I am now in the process of writing the sequel to my latest book Roswell Rising- a Novel of Disclosure, and I've decided to do the same thing as I did before, put up a sample first chapter online before the book is finished. This will hopefully give readers an idea of what the book is about and encourage them to purchase the complete book when it is published. For those of you who have not read the first novel, I advise you to do so before reading this sample chapter because it is a continuation of the same story and also contains a few spoilers about the first book. Roswell Rising is available at all good bookshops, see here for details: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/roswell-rising-is-here.html. Watch this space for news of the upcoming novel and other news related to Roswell Rising. I hope you enjoy the sample below.
The woods were so different to the desert. After a getting used to blazing sunshine, sand, dry cracked earth and hardy cacti, Siobhan Quilley found her current surroundings alien. Water was everywhere. A treacly fog hung over the forest filling the air with wetness. It soaked the inside of her nose and lungs and dripped from the tree branches. Muddy leaves stuck to her shoes and the damp leaked in through the holes in them. A stream gurgled downhill ahead. Birds chirruped above and around her invisible in the miasma. The brown cracked faces of tree trunks rose up to meet her and faded behind as she walked along the path. She tightened the collar of her jacket against the chill as she stepped over the low wooden bridge crossing the stream. Its splintery handrails were thick with moss and lichen. A small beetle crawled over the top; she moved her left hand just in time to avoid it. She stopped and watched it clambering over to the underside of the handrail. It was shiny and black; it moved with purpose and intent that she could never hope to understand. She carried on walking to the other side and looked upwards. The patient sun was still shining, somewhere above the fog, somewhere above the low clouds. She didn't really want to go outside, but she had to. She was hungry.
The forest path circuited the edge of town and she followed it precisely. She had more sense than to walk along the highway or traverse the streets of Uniontown. She didn't want to repeat Libby's mistakes; and Siobhan had taken a double precaution. Through the trees she caught glimpses of the deserted houses with their overgrown lawns. There were improvised wind generators, rain butts and barbed wire cordons around the homes of the few remaining residents. Siobhan emerged from the woods and darted over the mouth of an alleyway, looking around her carefully. There was a mall at the end of
Fayette Street, but
it was impossible to reach it without using the main road through a residential
area to the north of the town. The paving of the road was cracked and long
grass was growing through. She didn't see a moving car until she had reached
the intersection. A low red sedan turned the corner, crawling slowly to save
gasoline, like all cars did at that time. She ducked behind a hedge and peeked
out at it as it drove past. Luckily it didn't stop. The mall was a sprawling
battered grey concrete structure surrounded by a car park. The only vehicles
there were abandoned ones covered in rust. She trod carefully over the
concrete, avoiding the windblown tree branches and old matchwood boxes. The
signboards above the shop fronts were dulled and broken. Many of the windows
were glassless or lined by jagged shards. She picked a way through the broken
remains of consumerist splendour to a large supermarket at the end of the
strip. The sliding doors had come off their hinges and a metal shelf lay across
the entrance. Siobhan lifted up her skirt and eased herself over it. She took
out her torch and switched it on, scanning the darkness. A rat scurried away
with a squeak. Then she spotted a chaotic jumble of canned food and smiled. She
ran over and crouched down, opening her satchel. She tucked five of the cans
into it, not bothering to look at what they contained. Her stomach rumbled at
the thought of whatever their contents were. The meagre rations served at
Eberly were not enough. She stood up and headed out of the store, anxious not
to hang around in the area. Many people raided the forsaken retail sphere of
Uniontown and they were not all friendly. What they couldn't find on the derelict
shelves they were quite willing to take from others if given a chance.
The wind has risen slightly and because of the noise it made, she never heard the three men approaching. They rounded the corner at the end of the strip beside an old sports shop, just as she was walking diagonally across the car park. They stopped dead in their tracks as they spotted her. She froze in shock. Then one of the men smiled. "Well hello there, young lady." He had ragged clothes, hair and a full brown beard. Some of his teeth were missing. His eyes gleamed dangerously. "Fancy meeting you here. What's your name?" He started walking towards her.
Siobhan edged away.
"Now there's no need to worry your pretty head, baby." he continued. "We ain't gonna hurt you." He was striding faster and his two companions copied him.
Siobhan turned and ran. She heard by their footsteps that the men started running too. She pounded out of the mall and up the road towards the woods. She had sensibly fled before they'd got too close, but her strength was failing. Her heart beat against her ribcage as if it wanted to burst out of her chest, and it thudded painfully in her gullet. She choked and spat as she panted. She was running slower and slower. The men were gaining on her. There was no other choice. She stopped running and turned to face the approaching men. She reached in to her jacket pocket and pulled out her revolver. She levelled it at the trio and flicked off the safety catch with her thumb. "Stay back!... Stay back!" she puffed.
The men stood still about twenty feet away, staring at her. Their chests heaved from the exertion. Then the man with the missing teeth grinned again. "Now then, now then. Sweet young gals like you shouldn't be messin' with no guns. Why don't you put that down? We only want to talk..." He lunged forward. Siobhan pulled the trigger and the gun crashed against the ball of her thumb. The report echoed off the walls of the houses on either side of the road. She saw the man lurch backwards and fall. Before he'd hit the ground she was running again. She reached the end of the road by the alleyway and looked back. Nobody was in sight. She made the weapon safe and slid it back into her pocket. Her ears were still ringing from its noise. Then she stood for a moment bowed with her hands on her knees to recover her breath. She heard a car engine approaching from the junction to her right and reacted immediately, darting into the alley pulling her satchel tight over her shoulder. She peeked out fearfully, but when she saw the approaching vehicle she sighed with relief and ran out to meet it waving. "Hey there! Hey!" she called. The vehicle was an open-topped Land Rover with four men in it. They were all dressed in identical bright blue baseball caps and their vehicle was crudely sprayed the same colour. Stencilled along the side were the words ROGER'S RAIDERS. The vehicle stopped as the driver saw her. "Hello there." he called back. "You from Eberly?"
"Yes." she replied as she reached the Land Rover.
"Then what are you doing here in town? It's not safe."
"I had to get some food." She tapped her satchel.
"Well jump in; we'll run you home."
"Thanks. Are you Roger?"
She sat in the back seat between two of the men. They were big and tough-looking, brandishing assault rifles in their arms, at the ready. They wore bandoliers and webbing with ammunition and other weapons. She felt safe and comforted with them on either side of her. She told them about her encounter with the three men at the mall; leaving out part about shooting one of them. Roger met the eyes of his fellows. "OK, we'll check it out after we've dropped you off." His voice was low and businesslike. Then he turned back to Siobhan. "Do you know Libby?"
"Yes, she's a friend of mine."
"How is she?"
She shrugged. "A bit shaken."
Roger nodded grimly. "We caught the two guys who did it. We spotted them coming out of the woods at New Salem, near where it happened."
"What did you do with them?"
"Killed them of course." His voice was sing-song and casual.
Siobhan felt a pang of shock. "Are you sure you got the right guys?"
"Oh yeah... well, sure as you can be these days... That saying, we tortured them a bit first and they didn't confess. That's unusual." He drew a combat dagger from a chest-mounted sheath. Its shiny steel blade glinted in the afternoon light; its upper edge was serrated, jagged and regular like a shark's teeth. "It's not often a man can keep a secret when he's on the wrong end of one of these." Roger and his colleagues drove confidently along the highway out of Uniontown. It was a ten minute drive to
on the empty road. It was
starting to get dark by then. The vigilantes watched Siobhan dutifully until
she was behind the security gate. Then they waved goodbye to her and drove off. Mount
The Eberly campus was one of the few working colleges of
left. It had been built as an open-plan institution with a large fenceless lawn
facing onto the highway. Today however the lawn was a jungle of long grass and
late flowers; and the entire facility was encircled by a high, badly-laid brick
wall topped with barbed wire. Siobhan walked into the common room. Ethan looked
up from his armchair. "Hi, Vorny." Pennsylvania
"Good evening, Ethan." she snapped. "Don't shorten my name please! I've asked you that before."
"Sorry, Sio-bhan!" he answered sarcastically. Ethan was a tall and well-built man with a handsome face. Siobhan did fantasize about him occasionally, but he was so arrogant and obnoxious that she had disliked him since she had first met him.
Libby was sitting at the other end of the room reading a book. "Hi, Libby."
She looked up and smiled. Her black eye had almost healed now. "Hi, Siobhan." Her head immediately dropped back into her book.
Siobhan paused and looked at her sadly. Until the previous week Libby and she would have had a longer conversation, but the social and ebullient girl she used to be was now withdrawn and taciturn. It was the previous Monday that she had walked calmly into that same room, holding her torn clothes together with her scuffed hands and explained as best she could through her swollen and bleeding mouth that she had been raped. There was not much they could do. The college nurse treated her as best she could. The nearest functioning hospital was in
fifty miles away. Ethan drove her there, but, after waiting all night for
treatment, the doctors couldn't give her any care that the nurse hadn't
already. Of course they had phoned the police immediately. After five minutes
of ringing somebody in the
sheriff's office picked up the phone. The tired-sounding person on the end made
a note of the particulars and said: "OK, we'll be in touch." and
immediately hung up. "I bet he's the only cop left in Fayette County !"
hissed Shirley, another student. Then Siobhan remembered the fly-poster that
had been pasted to a lamp post just outside the college and they called Roger's
Raiders. Roger and his men were the mirror opposite of the police. They turned
up at Eberly within fifteen minutes, got the details of the crime from Libby
and headed straight off to deal with it; guns in the air, tyres screeching on
the road. Fayette County
Siobhan went straight upstairs to her dormitory and plugged her charger into her roam-phone. She wanted to get that done before the electricity went off, as it always did at eight PM. All Eberly's power came from a diesel generator in the back of a van parked outside; but the stocks of fuel were dwindling. She knew she'd be getting a call soon and wanted the phone's battery to be up. She got out her can opener and scoffed the contents of the tins in her satchel. They were baked beans, tuna and sweet corn; all uncooked, but she didn't care. Then Siobhan went over to where she had hung up her jacket on the hook on the door and took out her gun. She stared at it in the dim light from the single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Its nickel plated finish glittered. It was a Smith and Wesson 36 that her father had given her. He'd also taken her to a range and taught her how to use it properly. Most of his lessons were just about safety. She knew never to point the weapon at anything she didn't want to shoot and to "clear" it when she wasn't using it. She did that now, opening the flip-out cylinder and tipping the five rounds onto her bed. The gun took .38 calibre rounds. The bullets were rough lead jacketless ball embedded in a smooth, shiny brass cylindrical casing. One of them was different though. The bullet was gone and the casing was light and empty. Its tapered end was now flared outwards slightly and its interior was caked with black soot. The chamber it had been in was also covered in soot, as was the barrel. She took a handkerchief and a length of wire out of a drawer and cleaned the weapon the way her father had showed her. The soot easily came off on the handkerchief, staining it like oil. "I've just killed somebody." Siobhan said to herself aloud. She stopped and looked up at the window, watching the twilight clouds passing by for a moment. She was surprised at how nonchalant she felt about it. A few years ago her mother had come down with cancer and Siobhan recalled how quickly the shock of the fact had dissolved into a cool acceptance; almost a meaninglessness. Luckily her mother had survived, but for a while she had a terminal prognosis and Siobhan thought her mother was going to die. It was frightening how easily the unthinkable could become normal. Maybe he wasn't dead; maybe he'd survived the shot. She found herself hoping desperately for a moment that this was the case. Then she stopped herself indignantly. Why did she want him to live? He was chasing her, obviously in an attempt to harm her in some way. Maybe in the same way some men had indeed done to Libby the previous week. She killed him in self-defence; she had nothing to feel guilty for. Maybe this trio were in fact Libby's real violators and Roger's men had lynched the wrong suspects. This was shameful on their part; but if Siobhan had in fact killed one of Libby's attackers then this was a good thing. She should feel proud of herself for unknowingly administering folk justice on a cruel and violent abuser. She may well have saved other women from future indignity. But what if she'd made a mistake too? He'd said "We only want to talk." What if that were true? "No!" she told herself aloud. She had seen the aggressive looks on their faces; she had not misjudged them. She had never wanted a gun originally and tried to talk her father out of it; but he had insisted. She shivered as she imagined what might have happened today if she had not been armed. He had been right all along.
Siobhan put aside her ambivalent thoughts as she waited for her roam to ring. She checked the signal and it was only showing one bar, but that was as good as it got in that part of
Pennsylvania. She placed
the gun and its ammunition in the bottom drawer of her bedside cabinet. She
still had enough left for three or four full reloads in a tin box. Hopefully
she wouldn't need them. She locked the drawer and tucked the key into her
purse. The roam-phone bleeped. She pulled out the charger and pressed the
answer button. "Hello?"
"Hi, Dad." She rolled her eyes at his abrupt voice.
"Is everything alright?"
"Yes, Dad. I'm fine."
"No." This was a lie and her voice caught slightly at the end of the word.
Her father detected this. "Really?"
"Really." She paused. "How's Mom?"
"Not bad. She missed me a bit while I was in
Abyssinia. Wished I
hadn't gone. She's still a bit mad at me for it."
"But you came back three weeks ago."
"Do tell!... How's school?"
"OK. I'm still working on that essay about Walter Cronkite. I've even written him a gram; he's not replied, but..." She stopped as the light went off, plunging the room into darkness. The noise of the generator ceased. The sound was so omnipresent that she only noticed it now by its absence.
"What's the matter?" her father barked.
"Nothing, Dad. It's just ; lights out time."
"Alright... Now, don't forget..."
"... to be alert at all times." she interrupted, imitating her father's voice. "Keep my gun oiled and loaded. Don't go outside by myself. Keep my roam on at all times. Lock my dorm door at night. Report any suspicious activity to the dean. I know! I know! I'm not a little kid, Dad; I'm twenty-three years old!"
"I know, honey; but I care about you. And
is a pretty dark place at the moment."
"Yeah; in more ways than one... How's things at home? Is Brendan OK?" Siobhan regularly felt a lot of concern for her younger brother. He was only six yours old and she had always been very protective of him.
"Fine. Enjoying elementary school." He gave a few more details of her brother's life.
"Are you staying in Vegas?"
"I've got a few more days off then I'm going on the new expedition to Area 51. Your mom's not happy about that, but I really need to go. I'm heading up the press corps."
She had a sudden idea. "Why not let me come too, Dad? I'm overdue for a field assignment; and, to be honest, Eberly's pissing me off like crazy. I need a break."
"No! Not a chance. It's way too dangerous."
"Oh come on, Dad! What's there to make it dangerous? You went there last year after Saucer Day and the folk there had skedaddled."
"Yes, but we only explored a small part of the base; then we left because we weren't sure what else was waiting for us and we didn't have the safety equipment and weapons necessary."
"Well now you do, so what's the problem?"
"The problem is it's still unsafe. We don't know what dangers might still lurk in the darkest recesses of the place."
"Dad, how can I call myself a reporter if I am kept away from stories just because of danger?"
"You're not a reporter, Siobhan! You're a student of journalism."
"No, Siobhan! You are my daughter and it's my duty to keep you out of harm's way. You are not coming on the mission to Area 51 and that is final."
The subject changed and Siobhan finished the call with her father a few minutes later. She threw the roam-phone down on her bed and growled with frustration. There was no point brooding, she decided; she had far too much else to do. She lit a candle and got to work on her essay. Some of her notes were on her computer and she wouldn't be able to access it until morning when the electricity went on; so she left blank spaces on the handwritten pages. The machine stood still, silent and useless on her desk. She looked at it and sighed. After Saucer Day everybody asked when they were going to be able to purchase their own Digby Carrousel generator from their local hardware store; indeed Eberly campus needed it more than anybody, but the experts on TV said: "It takes time to adapt the infrastructure". She'd heard the word infrastructure a lot lately, but she still didn't know what it meant. What's more that was over a year ago now. By she felt herself getting drowsy. She undressed for bed and brushed her teeth in the college's permanently cold water. A year ago she would have prayed before bedtime, but she had stopped just before Saucer Day. She still went to mass when she was at home with her family in
but it had begun to feel more and more like putting on an act. She shrugged as
she blew out the candle and settled down on the damp mattress. Her last thought
before she drifted off to sleep was about the beetle she'd seen that morning, crawling
on the handrail of the bridge crossing the creek. She had moved her hand,
careful to avoid harming it; but it was just an insect. Was that normal
Siobhan awoke slowly with the sunrise. Out of her small window she could see that the murk of the previous day had cleared. She got out of bed and stretched. Her belly was aching slightly; a familiar feeling. She glanced at her calendar. "Damn!" she hissed. The time had passed so quickly. A row of terylene napkins was hanging from a piece of string stretched across her room. She had hung them up to dry last month and forgotten to take them down. She pulled one of them off, knowing she would need it again soon. During her early foraging trips to the derelict grocery stores of Uniontown she had managed to loot a few packets of disposable paper ladies' towels, but such things were a luxury nowadays. All the girls in the college just had to rummage for whatever textile they could find and wash them as best they could between uses. There was a coughing sound from generator outside the window and it settled into a steady rumble. The lightbulb in the ceiling flickered and then switched on. She smiled to herself and switched on the computer. She gasped as she opened her E-grams. "My God!" There was a reply from Walter Cronkite. She quickly clinked on it. "Dear Siobhan. It was good to receive your gram. I'm pleased you have chosen to pursue a career in journalism..." He went on for a dozen more sentences. She glowed with pride. She had written to him almost as if to herself, a ritual part of her education procedure, never imagining that one of the greatest reporters in the world would take the time and effort to respond to a mere journalism student at a public college, especially since Saucer Day. After reading the E-gram she called up his meshboard in her browser, wmn.waltercronkite.co.us. The board contained many pages, some of which included embedded vidcasts of his TV news programmes. She watched one of them. Cronkite was a softly spoken man in his early forties with dark hair and a sparse moustache; one of the most famous faces and voices in the world. "...and that's the way it is..." he said at the end of the cast. She raised her eyebrows as she imagined herself sitting beside him in the television studio. "Wow!"
She washed, dressed and went to the refectory for breakfast, which consisted of a single slice of bread and a tangerine. The cook was careful to make sure all the students stamped their ration cards. Her E-gram from Cronkite had thrilled her and she boasted about it to her friends; some of them didn't believe her. One line of the E-gram in particular reignited a hope that her father's words had extinguished the previous evening. After breakfast she knocked on the door of her tutor's office. Mr Slayman was there and told her to enter. She felt trepidation as she spoke because she needed his permission. She tried to keep calm and not blurt out nervously. He also did not believe her when she told him she'd been in E-gram correspondence with Walter Cronkite. In the end she took him to her dorm and showed it to him on the computer monitor. That clinched it. He printed out the necessary paperwork immediately and Siobhan wrote an E-gram reply to Cronkite.
Siobhan's first challenge was how to travel to
. Of course no buses or trains had
arrived or departed at Fayette for months. The only friends she knew with cars,
and with whom she had the kind of relationship in which she could ask them to
give her a lift, were down to their last few gallons of gasoline. They were
only willing to use it for emergencies, like when Ethan took Libby to Washington
hospital. This meant Siobhan had to walk back to Uniontown again and do some
more looting, except this time for very a different kind of swag. She had
already spotted the house she thought gave her the best opportunity; she had
become very observant of her shattered environment during the last few months.
It was a large isolated house surrounded by a copse of trees just outside town
on the western highway to Fairdale. It had a big detached garage and a few
broken windows, indicating that there might be at least one vehicle left and
nobody around to lay claim to it. She used a large rock to hammer away the glass
shards of a window and then found the catch and opened it. It took her twenty
minutes searching the lonely house to find the keys to the garage and the car.
The residents had not rushed out in a panic. They had abandoned their home in a
collected manner, packing as many belongings as they could. The car was covered
in a layer of dust, but was undamaged. The petrol tank was almost full, easily
enough for the journey. It took a long time to start its cold dry engine, but
eventually Siobhan managed to drive the car out of the garage and onto the
highway to .
She had no drivers' licence, but nobody cared about that nowadays. She drove
the car to Eberly and packed her bags. She bade her fellow students a more
heartfelt farewell than she would have in yesteryears. She expected only to be
away for a week or two, but things were so uncertain at that time. Mount Braddock
It was twilight when Siobhan left the campus and set a course westwards through the eastern hills, sticking to small roads and avoiding the highways where it was not safe. A squadron of military helicopters passed overhead. The government was clearly still very much in control of the country... or at least they wanted the people to think that. However their control was strictly confined to the macro level. Small communities under their sociological radar meant nothing to them. Night fell quickly out in the countryside. The sky was clear and it was a crisp autumnal evening; stars spread above her. The car was fitted with satellite-director, but she didn't even bother switching it on because she knew it would not be working. Her own roam-phone lost its signal within a mile of leaving
. She had a road atlas with
her and stopped every few miles to check her location, switching on the reading
light above the windscreen. The landscape became more and more rugged as she
climbed through the Ridge and Valley region. There were a few towns marked on
the map, but she didn't see them; probably because they were blacked out like
most other places. Occasionally a point of yellow light appeared between the
trees and bushes; perhaps a farmhouse with its own diesel generator. She had
begun to feel calm, even to enjoy the quiet isolation when some people suddenly
appeared in her headlights. She slowed the car quickly to avoid getting too
close. She engaged the handbrake and groped at the catch of the glove
compartment where she had put her gun. Then she noticed that the people were
steadily walking across the road and they were mostly elderly. There were a few
younger families and even one or two children. A few of them turned and looked
at her. They smiled and waved. Siobhan moved the car to the side of the road
and decamped, leaving her gun behind. "Hello there." said an old
woman with smooth white hair. "What's your name?" Fayette
"Welcome, Siobhan." she replied. "I'm Ireenee." Some of the others spoke to her. There were about twenty of them. Their manner was friendly but unusual, as if they knew her and were expecting her. They all spoke with a strange accent, one that Siobhan had heard a few times since she'd started at Eberly; one that was associated with people who lived in the eastern mountains. "Would you like to come with us, Siobhan?" asked an old man.
"Where are you going?"
"Skywatch? What does that mean?"
"Come with us and we'll show you."
She felt inexplicably at ease with the people and followed them as they crossed the road and walked in single file along a narrow footpath; a few of them had torches to light their way. The path led through the dense forest with bushes on either side, so close that twigs tugged at her sleeve. It turned sharply uphill. She had to pant a little with the effort the steepening contours caused. After a few more minutes the trees became sparser and eventually the path opened out into a clearing that covered the peak of the hill. The moon was almost full and the sky clear, lighting up the scene perfectly. The surrounding hills were ash-grey shadows looming in rows to the horizon like desert dunes. The sky was a haze of stars, so many Siobhan had not seen in the glare of her car's headlights. With her eyes adjusted to the night, the moon was almost dazzling to look at. The people spread out in a loose cluster, chattering with excitement. "What are we doing up here?" asked Siobhan.
"You'll see." responded Ireenee.
The people quietened down and looked upwards. They were not completely silent; they muttered quietly to each other. Those with torches began pointing them at the sky. Their beams waved two and fro like spotlights, their ends swallowed up in the infinity of the universe above their heads. Standing still made Siobhan feel cold. It was only October and not frosty, but there was a heavy, damp chill in the air. Then one of the men exclaimed and pointed. Everybody else followed his direction, chattering excitedly. "There!"... "Can you see it?"... "Just over there!"... Siobhan looked and noticed that one of the stars was moving. A medium magnitude point of light was crawling in a straight line across the heavens. There was another gasp from the people as the light suddenly stopped moving and brightened. The people began flicking their torches on and off. The light flicked on and off too. The skywatchers and the light in the sky were soon copying each other. They laughed with delight. "Come closer!... Come closer!" they implored. The light became brighter and brighter until it was more than just a single point. It took on a distinct oval shape.
"My God!" muttered Siobhan. "Is that?..."
"Yes!" the old lady chortled. "It's an MFO. They've come to us again." For the next few minutes the people cheered and laughed with delight. "Come closer! Come closer!" the continued to call. The MFO remained hovering where it was, at an elevation of about thirty degrees. Its bright egg-shape had an apparent size of about a quarter of a full moon. It scintillated like a diamond, occasionally different colours flickered across it; freckles of red, orange, blue and green. When she had recovered from the surprise, Siobhan took out her roam and switched on its camera to record the scene. A few other people were doing the same, but they were using special cameras with big wide lenses.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Ireenee shone her torch upwards at her own face; it looked very strange lit from underneath. "They used to laugh at us! They called us crazy... Well, they're not laughing any more!"
"I know." Siobhan nodded. "We all know now. My dad..." She stopped herself, deciding it was best not to reveal her family connection to Saucer Day. "How close will it get?"
"It depends. It once landed and we met the guys inside."
"Really?" Siobhan felt her jaw drop. "What are they like?"
"Like the ones you see on TV, except alive. They look so different alive. Their eyes are glowing, full of vitality... I've been seeing them my whole life. Sometimes they come to me and take me away with them, to their ships... Nobody believed me. When I was a little girl they put me in hospital. They thought I was nuts."
Siobhan looked back at her with sympathy. "I'm sorry."
"It's all alright now though, Siobhan. The truth has finally come out and everybody knows it! Isn't it wonderful?" Ireenee grasped her arm joyfully.
A new sound rose in the distance, a low, deep rumble. At first Siobhan thought it was thunder, but it was continuous and growing. The people on the hilltop became alarmed. They turned their heads away from the MFO. "What's going on?" one asked. She soon recognized the sound as the engines of a military combat jet. It grew louder and louder until everybody was covering their ears. The interceptor was invisible, flying without navigation lights, but they all heard it swoop low over the top of the hill. A star blinked as the night-shrouded aircraft briefly eclipsed it. The reaction from the MFO was immediate. It shot upwards instantly like a leaping flea. Siobhan just had time to see it fade out into the distance overhead. The skywatchers groaned and booed in their disappointment. "Get away!... Goddamnit!... Spoilsport!" they yelled at the aircraft as it circled round.
"Sorry about that." said Ireenee to Siobhan. "We didn't expect that to happen. They scared it off."
"They must have picked it up on radar." said a man a few feet away. "Scrambled the Air Force to tackle it."
"Did they hurt it?" asked Siobhan.
"No. Those MFO's can move faster than anything we've got... Doesn't stop us trying though."
"It would have been cool if the MFO landed." said Siobhan. "I'd like to have seen the guys inside."
Ireenee gripped her arm urgently. Siobhan looked at her and the old lady was staring intently into her eyes. "Siobhan!" she hissed. "You have seen them!"
"They've come for you!"
"What are you talking about, Ireenee?"
"I can see it in your eyes. They've taken you as well."
Siobhan pulled away from her.
Ireenee let her go and stepped back, looking embarrassed. She mumbled a brief apology.
Siobhan sat in the car and watched the video recording she had made on her roam-phone. There was nothing there except the audio. Occasionally the camera had picked up the skywatchers' torches, but it was simply not designed for night shots. Her roam was a cheap model, getting old now. Some better and newer roams could have picked up the MFO, but hers couldn't. She deleted the file and put the device down on the passenger seat. She had returned to the road with the people at about . They had wished her a pleasant journey and gone back to their homes. Siobhan started the engine. She sat for a moment, disconcerting thoughts running through her head; then she put the car into gear, switched on the headlamps and continued her journey.
She joined the highway just outside
. She had once lived in this leafy
little town for a few happy years of her life. She was tempted to dip in and
have a quick look at the house which had been her home; but it was now almost and she needed to get a move on. She was
getting drowsy. She had been tempted to stop the car and cat-nap at the side of
the road. "Got to keep going." she told herself. "I'll get
plenty of sleep on the plane." The Beltway area looked fairly much as she
remembered it. The streetlights were all on and the road paving was in good
condition. There were cars and lorries accompanying her, but only one or two at
this early hour. She headed west at the intersection, planning to follow the
I-four-nine-five to her destination, however something was blocking the road
just before she reached the Rockville,
Maryland Potomac bridge. At first she
thought it was a crashed truck, but as she got closer she saw that it was a
wall. It had been built across the road as if it had been thrown there. She got
out of the car to have a look at it. It was crudely laid bare breeze block
topped with a roll of razor wire. The tarmac of the road dipped down to meet it
at the point it touched the ground, as if it had simply been built over the top
without foundations. She got back into the car and retraced her steps, but the
wall had blocked off many thoroughfares west of the Capitol. She had to travel
all the way back to Frederick to
cross the river and it was five-thirty AM when she finally pulled into the car
park at . She left the keys in the
car and carried her bags through the car park to the departure hall. Washington International
Siobhan rolled her eyes with frustration when she saw the departures board. There were no flights at all until ten AM and none to
until three-thirty PM. There was no alternative but to wait. She went over to
the American Airlines ticket desk where a smartly-dressed Latina
woman smiled as she saw her approach. However before she could speak to her a
policeman standing nearby called her over. "Good morning, ma'am. A moment
of your time. Can you tell me where you're going please?" He was a large
black man and he wore a blue crowd control helmet above normal uniform.
He took out a notebook and pen. "Could I take your name please?"
"And your date of birth."
"Twentieth of May 1935." she spat irritably. "Could I go and buy a plane ticket now, officer?"
"I'm afraid you're not authorized to travel from this airport today, ma'am."
She gaped. "What!?"
"Washington International is currently commandeered for official government use only."
"But this is a civil airport!"
"I'm sorry, Miss Quilley. You'll need to take that matter up with the State Department."
The policeman raised his head indicating that the matter was not negotiable.
Siobhan's annoyed walk back to the car turned into a panicked dash as she remembered she'd left the keys in the ignition, thinking that she wouldn't be needing it again. Somebody else had thought that too. When she arrived back at the car park there was an empty space where she'd parked it. She dropped her bags and groaned. She felt a bit tearful, but kept her composure. She returned to the terminal and spoke to an assistant at the inquiry desk. Within an hour she was sitting on a coach to
, clutching a folder
containing a ticket for a flight to Las Vegas McCarren. Philadelphia International
She relished the warmth of the
sun as she walked out of the arrivals hall at McCarren Field. She'd missed it
during her year in college. She hired a car, but did not drive home. It was
important that her father did not find out that she was here. She considered
asking her mother and brother to keep it a secret, but she didn't like the idea
of family secrets. When she was a young girl her mother had asked her to keep a
terrible secret from her father and she had been unable to. So she booked
herself into a motel and then E-grammed Walter Cronkite from a public mesh
She had dinner with the famous reporter and his wife at the Flamingo Hotel down on the Strip. It was a strange feeling to be sitting at a table in the top class restaurant opposite one of the most famous faces in
For a budding journalist it was a bit like being a school choir member sharing
a meal with Elvis Presley. At the same time it felt very ordinary. She did not
equate the affable and unassuming gentleman she was talking to with the
household name every American TV viewer knew like their own family. His wife Mary
was similar in nature. It was quite a funny when other people in the dining
room stopped and stared as they walked past their table, first at Cronkite and
then at Siobhan, wondering who she was and how she had become best buddies with
such a star. Three times somebody approached the table and asked: "Excuse
me, are you Walter Cronkite?... It's an honour to meet you, sir!" Cronkite
was always very patient and polite with these people, even putting down his
cutlery to sign an autograph. "Quilley... Quilley?" he said to
Siobhan. "You know I didn't associate your name with the man. I hope you
don't think I invited you to assist me just because of your father. I had no
idea at the time."
"I'm glad, Mr Cronkite. I want to be more than just my father's daughter."
"And I'm sure you are." He smiled affectionately. "In fact you remind a bit of myself at your age."
"He doesn't know I'm coming; my dad. He doesn't want me to be involved."
"Is he afraid for you?" asked Mary.
"I know how he feels." She looked at her husband with a grin. He returned it knowingly, as if this were a conversation they had had many times. "I watched Wally go off to war and wondered if I'd ever see him again. When Mars Day went down and everybody was fleeing, first thing he did was jump in his car and drive straight to
New York. I'd have stopped him
if I could have... if it had been right to have."
"Are you saying I shouldn't be too hard on my dad?" Siobhan asked.
Mary nodded. "When you love somebody, it's easier to be in danger yourself because your heart and soul is being carried around in somebody else's body."
The journalist explained why Siobhan had been blocked from driving on the DC Beltway by a wall. "The entire Capitol zone has been fortified for about two months. Since Saucer Day things have been so unstable that the president decided to ensure continuity of government by physically shutting the federal authorities off from the rest of the country."
Luckily Cronkite managed to pay for the meal for all three out of them out of his expenses budget otherwise she'd never have been able to afford it. Siobhan returned to her motel to get a good night's sleep before it all began the next day.
She set her alarm for ; jumped out of bed like a jack-in-the-box and ran to the shower. Within twenty minutes she was on the Interstate north out of
in her unfamiliar hire car. The highway ran straight as a dart out of the city;
its snow-white chalky sidewalks, and irrigated copses and gardens giving way to
a tabletop of sand and brown balls of scrub. In the distance were tall lilac
mountains. The early morning sun shone like a furnace out of a sky that was the
deepest blue and she had to put on a pair of sunglasses to see where she was
going. She left the I-Fifteen and joined Route Ninty-Three that led uphill into
rockier country. There were a few oases by the side of the road, either natural
or artificially irrigated. At the town of Crystal
Spring there was a crossroads and the route Siobhan took was Highway Three-Seven-Five.
An oblong green roadside signboard announced that she was on the right road.
After a few more twists and turns the road became ruler straight and the
landscape totally flat, allowing her to see the road ahead until it vanished
over the hoorizon. There was nothing out here, just the dry land, the mountains
framing the horizon in all directions, and the enormous pure blue sky. She went
for half an hour without seeing another vehicle or building. The road was so
monotonously, unswervingly straight that she joked to herself that if she
wanted to she could lock the steering column and go to sleep for a bit. Yet she
knew that just beyond the mountain range to her left was another world, the
destination of her quest. Occasionally there were junctions with the roads
leading off the Three-Seven-Five, unpaved dusty tracks as straight at the
highway. At one of these intersections she saw the only landmark on the route;
a black mailbox, just standing all by itself beside the road, as if the house
it had once belonged to had been magically dematerialized. After another half
an hour she saw some activity ahead; although because of the landscape she
noticed it long before she was close enough to identify it.
She passed a sign announcing she was entering the town of
"population- 54" it declared with some irony in that it called itself
a "town". Yet the buildings of the settlement were invisible because
of the temporary population that probably exceeded the natives a dozen fold.
The area had been converted into a military camp. Tents and temporary buildings
lined the roadsides, together with laagers of tanks, jeeps and trucks. Men in
uniform strutted around everywhere. A communications antenna towered into the
air and a helicopter lifted off the ground with a roar and blast of wind. There
was a lot for civilian vehicles and she managed to find a space for her hire
car. Then she got out and went looking for familiar faces. She found him in a
small bar and grill called Pat & Joes
that appeared to be the village's communal hub. As she entered the premises she
found it packed with military clientele, most of them standing because there
weren't enough chairs. The staff looked stressed and overworked as a result of
the unusual abundance of customers in what must normally be a quiet and
He was sitting at the bar sideways, addressing a small but rough-looking man with many rank insignia on his utilities. Clane Quilley was a medium-sized man with a small hunch in his back. His skin was still tanned from his trip to
His hair was still bright ginger, even though it had thinned a bit at the crown
over the years and had a few grey streaks. The war had aged him a lot, as well
as her mother's betrayal which Siobhan still wondered deep down if she would
ever truly forgive. One of her earliest memories had been running her hands
through his ruddy locks as he held her in his arms, when she must have been about
two years old. All her family laughed and smiled as she explored his scalp,
fascinated by the scarlet jungle on top of his head. He had protected them both
on Saucer Day, hiding them away in a cabin in the woods to keep them safe from
the short but destructive war that had ended what the media had dubbed the
"ET truth embargo". Even in the bedlam of the twelve months since
then, as the world reeled around like a drug addict in shock withdrawal, people
still remembered him. She and her family had had no idea what was going on.
Clane had demanded that they all remain incommunicado from the outside world,
removing the batteries from their roams and telling them to keep away from any
human contact; therefore they didn't realize that it had even happened until
afterwards. It was a few days after Saucer Day that they had been enjoying a
picnic by a mountain stream when her father had burst out of the forest yelling
at the top of his voice and waving a gun around. When he saw them he wept with
relief and told them everything that had been happening. She hadn't believed
him until they'd got home and he'd shown them on television. Now as Siobhan
stood in the small diner in a remote Nevada
hamlet staring at the side of his head, she felt trepidation. She walked up to
the bar. "Hello, Dad."
He did a double-take and gawped. "What the feck are you doing here!?"
A plume of inward amusement broke through her nervousness. He always sounded more Irish when he was angry. "I'm part of the embedded media corps."
"No you're not! I told you! You are not coming on this mission!"
"Yes I am, Dad. And I don't need your permission to do so." She took her press card out of her pocket and showed it to him.
"CBS!? Where the hell did you get this!?"
arranged it." Penn
"But you're only a student!"
"It was a personal request by Walter Cronkite."
"Who!?... Don't you dare fool with me, Siobhan!"
"I'm not, Dad. Look." She handed him the printout of the most recent E-gram from Cronkite.
Clane read it; then he read it again. A mixture of disbelief and acceptance passed over his face. "Right!" He screwed up the sheet of paper and threw it onto the floor with frustration. "You will stay in the observer pool at all times in the rear echelon. You will obey all instructions from the taskforce press officer. If you deviate from these rules once... just once!... I'll have your ass busted back to Tonopah and your materials impounded before your feet touch the ground! Is that understood?"
"Sure, Dad; no problem." she replied with a half smile.
Clane calmed down and gestured to the military officer sitting beside him who had been watching the exchange with detached humour. "This is General McCracken of the US Army. He's in command of this operation."
At the forces were called to action. Orders were shouted in hoarse voices and heavy boots pounded on the dry soil. The entire taskforce assembled and stood to attention; and General Bradley K McCracken stepped up onto the back of a jeep so he could survey them. Despite his small stature he radiated confidence and authority, even when standing on the ground, let alone up there. He smoothed his beret down against his short grey hair and delivered a five minute speech about the mission ahead. "...Nobody knows what challenges we might face, what enemy we might have to engage. Expect the unexpected, men! But there is no challenge too great for the US Army! No enemy we cannot defeat! The unexpected is just another expected victory!... Keep your kit in order and remember your training!..."
Just after the troops had been dismissed a bus arrived carrying a group of about twenty men dressed in identical white tailed shirts and trousers. They wore sandals and sported long beards. Some had small round hats. They carried with them rolled up rugs about four feet by three and they laid them in rows on the ground. Then they faced the eastern mountains, knelt down on the rugs and began praying in Arabic, bending over and straightening up in unison. A few people came over to watch, including Siobhan and her father. The ritual lasted about fifteen minutes. Afterwards one of the men explained. "I am Abdul Mohammed Badran of the World Muslim Council and we have come here to pray to Allah, the most beneficent, the most merciful, to aid and protect you all on your endeavour. You are in grave danger because you are about to enter the realm of the 'gin'."
"Gin?" said Clane nonplussed. "There's nothing dangerous about gin, so long as you drink it in moderation?"
"No, no, no!" Badran shook his head vigourously making his beard waggle. "D-J-I-N-N... The Djinn were created from smokeless fire when God created the earth and man; unlike man and other living things which God made from clay. They have free will like man and God breathed life into them as he did all living things on earth. The Djinn are invisible most of the time, but sometimes they can make themselves seen. The MFO's are none other than the invasion of the earth by the Djinn! Be careful, all of you! May the hand of Allah guide and protect you."
"Thank you." mumbled Clane, looking worried.
At the taskforce left Rachel and headed south in single file. Gen. McCracken insisted on riding in the leading tank. He sat on the top of the turret with his brow furrowed; a cigar clenched between his gritted teeth. Behind the tank column came jeeps and lorries. At the very back was the coach containing the press; all of them civilians apart from the driver, crowded together in the hot interior. Siobhan sat beside Walter Cronkite. He had given her a camera and matchbook computer to use in her job of assisting him. They drove south at a steady slow speed, retracing the route Siobhan had driven that morning. They passed the black mailbox at , over a hundred vehicles packed in tight formation. Eventually they came to one of the junctions with the unpaved roads and turned sharply right. Because the press bus was at the rear Siobhan saw the convoy moving down the new road from a side angle a mile or so before they reached it themselves. Eventually they turned the corner and could see ahead. This road ran as straight as an arrow towards the range of peaks to the west. The wheels and caterpillar tracks of the convoy churned up a cloud of dust that spread away northwards on the light breeze. From the end of the road it looked like smoke, as if the track was a line of smouldering fire. The taskforce became more active. Armoured personnel carriers peeled off the carriageway and scurried like beetles over the landscape. Occasionally they stopped and disgorged infantry; men just visible running two and fro. Helicopters flew back and forth overhead; and, higher up, could be heard the roar of an Air Force jet. This intimidating motorcade crossed the flat landscape. Creosote bushes and Joshua trees lined the road and stretched away into the distance. Siobhan tried to take in as much as she could of the scenery, but most of the time she was focusing on her work. She had the matchbook computer open on her lap and she typed on the keyboard as Cronkite spoke, copying his dictation. "...I asked the lawyer." he said. "'Are you surprised that there are aliens in Area 51?' He replied with only half a raised eyebrow: 'You know I'm not one bit. You must understand that Area 51 is a place where there is no congressional oversight, no executive oversight. Hell, the president of the
States himself would have to ask permission
to enter it, if he even knew it exits. It is quite literally a legal black
hole. In fact one has to wonder if it should even be considered a part of the United
States at all, or whether it is instead an
enclave of some kind of super-government.'..." Siobhan took photographs
with the camera every so often. She then uploaded the text and the images to
the social media feed on Cronkite's meshboard. He had somehow managed to
allocate a link to one of the few working satellites in orbit; he held the dish
antenna in his hands so that Siobhan had hers free. After about half an hour
the road rose sharply and became more twisted. Then suddenly the bus jerked to
a halt. "What's wrong?" asked one of the reporters.
"Look!" the driver pointed. At both verges of the road stood a pair or signboards saying: WARNING- RESTRICTED AREA. NO TRESPASSING BEYOND THIS POINT. USE OF DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED. PHOTOGRAPHY OF THIS AREA IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
"Well it hardly matters now, does it?" said the reporter. "Keep driving!"
"I think we should ask the press officer first..." There followed an argument between the driver and some of the journalists. While this was going on Cronkite and Siobhan stepped outside to take photographs. The signboards were innocuous and unobtrusive. There was no fence or trench to physically prevent people passing through. A hundred yards to their left on the hillside stood a metallic aerial with what looked like camera on it. A white pickup truck was standing a hundred yards further down the road. Nobody was sitting in it and, even from that distance, they could see that it was sprinkled with desert grit, as if it had been left there long ago. By the oblique angle that it had been parked they could tell that it had been abandoned in haste. "Florenti." said Cronkite. "The contractor that organized security here. The people your dad worked for. That's how they watched for visitors."
"I wonder if anybody still does." added Siobhan.
Eventually the disagreement on the bus was resolved and the passengers reboarded. The bus drove over the invisible cliff between the known and unknown worlds, and accelerated to catch up with the rest of the convoy. The road bent round to the left and climbed a hill; then it came to a small building with more of the pickup trucks parked outside. The bus stopped briefly, allowing the reporters to examine the building. The doors were locked and the windows caked with dust. Siobhan took some photographs. "This is the eastern guard shack." recited Cronkite when they were on the move again. "The Florenti security personnel were based here and carry out patrols in their vehicles along the boundary of Area 51." Siobhan dutifully copied his words on the matchbook. "If we had made this journey thirteen months ago we'd never have gotten this far. The guards would have arrested us within a minute of us crossing the border. They'd probably have just handed us over to the
sheriff and we'd have been
fined a few hundred bucks, but legally they could shoot you the moment you're
inside the compound." Lincoln
Then she noticed something. "What's that?" Cronkite followed her gaze. A few hundred yards away was a squat mushroom-shaped structure standing in the middle of the desert on its own like an isolated tree. It was clearly artificial and metallic. It was yellowy grey in colour which helped it to blend in with the background shades. She couldn't be sure at their distance, but she estimated it to be about ten feet high and eight across. The air surrounding it was wrinkled by heat haze. "There's something hot inside it." said Siobhan as she observed this.
"Or under it." added Cronkite. "It looks to me like an air vent or heat extraction duct. This means the underground base is up and running still."
The road ahead was of far better quality; it was paved with new black asphalt. It ran along a ridge for a few miles and then between two bluffs. Then it descended towards a vast flat basin. At the centre was a light-coloured circle of land where a lake had once been centuries ago when the local climate was wetter. Beyond it was Area 51.
The press and logistics vehicles were ordered to stop and wait at the edge of the flat land around the lake bed while the vanguard force moved in and secured the closest part of the secret base. The driver spoke on the radio a few times; then, after about an hour, they started moving again. They trundled over the flat valley floor towards and the buildings of the base slowly came into view. The first structures visible were large dish antennas and a red and black checked water tower. To their left was a long smooth expanse of square grey ground standing out from the lake bed. "There's the runway." said Cronkite, pointing. "Six miles of it! The longest in the world." As the convoy got closer Siobhan could see that there were aircraft lined up beside rows of large oblong buildings. She took some photos and typed as Cronkite spoke. "I see some fighters, some F2's I think. Next to them are helicopters, perhaps there to assist security." They drove past these and headed south further into the facility. There were rows of what looked like offices; then they came to far larger buildings. Corrugated steel hangars that towered over a hundred feet high and hundreds of feet long, like airship barns, and blocks with windows in four to five storeys high. Most of the taskforce had established positions here, although smaller forces were dealing with the other areas of the site. An entire regiment kept moving down the long road to S4, another site about ten miles south; the place where the Saucer Day revelations began. However this time Clane Quilley and his team would be dealing with the main base. The bus stopped and Siobhan stepped out with the rest of the journalists. They were subdued as they stared at these dark silent constructions. They still looked new and undamaged. Thin cloud had covered the sun and a wind was blowing, causing a mild chill in the air. "Do you think there's anybody still here?" Siobhan asked.
Cronkite shook his head weakly after a hesitation. "No... Or at least if they're here they're not a threat, or else the Army boys wouldn't have allowed us to come closer." The soldiers assembled by the nearest large hangar were calling and gesturing for the reporters to come their way. Clane was with them; he had ridden in the forward column, seeing as he was the world's leading authority of MFO's. "Get a load of this, Siobhan!" he yelled and pointed to the hangar doors.
The gaggle of reporters crossed a concrete taxiway towards the open maw of one of the aircraft barns. The interior was filled by a huge black wedge-shaped object propped up by a set of standard aviation wheels. They spread out around it, staring up at it and touching it. It was about the size of a small airliner. "Is this a Martian reproduction vehicle?" asked Siobhan.
"No." answered her father. "It's a jet aeroplane of some kind. See the intakes at the sides; the tailpipes at the back? Also there are tailfins and a rudder."
"No wings though." said Cronkite.
"I think the whole fuselage is a wing."
"Strange surface." said another newsman running his hands over the aircraft's skin. "It reminds me of a story I once did on a defence project to develop material that wouldn't reflect radio waves. They didn't say what it was for."
"Maybe this was it." said Cronkite. "That could account for its unusual shape. Could it be made to be invisible to radar? An aircraft designed primarily for stealth?"
Another reporter whistled and shook his head grimly. "A warplane you can't detect with radar? Now that would be a formidable weapon indeed."
There was a stepladder at the side of the nose. Siobhan climbed up it. It was about fifteen feet high and she felt slightly vertiginous, but the ladder was stable. At the top was a cockpit very like that of a jet fighter; the pilot entered from above and it was covered by a canopy. It had a yoke, a throttle and what looked like an ejector seat. Its instrument panel was a black screen. She had visited the Martian reproduction vehicle in
that her father had flown all the way from Area 51 on Saucer Day. It had been
placed in the Smithsonian as a special exhibition. She remembered the
sophisticated electronic display it had, that it looked like a sheet of black
glass until it was switched on; and this reminded her of that. The voice of one
of another reporter registered as she overheard it: "...I was in the Air
Force for twelve years and I never saw anything close to this! It has limited
weaponry that looks purely defensive. I'd say this is built primarily for
reconnaissance not combat."
"A spy-plane?" asked somebody else. "How fast is it? How high can it fly?"
"We don't know anything about its performance." said Clane. "We just found it like this."
At the rear of the hangar were some doors that led down corridors. The electricity was off, but the troops had set up portable lanterns inside the building, connected by lines of wire. The passageway led to several nondescript offices and workshops; and it ended in a flight of stairs leading down to a large hall in the upper basement level. It was closed off at one end by a set of giant double doors similar to those Siobhan had once seen in a documentary film about a nuclear bunker. These doors seemed to be the focus of attention for the taskforce's engineers. A group of them were clustered in front of the wall of steel conferring with each other. "What's behind these doors?" Siobhan asked her father after she had pulled him to one side.
"That's a damn good question, Siobhan; and it's what we're trying to find out." he answered. "They must have shut them when we invaded the place last year. When I worked here I was never shown this part of the base so I have no idea what's in there."
"Can we open them?"
Clane shrugged. "The guys from the Corps of Engineers are working on it, but the question is... do we want to?"
"What do you mean, Dad?"
"We don't know what's behind them. It could be something dangerous?"
He shrugged evasively and went back to the group.
The press corps were given a meal in a large tent that had been pitched just outside the spy-plane hangar. They sat at tables along with the soldiers, eating ready-to-eat meals in oblong cans, heated over a gas stove. The food was clearly intended for energy and nutrition rather than flavour. It consisted of mincemeat mixed with chopped potatoes and vegetables, washed down with sweet soda and warm water. A row of upright chemical toilet cubicles was set up as well as a washing facility. The sun was setting over the western mountains, as if taking the outside world down with it and leaving them alone at night in universe consisting only of Area 51. They all slept on collapsible cots in other tents. As one of the few women in the taskforce, Siobhan had her own small tent and a separate ablutions hut in the officers' area. This was close to the open hangar doors. After she went to bed she had trouble sleeping because of the noise. The engineers worked through the night and the sound of hammering, drilling and the rumbling of machinery drifted out as if the armoured doors were a coalface. When she woke up the noise had stopped. After washing and eating breakfast in the mess tent she joined the other journalists and they headed back inside the hangar. The interior of the base had been transformed during the night. The corridor leading to the armoured doors was filled from floor to ceiling with a white fabric lining with a sheet across it. There was a flap open and inside were the taskforce crew. Some were dressed in strange suits made of yellow plastic. These had a large visor and a backpack with an air tank like a deep sea diver's. Clane was rushing around looking busy, barking orders at the men as if he were one of their officers. He saw the reporters approaching and came over. "OK." he said. "We've found a way to open the doors. In a couple of hours we're going to send in a group of scouts and unfortunately there'll only be room for five of you on the mission, so I'm going to throw it open to volunteers."
A dozen of the twenty or so journalists raised their hands. Siobhan's hand rocketed up towards the ceiling.
"I think you should be one of them, Mr Cronkite."
"Dad!" hissed Siobhan.
Clane turned his back and pretended not to see his daughter. "Mr Greencombe... Mrs Spicer... Mr Smith... and you, sorry I've forgotten your name. Something Polish if I recall... OK, you'll need to put on NBC suits so go and see Sergeant McCrae for orientation in thirty minutes sharp."
Her father swung round. "No, Siobhan! And this time no means no!"
"I am an accredited member of the press and a personal assistant to Walter Cronkite!" she protested.
"I don't care if you're Joseph Pulitzer! We have no idea what lies behind those doors. There could be radiation; there could be diseases the world has never seen. I will not subject my own daughter to hazards like that. Now go back to the camp and stay there!" He walked off before she had the chance to respond.
She ground her teeth and growled with frustration. Then she noticed that the visors on the protective suits were slightly tinted, and an idea came to her.
Siobhan returned glumly to the mess tent where the press corps were drinking coffee. She poured herself a cup and took a seat next to Annie Spicer, one of the five chosen for the adventure. During the previous evening Siobhan had become especially close to the Chicago Sun-Times columnist because their tents were pitched next to each other in the women's area. "Hey, Annie."
"You look cheerful." said Siobhan in a tone that meant her new friend looked the exact opposite.
Annie shrugged. "I'm fine, feeling OK, but..."
"I'm just a little nervous about what we're going to face when we go into that underground bit. All part of the excitement I guess. I felt the same way in
Siobhan nodded. "Yeah, guess so. Mind you, in
it was different. You knew more of less what would happen, even if it was the
worst thing of all. It was just a war. The troops could protect you because the
dangers were all understood. Here it's totally different. It's the complete
unknown you're facing. You could meet anything down there! Anything! And there
will only be a small team watching your back. It's hit or miss whether you guys
will ever come out alive... God, you're so brave, Annie!"
Annie's face blanched and her hand visibly trembled as she held her cup.
"Are you alright, Annie?" asked Siobhan in a concerned tone, encouraged that she had pressed the right buttons.
Annie nodded vigorously. "Yes... Yes. I'm fine. It's just... maybe I shouldn't have volunteered."
She hesitated. "It's just... I've got kids, Siobhan. Two boys. They need me. I hate the thought that their mom wouldn't always with them."
"I've got no children so I don't know how that feels."
She laughed. "Well you're still young; just wait... At the same time, I don't want anybody thinking I'm a coward."
"You're not a coward, Annie." she soothed putting a hand on Annie's shoulder. "You faced communist guns and bombs in
"And there are still seldom few women in this business, Siobhan; especially when it comes to perilous assignments. Some of the men think we're just not up to the challenge. That's why I put my hand up."
"An ideal situation would be if there was another woman in that scout party. Then we could prove the point that women can be great reporters too, without you taking the risk personally."
"I'm not afraid of risk, Siobhan." Annie retorted resolutely.
"Of course, Annie. I know that. It's just like you said though, you're a loving mother. You have two growing sons who need their mom and would hate to lose her. What you're feeling is not fear; it's just your maternal sense of responsibility."
There was a long pause. "You know, Siobhan... I shouldn't have stuck my hand up. It was instinctive; impulsive. I should not have volunteered... But I can't back out now. It would be undignified; it would be a professional failure."
"Not necessarily, Annie. I've thought of a plan..."
Siobhan lagged behind the other four reporters as they approached the lined corridor again. Walter Cronkite was the only one who had so far acknowledged her presence. He gave her the briefest of sly grins, as if he knew what her plan was and supported her. She lowered her head and turned her face away as they walked past the area where Clane was working. She had changed her clothes as well to make herself less conspicuous. He never even noticed the five journalists as they walked into the dressing room. They were ordered to leave all their belongings in a box. She did so with everything she had, but stopped when her fingers brushed against her gun. The Smith and Wesson revolver was still at the bottom of her handbag. She always kept it with her out of the habit that her father had instilled in her before she went to
She smiled with amusement as she slipped it into her skirt pocket. She had
disobeyed one of his orders today; why disobey another? The five selected
members of the press corps were then shown how to dress in
nuclear-biological-chemical protection suits. These were thick, stuffy
one-piece coveralls that stank like old raincoats. The headgear consisted of a
helmet with the darkened visor and a radio headset so she could talk to the
others through the sealed suit. Once inside she felt safer; her anonymity was
assured. When asked her name by the training sergeant she had answered
"Annie Spicer" and he had ticked the name on a list without a flicker
of suspicion. Now nobody would recognize her face through the visor, so long as
they didn't get too close to her. Indeed her father walked in afterwards and
donned his own NBC suit and didn't give her a second look. She edged away from
him, but then realized if she made it too obvious she was avoiding him it might
make him wary. The suit was very hot and smothering, but then they attached
their backpacks and the trainer connected hoses from them to the suits. A pump
started humming and the suit filled with cool fresh air. She breathed deeply
and her sweat started to dry. They tested their radio headsets. "Right."
said Clane's tinny voice in her earpieces. "Follow me." Pennsylvania
Siobhan found it difficult to walk in the suit. The garment was slightly inflated, like a human-shaped balloon. This was so that if there were any leaks they would be from the inside out, the trainer explained. The internal atmosphere was scrubbed and filtered and dehydrated by the system in the backpack and oxygen was added. Her skirt was rucked up around her waist uncomfortably by the garment's trouser crotch. She had surreptitiously moved her gun to an equipment pouch on the outside of the suit, realizing that it would rub her skin painfully once she moved if left inside. Besides, it might come in handy. She put her camera in the same pouch so she could keep taking photographs for Cronkite's report.
"Right, we've got about six hours on the batteries and O-two tanks." said Clane. "Are you all OK?"
The reporters responded affirmative. "Yes." Siobhan replied into her microphone, trying to imitate Annie's voice. She breathed a sigh of relief when her father didn't recognize it.
A second group of a dozen men wearing the suits were assembled ahead; they were armed with assault rifles. There were more introductions then they entered a heavy door attached to a jamb tucked into the fabric liner. Once they were all inside it was ceremoniously shut. "Both ends are hermetically sealed." explained Colonel Davenport, the officer commanding the armed men. He was as anonymous as everybody else behind his reflective visor. There was some discussion on the common radio band not directed at any of the reporters and then a second door opposite opened. They trooped out and Siobhan found herself in the hall they had visited yesterday. This time a massive amount had changed. Some huge machines that resembled lift motors had been installed and round gaping holes had been bored in the wall. More people dressed in orange NBS suits clustered round their handiwork, looking like ladybirds. "We've managed to bypass the servomotors that operate the doors." somebody said on the band. "We cut through the shafts and connected them to these external drives." One of the engineers pointed at their machinery. "It was far more difficult to pull the bolts. Not only did we have to drill laterally into the doors, but there's an electronic lock that we couldn't decrypt. In the end we had to hollow them out, cut them in two and withdraw them manually."
"Can you open the door now?" asked Col. Davenport.
"Very well. Verify the seals on the containment barrier and then do it."
The machinery started humming. There was a pause. Siobhan instinctively took a step back and laid her hand against the wall. The huge steel door jerked apart leaving black crack between them. There was a penetrating high-pitched hissing roar and she felt her suit deflate slightly.
"The pressure's equalizing!" somebody yelled. "Boost the extractor pumps!... Put the filters on a hundred percent."
"Is there any seepage with the outside environment?" another voice asked.
Other voices came through with expressions of relief.
"It's alright, guys." said Clane, turning to address the reporters. "The area inside those doors has a higher air pressure than the outside so a lot of air has rushed out when we broke the seal, like when you open a soda bottle. We've managed to keep the extra air within the containment system we've set up here."
The noise from the crack faded to nothing. Siobhan's suit blew up again and the motors started again. The crack widened slowly into an oblong of blackness. The motors stopped with it about three feet apart. The people watching became subdued. The unknown space beyond the door appeared to suck at them, like a black hole. The soldiers strode confidently forward and stepped through. "Right." said Clane. "Let's go." He beckoned to the journalists; his voice was breathless and trembling slightly. More people were coming through the airlock to follow them.
"You've been here before, Mr Quilley, haven't you?" asked Cronkite. "I read the stories that came out last year.
"Not here, Mr Cronkite. I only ever worked at S4, and only the top two levels."
Siobhan squeezed her pressure suit through the gap. It was pitch dark beyond it, but the walls and floor were exactly the same as the hall outside. The armed men were a dozen feet ahead; they switched on torches. She then noticed a circular lever on the wall. She went over and turned it. Her pressurized gloves were surprisingly dexterous and she managed it easily. The passageway erupted into light.
Everybody jolted in shock and there were a few expletives from the reporters. The soldiers remained silent; either that or they were talking on a separate radio band. When they realized that what Siobhan had pulled was just a light switch. They sighed with relief.
Clane turned on her. "What the hell do you think you're doing!?"
"Sorry." she replied in her Annie voice. She rotated her face away so her father couldn't see though her visor.
"Come on, man; she's just found the light." said another reporter.
Clane softened. "Very well. OK, good work, Mrs Spicer; but please be careful what you handle around here. OK?"
"Sure." she answered, pleased that her act was holding up.
"Isn't this place supposed to be abandoned?" asked another reporter. "Then why is the electricity still on? It's not above ground."
"They may have forgotten to turn off the generator when they left." answered Clane. "It's probably similar to the saucers in that it never needs refuelling."
The corridor was wide and lined with grey concrete. It was slightly dusty, perhaps from its year of non-use. It sloped downwards with the same incline as it had above the blast doors for about a hundred yards then it dog-legged to the left before carrying on the same way. "This corner is twice the width of the passage." said Clane. "It's so people outside can't see in. That door marks the edge of a secure area."
"You think there'd be a guard shack." said Col. Davenport.
"They don't need one." Clane pointed to a black plastic hemisphere on the ceiling.
"Are you sure. Never seen a security camera like that before."
"I have. They used them at S4."
When they were all round the bend they could see that the corridor opened out into a room across which was a set of security turnstiles with multiple warning notices about how what lay beyond was restricted access to authorized personnel only. These were similar to ones found on the New York Subway and other urban railway stations. The engineers cut through them easily with power saws. On the other side of those was a lift bay with a set of four very normal looking lift doors facing them. One of the soldiers pressed a call button. The door made the sound of a bell ringing and the doors slid apart. "Electricity must be on all over the compound." he said and stepped into the lift car.
"Sir?" The man jumped back out.
"I think we should take the stairs... Just in case."
There was a door next to the lift shafts that opened onto an emergency stairwell of blank walls and conventional steel steps. They were at the top and the only way was down. The soldiers led the way again. It was a good twenty storeys before they came to another door. It would be quite a climb going back and Siobhan hoped they'd be allowed to use the lifts for the return. The bottom door was sealed by another encrypted digital lock. One of the troopers was a sapper and carried a specialized-looking matchbook. He attached an interface cable to the lock which was of a type she'd never seen before. He crouched down and tapped away on the keyboard. "Security is very tight down here." said Cronkite cheerily. A few people turned and looked at him, but nobody responded to his understatement. Siobhan went over and ran her hand along the door's surface. It was solid steel and windowless; not as heavy as the blast doors at the surface, but still very thick, perhaps on the scale of a bank vault.
"OK, I'm almost there." said the sapper. "This lock is part of a network. I've now just accessed the central control station. After this I'll be able to open any door on that network."
The door's bolts clacked and it slid to one side with an electric hum. Three soldiers ran forward. "Steady!" barked
"Let's do this one step at a time. Kovalik, Bergson and Florence!
Take point." He turned to the sapper. "Jenkins, you stay here in case
we need more hacking done."
The soldiers stepped through the door in single file. The reporters were ordered to stay a safe distance so Siobhan lost sight of them. However she could hear their voices in her earphones. Suddenly there was a roar loud enough to be deafening from inside her suit. The voices of the men yelled and shouted with alarm. A cloud of white smoke or vapour blew out of the door just before it slid shut.
hammered on the door with his fist and yelled at the sapper: "Open it!
"Sir!" Jenkins' fingers danced feverishly on the matchbook.
"Back!" yelled Clane at his charges. "Back, all of you!" The reporters clustered against the far wall in a frightened line. The door slid open. "Medic!" a voice bellowed hoarsely. More people rushed forward and entered the corridor and there was a confused minute of action Siobhan couldn't follow. Then some of the men emerged carrying two of their comrades in their arms. They were placed onto stretchers by the medics and carried up their stairs. As they charged past Siobhan could see that the prone men had had their suits deflated and blood was leaking from holes in the fabric.
The corridor beyond the door had been fitted with a booby trap to fend off interlopers. It released a cloud of opaque gas as a smokescreen and then detonated explosive charges that hurled copper darts at anybody not cleared by the security system. The two soldiers affected had survived, but needed emergency field surgery to remove the darts. Their medical care was hampered by the obstacle that they could not be moved out of the airlock without a full biological screening.
and Clane called a pause to the operation and there was a long discussion about
what had just happened. Jenkins and some newly arrived engineers examined the
corridor and managed to isolate all the power leading to the anti-intruder
devices. This made it safe to proceed, at least for a short distance. There was
a short corridor beyond the door which ended in a second door through which the
engineers cut using a thermite charge. After the soldiers had declared that the
area beyond was safe, the reporters were allowed through. Siobhan followed
Walter Cronkite along the link corridor. There were some holes on the wall
surrounded by black soot, where the projectiles had been fired. Then she
stepped through the rough four-foot hole melted through the far door. She could
see that it was about an inch and a half thick. The piece cut out lay on the
floor on the far side. The corridor carried on beyond the door, but it was
surprisingly normal in nature. It had gypsum wallboard panels and linoleum
flooring. Notice boards were nailed to the walls and there was a water cooler
in a corner. It looked like a passageway from any office building. Indeed there
were doors leading off it that opened into fairly ordinary-looking offices,
although their desktop computers looked exceptionally modern. The monitors were
flat sheets of black glass propped up on plastic stands. A coffee mug stood
next to one; its contents had condensed to dry, cracked powder over time.
"They must have left in a hurry." said one of the journalists.
"Nobody had time to wash up."
Beyond the office block was another security door. Jenkins managed to pick its digital lock within ten minutes and they were all relieved to see that there were no additional automatic defensive measures on the far side. They then came across some rooms that were obviously laboratories. They contained workbenches and stools, cabinets containing bottles of chemicals and industrial refrigerators. There were other devices that Siobhan didn't recognize. There were triangular yellow stickers on many of the items with warning symbols for biohazard, chemical and other less common risks. Each bench had a plastic red box placed on it for storing used disposable sharp tools. She had seen something similar in a hospital. There were clothes pegs in the corridor outside from which hung white laboratory smocks and
boots. At every door were washbasins for decontaminating hands and boxes of
rubber gloves. They passed through another security door into a second
laboratory that was built for far higher containment capabilities. Each room
had a double set of electric doors and a pool on the floor for washing feet.
Instead of benches the staff worked behind sealed cabinets with large windows.
There were holes in the screens connected to gloves that allowed them to
manipulate items inside the cabinet. The furniture in these laboratories had no
sharp edges to avoid accidental injury that might lead to infection. The
laboratory block was huge. Siobhan and her group walked for over a mile before
they came to another lift bay and stairwell leading down. This time Jenkins
found it easier to decrypt the lock on the lower security door and neutralize
the automatic defence system. There were more laboratories on this level, but
they were far better contained. They were sealed chambers behind airtight
doors. Access was only via an airlock and rows of hazardous materials suits
were hung up ready for use by the staff inside, very similar to the suit
Siobhan was wearing. The laboratories themselves were full of locked vacuum
cabinets, all plastered with biohazard warning labels. "What do you think
they keep in there?" asked Cronkite.
"Don't know, but it's something they're very keen shouldn't get out." replied Clane.
The underground facility below Area 51 carried on down further. Siobhan estimated that they had to be three to four hundred feet beneath the surface by now. The size of the place took her breath away. The very thought of the amount of rock above her head was smothering. On the floor below the laboratories they found a menagerie of small animals in cages; mostly rodents like rats, rabbits, guinea pigs and mice. The hutches had metal bars and were arranged on shelves like hen batteries. The animals were mostly white and scurried around excitedly as the humans entered their domain.
"They must be used in the laboratories upstairs." said
"Strange." said a reporter. "They're all still alive."
"What do you mean?" asked Clane.
"They're alive and well after a whole year since Saucer Day. Their hutches are clean with bowls of food and bottles of water. That means somebody has been looking after them."
Clane stopped and started at him. "You mean...?"
"Yes. We're not alone down here."
The soldiers instinctively raised their heads and shouldered their rifles. Everybody turned their heads and looked around them. Nobody was there.
The section beyond the menagerie looked very much like a stable. On both sides of the corridor were heavy mental doors with barred windows at eye level with slots below where food could be passed through to the horses inside. Siobhan peeked through the bars. It was dark within, but she could just see a horse moving around from the corridor lights, just a blank shadow. The horse stopped moving and turned its head to look at her; then it lunged at her, crashing its huge body against the door. It roared with a deafening and very un-equine growl; even inside her suit it made her ears ring. She screamed from shock before she could stop herself. Everybody ran towards the door. "Are you alright, Mrs Spicer?" asked her father.
"Yes." she replied, panting hard. She remembered to impersonate Annie's voice just in time.
The reporters clustered around the bars. "That's not a horse!" one of them yelled.
Siobhan's curiosity overcame her fear. She joined the other reporters at the door. The creature within the supposed stable paced up and down growling. Its brown eyes and huge teeth glinted in the corridor lights; its fur was coarse and matted, almost like a porcupine's needles. "It looks more like some kind of dog." said Cronkite, echoing Siobhan's thoughts.
"I think it is." said another.
"What do you mean 'what breed'? It's as big as a horse!"
"It looks like a fighting dog, a Pit Bull or a Staffordshire."
"But look at the size! It's ten times as big as any dog I've ever seen."
Clane joined them at the window and looked in. "Maybe it's a product from those laboratories upstairs."
"You mean they've bred it here?"
Clane shrugged, a gesture just visible inside his suit. "Who knows? Maybe as a weapon of war."
Cronkite puffed. "I've been on a few battlefields in my time. I've been shot at and stood firm. I've recorded a radio interview from the middle of a minefield. I tell you though; I'd be more scared than I could cope with if I ran into one of those mutts."
There were other oversized canine monsters in the other chambers. They all reacted aggressively to the presence of the humans and the soldiers and journalists moved through the area with caution.
They found the last thing they expected on the floor beneath the giant dog kennels. The corridor opened out onto what looked like a nursery school. The reporters walked around in confusion. The room's floor was covered by a thick carpet. It had shelves of children's books, cuddly toys, shape-sorters and other pre-school games; and brightly-coloured cartoon pictures of people and animals on the wall. "I don't believe it!" exclaimed Cronkite. "We're deep underground in the heart of a secret military base and we come across a goddamn kindergarten? What the hell is going on down here!?"
"Where are the children?" asked Siobhan. It was the first time she'd spoken apart from brief acknowledgements and she used her normal voice. She cursed herself for her blunder and looked at her father in alarm, but fortunately he appeared not to notice.
"Why would there be children in this place at all?" asked another reporter.
The incongruous children's playroom ended with another armoured security door of which Jenkins' matchbook made short work. On the other side was what appeared to be a fairly normal hospital ward. Rows of beds lined up along each wall and there was a nurses' station, a storeroom of standard clinical drugs and a treatment room. However, like the rest of the underground facility, it was empty, abandoned; the beds were all neatly made with fresh sheets, as if awaiting admissions from an emergency department at any moment, but there were no existing patients and no staff to look after them. The wards went on for many hundreds of yards. In the surface world this would clearly be the equivalent of a very large and busy hospital. There was a suite of fully-equipped operating theatres as well, all more modern and technologically advanced than anything they'd seen before.
Siobhan entered the stairwell at the far end of the hospital. She followed the soldiers down another flight of steps to another security door. She wondered again how much deeper this subterranean establishment went. Their pumps and oxygen tanks would only last another two hours and then they would have to return. Jenkins set up his matchbook, plugged it into the lock and worked at undoing the seal on the door and the defensive systems beyond. When they reached the laboratory at the other end of the passageway they all stopped dead in their tracks. A few people yelled in shock and revulsion; not just the reporters, but some of the soldiers too. One or two collapsed and had to be carried away by the medics. Walter Cronkite put a hand on Siobhan's shoulder. He didn't say a word, knowing that their voices would be heard on the common band, but he gazed into her visor and their eyes met. His look said that he knew who she was and would not reveal her presence. Siobhan nodded at him in thanks. She was also grateful for his stabilizing influence because of the need to quench her own rising panic and disgust at the extraordinary and obscene spectacle that lay in front of them.
This section of the underground base at Area 51 was a laboratory and storage area of vats containing biological specimens. Some of them were in refrigerated containers, like the ones containing the S4 aliens that Siobhan's father had become famous for talking about in the media. Others were tanks of preserving liquid. They were of very different creatures to those even seen in the aftermath of Saucer Day. Most were unrecognisable, just misshapen globs of flesh. Some were clearly animals of some kind; with a vertebra, four limbs and a head, but like nothing ever imagined by the most fevered imagination. Even the giant dogs on the floors above now seemed commonplace in comparison. Some of the embalmed creatures looked vaguely human. She wondered if they might be human hybrids. She had learned from a biology tutor at college that humans could theoretically have offspring with other apes. Were these the offspring? Or had the laboratories at Area 51 found a way to cross Homo sapiens with less related clades and phyla? She averted her eyes and her thoughts as much as she could from the aberrations inside the vats. She got the impression that this wasn't just a storage vault. The way the deviant specimens had been arranged, in glass containers with a lot of space in between, made her think this was designed for show. It was some kind of sordid museum; but intended for viewings by whom? The section beyond contained different exhibits. These were obviously natural humans; hundreds of them. There were men, women, boys and girls of all races; black, white, brown and oriental. Their eyes were closed and their hands clenched in death. Some were newborn infants. Others looked like premature babies and aborted foetuses. The reporters who had not already been evacuated from shock exclaimed in outrage. "Holy shit!" yelled Clane. "What's going on here? Who would do such a thing?... What kind of bastards created this place?"
Immediately adjacent to this section was a laboratory with tanks of liquid also containing what looked like foetuses of various animals, except these were still alive. They had umbilical cords that fed into machinery on the walls of the canisters and liquid was visibly flowing along transparent pipes leading to and from these artificial placentas. "Get evidence!" Clane's voice was hoarse and breathy. "Take photographs!" he instructed the reporters.
"Jenkins." said Col. Davenport. "Can you get the hard drives out of these computers?" He pointed at the equipment on nearby lab benches.
"Not sure, sir." replied the sapper. "They're not like any kind of computer I'm familiar with."
The neighbouring laboratory contained rows of large rectangular tanks. They looked like aquariums for fish, except the fish inside were extremely outlandish. They were bright pink, as if filleted, except they were obviously alive. They swam around by rippling fins on their flanks like flatfish. They were about the size of a salmon and also resembled octopuses because they had short tentacles emerging from different parts of their bodies. The opened and closed their mouths as they moved; their maw was circular and lined by small white fangs. They breathed through gills but their eyes were not like a fish's; they had eyelids. "Anybody know what these are?" Clane asked in a rhetorical tone.
"Not a known species I'm guessing." said Cronkite. "Some other mutant they've created."
"Probably like those giant dogs; bred for war." said another reporter. "Look at the teeth on them! One of those would certainly spell curtains for a navy diver. And maybe they could lay mines. I heard the US Navy tried to train dolphins to do that during the war, but the project was cancelled. Basically the crews didn't have the heart for it. Well these critters are far less cute."
Clane was in a frenzy. He ran forward up the aisle between the tanks. "Where are you!?" he bellowed at the ceiling. "Come out and show yourselves!" Then he turned and addressed the others. "When we finally catch these scumbags we should show them no mercy!... Just shoot them here and now! It's the best way."
Siobhan noticed that one of the "fish" in the tank closest to Clane had become very agitated, as if it could understand what her father was saying. It paddled back and forth whipping its tentacles around. Then it placed its snout against the glass wall of its tank directly next to where Clane was standing and braced itself against the far side with its rear tentacles. It trembled as it stiffened and pushed. There was a snapping sound as the glass cracked. Clane's back was less than a foot away from the aquarium. "Dad, watch out!" yelled Siobhan.
Everything happened very quickly. The glass wall of the tank shattered spilling its contents onto Clane's back. When the rush of water had dissipated, the fish-like fiend was clinging to Clane's back; it tentacles grasped his oxygen tank and was reaching for the seal of his faceplate. It was obviously very strong, having just broken out of its own aquarium, and it had taken a mouthful of suit material at Clane's nape and was biting hard. He screamed in terror, whiting out Siobhan's earpieces. The others stood completely still, mesmerized with horror. Even the soldiers didn't move; their rifles slung across their chests as if on parade. Siobhan darted forward before she knew what she was doing and reached into the equipment pouch for her revolver. She flicked off the safety catch with her thumb and raised it towards the dripping pink anomaly that was tightening its grip on her father's shoulders. She paused for a second as Clane wheeled around in panic, continuing to scream. "HELP ME!"
"Keep still, Dad!" she yelled. She eventually managed to jam the muzzle right against the squishy skin of the beast and train it so that she hoped she would not also shoot her father. The gunshot was just a flash of light and an infrasonic thump from inside her suit. A fountain of dark blood spurted from the creature and mixed with the spilled water on the floor to make a huge pink puddle. The pseudo-fish immediately released its grip and fell to the floor where it thrashed around like a landed squid. Then the spell broke at the same time for the whole group. Everybody rushed forward to help Clane. He was on his knees panting and groaning.
"Look!" shouted Cronkite. The fish in the other tanks were doing the same as their fellow, pushing themselves against their glass prisons to break out; as if they were all following its example together.
"Everybody out!" roared Col. Davenport. "Stay away from the tanks!" The entire entourage lined up in the centre of the aisle to be as far away from the glass walls as possible and fled in single file. Siobhan and Cronkite assisted Clane, who was still semi-conscious with shock. The aquariums all cracked and gave way within two seconds of each other. The floor was inundated with tepid water. The people cried out in alarm as the fish leapt out of their glass prisons and reached for the humans. Luckily everybody was much further away from the tanks than Clane had been and the beasts landed on the floor. Some of them reached out their tentacles and tried to seize passing feet. The people jumped in the air to avoid them. There was more gunfire as the soldiers shot the monsters lying on the floor until what the people left behind was a room spattered with blood, water and glass shards.
The group gathered in the corridor to recover, panting and gasping. Medics ran forward in case they were needed. Clane was now compos mentis. The engineers examined his suit and it was found to be intact. The bite-marks of the bizarre beast had only penetrated the outer later of the material. He looked up at his daughter. The tinted face-shield prevented her from seeing his whole expression, but his eyes were wide in astonishment and anger. "Mrs Spicer?" he asked sarcastically.
Siobhan felt herself quake at her father's glare. "I'm sorry, Dad."
His eyes softened. He paused and then placed a hand on her shoulder. "Good shot." He chuckled weakly.
They returned to the surface. The rule Col. Davenport had imposed about not using the lifts was still in place so they climbed the tower of stairs out of the underground lair. Before they could leave the tented cordon and remove their NBC suits they had to be washed down with a disinfecting spray. After they doffed their suits they had to strip naked and have a normal shower. This they did together in a single compartment. Safety outweighed modesty and Siobhan was not allowed a separate facility just because she was a woman. Everybody washed their bodies methodically, respectfully averting their gaze from each other. The detergent made her eyes sting and her skin dry. It was dark and cold outside when they returned to the tent. She sat opposite her father as they ate their dinner. They hardly spoke, but every so often he would look at her and smile knowingly. Clane Quilley was a household name, at least he would have been if everything had not broken down and the world had not gone mad after Saucer Day. For a while it looked like the structure of society would hold together; it reeled and teetered under the impact, but appeared to steady itself. Then it disintegrated into a cloud of dust exactly as the
had on Mars Day a decade earlier. During the thirteen months since, the people
State Building America
lived by hand to mouth to gun. She'd heard rumours that many other nations had
fared somewhat better, but international news was sketchy, consisting mostly of
rather dubious announcements on highly questionable meshboards. It had been an
ordinary day for everybody, Wednesday
September the 11th 1957. Then that afternoon a flying saucer had
burst out from beneath the sea in Chesapeake Bay and flew
People thought it was the "Martians attacking again", but it was a
man. He landed the craft on the White House lawn and stuck his head out to talk
to the people. It was her father, Clane Quilley. Unknown to everybody, even his
family, he had worked here at Area 51 on the programme of secretly
back-engineering alien spacecraft. Also the fake "Mars vs Venus"
scenario that had gripped the world for ten years in a delusion. He told them
everything, confessing completely, holding nothing back. Siobhan, her mother
and brother had known nothing about it until that day when he leapt out of the
undergrowth like a madman, gun levelled, ready to kill. Since then he'd hardly
been back home. He had travelled everywhere attempting to keep the electricity,
gas and water supplies going all over the Washington DC United
States and abroad. He'd most famously helped
with the installation of a Digby-powered irrigation system in eastern Africa;
a region that had been hit with years of drought and a terrible famine. Siobhan
had also been away, determined to study and become the world's greatest roving
news reporter. This was partly out of a subconscious admiration for her father,
she had the introspection to realize that. However, it was more than that. It
was something she had dreamed of even when she was a small girl and he had been
away at war.
They all went to bed early, physically and emotionally exhausted. Nightmares haunted Siobhan's sleep, mostly of the day's events. In the morning after breakfast Clane announced a press corps meeting in the base, just outside the cordon. "Right." he began. "There will another scouting sortie today into the underground facility we explored yesterday. Because of the unexpected and extreme events of yesterday I insist, for health and safety reasons, that only the staff who came with us then should attend today. However because of the... er... distressing experiences we had, this will again be strictly volunteers only. So, hands up who wants to go."
Cronkite, Siobhan and the other three who had come with them before raised their hands.
"Right, that's settled. We're taking Mr Cronkite, Mr Greencombe, Mr Smith, Mr Kolinsky and...erm..." He gave his daughter a sideways glance and a sly grin. "... Miss Quilley."
A clean-up team had been working all through the night to make the upper five levels of the subterranean base that had already been explored secure, while they waited for the expeditionary force before venturing deeper. Col. Davenport and Clane Quilley led the military and embedded press contingencies of the unit down the stairs they had traversed the day before and to the place they had ended their previous adventure. They still wore pressurized NBC suits even though the biological research technicians had so far found no trace of any dangerous pathogens. This was no guarantee that such pathogens might not still be lurking in some chamber waiting for the door to open, or some bottle waiting to be smashed. The sixth level down gave them another surprise. It appeared to be a series of accommodation blocks, like a hotel or apartments. Each door along the corridor opened out into a comfortable and spacious flat. They were all different in their style of furnishings and decorations giving the impression that these were permanent homes or else long term residences, not just intended for short stays. They looked inconsistently conventional in such a bizarre location. These were comfortable and unique inner sanctums. They had lounges with settees and armchairs with a TV screen facing them, a very large flat one just like the computer monitors upstairs. A newspaper lay on a coffee table, a copy of the New York Times dated September the 11th last year; today's paper on Saucer Day. There were kitchens with refrigerators, hobs and ovens. A calendar for 1957 hung on one fridge door. There were bathrooms with water closets and showers. Most rooms had a large sheet of glass on a wall that released a glow very similar to sunlight. Siobhan imagined it helped relieve the feeling of claustrophobia that might well have come from living for long periods underground. She also knew that one's health could suffer if one were kept away from sunlight for too long. Her father had once told her this was becoming a major problem on nuclear-powered submarines. There were lots of pictures in most of the apartments too, of landscapes, blues skies, the seaside and big cities which must also have eased the discomfort of living seven hundred feet below the
Nevada desert. All the
ceilings had grilles from which wafted air. The first flats were clearly
intended for groups of single people, but then they came to some that only had
one bedroom with a double bed; married quarters. The next question that rose in
Siobhan's mind was answered in the following section of flats. There were some
bedrooms that were manifestly intended for children. They had toys and books
very like those in the out-of-place nursery school they had found on the levels
above. There was an infant's crib beside a double bed in one flat. Davenport
and Clane allowed the reporters a freer rein in this part of the facility
because it looked fairly benign and it was awkward shepherding everybody
together from one home to the next, so they were allowed to explore each flat
independently. Siobhan's ears had become used to the sounds from inside the
suit; the crackled conversation in her earpieces, the hiss of the ventilation
system, the creak of the rubbery material as she moved. However, she somehow
became alert to a very different noise long before she heard it consciously, as
soon as she opened the door to the flat in fact. This was clearly one of the
family accommodation units. The lounge had some children's comics on the table,
but something was amiss. She stopped for a moment, staring and listening,
wondering if she should go on. She decided to venture further in without
alerting anybody else; she was probably imagining things anyway. However when
she reached the corridor to the bedrooms she stopped again. She could now
definitely hear a voice. It was coming from one of the children's bedrooms. She
tiptoed as best she could in the cumbersome suit towards the open door where
the voice was coming from. It was a child's voice singing quietly. Her heart thumped
as she peeked around the frame and looked inside. A young girl was sitting on a
chair at a table beside a bed with a colourful quilt. She was humming to
herself randomly as she drew a picture on a sheet of paper with a felt-tipped
pen. On a TV screen nearby a Walt Disney cartoon was playing with the volume
turned right down. She stopped and looked up at Siobhan. She showed no
surprise, maybe just a little curiosity. Her eyes were an incredible sight,
deep blue and very large. Her skin was pale and her hair golden blonde. She put
down her pen and stood up. "Hello." she said.
Siobhan stood in the doorway staring at the girl. Her throat stuck as she replied. "Hello." She wondered momentarily if she were seeing a ghost.
"What's your name?" The girl smiled showing clean white teeth. Her lips were thin and hardly coloured at all.
"I'm Kerry... Why are you wearing a hazmat suit on this level, Siobhan?"
"I... er... I have to; for protection."
"There's no need." Kerry said confidently. Her accent sounded British with a touch of something else that Siobhan couldn't identify.
Clane's voice broke into her earphones. "Siobhan, who are you talking to?"
"Erm... There's somebody here, Dad."
She heard a gasp. "OK, maintain the situation. We're coming over!" A moment later feet pounded in the corridor outside and a dozen of her colleagues crowded around the bedroom door to try and see the girl. Kerry looked around eleven or twelve. She was fairly tall and there was a swelling around her nipples indicating that she was in early puberty. She smiled calmly at the others and introduced herself politely, asking their names.
"How did you get here, Kerry?" asked Siobhan. "Where do you come from?"
She looked nonplussed. "I come from... here."
"Where are your mom and dad?"
A wave of sadness passed over her gaze. "They... I think they've gone. They left with the others."
"Kerry." asked Clane. "Have you been feeding the animals upstairs?"
"Of course." she replied. "Nobody else is here to do it?"
"Are you alone, Kerry?" asked Walter Cronkite.
"No, I'll show you to the others." She ran out of the room and off down the corridor, beckoning them to follow.
There were about a dozen children living in the accommodation sector. They were all about the same age as Kerry and with a similar complexion. They were busy playing football on a small sports court adjacent to the flats and they stopped and came over when the reporters and soldiers arrived.
immediately got on the radio and summoned a full medical team to come and
evacuate them. "Colonel." said Siobhan. "Maybe that's not a good
"What ever do you mean, Miss Quilley? They're abandoned children! They need to be taken care of."
"It's just..." She wondered why she was saying this. An inexplicable urge had come over her. She remembered the genetic laboratories on the floors above and especially the foetuses being decanted in the artificial wombs. "Are they... normal children?"
He chuckled. "What's a 'normal child'? My kids are real tearaways."
"No, Colonel. It's just... have you looked into their eyes? They're... they're not really human... at least not in the usual sense."
"What are you talking about, Miss Quilley? How many senses of being human are there?... Don't worry; they'll be in safe hands. Right now we need to get them out of here and to safety. That is normal procedure for children found in combat zones. OK?"
The children were luckily quite happy to cooperate with the medical corps and followed them out of the facility fearlessly and willingly. Kerry waved goodbye to Siobhan as she was escorted down the passageway to the stairwell. Then a thought occurred to Siobhan as she remembered. She turned to her father. "Dad?"
"How come they can hear our voices when we're inside these suits?"
"What do you mean?"
"I heard somebody speaking in a suit once when I didn't have one on. Their voice was muffled, almost inaudible. That's why we have our radios."
He shrugged. "Maybe they've got good hearing."
They finally reached the lowest level of the secret underground base. It was much taller than the others and consisted of a single arched chamber about five hundred feet long by three hundred wide and thirty high. The interior of the chamber resembled a railway station. There was a line of tracks passing from one end to the other and both ends consisted of a circular steel door, clearly these covered tunnels through which the railways ran. The tracks themselves were not normal railway lines. Each one consisted of three rails that were as smooth as mirrors and much wider than normal. The platforms were fairly nondescript, very similar to those on the New York City Subway, with tiled surfaces and benches to sit on while waiting for trains. There was even a notice board which would normally give details of arrivals and departures; although this was now blank. There were three lines passing through the station and on the middle one sat a train. The team of reporters and their associates crossed over a footbridge to the platform by the middle track and descended a flight of stairs. The train was completely circular in cross-section, clearly intended to travel along a tubular tunnel. Despite this it had large clear windows. The interior had rows of seats like an airliner, but there was no drivers' cab. The front of the train was a blunt hemisphere and the passenger cabin ran right up to a circular window on the nose. It was split into four coaches, each about eighty feet long with a segmented link between them so it could traverse bends. A faint hum came from it, indicating its engine was working; whatever kind of engine it had. The interior lights of the cabin were also glowing as if it had just pulled up to the platform a minute ago to pick up some passengers and that it planned to depart within another minute. "So this is how they got away." said Clane through gritted teeth.
"When the Saucer Day invasion began they must have jumped aboard these trains and bolted." added
"Why did they leave the children behind?" asked Siobhan.
"How do these trains work?" asked another reporter. Everybody had ignored Siobhan's question.
"Magnetic levitation is my guess." said one of the engineers. "I've seen experimental vehicles like this in
The two side rails are for the levitation and the middle one is a Laithwaite
"Translation please." asked the reporter sharply.
"The train has no wheels and does not touch the track. It floats above it using the homopole magnetic repulsion effect; like when you try to force two fridge magnets together when they're both north or both south pole. They don't stick together, they repeal each other. There's a second set of magnets on the middle rail that pole-phase in order to generate thrust. It's like a standard electric motor except it runs in a line and not as a rotation system creating torque."
"Why no driver?" asked Cronkite.
"Its navigation is automated."
"Is that possible?"
"Sure; an elevator doesn't need a driver to reach the top of a tall building does it?"
"But this is a train."
The engineer shrugged. "What's that except an elevator that runs horizontally? Especially as this is clearly an underground railroad. All it has to do is move down a tunnel. There's talk of making some subway networks run with automatic trains even in the public world."
"Why is the entrance to the tunnel behind those doors?" asked Clane.
The engineer paused then gasped and chuckled with excitement. "This could be a pneumotrain!"
"The reason the tunnel is sealed off is because there's a vacuum inside it. My guess is that there's a second set of doors further down the track making this an entrance to an airlock... A pneumotrain runs in a tunnel that is partly or fully evacuated of all its air. That means it is very efficient and can achieve very high speeds because it's not afflicted by drag from the air, like normal trains are. It's possible they might slightly increase the pressure behind the train too to assist propulsion, like a blow-dart."
Siobhan walked over to the sidewall of the train. The vehicle was accessed by a sliding door and a button next to it had the word press on it. She pressed it and the door slid open with a hiss. Everybody swung round and gasped. "What are you doing, Siobhan!?" demanded her father. "Be careful!"
"I just wanted to see if it was still working, Dad. Don't get your pants in a twist!" She was annoyed at the others for ignoring her question about the children just now and wanted to get their attention. She felt Annie was right about male journalists thinking women couldn't cope with hazardous assignments.
"Well it is; so stay away from that door! For all we know there could be a function in it that activates the thing when somebody steps aboard."
"Well perhaps that's good. You said it yourself earlier; we've got to catch the bastards who did all that stuff upstairs. This is obviously how the bastards got away. Why don't we use this train to follow them and apprehend them?"
"That would be extremely reckless at this point in our expedition. We need armed reinforcements, a mission plan and a proper reconnaissance report before any kind of venture like that... Now, can we please get back to the business at hand?" He turned away and addressed the others.
Siobhan amused herself with how funny it would be if she boarded the train alone. She knew her father was right, but his dismissive tone still irked her. However, as the thrill of the idea rose within her, a part of her started goading herself to do it. She looked at Walter Cronkite; her hero, the kind of reporter she most longed to be. He caught her gaze and gave her a supportive smile through his visor. He had picked up on her feelings and clearly sympathized. Walter Cronkite had written many of her favourite journalistic essays. He had spoken about when to take risks and when not. One line stood out in her memory like a motto: "I pity the reporter who takes a risk to get a story and fails... but not as much as I pity the reporter who declines to take a risk to get a story and thereby fails a hundred times worse." As those words passed though her mind she found herself walking towards the open door of the train. It was if her body were no longer under her control. She was now inside the carriage. "What the hell are you doing, Siobhan?" she asked herself out loud. Terror mixed with excitement in perfect proportions to make the most ecstatic cocktail.
"SIOBHAN!" She heard her father's yell in her earpiece. He was right. The doors slid shut by themselves and the humming of the engine grew louder. The train began to move, so slowly and smoothly that it was imperceptible. Her father was now banging his fists manically against the windows of the carriage. "SIOBHAN!" his voice was hoarse with fear inside her helmet.
She tried to reply, but her voice was numb. She turned and looked at him. She gave him a confident thumbs up. She didn't want to frighten him.
Clane ran along beside the accelerating train, continuing to call out her name. Some of the others ran up to him and held him back as the platform fell away to the track. Ahead the circular doors to the tunnel were sliding apart. As the train passed through them her father's voice was abruptly cut off, presumably because the radio connection was lost. He continued to gesture pitifully until the doors closed and the station was severed from sight. Siobhan stood alone on the unknown underground train. The enormity of her folly crashed down on her like a tsunami, but it was too late to turn back. She walked towards the front of the train and stared out of the oval nosecone at the immaculate blackness of the tunnel ahead.