"I promise you that
Richard Phillips is going to be a popular and influential writer,
period. As good as any science fiction being written today."
Orson Scott Card
Although it was impossible to judge direction cleanly from these depths, far below Groom Lake, he knew the tunnel ran southwest. A railcar, pushed by an electric locomotive, had carried him along the set of tracks that marched down the center to its end. Many years ago, a much different type of cargo had ridden the same rails to the huge steel door he now faced. Twin slots in the base of the door fit snuggly over the rail tracks, which disappeared inside.
Donald Stephenson hiked his army-issue field jacket more tightly around his neck and moved to the right toward a smaller door meant for human access. He paused outside to swipe his badge through the card reader. The door slid open with a small whoosh as the air pressure equalized.
A sudden shiver caused him to glance back over his shoulder. The tunnel stretched long and empty behind him until it disappeared around a slight bend to the left. His only company was the faint hum of the incandescent lights bolted high above on the ceiling.
He shrugged to dispel the prickly feeling on his neck, like someone had just stepped on his grave. Christ, he was jumpy tonight.
Happy Thanksgiving, Don thought.
He was alone in the cavernous room, as was often the case this time of night, especially on major holidays. Although he couldn’t understand it himself, he supposed the novelty of working with the thing had worn thin for the band of scientists who had probed, pushed, and tinkered with its exterior for the last thirty years without making any progress in unraveling its inner mysteries.
It occupied a significant portion of the center of the room, enclosed within a latticework of aluminum scaffolding that provided walkways for the scientists and workers as well as mounting brackets for the electronic instruments that clung to the object’s skin like barnacles on an ancient whaler.
Even now, thirty years after that day in late
March, 1948, near Aztec,
Moving across the room toward the scaffolding, Don surveyed the ship. It was amazing in every way. The original research team, at first glance, had assumed some internal malfunction had caused the ship to crash, but that assumption had shortly given way to a more disconcerting conclusion.
First, the ship had attempted to conceal itself after the crash, putting up some sort of electro-optical interference pattern that made it difficult to see. The smooth cigar shape of the craft blurred in and out of sight until you got right up next to it. At least that much of the shipboard system was still working.
Second, and more disturbing, was the damage to the ship. Even though the hull had not been penetrated, some force had bubbled and warped it in multiple spots. Testing had concluded the damage hadn’t been caused by the impact with the Earth.
Based on the evidence, the current theory was that the source of the damage had somehow caused the crash.
Over the years since it had been moved here, despite an endless procession of high-energy experiments, some of which should have heated spots on the ship’s surface to the internal temperature of the sun, the ship’s exterior had never been penetrated. Diamond drills, cutting torches, arc welders, lasers, and finally, high-energy particle beams had not had any effect on the strange material that composed the beast’s hide. The surface remained cool to the touch, no matter how much or what type of energy the research team directed against it.
Though it wasn’t written in any official reports, popular opinion among the scientists was that only technology equal to the craft’s could duplicate the damage, implicating some sort of alien weapon. Don agreed with the speculation and thanked God that whoever had attacked the ship hadn’t found the Earth interesting enough to linger after shooting it down.
The research team hadn’t been able to scrape a chip of metal from the outside, much less get to the interior. So much for the “genius” of the men who ran the program. But now, Don had his chance. Luck always had a way of finding him, and these last two weeks he had been very lucky. He had been allowed to install an experiment of his own design against the outer shell of the alien spacecraft. Luck aside, he preferred to think his success was due to working his ass off these last three years, ever since he had attained his master’s degree and been assigned to this deep black program. Fortunately, the grueling hours of research had not been wasted.
On the far side of the ship, Don had set up a donut-shaped torus, its electromagnets providing energy that accelerated electrons close to the speed of light. Nestled up against what the team thought was the door of the craft, a long metallic cone extended out of the torus, terminating in a set of tubes that would produce Cerenkov radiation.
What, exactly, had triggered the idea, Don could
not recall. Something about the classified eyewitness reports struck him
as wrong, something about a faint blue glow coming from the ship as it
streaked through the
It sounded like a description of Cerenkov radiation. That beautiful blue light was produced when something traveling at close to the speed of light in a vacuum entered a substance with a slower speed of light, like air or water.
It made no sense for the ship to be glowing with Cerenkov radiation. Estimates of the speed described by the witnesses were no greater than Mach 2. If Cerenkov radiation was present, it must have come from some of the starship’s control or power mechanisms. And if those systems gave off that radiation, perhaps they would give off some measurable response to the right combination of Cerenkov waves.
Don had no doubt that it was only because the research team had made no progress in all these years that he had been given permission to conduct his own experiments over this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Those experiments had been running around the clock since last night.
As he seated himself at the keyboard, above which thousands of light-emitting diodes twinkled, his eye caught on a flashing error indicator. He leaned forward.
“What the hell?”
Several of his experimental instruments were giving bad readings or were off-line altogether. There was also an error reading from the instruments that controlled the alignment of the Cerenkov mirrors.
Don cursed softly as he examined the data on the long computer printout that dangled from the printer to form a pile on the floor. Scanning down the pages, he identified the time of the malfunction. 18:53.
“God damn it!”
The entire system had gone off-line shortly after he had left to go make himself some dinner. More than two precious hours lost, not counting how long it might take him to find the cause of the malfunction and fix it.
Having satisfied himself that the malfunction lay not in the computer controls but in the instrumentation itself, Don walked rapidly around the scaffolding toward the spot where the particle injection tube fed electrons to his apparatus, high up on the far side of the ship.
As he rounded the tail of the cigar-shaped craft, Don caught his foot on a cable and would have fallen if he had not managed to grab the scaffolding. Righting himself, he gazed upward to where his instruments hung. The cables and mountings were broken and twisted, the Cerenkov mirrors torn from their brackets and tossed to the cement floor below. But the state of his instruments barely registered in his mind.
He stared at the large ramp that had lowered from the side of the ship all the way to the floor, crushing the scaffolding beneath it. A faint glow issued from the opening.
Don locked his knees to prevent them from buckling as hyperventilation threatened to knock him unconscious. Gasping, clinging to the crumpled scaffolding, Don surveyed the instruments along the near wall, the ones that monitored air quality and radiation levels. All normal. He might die today, but it wouldn’t be from something so mundane.
He knew he should pick up the red phone and call the duty officer back at the main base. That would begin the recall of all the scientists and military people currently working on the project. Anything less risked him being kicked off the project, possibly even having his security clearance revoked.
Sweat dripped down his forehead and stung his eyes as Don looked up the ramp toward the doorway.
Why should he make that call before at least walking up and taking a look inside? After all, wasn’t it his work that had triggered the breakthrough?
If he walked over and placed that call, he had a pretty good idea that he would never get his chance to look inside the ship. No. The same morons who had been scratching their heads for thirty years would come out of the woodwork and lock the whole thing down, tight as a snail’s ass. Only the most senior scientists and intelligence types would be permitted anywhere near the ship.
Don was not about to let that happen, at least not until he had taken a look for himself. His pulse pounding in his temples, he strode up the ramp, paused at the top to take a single deep breath, and then stepped across the threshold, disappearing inside.
A single oscilloscope in the instrument racks along the far side of the room registered a momentary electronic signal flux before settling back to normal measurements.
Five miles away, in a small room just off Hanger One, the duty officer, an Air Force Major named Stuart Greeley, made another entry in his duty log.
21:15, 24 Nov 1977, Groom Lake, Area 51, Nevada. All quiet.