The helicopter swooped low over the crest of the mountain, and Pat Vogt held her breath and her stomach.
"Ease up, James," she said as soon as she could take another breath. "If we catch a downdraft off one of these mountains, we're likely to be wearing those trees."
James, an ex-Gulf War copter pilot, often flew as though he was being pursued by some unidentified enemy aircraft. Pat suspected he occasionally experienced flashbacks of those grueling war years.
"In fact, climb a couple hundred feet, and let’s take another pass from a different perspective."
James nodded affirmatively and gave her a sly wink, which Pat ignored. She drew a lot of winks from her male co-workers and once in a while a pinch on the ass from some brave fool...but only one.
Her five-foot, two-inch frame of muscular curves had stopped plenty of men in their tracks, but they didn’t around Pat long without discovering she was a woman with whom you did not fool around. Oh sure, a little kidding around was okay; it was to be expected, and Pat was far from being a prude. She knew she was attractive, even sexy. Pat had spent many long hours in the gym and karate dojo in the pursuit of a healthy frame, but it wasn't for her shape she worked so hard. It was the desire for excellence in everything she took on in her life, especially her career.
"We're getting low on fuel, sweet thing!" James shouted to her over the whirl of the blades. "We'll have to take it in for refueling."
"One more pass,” Pat replied. "I thought I saw a glint over the ridge. It could be a metallic surface reflecting the sun."
"These babies don't stay afloat long when the blades stop rotating,” James answered.
Pat turned and stared at him for a long few seconds. "One more pass,” she mouthed slowly.
"Whatever you say. You're the boss."
The helicopter eased over the ridge. Pat placed the set of binoculars to her eyes. She studied the rough terrain below, looking for the scar in the thick growth of trees she'd noticed on the previous pass. It looked like someone had selectively cut a thin line through the dense growth. A fast-moving object striking the surface at an acute angle as the report had suggested could have caused such damage. Yet with heavy snowfall, it could go unnoticed.
She lowered the glasses for a moment. There, to the left—a long thin line angled obliquely across the crest. She raised the glasses back to her eyes and traced the scar, shouting to James as she did.
"Turn east about fifteen degrees and come in a little slower! I think I see something." She felt James make the adjustment quickly.
As she studied the defect in the landscape, her gaze stopped at the end furthest from the crest. As they passed over the area, a flash like a flashbulb, momentarily blinded them; or was it the reflection of the noonday sun? But from what?
"See that thin break in the trees we passed over? I want you to put down there."
"No way, babes,” James replied. "Not with this wind and us sucking on fumes. One little hesitation and we'll be eating those trees."
"I thought you were the great Gulf War copter pilot with ice water flowing through his veins."
"I'm not interested in picnicking in these woods for several days while a search party tries to find us. Not even with a gorgeous dame like yourself."
“Okay, fine. Set me down with the crane. Note the spot on the map and return for fuel. Bring the others back in the other copter while this one is being refueled."
"Are you crazy? I can't lower you—" James stopped short as he noticed Pat already strapping the rigging around her slender frame.
"Lower me as close to the ground as you can, and I'll cut myself free. Don't worry, I'll take full responsibility."
"Our orders were to return to base and report anything we found to the rest of the search team. Not to investigate on our own!” James shouted.
"I'm in charge here, James!" Pat shouted back. "Your orders were to follow my directions. We haven't found anything to report. I'm simply going down to take a closer look. If there is anything there, you'll be back with the team. I'll be hanging around waiting. Don't worry, I'll be fine." Pat patted his arm. "Lower me down."
"What in the world could be down there worth risking your neck?"
"Oh, nothing except the most likely candidate for a bona fide UFO in the last several years. I intend to be the first person to set eyes on it." She placed the glasses under her seat and picked up her camera, slinging it around her neck by its strap.
She left the passenger seat and scurried to the rear of the chopper. She clipped the crane rope to her rigging and waited for James to give her the go-ahead.
As James made a final pass over the site (a second pass beyond what the fuel gauge indicated was possible), James signaled for her to ease out of the door. As they approached the narrow gully in the trees, Pat wondered if she'd made a wise judgment call. Who was this James character, anyway? She'd only met him a few hours ago. How good of a pilot was he? Hell, she couldn't even remember his last name; she'd known him for such a short time. How did she know if he had really flown in the Gulf War? For all she knew, he could be as new at flying copters as she was at investigating UFO reports. She wasn't comforted by the thought as she glanced down at the Longleaf Pines reaching their long fingers to tickle the bottoms of her feet.
Pat hung from the undercarriage of the copter as James continued to lower her with the crane while dropping the helicopter closer to the trees. A gust of wind started Pat turning slowly on the end of the thin fiberglass cord.
He better know what he's doing, Pat told herself as she tried to slow the spin, growing more uncomfortable with her situation by the moment.
Just as she was sure James was about to plop her into the thick growth of trees, dashing her body against the pines, the thin break appeared, and she was deftly lowered into it. Heavy tree limbs whizzed by on both sides. She felt like she could reach out with either hand and grasp a handful of needles. Despite a reduction in the wind gusts, she continued to spin out of control. She thought on one pass that she could see the gleaming metallic object at the end of the thin canyon formed by the trees, but she couldn't be sure.
She estimated that she was a good thirty feet in the air when she felt the shudder of the helicopter through the line. Oh, shit, James is running out of fuel, Pat thought as she glared up at the copter's underbelly. Lower me quicker, you fool. She continued to hang as though suspended in the web of a monstrous spider, waiting for the spider to return home for his evening meal.
She had to do something and quick. She couldn't count on James. She realized you couldn't rely on anyone when the chips were down—only yourself. She continued to hang for several seconds trying to decide what to do.
She stared below her at the rough terrain of the mountainside; she estimated there was a good twenty-five feet to the ground. The copter shuddered a second time. Enough was enough. She'd take control of the situation herself. She punched the safety release on her chest and felt the familiar rush of free fall.
She'd spent a summer between her sophomore and junior years of college skydiving her heart out. In a three-month time span, she'd made over fifty jumps, most of them free falls. The training paid off as she fell toward the irregular surface of the mountainside. As the ground came up fast, she held her feet and knees firmly together. She did not stay on her feet but rolled to one side, her hands and arms clasped tightly across her chest.
She rolled down the mountainside, picking up speed as she fell until her left shoulder struck a large rock embedded in the ground. She came to an abrupt and painful stop. She lay there for several seconds, wincing in pain, then staggered to her feet to give James the okay sign, but the helicopter had already sputtered over the crest, dragging the line behind it.
Pat dusted herself off with her right hand and felt a sharp pain shoot through her left shoulder. She gently moved her left arm to be sure it wasn't dislocated and was rewarded with another shock of pain which threatened to black her out. Not dislocated, she thought, but sure as hell not one hundred percent, either.
Pat stared in the direction where the helicopter had disappeared. I sure hope he makes it back to camp, she thought. He's my ticket out of here. Having had the thought, she placed it out of her mind. There was nothing else she could do about it right now, so why worry? It was time to go looking for a UFO.
Before setting off in the direction where she anticipated finding the UFO, she made a thorough inspection of her camera. A bit scuffed and dirty. Still serviceable. She snapped a picture, relieved to hear the familiar click-click of the shutter.
She picked her way across the terrain, occasionally stopping to enjoy the rugged scenic beauty of the mountain. She took a deep breath of fresh air and let it out slowly. What a great job. No sitting behind a desk all day for her. Being a part of the new team assigned to explore the highly secretive "Waynesboro NC UFO Case" was a little hard for her to believe. She had finally found a position that fit all of the passions she'd inherited from her parents. Her interest in investigative work was passed down from her father's thirty-year career as a police detective in Atlanta. She had undoubtedly inherited her love of science and speculation from her mom's career as a science fiction novelist. It was quite an accomplishment to be the newest member of B.I.U.F.O. (the Bureau of Investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects) and to be assigned to a field case, particularly one as juicy as the Waynesboro case.
She'd been with B.I.U.F.O. only three months, and she knew her being on the case had irritated some senior investigators back in Washington. Well, as her dad had said, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."
She'd earned the opportunity, and it wasn't by sleeping with some high-level politician as she knew several of the other investigators suspected. She had worked her butt off for this chance, and if people would stay out of her way, she'd make sure the hard work paid off.
The early spring thaw and rain had been a good omen, although the wet ground made walking a slippery mess. Since the initial reports from the Strategic Air Command over three months ago of a high-speed UFO originating from outside the earth's atmosphere, no one had had any luck locating where it might have gone. North Carolina had suffered one of its worst winters ever, with a heavy burden of snowfall that surpassed all previous records. It had been two days after the radar sighting before anyone could investigate the report. By that time, a good eight inches of snow had fallen in the region. If the UFO had struck the earth, it had been buried under a heavy blanket of white.
B.I.U.F.O. had spent several days of reconnaissance and several thousand dollars of taxpayer money with no results, so they had called off the search until the spring thaw. The thaw had come early, and in the interim Pat had joined the investigative team. She was about to make all that hard work worthwhile.
As Pat neared the end of the thin clearing, it became more apparent how the UFO had avoided detection. Evidently, the object had come in low and hard, burrowing its way into the side of the mountain, leaving behind a thin gully covered by the snow. The sides of the ravine had partially collapsed, leaving only the upper few feet of the dull gray dome exposed.
Pat ignored the patches of the last remnants of snow, strolling straight through the slush to reach the alien object. I may be the first human to ever see an alien spaceship, she thought. She didn't believe it. More likely she had joined the club of a select group of other humans who had witnessed similar objects, although she suspected few people had been as close to one as she was at this moment. Most UFO sightings were of strange objects streaking across the sky. There were much fewer reports of people visiting crafts that had landed.
As she reached the metal dome poking out of the side of the mountain like a giant cold sore, she strolled around it, looking for a way in.
There's no question; it's man-made—oops, alien-made. She stopped. Could it be man-made? What if this wasn't an alien vessel but one from some foreign country or even a top-secret American project? Standing next to the craft, her bold move to explore the ship on her own didn't look like such a wise decision.
I could have asked James to loan me his revolver. The Colt .45 he wore strapped to his waist wasn't Pat's favorite weapon, but it sure would be comforting to have in case the inhabitants of the ship proved less than cordial. She stopped long enough to be sure the knife, a present from her dad, was securely strapped to her left leg. Small comfort if she met a foreigner with an automatic rifle or an alien with a death ray, but better than nothing.
She turned her eyes casually to the trees around her but could see or hear nothing except the usual sounds of the forest, the chirping of the first spring birds mingled with the rustling of the trees. She started walking around the metallic dome again, searching for a way into its interior. She strolled around the complete circumference, finally arriving on the other side of the deep channel. She peered over the edge of the channel. She thought she could make out a slight irregularity at the base where the ship's exterior disappeared into the side of the mountain.
Pat scooted down the steep side of the gully, struggling to maintain her balance on the slippery mud, but within a few yards she found herself sliding on her backside out of control. Within moments, the wet mud had soaked through her jeans. As she reached the bottom of the chasm, she threw her right arm out against the ship and caught herself, sending another lightning bolt of pain coursing down her left side. She found the ship's surface surprisingly warm. Could it be from the sun's radiation or did the heat come from within?
She regained her footing and squinted her eyes, trying to pierce the dark shadows created by the sides of the channel. What was that in the dark hole next to the ship's surface? An irregularity or dried mud packed against the smooth side?
She stumbled over to the short tunnel, finding it difficult to balance on the rocky, muddy surface. It was mud caked on the side—and an irregularity. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could make out a raised circular pattern. She dug into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out the small flashlight, another present from her father. She twisted the head to turn it on and shone the light beam into the dark recess.
"Yes!" The word slipped from her lips with a hiss that sounded eerie as it bounced off the metallic surface. An entrance, it had to be.
Did she dare enter the ship before help arrived? It was an insane thought. Her orders from Oliver had been specific. Do not investigate any findings on your own. Wait for backup from the rest of the team. She should climb out of this dark muddy ditch, back to the sunny surface where she belonged, and wait for James to bring Oliver and the rest of the search team. She had had enough heroics for one day. Already, she would receive top recognition for finding the alien vessel, if that's what it turned out to be. Please, dear God, let it be alien. She would get credit for the discovery, whatever it was. Yes, it would be best to wait.
She shrugged her shoulders in one of her favorite gestures and winced at the pain on the left side. “Daddy said I didn't know what was best for me.” She slid into the dark tunnel.
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