The pilot’s wingman signaled her need to return to base. The food from last night’s wild party at the Colonel’s, the coleslaw and beef ribs, boiling in her gut, induced a fear of catching hell from the maintenance crew, not to mention the rep she’d receive were she to soil herself and the thirty-million dollar Air Force jet.
CentCom approved the switch up, with the control attendant tossing in a rip of his own. “Proceed to return to base, Magpie. Maybe peach yogurt is more your speed.”
“Uh yeah, Command. Thanks for the tip.” Magpie waggled her F-16’s wings and peeled off to starboard. “May have to use the afterburners, Falcon. I shoulda laid off the bean dip.”
“Uh, roger that, Magpie. I’ve got another five-hundred miles on this training run.” Falcon needlessly tapped the digital fuel gauge. “I’ll finish it out and meet you back on the tarmac.”
Raffe Terner, call-sign Falcon, cranked the stick over to 120° and leveled off over the Four Corner’s desert. At thirty-eight thousand feet the mesas and ruddy monoliths below gave little evidence of their shear sides and thousand foot drops. A native of Chicago, Raffe had little exposure to the southwest. Now that he was here, the majesty of the terrain, its colors and textures provided a fine backdrop to his daydreaming.
With the sun behind him visibility stretched to nearly two-hundred miles. Raffe’s mind beelined to the images of the Colonel’s twenty-four year-old daughter, Deborah. Sure, she was young, but when she started talking about the elemental composition of asteroids and how, by the time she was…
“What the hell was that?”
A beam of light dashed across his control panel. He swiveled his head, the HUD helmet limiting his peripheral vision. Nothing there.
CentCom responded. “Ah, come again, flight niner-six-two. Falcon, what’s going on?”
Shit. “Just a sunbeam through a break in the clouds.”
“Satellite imagery shows clear skies for your full scan range, Falcon. Anything you need to report?”
There it is again. “Ah, negatory, Command. Just a glint off the canopy.”
“Roger that, Falcon. Steady as she goes.”
“Roger Command, Falcon heading one-two-zero, bird is stable.”
What the goddamned hell is that?
This time, the light, a purplish white, beamed onto his instrument panel, onto his flight control and onto his lap and stayed there.
Try as he might Raffe failed to ID the source. He toyed with the stick, pulled up—the jet rose a hundred feet in a matter of seconds. He pushed down, the nose tipped and he was back to his programmed altitude. Dip right, dip left and back to level. Nothing shook the light from his cockpit.
He practiced some breathing exercises, in one, two, three, four, hold. Out the same, hold.
OK, this is getting old.
Raffe inverted the jet.
There, he sighed. Nope! Goddamn it.
He flipped the jet back vertical.
PILOT, DO NOT BE ALARMED.
The sound came through his helmet’s earphones. Raffe darted his eyes back and forth, a bead of sweat, poised at his eyebrow, slid into his eye. He knew enough to resist speaking out loud. CentCom did not like its pilots speaking to themselves. Or worse, imagining voices speaking to them.
PILOT, YOU ARE THE ONE CALLED FALCON.
Not a question, but Raffe nodded anyway.
FALCON, KNOW THAT YOU ARE NOT IN DANGER. ACKNOWLEDGE.
How the fuck do I know that. I can’t shake this thing. It’s got a lock on me, with what god only knows. Danger? Of course I’m in danger.
NEGATIVE. WE MEAN YOU NO HARM.
Raffe subvocalized, “Are you reading my thoughts? Show yourselves, you say you’re no threat.”
SOON. FALCON, YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN. YOU DREAM OF THE STARS AND CIVILIZATIONS AMONG THEM. WE ARE ONE SUCH CIVILIZATION.
Chosen? Bullshit. Yeah I dream of the stars. I… Listen, I’m an officer in the United States Air Force. Show yourselves or I will begin reporting this as an incident.
NO ONE WILL BELIEVE YOU. NO ONE CAN HEAR US BUT YOU.
YOU ARE IN NO DANGER. ACKNOWLEDGE.
Raffe’s muscles jumped, his right hand snapped to the fire controls on the steering yoke as a shadow swallowed the light. A ship the size of a naval cruiser materialized around him, enveloped him. The lights on his control panel winked out.
The engines on his F-16 ceased, their whining dimmed and quit. It felt like he’d stuffed cotton into his ears. A gentle bump came from below and that strange purplish light rose all around him like an alien sunrise.
FALCON, LET US SHOW YOU THE STARS.