99 White Balloons, Page 2

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“If your story aired yesterday, how come these Hyko-people didn’t do something to save their own skins?”

Talie pondered the general’s question, amused perhaps by his ongoing skepticism concerning Hykonians.  “I guess they weren’t watching,” she answered with a sinister grin.

Murphy scrutinized Jiggins’ face.  Rumor had it Jiggins played cards so poorly that the top brass invited him to all their games.  Rumor had it he flirted with most of the secretaries but that he showed special fondness for Glenda, the girl who handled all the classified documents in General Stenner’s office.  Murphy had always wondered about those rumors because he’d personally lost more than a few hands to Jiggins and, though he’d never say so aloud, Glenda was not exactly the prettiest woman in the armed services.

Murphy glowered at the floor, convinced now that his fellow officer had compromised national security and that, incidentally, extra-terrestrials had crashed in New Mexico.  Murphy sensed Talie watching him.  He felt the intensity of her stare, but he didn’t look up.  He didn’t want to know what other strange truths he’d believe if he looked into those violet eyes again.

* * *

Standing outside base headquarters, Murphy lit a fresh cigarette.  He inhaled, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, then exhaled and watched the thin vapor swirl about in the crisp, morning breeze.  A single cinder floated aloft, burning dull red before vanishing into the ether.

In the distance, Murphy could see utility sheds, hangars, and row upon row of B-29 bombers.  Farther off, one lonely aircraft sat on the runway, and beyond that nothing until the flat horizon.  The sun began to rise, shedding its harsh, crimson light upon the world.

Murphy had spent the last hour on the phone reassuring the director of Project Mogul, who was away enjoying July 4th Weekend with his family, that his fancy sound wave detection apparatus was safe.  Lightning had damaged one of the weather balloons, Murphy claimed.  As for the Soviet spy, she’d been caught.  Lieutenant Jiggins was also under arrest pending a formal inquiry.  No harm was done.  The airfield remained secure.  Project Mogul did not need to be moved to a new location, but if the director insisted he could call D.O.D. and speak to someone with “real” authority.

In Murphy’s opinion, Project Mogul was horseshit.  Some clever scientists with a lot of clever ideas had invented a machine to detect sound waves bouncing around in the upper atmosphere, just as sound waves bounced between thermal layers of the deep ocean.  They had the notion that their device, hooked onto simple weather balloons, would hear if the Russians started testing atom bombs.

Murphy had a clever idea of his own.  He thought oceans and atmospheres didn’t have much in common and that the device would hear nothing but wind.  Project Mogul’s director didn’t like Murphy much.  Nor did the scientists.

Murphy watched another puff of smoke drift through the air, a hazy and indistinct shape that soon faded into nothingness.  At least Talie Tappler, or whoever she was, was locked up.  On that point, the director had seemed to relax.

The door of the detention center swung open, and Talie stepped out.  Head high, her blonde hair bouncing as she walked, she strode across the yard, her pace confident and constant over cement, sand, or gravel despite her high heels.  A moment later, a uniformed M.P. burst through the door, chasing after her.  Murphy hurried to cut Talie off, tossing his cigarette away.

“Hello, General Murphy,” Talie said, smiling.

Murphy had unholstered his firearm, but pointing a gun at a lady—even an alleged spy—didn’t sit right with him.  Gingerly, her put the weapon away.

“I’m not a general,” Murphy said, glancing at a squad of army boys marching past.

Talie rolled her eyes.  “Sorry.  Hello, Major General Murphy.”

“I’m only a captain,” Murphy said, flustered and hiding it poorly.  “Not a general, not a major general…”

“Not yet!” Talie corrected.

The M.P. stood by Talie’s side, panting for breath, his white helmet askew.

“How did she escape?” Murphy asked.

“They let me go,” Talie said.  “Special orders from the White House.  I imagine my boss paid them a visit.  He can be quite intimidating with all those extra arms.”

“It’s true, sir,” the M.P. said.  “General Stenner ordered me to escort the lady wherever she pleases.”

The M.P. was young and naïve, and Talie was drop-dead gorgeous.  With her red lips, smooth skin, and the revealing, asymmetrical neckline of her blouse, she could easily confuse a young man’s judgment.  Murphy tried to speak, to order the kid to take the prisoner back to her cell, only to find himself tongue-tied by Talie’s coy, little smirk.

Talie laughed.  “I have a lot of work to do, but first, Major General Murphy, I want to see those dead bodies from the crash.  Why don’t you join me?  You might find them interesting.”

“I’ve seen enough dead people,” Murphy replied.

Talie continued on her way, walking at her original brisk pace with the M.P. scrambling after her.  “They won’t stay dead,” she called in a singsong voice.

* * *

A crowd of airmen gathered in the hangar, not to see the Martians but to see Talie and her short skirt.  At first, the fine pilots of the 509th Bomb Group whistled and hollered lewd questions; then, Talie glanced their way, her eyes like unearthly flames, and the whole company went silent, their faces bloodless.

Murphy had never liked the men from the 509th.  They were too cocky about the mushroom cloud patches on their uniforms and bragged too much about how their squadron had earned them.  You’d think they’d each killed 100,000 Japanese with their bare hands during the war.  Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been unfortunate necessities, Murphy thought, but no one should take pride in such things.  It was nice to see those fools put in their place for once.

Talie lifted the sheet off the first alien corpse.  Its ashen face had no nose, no nostrils.  Orb-like eyes stared at the ceiling.  A pair of fleshy antennae hung limp from its head.  Talie moved on to the next body and then the next, uncovering these creatures one by one.  They wore silvery clothes, the fabric ripped and torn, smeared with soot and fluids that Murphy guessed were equivalent to blood.  Some were scorched, their skin blistered and charred black.  Others looked as if they’d been crushed, their features stretched and flattened like rubber, their hands like empty gloves.  One had lost an arm.  The severed limb lay on the ground nearby.

The spaceship wreckage sat on the far end of the hangar.  It glimmered metallic blue with geometric symbols stamped along the fuselage.  Next to it lay Project Mogul’s weather balloon, a pathetic pile of molten tin and white latex.

“General Stenner said to keep an eye open for Miss Tappler’s associate,” the M.P. informed Murphy as they watched Talie examine the alien remains.

“What associate?” Murphy asked.

“The President’s orders said, ‘You’ll know him when you see him.’”

Murphy chewed his cigarette.

“Hell,” the M.P. continued, “I suppose she must be from the future, just like she says.  Wherever she’s from, she’s got enough clout to strong-arm the President of the United States!”

“Maybe,” Murphy mumbled, “but I don’t think she knows the difference between dead spacemen and live ones.”

Talie folded her arms across her chest, glaring at the homunculus-like bodies.  Despite her impatience, they stayed stubbornly dead.

“Thirteen Hykonians,” Talie said, “and not one has Valotic necrosis.  My sources indicated at least one or two of the crew were infected.”

“Maybe you should double check your sources,” Murphy commented.

Talie pursed her lips.  “Maybe.”

Though Talie remained her haughty, arrogant self, Murphy thought that in that moment he caught a glimpse of the woman inside, a woman who was imperfect after all, who only pretended to know everything, and who hated herself whenever she made even the smallest mistake.  So shocking was this inner woman with her minor flaws that Murphy turned away.  He felt embarrassed, as though he’d witnessed Talie undressing.

“What’s Valotic necrosis?” he asked stiffly.

“It’s the strangest disease,” Talie said, circling the corpses, her high heels clicking on the cement floor.  “Instead of killing you, it keeps you alive.  No matter what.  Which makes a certain sense: a virus that kills its host kills itself.  The original victims are still alive eight thousand years after the plague began, and they’ll stay alive until the day someone finds a cure.”

“An immortality virus?  Sign me up!” the M.P. joked.  “Who wouldn’t want to live forever?”

“Among Hykonians, immortals bear the worst social stigma.  Most live alone in misery.  Family and friends pray at funerals that the deceased won’t wake up, and wishing someone eternal life is among the gravest insults.”

Talie stood over the mutilated remains of one particular Hykonian.  “Still,” she said with the hint of a smile, “I was hoping for an interview.”

The corpse spasmed.  Air wheezed through its lipless mouth.  Arms and legs trembled, and the awakening alien sputtered and coughed.  The creature lifted its arms in an attempt to look at its own hands.  Fingers flexed.  Cloudy, black eyes squinted and blinked, but it seemed this unlucky soul had gone blind.  After a moment, the arms dropped to the floor with two dull slaps, and the alien uttered a long, doleful cry that echoed throughout the hangar.

The men of the 509th started yelling, invoking the names of both God and the devil, until Murphy shouted for everyone to shut up.  On Murphy’s orders, someone ran to fetch a doctor, and someone else summoned General Stenner.

The alien began shrieking in a harsh, staccato language.  Although Murphy didn’t speak Martian or Hykonian or whatever, he understood the meaning behind those piercing screams.  He knelt down.  He touched this undead thing’s hand, trying to provide comfort and reassurance.  The alien only shrieked louder.

* * *

Earthlings believed that when they died, they would go to a place called heaven.  Hykonians believed their mental energy returned to the universe, carrying with it a lifetime of memories.  Being a scientifically advanced species with ten millennia of technological development, the Hykonians had become a highly cerebral people, and their religion reflected that; however, in all of Hykonian history, no one had ever found empirical proof of an afterlife.  Mental energy and the Great Rejoining could be as much of a superstition as the human concept of heaven.  Lorsis would never know.  He had Valotic necrosis.

Lorsis had awoken blind.  Fluid from his vascular system had seeped into his eyes, so he could see only the milky color of his own blood.  He’d heard the Earthlings screaming in their ugly language.  He’d smelled them with the scent receptors in his throat, and he remembered them touching him with their small, oily hands.

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