3:55 a.m. Just five more minutes and I can rest my hard head on that soft pillow in my bunk, Lieutenant Bill Nelson thought.
This was supposed to be a cushy assignment, and in many ways it was, but he hadn’t taken into account the incredible amount of boredom of a 12-hour stint looking at a computer screen that never did anything but glowed green. Now he understood why such assignments only lasted six months. Otherwise, you go stark raving mad from the boredom alone.
3:56 a.m. Four more minutes, eight hours of shut eye, and then he’d be done for good. A couple of weeks on leave during which he planned to be mostly drunk somewhere in the Florida Keys and then on to his next assignment. Whatever Uncle Sam had planned, it had to be better than this one.
It started with a bleep bleep as a small green dot appeared at the edge of the screen, and then all hell broke loose as a shrill alarm shattered the early morning silence, threatening to bust Nelson’s eardrums, and a light above the computer screen started flashing red. Moments later, lines of data began scrolling across the bottom of the monitor as the green dot made its way above it.
“Holy shit!” Nelson shouted as he shot up straight in his chair and rubbed his eyes. He reached over to his right and toggled the switch that turned off the alarm and flashing light. This can’t be happening, he thought. Less than five minutes and he’d be done. He could slip off to the cot and pillow that waited for him in his room. Get some good sleep and then get the hell out of here. Maybe I could just ignore that little green dot, he thought. It was probably just a bug in the system anyway, but even as he had the thought his hand reached beyond the switch to the red phone. He knew his orders. Report any unusual occurrences, and this one had to be a doozy to set off the alarms.
As he held the receiver to his ear, he studied the lines of data. Yep, had to be a glitch in the system. No way could something out in space be traveling that fast and heading directly at Earth. A few more seconds passed before he heard a click at the other end and a gravelly voice said, “Oliver Stanwick here. What you got?”
Holy mother-of-pearl, it’s the head of B.I.U.F.O. himself, Nelson thought as he sat up even straighter. “Sorry to disturb you, sir. It’s probably just a glitch in the system, but I have a bogey in my screen.”
“What’s the size of the bogey?” Oliver asked again.
Nelson studied the screen again before replying, “That’s the odd thing. It doesn’t appear to be that large. Not more than forty or fifty meters across. I’m pretty sure that’s not what set off the system.”
There was a pause at the other end of the phone before Oliver asked, “ If it wasn’t the size that set it off, then what did?”
“Well, according to the data the bogie is traveling over 275,000 kilometers per hour.”
“What was that, Lieutenant?” Oliver said.
Nelson repeated the number before adding, “But here’s the thing, Colonel. Not only is it traveling at such an impossible high-speed, but it’s also decelerating as it draws closer to earth. Shouldn’t Earth’s gravitational field increase its speed?”
“One would think,” Oliver replied. “And what’s its trajectory? “
“Oh, it’s going to hit us all right. No doubt about it. It’s a little too early to say for sure but, if we’re lucky, it could hit somewhere in the Atlantic. That is, if the damn thing actually does exist.”
“Okay, Lieutenant. Keep me posted. What time is it?”
“4:01,” Nelson replied.
“You due to get off your shift, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir, but...”
“Yeah, you’ll need to stay at your post. Alert your C.O. to that effect.”
“Yes, sir.” Nelson heard another click as the line went dead.
RETIRED COLONEL OLIVER Stanwick hung up the phone and sat up in bed. He glanced over at his wife, who remained asleep beside him. Thank god, the woman could sleep through practically anything after being married to him for the last twenty years. He’d have to check out Nelson’s record later to see what his security clearance was, but first, he had a couple more urgent calls to make. He climbed out of bed, his feet landing in slippers where he’d methodically placed them the night before. He picked his cellphone up from the nightstand and used its light to guide him to the bathroom. After relieving himself, he washed his hands then splashed some water in his face before making the first call.
He heard the phone ring once then a crisp voice on the other end answer. “Crenshaw here. Who am I speaking with?”
“This is Oliver Stanwick, Crenshaw. My security code is Alpha, Delta, 414. You draw the short straw again?”
“No sir, I like the third shift. Nice and quiet. Well, usually it is.”
“Yeah, well not tonight. I have an object just reported by the Colorado station that needs identifying. I’d like to put Armstrong and his team on it.”
“No can do, sir. Armstrong was admitted this morning for an emergency appendectomy. He’ll be out several days.”
Damn, Oliver thought. If this bogie turned out to be what he suspected it was, he wanted his best man on the job. “Okay, how about Williamson. Put him on it.”
“Sorry, sir, no can do again. “Williamson is on leave until further notice. He finally took all those back days of vacation. Rumor has it he’s somewhere in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.”
“Shit! Then who do we have?”
“Hold just a second,” Crenshaw said, then, “There’s a new graduate. It says here she was top in her class. Her name is Vogt, Patricia Vogt.”
“Really? That’s it?”
“Yes, sir. You know those last government cutbacks hit us pretty hard.”
Oliver sighed. “Yeah, I’ll say. Okay, notify this Vogt woman to meet me at 0:600 at Command Center. She’ll be answering straight to me.” He disconnected the call and leaned against the sink. He didn’t like how things were unfolding. All the years of working and waiting for something no one really believed ever would happen, but preparing anyway just in case. Now, his two best men were unavailable. He sighed again. Oh well, we’ll just have to make it all work. He stared at the phone for a few seconds before placing a second call.
This time the phone rang four or five times before someone picked up on the other end.
“I was wondering how long it would take for you to get around to me,” an older man’s voice said.
“You knew I was going to call?” Oliver asked.
“Let’s just say I had a hunch,” the old man replied.
“Then why did it take you so long to pick up?”
“I dozed off. I’m not as young as you. I need my beauty sleep.”
“Did you pick up anything?” Oliver asked, choosing to ignore that last remark. He’d met the old man once and knew it would take far more than sleep to help his appearance.
“Yes, though it’s been faint so I couldn’t be sure. Started a few days ago—” Oliver’s phone beeped, momentarily cutting him off.
“That’s Colorado calling me. Hold a sec.” He switched over to the other call. “Yeah?”
“This is Nelson again, sir. Sorry to have to disturb you, but I thought you’d want to know. It appears our bogie is real after all.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“It just crashed into Comm Sat 244. Destroyed it and then veered off. It’s now entering our atmosphere.”
“Shit,” Oliver muttered. “Anything else?”
“Just one thing, sir. It’s unlikely the object will make it as far as the Atlantic. Projections suggest it’ll land someone in the western part of North Carolina. Looks like it’s coming in pretty hot.”
“Ok, Lieutenant. Keep me abreast. I want to know as soon as we have some idea where it...” Oliver paused, just catching himself from saying ‘lands.’ “Where it hits,” he corrected himself.
“Yes, sir. Will do so, sir.”
Oliver disconnected the call and returned to the other one waiting.
“We’ve got a problem.” He told the old man the situation.
“You better get someone out there ASAP before some country bumpkin finds it and calls the local news channel. Oliver?”
“Yes?” Oliver was surprised to hear the old man use his first name.
“Son, we knew this might happen someday. That’s why your organization exists. You can handle this.”
“Yes, sir,” Oliver replied, trying to sound more confident than he felt. “I’ll keep you posted.” He disconnected the call.
SLUNEG'S FIRST THOUGHT upon awakening was that something wasn't right.
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