Chapter 13 - Out Of The Sun
Thursday, May 20
After Colonel Towsley and Darren Seymour left, Dr. Ngatia stayed behind to implore Taggart for the fifth time that month to okay a slight increase in the NESSTC’s already tight medical budget when the general raised his hand.
“I know what subject is on your mind, doc, but right now I want to talk about something else.”
Figures. “Of course.” Perhaps it was time to resign.
“So what do you think? Are these boys dangerous?”
Ngatia shrugged. “Perhaps, but dangerous to whom?”
“To us, of course.”
“I don’t really know. Their central nervous systems have changed. It’s possible their behavior could have changed as well. If that means they’re dangerous to us, I can’t say. I have to admit, neurology isn’t my strongest field.”
“About these changes. Can you say these boys are no longer . . . human? I ask that in the lightest sense.”
“I would indeed say that, yes. A common occurrence in evolution is that brain structures that are no longer used for one function may form the basis for the development of a new function. It appears the machine aboard the alien ship accelerated the process by stimulating the growth of those strange brain tumors. They act as neural implants that both generate and process high-mental information and relay that info to the motor regions. The boys could be using brain functions that are meant for us a million years from now.”
“What kind of functions?”
“Well, I believe the boys have a form of extra sensory perception. Able to sense the presence of an intruder just around the corner, for example. Their reactions and thought processes are faster, which means they’re able to keep up with the rapid functions of their fighters. They may also possess precognition——future sight. We really know so little of the human brain, it’s ludicrous. There could be countless changes that my examinations might not have detected.”
Taggart finished his coffee and looked down onto the floor of the Ops Center. “As far as I’m concerned, these boys are dangerous. I don’t want to take any chances.” He turned to Ngatia. “Are you at all trained in hypnosis, doc?”
“No, but can I ask why?”
“We may have to disconnect some faulty wiring.”
“You’re not suggesting——?”
“Yes, I am suggesting, Raymond, and if you were smart, you’d see my point of view.
Since hypnosis is out, would shock treatments be an alternative?”
Ngatia could only stand there and stare at this man who, a minute ago, had been thinking clearly. Now he was staring down Dr. Mengele. “We don’t have the equipment for shock treatments,” he murmured. “We felt there was no medical reason to have that kind of gear in a facility such as ours.”
“Certainly you have anti-psychotics that would create long-term amnesia.”
Ngatia shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We have 25-milligram tablets of chlorpromazine in the pharmacy locker but that dose produces only a mild sedation.”
“Then you’ll up the dose to a hundred milligrams in their Mountain Dews. And Towsley is not to know about it. Understood?”
Taggart gripped his coffee mug tighter. “Raymond, I’m a person who believes in the benefits of debate, but only when I’m wearing blue jeans. When I have three stars on my shoulders, debate and democracy cease to exist. Your status as a civilian in a military environment grants you no fucking liberty to question my orders.”
Ngatia realized he had slipped his foot into the opening of a closing door where it did not belong and pulled it back. “Yes, sir. When do you want this done?”
Taggart looked down into the Ops Center. “Soon.”
The NESSTC’s galley looked just like a high school cafeteria Darren thought. Colonel Towsley explained why they referred to it as a “galley,” but Darren didn’t pay much attention . . . something to do with the NESSTC being a naval base, as well. He was too busy trying to decide among the wide array of appetizing food choices to be aware of Towsley’s continuing good cop act. Darren’s growling stomach told him to settle on two pepperoni pizza slices, a huge fudge brownie and a Coke. Towsley picked a chef salad with ranch and an iced tea. Darren followed the colonel to a table over by the pinball machines. Their two armed escorts were not far behind.
“The food here is excellent,” Towsley said, sitting down. “The one true morale booster we have. Steak and Shrimp Fridays, Pizza Saturdays. You name it.”
Darren was still in Wise Ass Mode leftover from Taggart’s office, but quickly dialed himself back when he felt more backtalk coming on. Maybe it was better to just squash it and smile and nod. Besides, Darren could tell from Towsley’s many wispy facial expressions back in the office that the colonel might be on his side . . . and ‘General Strangelove’ wasn’t here pushing buttons, anyway. So be nice Darren.
“The Marine recruiter who interviewed me at my high school gave me an MRE to take home,” Darren said. “I’ll admit that was an excellent beef and bean burrito.”
“Did you use the flameless ration heater?”
“Yeah, that was pretty cool. It was hot in twenty seconds.”
“Military chow has come a long way from cold spaghetti in a can.”
The galley wasn’t too busy, being mid-afternoon. A few scattered personnel were picking at their lunches here and there. One man with captain’s bars had his elbows on the table, his hands to his chin, lips moving with a silent prayer, eyes closed. Darren spotted Lieutenant Colonel Carruthers and four beefy guys in desert camo eating from trays snow piled with food on the other side of the galley. Carruthers caught Darren looking and gave him a wink and a smile before returning to his mashed potatoes.
Darren and Towsley ate in silence, but not in an uncomfortable way between two people who knew nothing of the other. It felt more like a playful contest to see who would talk first. There were no casual glances at one another either. Occasionally, Towsley would salute a passing non-comm or smile and nod to a civilian but do so without uttering a single word. After about ten minutes of this, Darren gave up hope trying to win the contest.
“So what’s your back story, colonel? How did you end up chasing aliens?”
Towsley took a long time to answer his question. He shifted around in his seat and stared at the far wall of the galley. After a few more chews of salad, “Well . . . it’s a long, winding road, Darren.”
“I got time.”
Towsley’s long hesitations gave Darren the impression the colonel was having problems coming up with the right words. He was blinking his eyes a lot, tapping the side of his bowl lightly with his fork, bitting his bottom lip——haunted by a troubled past? “I used to be a fighter pilot with the Thirty-Fifth Tactical Fighter Wing. I flew the F-4G Phantom in Desert Storm. Wild Weasel.”
“SAM suppression,” Darren said, impressed. Towsley just went up a couple of points higher on Darren’s One-to-Ten Respect Scale. “That’s suicidal going up against surface-to-air missile launchers.”
Towsley suddenly shot him a look that almost made Darren slide his chair back. He had struck a bare nerve. The colonel looked back to his salad quickly.
“I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”
“No, it’s alright,” Towsley replied with a reassuring grin Darren knew was fake. “My first ever combat mission was on opening night of Desert Storm. It was also the last time I ever flew again.”
Towsley saluted a passing ensign and returned to his quickly disappearing salad. “I thought you were a mind reader when you said ‘suicidal,’” he murmured, so low Darren had to lean forward. “My electronic warfare officer’s name was Jack Mitchell. We’d been friends since the Academy . . . our families vacationed together. The first sortie was against an SA-6 air defense site west of Baghdad. We took off from Shaikh Isa Air Base in Bahrain, Jack in the backseat, me in front flying our bird . . .” Towsley inhaled deeply through his nose “. . . there was an explosion in the backseat. Our cockpit depressurized, I had no stick, there’s fire and smoke everywhere. I ejected. Jack didn’t. For three days, I hid from the Iraqis until I was picked up by a British SAS chopper looking for SCUD’s, but there was a court martial waiting for me back at Shaikh Isa. I should have walked north instead and let Saddam take me prisoner.”
Towsley tossed back a large gulp of iced tea as if it were a highball of Jim Beam. “They found Jack’s suicide letter in his quarters. He mentioned the grenade he was planning to take with us.”
“Jesus, why did he try to kill you, too?” Darren asked.
“Because he found out a week earlier that I was having an affair with his wife.”
Darren was suddenly aware of every little sound in the galley: the beeps and bells from the pinball machines, the banging of pans in the kitchen, the banter of a weatherman on the corner TV, the hard breathing through the colonel’s nose.
“I still hear the explosion, the screams, then him laughing just before I ejected. I used to get them every night, but therapy helped reduce that to about one nightmare a week. Now it’s about every . . . month or so. I’m pretty sure Jack survived the grenade——must have had a couple of minutes with his thoughts before the impact.”
“What happened at your court martial?”
“I was charged with adultery and unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. For my sins the JAG was kind enough to give me two choices . . . Dismissal, which is just polite nomenclature for ‘dishonorable discharge for an officer’ or Forfeiture of pilot’s wings. I chose the latter and never flew again. They could have really thrown the book at me if they wanted, but I had a divorce waiting for me when I got home which was worse than serving time at Leavenworth.”
Towsley pushed a cherry tomato around in his bowl. “Couple months later, my daughter found my wife in the bathtub with an open razor . . . she was barely alive when the ambulance arrived.” He finished the last of his iced tea. “Dante says the Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for adulators and traitors so I got that waiting for me when I die.”
“Jesus, I need a drink,” Darren said.
This triggered a surprising chuckle from Towsley, and they both wound up laughing pretty good, much to the obvious annoyance of the captain who had been praying a couple of tables over.
“So then what?” Darren asked.
“A buddy of mine——one of the very few left——got me a job in the Office of Special Investigations as a systems analyst in foreign threat detection, and that’s where I began my career chasing aerial phenomena and UFO crashes. Which lead me here.”
The colonel could have begun his story at the Office of Special Investigations and continued up to the present but had decided to start with pain and suffering instead for some reason. Darren thought he knew why. He didn’t mind playing attentive bartender to Towsley’s whisky-sipping sad sack. There was male bonding going on here.
“My Dragonstar is damaged,” he said.
Towsley stabbed the cherry tomato and popped it in his mouth. “I know. Our engineers noticed the entry and exit hole in the rear fuselage. How bad is it?”
“Terrible. I have no AMDS/laser-radar sensors.” Darren swallowed the last piece of fudge brownie. “My fighter can’t see.”
“Wish we could help you, Darren,” Towsley said, his eyes still aimed downward in his salad.
Darren pushed his tray away and took a napkin out of the dispenser. He unfolded it and laid it on the table. “Can I borrow your pen?”
Towsley took it out of his front pocket, and Darren proceeded to draw an electrical diagram the simplest way he could. “I would like you to pass this onto your engineers.”
“What are you drawing?”
“The electrical schematic to my Dragonstar’s primary circuit relay. The one that’s damaged.” Darren finished his crazy maze of lines and scribbles and handed it over. “Those lines are not copper cables. They’re flexible tubes filled with a superconducting gel that changes its molecular structure in order to pass electricity. They have different voltage and amperage ratings just like electrical wires, so your boys should be able to replace the damaged tube. I would prefer a two-gauge silver wire if you have one——the least resistance the better but copper or aluminum will work. Just make sure you use a higher wire gauge to compensate if you do. Don’t use Romex or bundled wire either. There’s too much heat buildup so you’re going to have to use spun glass insulators at these points here and here. The superconductor gel tubes are also pressurized to eighty-psi, so the wire connections have to be tight. Somehow.”
“How do you know about all of this wire stuff?”
Darren starred at his diagram for a few seconds then back up at Towsley. “Internet.” He went back to his napkin. “This is how you get into the engine chamber where the circuit relay is. There’s a single button under this panel that opens the access doors to the internal fuselage. I’m the only one who can open the panel, so you’ll have to let me down there to do it.”
“And I suppose this means using your thought-control helmet?”
Darren leaned back in his seat. “It’s the only way I can open that panel.”
“You know that’s not going to happen.”
Darren tossed the pen back, and it bounced into the colonel’s empty salad bowl, rattling around. “What do you guys eat around here that makes you so paranoid . . . huh? I don’t care what your commanding officer thinks, but I want you to know that we’re on the same team. And the team needs to achieve the same goal which is kill aliens, but I can’t do that with a broken dragon.”
Towsley let out a slow breath. “Let me see your napkin.” The colonel studied his electrical diagram. Darren could see just the hint of a smile in his eyes.
“I’ll let you down there, but I want you to understand the first perceptible flinch you make that looks at all aggressive will be met with a single round to the chest.” Towsley gave a nod in the direction of their armed escorts with submachine guns standing ten feet away. “One of them will be practically sitting in your lap in the cockpit. Are we crystal?”
“Yes, sir . . . clear.”
“I want you to know this doesn’t mean we’re going to repair your bird or eventually let you out of here. It’s only for our engineers’ benefit to get a look-see at the internal machinery.”
“Quit smiling.” Towsley stood up. “Let’s go.”
The colonel was right. The guard from the Response Team was practically sitting in his lap, a 9mm Beretta less than a foot from his chest. The guard had a face of granite, but Darren kept his smile on the whole time. After he opened the panel, another guard took his helmet back to the electronics lab building in the hangar’s corner. He spotted Colonel Towsley talking to a group of engineers there, the man known as Jacobi reading Darren’s napkin.
“Darren, you need to come into the lab for a moment,” Towsley said.
“What is it now?”
“Just follow us.”
The main electronics testing laboratory occupied the first floor of the concrete building that looked more like a bunker than anything else. Here, Darren saw dozens of machinery and computers: electron microscopes, laser spectrometers, gas chromatographs, tensile strength testers, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machines, CAD stations, a wide assortment of tools like diamond saws and soldering guns. A nerd’s wet dream. In the center of the room, the scientists had the guys’ combat armor suits spread out on a low stainless steel table that had to be fifteen feet long. The four PDAs lying next to each other were chirping for attention. Darren recognized the sound as the early-warning detection alert.
“What are they doing?” Towsley asked.
“The bad guys are on the move.” He picked up his PDA and highlighted the early-warning prompt. A green, rotating hologram of the solar system appeared above the device with telemetry data in Xrel script spread across the display. “We have two surveillance stealth satellites that feed us early-warning, sub-space signals.”
“Faster-Than-Light communication. Real time. There’s our bogey.” Darren pointed at a tiny red circle just inside the orbit of Mercury about thirty million kilometers from the sun—— the moonship. “Trying to hide in the blind spot are you?” he said. He highlighted the telemetry data above it. “Radial velocity just under twenty-three percent light-speed.” A long, arced yellow line snaked out from the red circle and stopped at the L2 Lagrangian point just beyond the moon’s orbit around the earth, about 932,000 miles away——a perfect place to park a 1,400-mile diameter spaceship. “It’s on an intercept course for Earth. Nine hours. If you’re still entertaining any notions of letting us go, colonel, now would be a good time.”
Towsley did not respond to him. He had his walkie-talkie out. “Tango Leader to Bird Nest.”
“Bird Nest, go ahead Tango Leader.”
“Medusa Stare needs eyes on Fire Sector for possible enemy ingress.”
“Copy that, Tango Leader.”
Suddenly, klaxons began to wail throughout the Near-Earth Space Surveillance and Tracking Center. Voices began buzzing over one another on the radios. People out in the hangar began moving rapidly.
“Bird Nest to Tango Leader!”
Towsley grabbed his radio. “You have Flash Priority on the bogey already, Bird Nest?”
“Negative. We just had a computer-triggered alarm from Divine Wind. We’ve lost telemetry data on four units . . . now five . . . eight! Sir, I think our weapons are being compromised!”
“We’re checking Geo-Diss to verify. Stand by.”
Towsley ran out of the laboratory toward the elevator, Darren and the two armed guards close behind. He punched the third floor button. “Take Darren back to his cell,” he told the guards.
“What’s happening, colonel?” Darren asked.
“It appears we’re losing our satellite weapons,” he replied with a whisper. “We’re checking Geo-Diss to see if they’re still up there.”
“Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance . . . telescope cameras that U.S. Strategic Command uses to track satellites and orbital debris.”
The doors closed and the loud klaxons in the hangar were muffled. The elevator began to ascend.
“Geo-Diss confirms we have lost fourteen satellites,” the voice from the Combat Operations Center said over Towsley’s radio. “There goes one more!”
“What’s happening?” Towsley shouted. “Where’s the bandits? Why haven’t we engaged?”
“Medusa Stare and SSN detect no inbounds, no bogeys, sir.”
“Do these Vorvons use stealth, Darren?”
“Their fighter interceptors use an active-stealth bubble field like we do, but they’re under powered and not that effective. Your telescopes should be able to visually track them though with no problem.”
“Big Papa to Tango Leader.” The voice over the radio was low, almost a growl. Darren recognized it immediately.
“Go ahead, Big Papa.”
“Is Mr. Seymour still with you?” General Taggart asked.
“Bring his ass up to the COC now.”
Darren shook his head. The general sounded just like Barstowe summing him to the principal’s office. Towsley gave him a sideways glance, eyebrows scrunched. “Yes, sir, we’re on our way.”
“I think I know what’s happening,” Darren said, a cold hunch beginning to form in his brain. He closed his eyes. “I just hope I’m wrong.”
“What haven’t you told me, kiddo?”
The elevator stopped at the third floor, the Combat Operations Center, and the doors opened. The four men stepped out, and the first thing Darren saw was Taggart facing them ten feet from the elevator, hands behind his back, a General Patton-like scowl on his face. Over his head on the opposite side of the COC, the top main screen displayed a black-and-white still frame of the fuzzy but unmistakable outline of a Dragonstar in flight seen from the ground.
Darren’s fears were confirmed. Scorch.
“Our Geo-Diss observatory in Maui just snapped a picture of our bandit, colonel,” Taggart said. “Look familiar?”
“That’s not one of ours!” Darren said. “I swear to God. The Vorvons captured that fighter when they invaded Xrelmara. It’s a prototype Dragonstar. It’s not——”
“Shut up!” Taggart screamed. “They’re gone! Every last fucking one! All fifty orbital weapons! Gone!”
Darren turned to face Towsley, but the colonel did not return his gaze. In fact, he looked just as pissed as Taggart.
“Sergeant,” Towsley murmured. “Take Darren back to the Containment Area.”
Darren felt a steel grip seize his right arm from behind and pull him toward the elevator. “Colonel, please believe me! That’s not one of ours!”
“That’s not one of. . . !”
The elevator door cut off Darren’s voice. Towsley felt his stomach do a roll as he stared into the beady eyes of General Taggart, the grimace still chiseled into his face. He looked up at the bottom screen and the blue computer outline of Earth and the fifty orbital tracks that were now missing telemetry data from the x-ray laser cannons and electromagnetic railguns. The NESSTC’s twelve AEGIS/SHAAD satellites that guided and communicated with the ScramHawk SAMs were still fully operational, however. So were the five MILSTAR and fourteen DSCS satellites that the U.S. military relied on for its secure communications. For now.
Towsley could hear Rear Admiral Raymond Breuer, the NESSTC’s second-in-command, to his left in the communications pit talking to who he was sure was the president and the Secretary of Defense, the only two people who could authorize the use of nuclear weapons.
Although the ScramHawk was a non-nuclear weapon, its plasma bomb warhead produced frightening nuclear-like effects——a 6000̊ F thermobaric fireball and a “dial-a-yield” shockwave that could register from 1 to 30 kilotons, producing the largest conventional explosion ever produced by man. In comparison, the yield of Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” was 15 kilotons. For that reason, the Joint Chiefs placed authorization for their use within the nuclear integrated plan of the National Command Authority, which were the president and the Secretary of Defense.
The ScramHawk’s warhead detonated when a core of cesium and pressurized xenon tetroxide was sharply heated to a plasma state in a millionth of a second by a high-intensity laser shroud. The warhead was also surrounded by canisters of tungsten-carbide “grape shot,” creating a MACH seven cluster of molten shrapnel in every direction. If the fireball or shockwave failed to destroy the enemy vehicle, the white-hot bullets of tungsten-carbide certainly would.
Breuer turned to face Taggart, a headset pressed against his left ear. “General, we have received National Command Authority authorization. We’re awaiting final go-ahead from the Pentagon to execute OPLAN.”
“Very well, admiral. Colonel, would you please accompany me.”
“Yes, sir.” Towsley stepped forward and stood next to Taggart.
“I’ve already notified Dr. Ngatia,” Taggart whispered. “Our four guests are going into cold storage for a while. They’re being taken to the medical lab as we speak.”
“Chemically-induced comas. I don’t want them conscious during our defensive operations.”
“Can I ask why?”
“I believe there exists the possibility of telepathic communication with the enemy. Combined with their ability of remote viewing areas not within their presence would represent a serious breach of our security. We, of course, don’t have proof that they can communicate telepathically with one another . . . I know you’ve developed a warm and fuzzy spot for them, but I’m taking no chances.”
“I understand,” Towsley said curtly.
General Taggart tipped his head slightly, giving Towsley a long gaze, then, “Good. Welcome back.”
“National Military Command Center has issued OPLAN eight-zero-five-five,” Admiral Breuer said. “We’re clear to broadcast Emergency Action Messages to our ScramHawk delivery systems.”
“Transmit EAMs,” Taggart ordered.
Humanity’s most destructive and intelligent weapon ever created, the Navy’s RIM-202 ScramHawk SAM represented the last line of a global defense, while the North American continent was under the protection of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command and its scattered mobile batteries of MIM-202 ScramHawks. Towsley hoped the $9 million-per missile performed better than the $86 billion constellation of orbital pop guns which had been so leisurely destroyed by a single Dragonstar.
The Proximity Alarms exploded in the COC. “Flash Priority! Flash Priority! We have multiple inbounds across all sectors,” came the voice of Major Hilly, the COC’s chief watch officer on duty.
“What are they, major?” Taggart asked.
“Medusa Stare is compiling laser-range finder data and surveillance images now, general. Ten seconds.”
The blue computer outline of Earth and its continents now included dozens of red circles with empty Flight Characteristics Data fields next to each. One by one, the FCD fields began to populate as Medusa Stare and the supercomputers underneath the COC calculated radial velocities, distances, bearings and courses. Towsley felt his heart miss a beat when Surface Impact early-warning data began flashing under the FCD fields, too . . . the objects were asteroids, thirty-seven of them coming from every damn direction!
Medusa Stare transmitted several black and white images of all inbounds to the top screen of the COC’s front wall. Most of the rocks were the size of a house, some as big as an oil supertanker. And each one had a peculiar characteristic not associated with asteroids——engine flares.
“The enemy has imbedded delta-v rockets into them,” Towsley said. The first shard of fear to pierce him in the heart was that thirty-seven cities across the earth were about to be vaporized. However, the four-person Tracking and Impact team in their console pit began plotting TIP data showing otherwise. The asteroids were in fact on intercept courses for all GEODSS telescopes in New Mexico, Hawaii, Diego Garcia and Spain and all six radar PAVE PAWS bases, including the three VHF radar transmitters of “the Fence” running across the U.S. along the 33rd parallel. All ten of the Russians’s ballistic missile early-warning radar sites were also targeted including their Okno military telescope in Tajikistan along with the Chinese Xian satellite center and the Aerospace Command and Control base outside Beijing. The enemy was about to blind the American, Russian and Chinese militaries from conducting outer space surveillance and neutralize their ability to track objects approaching their territory.
The first asteroid strike would be at the PAVE PAWS site at Beale Air Force Base, California, in eleven minutes, thirty-four seconds. The 3rd Missile-Space Defense Army’s Pechora radar site in Siberia would be hit eight seconds later. The loss of any Russian or Chinese bases, however, were of no concern to the men and women in the COC. An “America First” doctrine had been clearly outlined years ago to employ the ScramHawks only for primary defense of U.S. territories, those of its NATO allies and America’s vital oil interests in the Middle East.
“All delivery platforms are ready to pull the trigger,” Admiral Breuer said. “Aegis and SHAAD guidance systems functional.”
The supercomputers beneath the floor of the COC sent the first FIRE signal to the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group 420 nautical miles southwest of San Diego. Two ScramHawks were to launch three minutes, nine seconds from now and simultaneously intercept the asteroid targeting Beale AFB eighty miles above California with 30-kiloton yields each. The supercomputers had estimated those yields were appropriate enough to vaporize an asteroid that Medusa Stare’s pulse laser-radar measured to be around one hundred and seventy feet in diameter. The big rock would be traveling at twenty-three miles per second when it reached the beginning of its terminal trajectory at the bottom of the thermosphere.
More and more FIRE signals were transmitted along with precise launch times to all eleven U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and sixteen ScramHawk air defense batteries scattered across North America. Just twenty seconds after first contact, thirty-seven surface-to-air missile trajectories had appeared on the main battle screen as curved yellow lines. They would turn red when the missiles launched.
“Looks just like that old arcade game ‘Missile Command,’” Taggart said, staring up at the computer projection map on the main battle screen.
Towsley nodded his head. “I was never good at that one.”
Taggart smiled from ear-to-ear. “I was.”