99 White Balloons, Page 1

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Lorsis wondered what the primitives below might think.  Their villages of brick and wood were maturing into cities of concrete and steel.  They’d learned to communicate via radio waves, and they’d begun to replace manual labor with industrialization.  According to recent reports, their science had advanced to the point where they knew how to smash atoms together.  Their civilization was transitioning from an era of superstition to a time of logic and reason.  So what might these primitive Earthlings think they were seeing?

The spaceship took another direct hit.  The hull fractured, sputtering flames.  Fragments of burning metal rained over the command center, and the crew, disciplined as always, struggled to maintain control of the ship.

“Leader Lorsis!” the chief technician shouted.  “Anti-gravity is failing!”

“Sensors still cannot detect our attackers,” the navigator reported.

The deck rumbled.  The air reeked of ozone and burned chemicals.  Once silent, the propulsion system now emitted a high-pitched warbling sound.  Emergency lights flashed on the consoles, and Lorsis watched the arid landscape below fill the forward viewport.

“I have located a target!” the gunner shouted.  “Vector seven, sub-vector four.  The Vorpons’ cloaking device must be malfunctioning.”

“The target is too small,” the navigator said.

“It reads metal.  What else could it be?” the gunner asked.

“The primitives possess rudimentary flying technology.”

“Not anti-gravity.  The target is hovering directly overhead.  It cannot be one of the Earthlings’ aeroplanes.  It must be the Vorpon assault craft.”

Lorsis gripped the arms of his command chair, the green skin of his fingers yellowing at the joints.  Viscous fluids stirred unpleasantly in his chest, and the smell of fumes burned the scent receptors of his throat as he tasted the air.  “Gunner,” he said, “your logic is correct and therefore holy.  Destroy the enemy.”

“Yes, Leader.”

A burst of plasma flared into the night, hitting an invisible object in the upper atmosphere.  The resulting fireball seemed too small, too insignificant to indicate the destruction of an entire Vorpon assault craft, but at least the enemy would not escape this battle unscathed.

Lorsis turned his attention back to his own vessel.  The engines seized up.  The computer shut down.  The ship tumbled into freefall, spiraling toward the rocky soil of Earth.  The Hykonian body, though softer and more flexible than that of most species, capable of withstanding higher quantities of physical trauma, could not survive an impact at such extreme velocities.  At least, it could not survive without unnatural and unholy aid.

Lorsis closed his eyes and prayed, as prescribed by the sacred texts of his people, asking the Twin Gods for a painless and permanent death.

* * *

Captain John Murphy stood in the first floor hallway of the airfield’s detention center chewing on a cigarette.  It was four in the morning.  He’d been summoned by a phone call from General Stenner’s secretary and was waiting for someone to tell him why.  Murphy slouched against the wall.  His eyes hurt, his back ached, and he’d chewed his cigarette so much it just tasted like saliva-dampened paper and soggy tobacco.

Some men came home from World War II and found a girl to kiss in the streets of New York.  Murphy wasn’t one of those men.  He belonged to a category of war veterans who came home to find their fathers dead from polio, their mothers dead from loneliness, and their sweethearts married to some other guy.  So rather than start a new life like most of his war buddies, Murphy stayed in the service.  He specialized in radios and RADAR.  Since the Department of Defense still needed men with those skills and since Murphy felt he had nothing better to do with his future, he accommodated their needs.  D.O.D. sent him all over the country doing odd jobs for the Army.  At the moment, he was stationed at Roswell Army Air Field for a top-secret assignment.

“Murphy!” someone hollered.

Murphy glanced over his shoulder and saw Lieutenant Jiggins striding toward him, a toothy grin on the younger man’s face.

“They wake you up too?” Murphy grumbled.

“I’ve been up,” Jiggins answered.  “This night’s been wild.”

“What’s it about?”

Jiggins leaned against the wall and whispered in Murphy’s ear.  “Something fell out of the sky,” he said.  “Something weird.”

“Like what?” Murphy whispered back.

“A weather balloon.”

Murphy snorted a laugh.

“I’m serious,” Jiggins said.  “One of your high altitude listening devices, I reckon.”

“You aren’t supposed to know about that,” Murphy responded.

Jiggins shrugged.  He was the type who made friends with everyone, even the folks who didn’t want any friends.  He was always asking questions, doing favors, getting involved in this or that.  He fraternized with just about everyone, from the top brass to the new recruits, and of course, several of the young ladies who worked on the base as well.  Such a popular guy heard all the rumors.  No one could keep a secret with Jiggins around.

“The really wild part is that your weather balloon got shot down.”

Murphy smiled and shook his head.  “How’s that?”

“Some kind of ray gun, I figure, because something else fell out of the sky tonight: a Martian spaceship.  Must have exploded.  Crashed in a dozen places between here and Corona.  Some on private property.  The boys had to make up stories to get at it all.”

Murphy regarded his friend, noticing his tussled hair and muddy boots.  That patented Elroy Jiggins toothy grin had disappeared.

“You’re serious?” Murphy said.

“Saw the bodies,” Jiggins answered.  “Small, greenish-grey… like nothing else.”

“Does General Stenner know about this?”

“Yup.  But now this is the wildest bit of this whole damned, wild night: story is while all this was going on, they caught a Russian spy on the base.”

* * *

When the general arrived, his uniform crisp, his expression stern, he asked Murphy and Jiggins to accompany him.  He listened to Jiggins’ full report as they walked, not asking a single question nor so much as raising an eyebrow at the mention of spaceships and little, green men.

“Captain Murphy,” the general said when Jiggins was finished, “I imagine the spy was after your top-secret project.  I’m not sure how this Martian nonsense fits in, but it’s a mighty big coincidence all this happening the same night.”

“Yes, sir,” Murphy answered.

“Where’s Major Marcell?”

“Still out gathering pieces of… whatever it was, sir,” Jiggins said.

General Stenner nodded.  He stopped at an interrogation room guarded by two military policemen.  The M.P.s saluted, and one turned to unlock the door.

Inside, the walls were flat grey without windows.  A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder was set up and waiting on a table.  Another M.P. and a servicewoman snapped to attention as Stenner entered.  Murphy and Jiggins followed two steps behind.

Murphy glanced at the spy and caught his breath.  She sat in a simple, wooden chair, yet she looked like a queen upon her throne.  She leaned lazily to the side, legs crossed, her skirt showing far too much bare thigh to be considered decent.  Her curly, blonde hair glittered in the dim light, and when she met his gaze, Murphy took a step back.  He’d never seen eyes like hers before.  They were bright violet, almost luminous.

“Golly, she’s a looker,” Jiggins murmured.

“I searched her, sir,” the servicewoman said, approaching General Stenner.  “She had nothing on her except a fake I.D. and this old pocket watch.”

Stenner held the pocket watch first, turning it over in his hand; then, he examined the I.D.

“I’m told you’re from the future,” Stenner began while the servicewoman switched on the recording equipment.  The reel-to-reel tape began whirring softly.

The blonde smirked.  “That’s right.”

“And a journalist.”

“Yes.”  She flashed her teeth—flawless white.

“Hot damn,” Stenner said.  “A lady journalist.  That must be some crazy future you come from.”

The blonde laughed.  It sounded musical.  “If you think that’s crazy, wait until you hear about President Obama.”

“You know Miss… Tappler, is it?” Stenner said, taking another look at the woman’s I.D.

“That’s right.  Talie Tappler.”

“Weird name,” Jiggins whispered.  Murphy nodded, still captivated by those strange eyes.

“Miss Tappler, D.O.D. informs me there’s a Soviet spy on my airfield.  I don’t suppose you might be that spy?”

Talie laughed again.  “Of course not.  Lieutenant Jiggins is the spy.”

Silence fell over the room.  For once in his life, Jiggins was speechless.

Murphy gritted his teeth.  Such an accusation against a true-blooded American—more than that, against such an honest and upstanding human being—it was absurd.  Unthinkable.  No one would believe it.  If anyone ever needed a favor, Jiggins was the person to ask.  If you were down, Jiggins always had some wisecrack to lift your spirits.  Everyone knew Lieutenant Jiggins.  Everyone talked to him.

But then Talie glanced at Murphy and winked.  Everyone talked to Jiggins, Murphy realized.  He was such an agreeable fellow with that unassuming demeanor and disarming smile.  Folks instantly trusted him.  How much did people tell him?  How much did he know?  How many secrets had he uncovered in his own good-natured way?

Murphy glanced at Jiggins, noticing the lieutenant’s trembling lip and red, perspiring face.  The tapes continued to record.

“Well, Miss Tappler,” Stenner said, “we might check on that, but for now you remain suspect number one.”

Talie shrugged.

“What’s this?” Stenner asked, showing Talie her watch.

“A chronomagnetic calibration device,” she answered.  “I use it for time travel.”

“I see,” Stenner said.  “So you used this to travel back to July of 1947 to cover some story here in Roswell, New Mexico?”

Talie’s eyes widened.  She seemed impressed the general had figured that out all by himself.

“Why are you here?” Stenner said, setting the watch aside.  “What’s the big story?”

“A crashed Hykonian starship.”

“Hyko-what?”

“We have billions of viewers in the Hykonian Technocracy,” Talie explained.  “They’re all concerned about the crew of that ship, and they’re worried this incident will spark a war with the Vorpons.

“The Tomorrow News Network is doing team coverage.  I’m here on Earth, another reporter is on the Hykonian home planet, and a third is on Vorponia Prime.”

Murphy shook his head.  Though he didn’t believe Talie’s story, he wanted to.  The way she spoke, stating impossibilities as plain facts, made her hard to doubt, and something about those violet eyes engendered confidence and trust.  Murphy even wanted to believe his best friend was a traitor simply because Talie Tappler said so.

“When will your report air?” Stenner asked.

“Yesterday.”

Stenner frowned.

“We broadcast the news backward through time,” Talie explained.  “‘The Tomorrow News Network: bringing you tomorrow’s news today since…’  I guess you haven’t heard our slogan.  20th Century Earth lacks the technology to receive our signal.”

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One thought on “99 White Balloons, Page 1

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