by E.S. Strout
part 1 of 2
You are the one, Neo. — The Matrix
Friday 11 July 1947. Army Air Corps Research Facility, Groom Lake, Nevada. 1126 hours PDT:
“Infirmary for you, sir,” the C.O.’s aide said.
Lieutenant Colonel Evan Rogers crushed out his half-smoked Lucky Strike in the overflowing ashtray on his desk, grabbed the phone. “Give me some good news, Doc.” He listened for several seconds. “Oh hell.”
He dialed the base operator, requested a long distance line. The connection to the Pentagon’s Army Special Projects Office took five minutes. “Groom Lake Special Ops, General. Professor Schumacher is dead. Heart attack. COLD LIGHT is missing.”
Tuesday 10 May, 2011. U.S. Air Force Monitoring Station, Groom Lake, Nevada. 1823 hours PDT:
A sudden high-pitched beep reverberated in the small electronic surveillance space. Twenty year-old Sergeant Raymond Falconer took a swallow of coffee, dog-eared his page in ESPN Magazine and turned to the array of tracking monitors. He stared at one of the screens, did a double take then punched in a phone extension. “Major Burke, something you need to see, sir.”
“Did you run diagnostics, Sergeant Falconer?” Stealth Project Officer Major Ellis Burke asked as he gaped at the star-punctuated screen.
“Yes, sir. All in the green. Key West Naval Air Station confirms COLD LIGHT is missing. All radar sweeps and satellite visuals negative.”
Ellis paced, scratched his dark crew-cut. “Impossible. It’s been in a stable geosynchronous orbit for almost sixty-five years.”
“What is it, sir?”
“A bogey, Sergeant. Red phone, please.”
“COLD LIGHT you say, Major?” the Pentagon Chief of Air Force Operations asked, his voice brimming with amazement. “You’re sure?”
“Yes, sir. N.A.S. Key West verifies.”
A soft audible gasp. “Oh, holy crap. Confirm its prior location, please.”
“Yes, General.” Major Burke rattled off longitudes, latitudes and altitude. He listened for a few seconds. “Acknowledged, sir. Security code X-ray Bravo Quebec is in effect.”
Tuesday 10 May, 2011. Gravity Laboratory, Space Corps/NASA Complex, Cape Canaveral, Florida. 2123 hours EDT:
Five foot four-inch ash blond Sara J. Iverson tapped a computer key with a silver-ringed index finger. Rotation of the alternating metallic and ceramic discs in the concrete encased gravity cold chamber accelerated in a high-pitched crescendo. “Antigraviton level stabilized, Professor Lynch,” she announced. “Insertion complete.”
A computer beep signaled execution of the command. Then a sudden blinding flash of light produced a momentary white-out.
Dr. Iverson scrubbed her eyes with both fists, blinked away the afterimages, then stared. “What the heck is that?”
Thirty-three year-old Professor Paula Jane Lynch eyed the disturbance lurking over the cold chamber with a speculative eye. She gave a nervous tug at the lace collar of her blouse, gnawed a thumbnail. “Hmm. It wasn’t there before.”
“Sort of jumps out at you.”
“How did it get in?”
“Skylight was open.”
A sparrow flew in through the skylight, circled the lab deciding on a landing place. It took one glance at the visitor and flapped its way out at twice its entry speed.
“Did you feel something, bird?” Paula asked. “I did.”
“Another fine mess I’ve gotten us into,” Sara grumbled. A cube of swirling gray vapor hovered over the cold chamber emitting a soft sinister luminous pulsation which glinted off the tile walls and shelves of glassware in the windowless laboratory. She reached a hand toward the anomaly.
“Oh no,” Dr. Lynch breathed. “Sara, I wouldn’t...”
Sara stared at her frostbitten fingers. “Get some ice, Paula.”
Circulation returned after an ice bath and brisk massage. “You won’t be minus any digits,” Dr. Lynch assured her
“Brr! What can be that cold?”
“Let’s find out.” Paula entered her ‘Q’ password and accessed the NASA mainframe. She typed IDENTIFY GRAVITY LAB ANOMALY.
INSUFFICIENT DATA flashed in stark white print to the dark screen.
“Figures. I’ll try D.O.D.”
A sharp warning tone berated her. USER NOT AUTHORIZED. U.S. AIR FORCE FILE R-GL 1041. WARNING. SEVERE FINES AND POSSIBLE ARREST. She punched SHUT DOWN.
Iverson raised a dubious eyebrow. “The military. That figures.”
“The Air Force, Dr. Iverson, will be actively seeking an unauthorized user. Us.”
“I’d bet my next paycheck on it.”
“So we’re just gonna sit here?”
“Not a chance. What do we know so far?”
“Besides that it’s cold?” Sara asked, rubbing her still tingling fingers. A defensive shrug. “The test went off without a hitch.”
“We could look at video surveillance playback,” Paula suggested.
“Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You’re not a Ph.D with a Nobel Prize.”
Sara pushed up the sleeves of her oversized black NASA sweatshirt, placed hands on hips. “I’m twenty-seven, Paula. I’ll get my Ph.D a year earlier than you did.”
“Hmm,” Paula mused as she paused the playback. “Not there, then there. Finite limits. Dimensions about a cubic meter.”
She tore a sheet of graph paper from a pad, folded it into a crude paper airplane, launched it toward the anomaly. It passed through, landed on the concrete deck in a puff of frosty vapor and disintegrated into fragments.
Paula plucked one with latex glove protected fingers and placed it in a specimen envelope. “Microanalyzer, Sara.”
The result swished into the printer tray. “Paper and printed grid are preserved,” Sara noted. “Ideas, boss?”
“I’m thinking,” Paula said as she tapped a clear polished fingernail on the printout. She gazed at the anomaly, entranced. “Fascinating. Those pulsations. Need some time...”
“I’ll go get us some doughnuts,” Sara said.
Tuesday, May 10. 2230 hours:
Paula blinked gray-green irises, brushed shoulder length curly auburn tresses from her face. She lay semi-reclined in an office chair, Reebok-shod bare feet propped on a Formica lab bench top next to the cold chamber. She patted both cheeks to restore circulation, stared through half-lidded eyes at the uninvited visitor. “Must have dozed off.”
“Naughty girl. You snuck in a nap,” Sara said. “Our new friend tell you anything?’
“Had a dream. Can’t remember...”
“You made fresh?”
“Yesterday’s. I got fresh doughnuts, though.”
A tired smile as Paula slurped the rancid brew and made a gagging sound. “Better than no coffee, I guess.” She snagged a strawberry glazed Krispy Kreme, took a bite.
“Any brainstorms, boss?”
“I’m in cortical synapse gridlock, Sara. Nothing yet.”
Sara chose a chocolate glazed pastry with green sprinkles. “You could be hypoglycemic. Try another of these.”
“I took a sample with a glass pipet. Take a look,” Sara said.
Dr. Lynch viewed the gas chromatograph printout, brows wrinkled in concentration. “Not room air. No oxygen or nitrogen. Those little spikes are rare gases. Xenon, radon. Helium and hydrogen nuclei. Particulate matter. And temp approaching absolute zero. Explains your frostbite, Sara.”
An involuntary shiver. “Don’t remind me.”
“I’ve seen this before.” Paula gulped more coffee, brought up an image on the computer screen. “Take a look.”
“My God,” Sara whispered. “Where’d you get that?”
“JPL website. Outside sample from the Apollo Twelve mission, 17 November, 1969. On their way to the Moon.”
“It’s identical to our friend here.”
“It’s a piece of interplanetary space, or a perfect replica,” Paula said as she stood transfixed, eyes shut tight. “Why me?”
“You okay, boss?”
“Huh? What, Sara?”
“You were away somewhere. I’ll make more coffee.”
Wednesday, May 11. 0400 Hours:
The aberration hovered three feet over the cold chamber with an insolent gray pulsation. Paula’s sigh of frustration was palpable. “Talk to me. I’m listening.”
“How about we zap it with a dose of antigravitons,” Sara said as she poured fresh coffee. “Send it back to wherever it came from.”
“I don’t think it’ll work.”
“Okay if I try?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Sara pressed RUN PROGRAM. A blink of soft light encompassed the stranger, then faded. The entity flickered, unmoved.
“I’m not surprised,” Paula muttered. “It’s waiting.”
“Thinking out loud, Sara. Damn computer’s frozen up now.”
“I pound a fist on my TV set sometimes.”
“You’re suggesting I punch out a piece of highly sensitive and expensive piece of NASA equipment?”
Sara stirred CoffeeMate in her coffee. “Try it.”
“Can’t,” Paula said with a sigh of frustration. “Budget constraints.” She swore for a full ten seconds without a repeat.
Sara winced. “I’m impressed, boss.”
An apologetic flush. “Sorry, Sara. My Dad’s influence. He was... When I was twelve I was a regular visitor to the Principal’s office. Lasted fifteen minutes at cheerleader tryouts in...”
A startled blink. He was? You mean...?”
“Navy SEAL. He was killed in action in Afghanistan. 2002. Raid on a Taliban and Al-Qaeda encampment . I was still in graduate school.”
“Geez, Paula. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
Paula blotted away a tear, squeezed her eyelids tight. “Ancient history, Sara. But I still miss him.”
Dr. Iverson’s coffee cup shattered on the deck as she stared. “Paula?”
The visitor hovered over a lab bench next to the cold chamber.
“Yell at it again.”
Dr. Lynch dumped tepid coffee down the sink, poured hot, blew to cool it, glared. “You are beginning to piss me off. Big time.” she snarled in an ice crusted mutter.
The curiosity made a slow descent to the bench top and was enveloped in a frosty cloud of vapor.
Copyright © 2006 by E. S. Strout