Authors: Stephen Coonts
Tags: #Science Fiction
To all those dreamers who looked at the moon and wanted to go
The train eased slowly out of the blackness of the desert night into the spotlights. As the three locomotives hissed steam, soldiers piled off the train and rushed away to form a perimeter.
Newton Chadwick stood with the small knot of civilians under the lights looking up at the giant black shroud that covered the flatbed car behind the engines. It was huge, rising over seventy feet in the air.
A dozen workers in hard hats stripped the protective shroud off the large, circular object on the flatcar. Then they began the task of rigging a harness so that the crane permanently mounted beside the track—one normally used to handle steel girders used to construct towers to test nuclear weapons—could off-load the object onto a waiting lowboy.
The senior civilian turned and solemnly shook hands with each of his colleagues. Newton Chadwick was the youngest of the group, just twenty-two. A child prodigy, genius and physics superstar, he had been thrown out of four universities for drunkenness, antisocial behavior, lewd and lascivious conduct and, at the last institution, burning down his dormitory when an unattended still in the attic caught fire.
Newton was tall, pencil-thin and gawky, with flaming red hair and an awesome collection of freckles. His father, a wealthy distributor of soda fountain equipment, had been unable to overlook the obvious fact that the youngster bore no physical resemblance to him or any of his relatives. Blaming the boy’s mother, the soda fountain magnate dumped several million in a trust fund and booted young Newton out into the unsuspecting world.
Newton’s odyssey after his traumatic emancipation is beyond the scope of this work. Suffice it to say that after many and diverse adventures, he was recruited by a former professor who knew the quality of the boy’s mind to assist in the examination and testing of captured German rockets and the development of American ones. The professor told a variety of well-intentioned lies to the authorities, who granted Newton an interim security clearance.
Tonight, as he stood in the Nevada desert surrounded by his colleagues, all of whom possessed a breathtaking collection of academic degrees, young Newton ignored the senior scientist’s comments and stared at the flying saucer being off-loaded onto the lowboy.
A flying saucer! Who would have suspected that such a thing really existed?
“It was recovered in New Mexico, I heard,” one man, a Harvard Ph.D., said. “Near Roswell, after one of these things crashed during an electrical storm.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?” another responded. “That’s just a cover story.”
“But where are the people who flew it?”
“They’ll never tell us.”
“They’re probably locked up somewhere, being interrogated.”
“It’s a Nazi bomber. That’s the only logical explanation.”
Even at his tender age, Newton Chadwick understood that the government was perfectly capable of lying to the public, and probably had.
How the saucer came to earth and into the government’s possession was immaterial. The reality was that it was right there before his eyes, a massive physical presence straight out of a Buck Rogers comic book.
The color was dark, almost as black as the night that surrounded them. The spotlights reflected from the smooth, polished surface in little pinpoints of brilliant light. The saucer was, Newton estimated, about ninety feet in diameter, perhaps a dozen feet thick in the middle, feathered toward the edges into a perfectly round, smooth leading edge. The three massive struts upon which it sat jutted from the belly. On the bottom of the struts were pads, not wheels. Protruding from the saucer’s edge, covering an area of about fifteen degrees of its circumference, were four rocket nozzles, each perhaps fifteen inches in diameter. The landing gear struts and rocket nozzles were the only imperfections in the perfect oval shape that Newton could see from his vantage point.
“It’s German, no doubt about it,” one of the scientists insisted. “The government is trying to keep it under wraps. They don’t want Uncle Joe Stalin to hear about it.”
Newton thought that hypothesis highly unlikely, but he held his tongue. The German rockets that he had spent the last six months examining were much cruder in appearance than this… this sleek, ominous, perfectly round black shape. Neither Soviet nor German industry was capable of manufacturing anything like this. Nor was American industry—or any industrial establishment on the planet. On this planet.
The saucer wasn’t from this planet! That realization crystallized in Newton’s mind.
But if it wasn’t made on earth, then where?
It must have been flown here. By whom?
“…An opportunity of a lifetime,” the senior man was saying. He rubbed his hands in excited anticipation.
No one responded to that. The rest of the members of the group stood mesmerized as the crane lifted the saucer onto the massive lowboy. It took ten minutes to strap it down—ten long minutes of absolute silence among the watching scientists, each of whom was lost in his own thoughts.
Finally, when the saucer was secured, the lowboy and a convoy of army trucks full of armed soldiers crept away from the lights into the darkness of the desert night.
When the remaining soldiers had disbursed and the small knot of scientists stood alone beside the motionless train, the senior man again broke the silence. “Washington wants an encrypted report of our preliminary examination by tomorrow evening. The interest is at the very highest level. We’ll start at seven in the morning.”
A few people muttered replies, but Newton Chadwick didn’t. He was staring into the night that had swallowed the saucer.
• • •
He couldn’t sleep that night. The army installed the wizards in a large tent and issued each of them a cot and sleeping bag. Lying on his cot in the darkness, his nostrils full of the sage and juniper scent of the high desert, he lay listening to the whisper of the wind, thinking about the saucer.
The existence of the saucer required each person who saw it to throw out the preconceptions of a lifetime. Somewhere out there in the vast nothingness of space, somewhere far away in space and time—for Chadwick well knew the two were inexplicably linked, which was one of the great mysteries of life—there were other intelligent creatures; they had built this saucer, and it was now here… on earth. On this small planet orbiting a nondescript star on the edge of a humongous galaxy that wheeled endlessly on a hidden axis in the infinite void.
Newton Chadwick was a child of his place and time, and he didn’t know what to make of it. Sure, he had read his share of science fiction as a youngster—and that was precisely what it was, fiction. He had seen the Buck Rogers matinee features, watched space cowboys shoot it out with aliens bent on conquest. Or worse. Mind candy for a Saturday afternoon.
The saucer changed everything. Everything!
The other men on cots weren’t sleeping either. They coughed and tossed restlessly, but no one was breathing deeply or snoring. Physicists, mathematicians, working engineers—they were from the nation’s finest universities and large industrial concerns. No doubt they were also wondering what they would find when they opened the saucer in the morning. And, because they were human, thinking about how the discoveries they would make would build careers and reputations.
Finally, when he could stand it no longer, Chadwick eased from his sleeping bag, stepped into his clothes and shoes, and slipped out of the tent. The night sky was full of stars, countless points of light flung carelessly into the inky blackness by… by… God?
Young Chadwick had never thought much about God. He had been dipped in religion as a child when his father and mother dragged him to church at irregular intervals, but little of it had stuck. Tonight, staring upward at the gleaming stars in the obsidian sky, he realized that if there were a God, He was a whale of a lot larger than the white-haired old man depicted on the stained glass windows of that church in New Jersey.
And there was the Milky Way, a ribbon of light that stretched from horizon to horizon, a galaxy of countless stars.
For the first time in his life Newton Chadwick felt as if he were marooned on a small island in an endless sea, confined to a tiny spit of sand, unable to escape.
• • •
One of the wizards was a slim older man with wispy white hair surrounding a tanned bald pate who habitually sucked on a pipe. He was the gloomiest of the lot the following morning, saying little in response to the excited inanities and speculations of his colleagues as they ate a hasty breakfast in an army mess tent. He ate in silence as they discussed the possibility that one of the creatures who had flown the saucer might still be in it. “Did the army open the thing?” No one knew.
Finally someone drew him into the conversation with a direct question. “I wish I weren’t involved in this,” he said gloomily. “I wish I were back in my lab at the university happily ignorant of the existence of that thing.” He jerked his head in the direction of the hangar that held the saucer.
“What are you saying, Fred? The arrival of the saucer is the most exciting thing to happen on this planet since Christ rose from the dead.”
“As I recall, the news of the Resurrection made a great many people very unhappy,” Fred responded. “The saucer story will be greeted the same way. Who do you think is going to be overjoyed at the news? The clergy? Industrialists? Union leaders? The politicians? When they pause for a moment’s thought—and I’ll freely admit that they rarely exercise their brains for that long—the politicians are going to realize that the arrival of a spaceship flown by intelligent creatures from another solar system is going to rock civilization. May even shatter it.”
“Anarchy? Are you predicting anarchy?”
Fred toyed with the remnants of his breakfast. “A man my age should probably stay out of the business of crystal ball predictions. However, I do think our report is going to give official Washington one hell of a scare. My gut feeling is we are wasting our time. We’ll never be allowed to say a word about anything we see or do here today, and yet no one here will ever be able to forget it. We’d all be better off not knowing.”
The discussion swirled around the table, but Newton Chadwick didn’t participate. He rarely did. The senior men had careers, tenured faculty chairs and hard-earned reputations to worry about. He didn’t. Newton forked eggs and potatoes, drained a second glass of milk and left the tent while they pondered the shape of the world in the coming Age of the Saucer.
• • •
The saucer was parked in a large hangar at an unused air base in the desert wastes. The wizards rode for an hour on the bus to get there. One of the officers handed out a special badge to each man, who was required to wear it on a chain around his neck as if it were a set of dog tags. They were all in such a hurry to see the saucer again that they donned the tags without protest and queued up to get past another soldier, a sergeant, who scrutinized each badge even though he had just watched the officer hand them out and the wizards put them on.
As usual, Chadwick found himself at the end of the line. He ground his teeth and waited his turn.
There it was! Sitting under the lights on its legs, apparently undamaged by the rough handling it had recently received.