99 White Balloons, Page 5

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“No,” Murphy said, stubbing out his cigarette.  “Talie’s presence only proves that whatever we’re going to do will work.  The Earth and the whole human race will survive because of what we do to protect it.”

Majestic #2 smiled.  The silent man, the one Murphy now believed to be Majestic #1, graced Murphy with a subtle nod of approval.  The other clever men of the Majestic Twelve disliked Murphy as much as the clever men from Project Mogul did, but slowly, in meeting after meeting, they began to formulate a plan.

* * *

Murphy sat in his barracks watching wisps of cigarette smoke drift through the air.  The clock approached 4 a.m., but he couldn’t sleep.  Thoughts of the sky occupied his mind, how it seemed so innocent, so clear and blue, hiding nothing.  But weather balloons had gone up there seeking evidence of Soviet nuclear tests and brought back proof that the United States—that the whole world—faced bigger threats than communism.

The phone rang.  Murphy answered.  “She’s here,” Majestic #2 said.  “On top of the control tower.”

Murphy hung up, grabbed his jacket, and ran out the door.  Sirens wailed like the Battle of Britain all over again.  A few airmen stood outside staring at the stars.  “I swear I saw something,” one of them said.  “Brighter than Venus.”

“Captain Murphy!” another hollered.  “What’s going on?”

Murphy sprinted by.  “Just a drill!” he shouted.  “Get to your assigned shelters!”  He didn’t look back to see if the men obeyed.

Murphy rushed toward the control tower, a stubby, rectangular building barely taller than the rest.  Talie stood on the roof, Cognis setting up hover lamps around her.  She quickly checked her makeup and popped the collar of her coat.

When General Stenner arrived, the Majestics accompanied him, their faces emotionlessly uniform.  The sirens continued, rising and falling.  “Someone shut off that noise!” Talie yelled.  “My live shot is in one minute!”

“Do as she says,” Majestic #2 said.

“The men will think the drill is over,” Stenner objected.  “I thought you wanted…”

“Do as she says!” #2 shouted.

Stenner grumbled but marched off to carry out his orders.  Soon, the sirens stopped.

“Stand by,” Talie announced.

The night loomed overhead, cold and silent.  The stars twinkled like little eyes blinking in the dark, waiting for the show to begin.  Murphy reached into his pocket, grasping the two-way radio concealed therein, ready to play his bit part in tonight’s performance.

A bright shape rocketed forth from the southern sky, coming to an abrupt and complete halt above the airfield hospital.  It was a flying saucer, but nothing like the ones in Buck Rogers.  Its many circular parts rotated, some clockwise, others counterclockwise, while tiny lights pulsed along the circumference.

Murphy shielded his eyes.  “My God,” he muttered.  The spaceship hung low in the air, larger than any aircraft Murphy had seen before, larger than any flying machine he could have dreamed of.  It rivaled the Navy’s largest carriers.

“Thank you, Anchor-bot 5000,” Talie said.  “I’m here at Roswell Army Airfield, a primitive military installation on Earth.  As you can see, an Illith class warship has just arrived to search for the missing Hykonian officer.”

The Hykonian ship hovered above the hospital for a moment; then, it moved away.  With a thunderous crack, a burst of energy smeared across the sky.  Something exploded.  The Hykonians fired again, causing a second explosion, and then a third.

An enormous mass drifted overhead, flickering between visibility and invisibility.  Stung by the Hykonian lightning beam, a Vorpon assault ship disengaged its cloaking device.  Sparks and flames sputtered from three open wounds in its hull.

“RADAR completely missed it,” one of the Majestics whispered.  “I wonder how long they’ve been up there watching us.”

“Hopefully they didn’t figure out what we were doing,” Majestic #2 replied.  “Captain Murphy, are your men ready?”

Murphy pulled out his radio.  “Unit Zero to Unit One, how do you read?”

“Loud and clear,” came the response.

“Operation Icarus is a go,” Murphy said.  “Repeat: Operation Icarus is a go.”

“Roger.  Wilco.”

The Vorpon ship, as hideous as the Vorpons themselves, began to unfold, exposing countless gun turrets, missiles, and other weapons beyond human comprehension.  In response, the Hykonian saucer started spinning in place, rotating faster and faster, its multitude of tiny lights pulsing brighter.  An ominous, red glow filled the sky.

“How many weather balloons did you requisition?” Majestic #2 asked.

“Ninety-nine,” Murphy answered.  “That’s all we had in storage.”

Talie’s report continued.  “The arguments that have taken place between the Vorpon and Hykonian governments over the last week are taking place again between the captains of these ships.  Who made an alliance with whom?  Who violated which treaty first?  Who has what at stake on Earth?

“Intergalactic peace hangs in the balance, but of course, these two species can never trust each other.  Both sides have sufficient firepower to destroy this planet, and whoever wins this battle will surely do so.”

The sky ignited.  Brighter than the sun, louder than a hurricane, the spaceships bombarded each other with weapons that put the atom bomb to shame.  Sparks and flaming debris fell like biblical hellfire, yet both ships emerged from the conflagration ready for a second volley.

The Hykonians darted to the east, making a series of sharp, right-angle turns that defied everything Murphy knew about aeronautical physics.  The Vorpons chased after them, their ship better armed but less maneuverable.

As the Hykonians swooped west again, they ripped another hole in the Vorpon assault craft’s hull, but their flying saucer took a pummeling as well.  It wobbled midair, some of its rotating parts grinding to a stop.  With a loud, rumbling sound, the Hykonian ship began to sink toward the ground.

“It’s going to fall on the airfield!” Murphy shouted.

“No,” Majestic #2 said.  “Illith class warships can take much more damage than that.  It looks like they’re trying to realign the anti-gravity field.”

Murphy turned his incredulous gaze on the man from Washington.  Majestic #2 merely winked in response.

Atop the control tower, Talie stepped in front of the camera.  Cognis shifted focus away from the battle and back to her.

“But Earth’s fate will be decided another day,” the blonde reporter declared.  “Right now, ninety-nine unidentified flying objects are approaching from the north.  The Hykonians detect them, and so do the Vorpons.  What are they?  Where did they come from?  Are these Vorpon reinforcements, or have the Hykonians developed cloaking technology of their own?  Or is there perhaps some third party willing to challenge two of the galaxy’s mightiest superpowers?

“Only one thing is certain: no human ‘aeroplane’ hovers like these ninety-nine U.F.O.s.  Human technology is too primitive.”

The alien spaceships floated overhead, their weapons armed but their crews too startled to act.  On the ground, the Majestics chuckled among themselves, and someone patted Murphy on the shoulder.  The ominous, red glow faded from the sky.  Murphy glanced up in time to see the Hykonians and Vorpons flee, racing off at impossible speeds back to the stars from whence they came.

“No one will ever really know what happened here,” Talie said.  “The human authorities will insist this is all about weather balloons, but who believes that?

“Reporting for the Tomorrow News Network, I’m Talie Tappler.”

* * *

In the basement of the airfield hospital, in a room under tight guard, the head of Lorsis lay on a table.  All the blood had drained out, and the skin had turned putrid grey.  Black, orb-like eyes blinked open, and the Hykonian tried to scream, managing only a soft gurgle.  Clear liquid oozed from the mouth.  After a moment of this, Lorsis lost consciousness again.

“What will you do with him?” Murphy asked.

Majestics #1 and #2 stared at the severed head.  “We have a top secret installation in Nevada,” #2 said.  “We’ll take him there.  Try to make the poor bastard comfortable if we can.”

Majestic #2 lifted the head off the table, gently placing it in a padded, metal box.  With a sour expression on his face, the man from Washington turned and carried the small package out into the hallway.

“As for you, Captain Murphy,” said Majestic #1, breaking his code of silence, “I am impressed.  As I’m sure you’re already deduced, this is not the first time extra-terrestrials have visited our world, and it won’t be the last.  Our agency could use a man like you.”

“You trying to recruit me?”

#1 handed Murphy a business card.  No name.  No address.  Just a phone number.

“Call if you’re interested.  Ask for my secretary.  She’ll make sure your résumé gets into the right hands.”

Murphy stuffed the card in his pocket.  He was finished.  Regardless of Talie’s prediction, he would never reach the rank of major general, and he certainly would not become Majestic #13.  From now on, the United States of America could fight its wars without him.  No more Nazis, no more Soviets, and definitely no more little, green men.

“Think about it,” Majestic #1 said, following his subordinate out the door.

“If I join up with you, will you tell me your name?” Murphy joked.

“No.”

Murphy laughed.  “So if I decide to call, who do I ask for?”

Majestic #1 paused in the doorway, his face obscured in shadows.  “Francine,” he said.  “That’s my secretary’s name.  At least until we decide to change it for security reasons.”

Murphy watched the door swing shut.  Francine.  Francine!  A pretty name, Murphy thought, even if it wasn’t her real one.  Hadn’t Talie said something about a woman named Francine?

Murphy took another look at Majestic #1’s card, wondering if maybe his country still needed him after all.

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