud than see his name, and family, come under assault by the irrational court of public opinion. When people unable, or simply unwilling, to recognize the vital importance of his mission if ... when ... his identity became known despite the assurances of his superiors.
“forty-two, forty-one, forty”
Roughly a quarter mile from the target, a small fireball bursts into existence. With genuine regret in his voice, the pilot shouts, ‘GOODBYE, PERPETRATOR!! WISH WE COULD’VE BEEN TOGETHER LONGER!!’ It takes several seconds before the sound of the crash and explosion reaches his ears.
Having lost count, the pilot makes a quick guess and restarts the countdown.
‘thirty-four, thirty-three, thirty ---- what’s that!?’
A bright streak of light has burst from one the buildings far below. To his trained eye, it can only be one thing, ‘I DON’T BELIEVE IT!! SOMEONE SHOT A SAM AT ME!!’
There hadn’t been a single word of warning during his preflight briefing; not that it mattered. Except for blind luck, there’s practically no chance any surface to air missile can intercept a F117 stealth bomber; especially this one. It had to be the slowest he’d ever seen, but it was still making a bee-line in the direction of the bomb, ’What’s with the fireworks? Did I miss a holiday?”
In total silence, and clearly visible against powerful security lights circling the complex of buildings beneath him, a silver object engulfs the bomb and its parachute. Both vanish; replaced by a far more brilliantly glowing sphere of argent flame.
Blinded by painful after-images, the pilot lifts his visor and rubs stinging eyes in time to see ... something ... hovering only feet away, and perfectly matching his descent rate. Looking like a glider made from seamless sheets of silvered glass, two immense wings attached to a featureless fuselage beat the air gently.
It makes no sound, and its wings create no air movement that he can detect.
It’s just there; for all of four seconds. Seconds he will remember for the rest of his life.
The emergency rescue transceiver attached to his harness crackles into life, “Are you so lonely you love death more than life?” Falling out of the sky, in great pain, and expecting to die at any moment, the pilot is too overwhelmed to reply.
And before it turns off, he hears, “Of course, you do. It’s always the same.” and whatever asked the question departs silently just moments before his boots hit the ground. Or, more accurately, upon something soft atop a roof he’d tried to nuke out of existence a little over two minutes before.
“What now, Colonel?”
“Since all our guests are gone, Oscar, I see no reason to keep you here. Leave if you want.”
“What about you?”
“It’ll be quicker if I stay. There’s nothing in the motor pool likely to outrun the blast.”
“Then I’m staying, too.”
“What about you, Vincent?”
“I’m here until relieved, sir.”
Colonel Forrest reviews his range of viable options, finding none, he shouts jovially, “Who’s up for a game of poker!?”
Lieutenant Lopez, after a mumbled, ‘Why not?’ raises his right hand.
“Great! Sergeant, we need one more. Call your squad and ... ”
Surprised that their resident card-shark hadn’t agreed instantly, Colonel Forrest turns to find him listening intently to his headset, and shouting a reply via its built-in microphone, “Say that again, Telly! Yeah, I got it. Helps inbound. Lewis, grab your kit! We’ve got two down on the roof! GO!!”
“What’s happening? Why does Telly need a corpsman up there?”
“That explosion outside was a plane crash, sir. The pilot parachuted right on top of Private Yancy; nailed him good.”
Feeling ignored, Lieutenant Lopez breaks into the conversation, “What’s Yancy doing on the roof?”
“That’s the emergency post I assigned him, Lieutenant. I thought the only trouble he could cause up there is falling off. Seems I was wrong. Telly says the pilot who landed on him is wearing standard air-force flight gear, but no insignia.”
“Okay ... give me the headset. Corporal Telly!”
A tinny sounding voice fills the ear pieces, “Telly here, sir!”
“About that plane crash, what can you tell me?”
“I can’t see much through the flames with my night vision scope or binocs, sir. It’s about the size of a small business jet, but what’s left looks all black and weird ... like something out of a comic book. It came down across the road from perimeter gate four.”
“What’s the sitrep with Yancy and the pilot?”
“Both of ‘em are laid out flat, sir. Yancy is groaning and bitching. He’s fine. The pilot got a messed up arm, ribs, and maybe some internal injuries, too. That’s Lewis’ job to figure out.”
“Is he talking, corporal?”
“Not a word. Should I try again?”
“Don’t bother. He’s black ops. Tell Lewis to keep an eye on him in the infirmary. Someone will come looking for him eventually, I’m sure.”
“Lewis is here, sir!”
“Before you go, did you hear something heavy and metallic hit the ground, or another building?”
“No sir, the compound’s empty. Slam a car door and I’ll hear it up here.”
“Did you see where the DE went?”
“That explosion and light show was a DE?! No one ever tells me anything!”
“Focus corporal! Did you see where it went?”
“Sorry sir, it ... it went kinda straight up. And took a turn towards the ... south-east? That is, after it swung by the parachutes.”
“Two? Where’s the other one?”
“No idea, sir. The explosion downstairs and plane crash must’ve rattled me more than I thought. Only one landed on the roof, but I can’t see the other one nowhere around here.”
“Thank you, Corporal. That’s all, out.”
Colonel Forrest hands the headset back and mumbles ‘When you care to send the very best!’
“One of the Air Force’s new toys went down near perimeter gate four. It’s shattered into very expensive pieces and on fire. The way I see it, the megaton-size Hallmark card it was delivering is either still inside cooking like a Thanksgiving Turkey, turned out to be a dud, or, more likely, the DE had a light in-flight snack before it disappeared.”
Stunned by what he’d just heard, Lieutenant Lopez shouts, “IT ATE A NUKE?!”
“Since there’s no sign of the bomb’s parachute, I’d bet my next paycheck on it. I don’t know if I should say thanks, or hope it gets indigestion!”
“But what if you’re wrong, sir? If the bomb is still outside, can it go off?”
“Not a chance. Those things are jammed front-to-back with redundant fail-safes. A bomb in the wreckage might cook-off from the heat, but that’s just normal high explosives. The army corps of engineers will spend years decontaminating the area, but that’s it. If it’s buried nose-first nearby, and the casing didn’t crack, an explosive ordinance disposal team can deal with it.
“It’s not like the pilot is a foreign enemy, sir. Can’t I just ask him what happened?”
Don’t bother, Lopez. He won’t talk to anyone but his handlers. And that can be anything from a deep-black non-existent department of the Pentagon, to the basement of the Central Intelligence Agency. Piss either of those off and you’ll wish you were never born.”
“So what’s next, Colonel?”
“Someone should’ve noticed their firecracker didn’t go off by now. They’re either gonna airmail another care package, or contact us for an up ...”
What’s up, sergeant?”
“Corporal Wallace called from internal security, sir. The phone line in your office is working.”
Colonel Forrest raises his right hand. Slowly, he retracts each digit as he counts backwards, “Five ... four ... three ... two ...”
“It’s Wallace again. Your phone is ringing.”
“I’d better answer that. Sergeant Patterson!
“Hang a sign ... wait! Hang a sign, jam both doors, pile a bunch of furniture in front of them, and post this entire level off limits for the duration. It’s a death trap in there right now.”
“Do you mean a death trap for Yancy, Colonel?”
“Exactly, his father owes me a big favor. I won’t collect if he goes in there.”
“You can count on me, sir.”
“And I’ve got something for you, too. Here are the keys to my car. Fill the tank and bring it to the front doors. We’re going on a little road trip after I finish this phone call.
“Where we headed, sir?”
“What did Telly say? Right ... south-east ... oh!” Colonel Forrest looks down at the small damp spot growing beneath his shirt pocket. “And swing by my quarters and grab me a clean shirt.”
“Yes, I’m going to need a bait box, and some grapes, for my little friend, too.”
“We’re taking the mouse with us? What for, sir?”
“What else, Lieutenant? Bait.”
With sunrise only three hours away, Colonel Forrest jumps into the front passenger seat of his car and places a wide briefcase between his feet. Looking uncomfortable without the driver’s wheel within his hands, he taps the dashboard and near-shouts, “Let’s go!”
Bouncing over fallen and heavily mangled iron gates that once sealed the compound, Lopez turns towards an access road leading to a smaller security fence and gate. This gate too has been breached; both sides torn off their hinges, and laying in pieces to either side of an unmanned guard shack only a road’s width from still-burning airplane wreckage, “Where to, sir.”
Reaching into the small briefcase, he extracts a single sheet of paper, “Right there. I printed out the route.”
Only seconds from pointing out the obvious, that punching the address into a GPS would’ve been quicker, Lopez remembers whose car he’s driving. Not only were such devices were nothing short of science fiction when the Colonel’s mint-condition 1969 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet convertible came off the assembly line, any mechanical device giving him orders would be signing its own death warrant, “That’s not far, sir. We should be there in about three hours ... maybe three and a half.”
“Good. You keep an eye on the road. I’ll navigate.”
“How did the phone call go?”
“They didn’t believe me.”
“Didn’t believe what, sir?”
“You name it! The consensus back there is bouncing between two extremes. We’ve either been compromised by brain-eating outer-space aliens that stole our bodies and took over, or that Russian spies, in the guise of a fact-finding team, released a DE as payback for what that Chaotic did to them.
When I reported that all the DE’s, except for one, had suddenly disappeared they went nuts. And when I described how the last one had changed from something human-looking, into a huge silver Christmas tree angel ornament, my credibility went straight down the toilet!
Towards the end, when I gave them a breakdown on events from the moment it almost took down the building, to when it flew away with their nuke in its belly, they threatened to court-martial the lot of us for drinking on duty!”
“And they still allowed us go hunting for it ... which is what I assume we’re doing now.”
“No. I ... am hunting it. If this trip goes SNAFU six-ways-to-Sunday, you are to say I ordered you to accompany me. Is that clear, Lieutenant? But to answer your question, I was instructed to seal Building Three and to shoot anyone trying to leave before a medical team arrived.”
“Shouldn’t we have done that, sir?”
“Tell me, how do you think they’ll check us for possibly harboring alien parasites in our skulls? I’m guessing it’s a lot like how a dog is screened for rabies after biting someone. Personally, I’d rather not have my brain scooped out and spread on a microscope slide. But if you insist, we can go back ... LEFT TURN AT THE NEXT FORK IN THE ROAD!! AND STOP MASHING THE GEARS!!”
Whispering under his breath, ‘This is going to long drive!’, Lieutenant Lopez turns the wheel.
“STOP . . . we’re here!”
After one hundred and eighty-three miles of endless alfalfa, corn, and soybean fields, and countless towns too small to stable a single horse, Lieutenant Lopez parks onto the the shoulder of a rough country road only minutes after sunrise. Looking beyond a tattered barbed wire fence, and seeing nothing but even more crops spreading out towards the horizon, he turns off the engine, “Are you sure we’re in the right place, sir? There’s nothing here.”
“Look down at the fence ... where the weeds aren’t growing well.”
“Gravel … there’s a road here?”
“About twenty years ago there was. Here, look at these pictures.”
Colonel Forrest hands over a small stack of black and white photographs, and several time-bleached color aerial photographs of a small town and surrounding farm land.
“Oh, I see it. There used to be two farmhouse driveways between these two roads.”
There are three. The other one is under that fallen tree we passed down the road.
The driveway you’re looking at once belonged to a guy named Frank Potter. He was John Becker’s next door neighbor. Potter’s property is where Becker died before the DE left to consume his family, and where a recovery team finally captured the DE. They were too late to save anyone.”
“So do we go outside and poke around?”
“It’s all gone. There’s nothing to see. After spreading around the usual ‘mass-murder slash suicide by a crazy pyromaniac neighbor’ cover story, state police bulldozers dug up any disturbed ground nearby purportedly looking for more bodies. In reality, they were government agents searching for buried DE’s. Fortunately, for them, they never found any.”
“And you know this how, Colonel?”
Colonel Forrest taps the briefcase with the side of a shoe, “It all here in these folders.”
“You took classified military files out of Building Three!?”
“What’s the worst that can happen? Demote me to private and shoot me? Which they’ll probably do anyway if my idea doesn’t pan out? Provided, of course, the DE doesn’t get big enough to become ... THE MONSTER THAT ATE WASHINGTON, DC!! In which case I doubt the Pentagon will much care about little old me.”
“Relax, Lopez. With any luck it’ll only eat the part of Pittsburgh where my ex-wife lives.”
“Ha ha, sir! Very funny!”
“Thanks, I’m happy I amuse you ... seriously, I wish it’d eat her.”
“If there’s nothing here, why did we stop?”
“Remember that fallen tree?”
“Vaguely, I do remember having to swerve to get around it. It is kinda stupid to cut down a tree and just leave it lying there so close to the road.”
“Have you ever taken a tree down, Lopez?”
“Many times, I’m pretty handy with a chainsaw. Landscaping is my main job when I visit my parent’s farm while on leave.”
“Since you’re the expert, do you often cut down a tree to harvest the stump? There’s a huge crater where the tree came straight down, but no sign of what was holding it up.”
“The DE landed here!?”
“And left finding no more than you would have. Only two more places left to check.” Colonel Forrest jabs a finger tip into the aerial photograph Lieutenant Lopez is holding, “Let’s go! We don’t have much time.”
Within seconds the engine is restarted and the car pulls into the road. Checking the rear-view mirror for unlikely traffic, he catches Colonel Forrest gazing out of the rear window, “Do you think we’re being followed, sir?”
“Not without these files. Getting authorization to access our server will take a couple hours, and a couple more to bring back the backup memory blades from the Point Oscar bunker.”
“Why? If all these files are in Building Three’s server already, why would they need the backups?”
“Oh! Right! I forgot to tell you! There was an accident. The server experienced a major crash. Don’t quote me, but I believe a hammer was involved.”
Stunned, Lieutenant Lopez mumbles, ‘they’re gonna lock me up in Leavenworth for twenty years!’ just loud enough be overheard.
“That’s why I like about you, Lopez ... THAT POSITIVE ATTITUDE!! Take the next right.”