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In Their Shadow

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An average spill on an average hike turns into an average rescue operation. So who would have thought that a simple broken leg could unearth one of the government's deepest secrets? (A 1st draft.)

Scifi / Thriller
4.5 4 reviews
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Chapter 0: The Crash

It doesn’t take a viewscreen to see the planet below the ship; it’s completely filled the view from the windows that jut out from the front of the bridge. And it’s a view that the crew of the Ntassntek, as it’s called in the common tongue, have been anticipating for a while now: since they departed for it from the other side of the galaxy.

The captain, a Ntaa of impressive stature, sits eagerly in their chair, staring intently at the vast, blue oceans of liquid water below, watching as their orbital speed has them gently floating above an enormous landmass now creeping into view. They’ve never been here - none of their crew has - but they’re here to do a job, and one that should never have needed doing. Get in and get out, is the only thing that’s on their collective minds right now.

{ Well? ] they ask. These people, when amongst themselves, have little use for verbiage. Eons ago - and if any record of how this came to be was made, then it was surely destroyed in the war - the Nterenna started making use of electronic signals in addition to more traditional vocalizations. Eventually it became a matter of proper etiquette to eschew mouth-sounds altogether.

The captain is uneasy, and feels as if they’ve wasted enough time waiting in this world’s orbit. Their binocular apertures, orange rings set in black spherical sensors that would easily be mistaken for gelatinous ‘eyes’ to the bipedal race slowly taking over the planet below them, flicker with a glow faint enough to barely see in a darkened room. They dart from one helmsman to another impatiently.

{ I’m picking up evidence of civilization, sir ] one of them finally says, looking up from their station for a moment. { Fortifications, city-centers, massive structures, fleets of sea-going vessels… ]

{ Sounds like they’ve been busy ] the captain mumbles in a way. There’s a heaviness in their chest, a gnawing. These people have progressed quickly… too quickly for my liking. { Is it possible for us to land and conduct the search without being seen? ]

{ It appears so, ] says another crewman, off to the captain’s right: the science officer for this mission. They meet the captain’s orange gaze with their yellow one. { The amount of land that’s been developed is only a fraction of a percent. I’d say our odds are favorable. ]

{ And no clues as to where it is, right? ]

{ The records were all lost in the war, sir. ]

{ How ironic. ]

The chief engineer shakes their head from where they sit at their station on the captain’s left. They’re bulkier than most of the others on the bridge, the extra protruding mass around their shoulders concealing extra sensor arrays and hookups. Carrying the mental weight of extra hardware isn’t easy, but the engineer has always made it look effortless.

{ How do we know that it hasn’t been discovered yet? ] they gruffly interrupt.

The captain massages the plating on the side of their head, pressing their lips together into a tight line. They thought that these kinds of concerns had been put to rest before they even disembarked. { We don’t, ] they say firmly.

The engineer continues. { And if they do? If they’ve trucked it off to some city, what then? ]

{ There’s no way they could have harvested all of it, ] the science officer replies. { Not with the level of technology they have now. Not with hand-tools. Besides, they wouldn’t know what to-- ]

{ All that matters, ] the captain says, suddenly standing up from their chair; the bridge immediately falls silent. They don’t have time for this. { Is that we shouldn’t have given it to them in the first place. We are here to try and rectify that mistake before it becomes a problem for them, and for this entire sector. Now helm, take us down before… ]

A notice flashes in the air before the captain, a floating, massless, pane of light bearing a message: another ship has approached.

{ We’re being hailed, ] says the second helmsman.

...before we’re spotted.

Ktsek,” the captain hisses in Common, aloud this time. The bridge, quiet aside from the deep thrum of the vessel’s engines and power systems, is suddenly filled with a voice, and everyone starts. The captain doesn’t often curse, but when they do, it just feels better to say it with mouth-sounds. { Open a comm line, ] they mutter, balling their hands into fists.

The magnificent view of the planet below them is replaced with the face of a Kassar captain bearing a military insignia on his breast. The Nterenn captain quickly surveys what they can see of the bridge around him, and is cautiously relieved to find it slightly understaffed. It appears that they are on no martial errand here. Still, the Ntaarin have earned themselves a poor enough reputation to merit little more than an armistice from the galactic community, let alone allies, since the civil war ended. And the Kassar had never liked them much anyways.

The Ntaarin rises from their chair. If they’d been in the same room, the Kassar would have barely come up to their knee. Truly, viewscreens were the real equalizing force in the galaxy. “What can I do for you, captain?” they say with authority.

“You can start by telling me what a band of Ntaarin is doing all the way out here, in a sector that was more than disappointed when you all failed to exterminate yourselves.”

The blue-faced, four-armed Kassar live for a long time - almost as long as the Ntaarin themselves - and the captain guesses that this one might be old enough to remember their devastating civil war that took place in the time since the Nterenna’s last visit to this lonely planet. There’s nothing so indomitable as a Kassar with a grudge.

“Glad I wasn’t expecting a warm welcome,” they scoff.

“Generations of war has all but thrown your race into a dark age, and you still haven’t grasped the concept of humility. You people never change, do you? Now answer my question,” he snaps.

The captain scowls, an ancient holdover of some sort. “On the contrary,” they begin, swallowing their ego for just a moment. “We’re here on a mission of redress. The provisional government is sending ships of volunteers to our old targets to see what may be done to… undo the effects of the Program.”

“Let me get this straight,” says the Kassar. “You spend almost two thoria* parading around the galaxy, impressing primitive races with parlor tricks, and giving them technology that they haven’t even begun to earn yet… and now you believe that simply showing up again to take it all away is somehow helping more.”

The captain shifts uncomfortably and folds their arms. Their scowl deepens. Should they tell him? Should this be the time and the place to reveal one of the Program’s darkest secrets?

No. Not now… and perhaps, not ever.

“I have my orders, captain. Now let us on our way - you have no jurisdiction here.”

“Actually, I do,” the Kassar says darkly. “The Congress of this sector decided some time ago to prohibit Nterenna vessels from coming within a quarter light-year of all systems within its borders. And as I can see right now, our suspicion was not unwarranted.”

“You can arrest us later,” the captain all but barks. “But either way, we’re going down there.”

The Kassar’s frills flare with agitation. “True to Ntaarin form, you’re making a big mistake, captain. We are authorized to use whatever means necessary to keep you from making planetfall anywhere in this sector. You have one nobelium** to acquiesce and allow us to escort your vessel to neutral space. I suggest you take us up on such a generous offer.”

{ Cut the channel, ] they order the first helmsman with a slam of their fist on the nearest console before taking a seat again. { Suggestions? ]

The science officer is the first to chime in. { This race is progressing faster than any we’ve yet encountered, sir. If we return later, it may be too late. Our safe contact window is already fast closing. ]

The engineer soundlessly snorts. { It might be too late already. ]

{ That isn’t what I asked. ]

The engineer sits up straight and averts their green apertures, suddenly grim. { This ship is more than a holmium*** old, captain. I’m not sure there’s anything it can do for us against the Kassar’s weapons. ]

{ They’re hailing us again, sir. ]

The captain thinks, and hard. But not too hard; it’s times like this that they know the value of instinct. { Ignore them ] they announce. { Helm, take us down. There’s no way they’ll engage us in such a low orbit. ]

After a moment, a flurry of small, metal objects go shooting past the front window.

{ They’ve fired across the front bow, sir. ]

{ Keep going. ]

{ They’ve got ballistics lock... ]

{ Evasive maneuvers. ]

Lights flash at the sudden hail of bullets chipping away at the hull; as soon as they begin to penetrate the plating, though, the vessel lurches.

The engineer finds themselves surrounded by red panels. { We’ve got hull breaches in compartments 7 through 12, captain! ]

{ They won’t follow us below the stratosphere. Keep going! ]

A klaxon begins sounding off, though; one that the captain hasn’t heard in a long time.

{ They’ve got radiological lock on us, sir! Your orders?? ]

The captain’s internals freeze up like a case of vapor lock, and their plating suddenly feels too stiff for comfort. No. No way… not here. They wouldn’t dare. { They’re bluffing. ]

The electronic communication line open between everyone on the bridge suddenly clouds with dread. { One… two! Two sub-nuclear missiles headed our way, sir! Orders! ]

“Ktsek!” { Jettison all escape pods, now! ]

The second helmsman is a flurry of panicked movement at their controls. { Pods jettisoned, sir! ]

Mere moments later do they feel the jerk and shudder of the sub-nukes exploding at their backs; the engineer and first helmsman are thrown from their stations, and the captain is almost sent careening to the floor themselves.

The bridge goes dark, gravity generators fail, and the Ntassentek is thrown into a spin as they begin to enter the atmosphere. All that illuminates them now is the oscillating planetshine of the world below.

{ We’ve lost main power! I-I can’t correct the rotation without thrusters, captain! ] the helmsmen futilely cling to the rails along the edge of their stations to keep from floating away from them.

And still, the Kassar fire. Flak pierces the hull above them, sending pieces of metal shooting through the bridge from ceiling to floor and floor to ceiling, all while the pristine little world before them zooms in and out of view before the heat of their atmospheric entry threatens to fry their optical sensors. Without power, they can’t even lower the blast shield. At least the friction manages to straighten them out some, and after a moment the captain feels that they’ve mostly stopped spinning, perhaps pointed straight at whatever patch of land is now destined to be their grave. Distantly, the captain hopes that the Kassar will at least have sense enough to clean up the crash before any of the locals stumble upon it.

So that’s it, then.

{ All hands, brace for impact. ]

Area 25, Nevada, 1986.

The midmorning sun beats down on the enormous crash site without mercy. Tents and tarps provide shade, sure, but even without direct sunlight it feels like someone could fry an egg out here. The forensics and geologist teams have at least been given the opportunity to dress down for this particular excavation, and it seems like almost everyone who isn’t zipped up into a relatively sterile clean room suit is wearing khaki shorts.

Everyone, that is, except for two men standing on a short ridge nearby, surveying the site below: they’re dressed in sharp, black suits with their hair done so that it’s hard to tell if it’s been combed back with sweat or grease. The rivulets running down the nape of their necks reveal that even these men of mystery, though, would prefer to be indoors right about now.

“Not sure how we’re going to cover this one up, Thompson,” the one, a bit younger, says to the other. A hot wind blows their ties up and over their shoulders, kicking up dust and sand from below. There’s some shouting as a tarp threatens to take off.

“D.D.O,” Thompson says, counting his fingers. “Distract, destroy, and obfuscate. Let the hoaxers do the rest.”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me. This isn’t anything like what we’ve had to deal with before.”

“Did it not work for Project Mogul?”

“Yeah, but--”

“All it took was the hoax in Aztec, and boom: truth-seekers suddenly become nutjobs overnight. And there’s no better endorsement than from a nutjob in this business. Once you get to be too embarrassing for small talk, you’re golden.”

The younger of the two wipes the sweat from his brow and shakes his head. “You’re out of your mind if you think this is going to be like covering up a goddamn surveillance balloon made of balsa wood and tin foil.”

A truck pulls up behind them, a Chevy-type CUCV, gravel crunching under its tires; out step two men: one of them has four stars on his lapels, and the other, the driver, a silver oak leaf.

“Good morning, General Hall,” Thompson says with a curt nod of his head, before doing the same to the younger of them. “Major Reed.”

The general is a man nearing retirement age; Agent Thompson has been in close correspondence with him throughout this entire affair, and has come to know his service record. The man, apparently, still has a bit of flak in his calf from Normandy, though you’d never know it just by looking.

“Thompson,” the general says in much the same way, though he sticks his hand out for a shake, then turns to the other. “You must be Agent Clark. Pleasure meeting you.”

“Same for you, sir.”

The two military men join the suits and gaze out over the scene below, the four of them surveying it like a master painting. “What’s the latest, gentlemen?”

“It’s definitely extraterrestrial,” Thompson announces with a slight grin. Even when he conveys emotion, it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking.

“How much more is buried?”

“We’ve estimated that what’s here is just short of 300 feet long and 160 feet wide. It’ll be another day or two before we can tell if the thing’s intact, though. As you can see, its angle of descent was pretty steep, otherwise we’d be standing in a debris field here. It also doesn’t appear to have been traveling much faster than terminal velocity, which tells us that it might have been at dead stop just before whatever happened that caused this. We’ve got some theories about it; you can read ‘em in the reports later.”

The general’s greying brows press together. “Any survivors?”

“No. It doesn’t appear that anyone aboard was alive enough to try and escape before they ran out of air or food or whatever.”

The military men exchange looks. “You got any bodies for us?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” the agent says, flashing that impenetrable smile again. “C’mon, I’ll take you in.”

The four men plod down the gentle slope of the ridge, sending little white and red rocks tumbling down ahead of them. The alien vessel really begins to have an effect the closer the men approach: it looms more than 4 stories overhead, with another 4 still buried under the dirt, and they can’t help but look upon the dull - but untarnished! - silver hull with awe and trepidation. That is, all of them aside from Agent Thompson.

They stop at a station beside the port entrance - an airlock some 25 feet tall covered with a sheet of clear plastic to keep the sand from blowing in - where they all don ill-fitting clean suits and pull on pairs of plastic booties and latex gloves. Then pulling aside a flap in the tarp covering the entrance, Thomspon waves them in.

“Lord Almighty,” mutters the general, craning his neck to peer at the ceiling high above them. “Wouldn’t want to run into one of these guys in a dark alley.”

“Watch your step, please.”

The floor is littered with electrical cords of varying colors, powering the harsh fluorescent lighting anchored to the walls here and there, the caged floodlights set on the ground in the larger spaces, and the equipment being used by the computer engineering team. Though musty, the air is much cooler in here.

“We’ve managed to find a few pieces of material that could be carbon-dated: some of this stuff is more than ten-thousand years old,” Thompson explains, leading them around their first corner. “For reference, we’ve dated the impact event itself to only about the first century BC.”

“So these bodies of yours,” the general says, stepping over a particularly large bundle of cables. “What are they, mummified? Fossilized?”

Thompson and Clark chuckle to themselves at the old man’s ignorance.

“Inorganic material doesn’t decay, sir,” Thompson says with a little amusement. “Which is why finding something to carbon-date was difficult: just about everything in here, bodies included, is metal.”

The general’s eyes widen from under his bushy brows and he looks at the major, who appears equally dumbfounded. “You don’t mean to tell me that--”

“It’s still too early to be completely certain, but… this ship does appear to have had an entirely roboticized crew.” Thompson leads them to the mouth of some yawning orifice at the end of their present passage. It looks like it was something at one point, but has since been gutted in the past few days. Cables disappear up inside, and heavy ropes dangle down, some with pulleys at their ends. A man is standing at the bottom of it, ankle deep in torn cables and fallen pieces of metal plating with a power drill in his hand and a light on his hardhat, shouting something to someone high above him. Their voices echo. “Now, we haven’t been successful in getting any of their systems online - it’s too damn esoteric and we need the proper facilities anyways - so we had to tear out the whole damn lift mechanism. So until this morning, we weren’t able to access the bridge.”

The agent gestures to ladder rungs that have been welded to the inside of the lift shaft, and both the general and major take a good look at the climb that’s in store for them now: about 5 stories.

“Hope you’re in the mood for a little exercise,” Clark jabs with a chuckle. Thompson begins to climb and the military men follow suit, with the younger agent just behind them. “Comin’ up!” he calls.

The strenuous ascent through the broken, twisted lift shaft is eerie at best: the sight of a familiar piece of machinery in such a mind-boggling place. What hands build it almost 4,000 years ago? In what facility? Where?

If the general and major are occupied with such thoughts, Agent Thompson isn’t. He can hear the blood in his ears at the prospect of showing off the find of the century - no, the millennium - and getting his due reward for it.

The man in the black suit hoists himself up past the top of the shaft, squeezing between two thick, heavily-armored, interlocking doors. Or rather, what was left of them; the things, each 25 feet high and weighing more than Thompson cares to imagine (though the figure would no doubt be measured in tons) are askew and buckled.

“Here,” he grunts, kneeling down to lend the general a hand. The other two are in better shape and can get themselves over the last few feet.

The bridge is bustling with activity: engineers, scientists, forensics teams. Off to the left of the doors sits a jaws of life, probably left exactly where it was after they pried the doors open a little after 5 this morning, completely forgotten in the face of what was summarily found inside.

The military men have stopped dead in their tracks at the scene before them. If the massive corridors on the lower deck were enough to inspire awe, then this was nothing short of staggering.

There’s really nothing that needs to be said at the sight, so Thompson simply gestures at it.

Before them lies the expanse of what was once a sleek and unthinkably advanced control deck - about the space are stations that were probably once as beautifully-designed as they were technologically advanced, and in the middle, still somehow intact, is the captain’s chair: its seat further from the floor than a man is tall.

The room is also strewn with bodies. Enormous bodies. Some remain slumped over their consoles; just as they were when the ground came up to meet them 2,000 years ago. Others are heaped at the front… or what’s left of it: the entire front nose of the ship is smashed in, crumpled like a soda can.

“Really makes you think, dunnit?” Thompson says, breaking the silence between them. He turns to see the major on tip-toes, trying to get a look at the consoles, and the general with his nose practically buried in the hand of one of the dead giants.

Even though he wasn’t exactly being addressed, Agent Clark folds his arms and surveys the room… and not for the first time this morning. “Makes you think about what they wanted with us,” he mutters, frowning.

Thompson’s eyes pan up the dusty backside of one of them; its middle has been visibly distorted by the force of colliding with the edge of its station. Dented, though, not gored. This is the cleanest catastrophe the two agents have ever been called to, that’s for sure. It may even be victimless - though it’s far too early to tell. Hell, that might not even be something they’ll ever be able to find out. These things need to be alive enough to question in order to find out if they were ever sentient.

“Man ain’t the only intelligent creatures God created,” the general says, examining the robot’s second thumb. The men in black give him their attention. “And there we saw the Nephilim, and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them." Numbers 13:33.”

“I didn’t know you were a biblical scholar, General Hall. That’s not exactly a popular passage.”

“I’m just another God-fearing man, Thompson. It was the Good Lord that got me through France back in ‘44; you’d be memorizing every word of the gospel if you’ve been through hell and back too.”

He chuckles, thinking that the old man is probably right. But Thompson hadn’t yet even spoken his first word when Private Benjamin Hall got his leg full of shrapnel on the beach at Normandy, and when he might have been sent to Korea, Agent Thompson was busy organizing with drug lords in Guatemala on behalf of the CIA. God had little to do with his line of work.

And now, standing in a crashed space-faring vessel filled with the remains of ancient, extraterrestrial machine-men? Why, Thompson was beginning to think that the Heavenly Father had quite a sense of humor.

“How many are there aboard?” the major asks.

“We haven’t excavated every compartment yet, but so far we’ve found 16. Some of them are in much better shape than others.”

The general rubs at his nose with the back of his latex-covered hand. “The air in here’s getting to me,” he says gruffly. “As much as I’d love to poke and prod at these things, I gotta wrap this up outside.”

“Sounds good.”

A few minutes later and the four of them are disembarking the ship through the plastic tarp, and the heat hits them like a brick wall. The major screws up his face, thinking about nothing else but getting back to Nellis and some air conditioning, when he notices a stream of neat punctures along the side of the hull that look suspiciously familiar.

“Are those… bullet-holes?” he says to nobody in particular, gazing up and realizing that this side of the ship is covered in them.

Thompson chuckles as he takes off the clean suit and throws it into a bin. “Good to know that some things just don’t change, huh?”

“But some things do, don’t they, Thompson?” the general says in a tone that only a man with four stars on his lapels knows how to summon. “Let’s take a walk, son.” He nods at the other two men, dismissing them.

The general walks off at a leisurely pace, hands clasped behind him, and the black-suited man must admit that he isn’t entirely sure what this is about. “I need to know that you take this very seriously, Thompson,” he begins, once they’re far out of earshot of anyone else. “This isn’t no damn airplane, no bomber, hell-- this ain’t even a moon mission.” He stops walking and looks him square in the eye now, pointing at the ship. “That? That’s your last frontier right there, son. And while we were busy building pyramids, it came a-knockin’.”

“That it did, sir.”

“What’s the next step?”

“We should have the hull breached by tomorrow, and then we can start getting those bodies over to Dreamland for evaluation. It’s gonna be tough, though. They’ve been sealed away in that ship for two-thousand years, in cool, dry, conditions. If we can’t get them to a climate-controlled facility, they may start to degrade out here.”

“I think something can be done about that.”


“Your proposal has been approved,” he says, taking off his hat to wipe at the sweat along his receding hairline. “A charter is being drafted and should get approval by the President and Secretary of Defense by the end of the week.”

Thompson is thrilled; his only tell, though, is a smirk. “What’d we get?”

“Everything. Your new department got green-lit faster than any in US history.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you, General. And I mean it.”

“You kiddin’ me? The pictures did all the talking.”

Agent Thompson realizes that he suddenly has a lot of work to do. “What’d they wind up calling it, by the way?”

“Oh, the uh… the Extraterrestrial Research and Response Division. A black department, of course.”

“E-R-R-D,” the man in black muses aloud. “Gonna be a bitch to shorten.”

“You’re a card, Thompson. Now how about you stop worrying about your damn name and start thinking about who you’re gonna have to hire to get those computers online? You may have gotten everything you asked for, but the DoD has still made a few demands of their own.”

“I’m sure they have.”

“They’re gonna set you up nice at Groom Lake.” The general starts walking again, this time back up the small hill to where the major’s waiting in the Chevy. “Your starting budget is $800 million, and they want progress reports weekly. You’ve got 9 months to show ‘em something.”

“Like what?”

“Hell if I know. Get somebody from MIT or Boeing to figure that out for you.” His shirt is dark with patches of sweat as they near the top of the ridge. “Damned heat,” he mutters.

“One last thing, general.”


“Why d’you think they came here? If you were a giant machine alien, what in the hell would you be coming to Earth for two-thousand years ago?”

“Everybody’s got something to prove, son. What you need to do is stop playing philosopher and start taking ‘em apart. Sooner you do, sooner we can figure out how to kill ‘em if they decide to come back.”

“Can do, sir,” Thompson chuckles.

“As for me, shoot, I gotta get out of this sun. Have no idea how you boys do it out here in those suits without getting heatstroke.”

“See you tomorrow morning, general?”

“8am sharp. I like my coffee with cream, no sugar.” The passenger-side door to the CUCV closes and Thompson waves as they head back toward the road. Clark joins him.

“What was that about?”

The older of the two rubs his clean-shaven chin. “I’m about to become your supervisor,” he says, showing teeth. “Welcome to the Division.
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