The High-Desert Incident
by John P. Cater
It was mid-October of last year and I remember it well. Mockingbirds sang through golden-leaved aspen about the newly-risen sun. Crows cawed from a distant pine. The morning had arrived with a brilliant dawn and a low fog slept, still cradled in the valley below — perfect for a crisp autumn postcard.
Rising from my motel bed I peered out the window and found what I expected: another glorious day in the high desert — just as I remembered from my childhood. The scent of burning leaves rushed over me, bringing Halloween to mind as I raised the window pane — it was only a few weeks away. It was such a great day, but I had things to do — important things — and they were waiting for me.
After placing a quick call to my partner, William, I jumped into the shower with my toothbrush and razor to save time. It couldn’t have taken more than four minutes. I was right on track. As I dressed, I swigged a cold cup of the-night-before’s stale coffee. It wasn’t great but it did its job. I was on my way.
I rushed out the door and found Will standing in front of the rental car. Our eyes met but we didn’t speak, instead we nodded and loaded into the car. We were headed to one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind and we knew it.
Will started the car as I pulled out a small map with the words. “U.S. GOVERNMENT: TOP SECRET,” imprinted in red letters around its edges. The small X in the center of the map was some eighty miles west of us out in the middle of God-knows-where. I put my finger on the X and said, “Head out west on Highway 375 for sixty-two miles.”
“I love simple instructions,” Will chuckled, “Then what?”
“Then, according to this, we turn left onto some farm road and go another eighteen miles. It’s about a quarter-mile off the road.”
Mumbling, Will adjusted his dark sunglasses and responded, “That figures. Why are they always so hard to get to?” Sitting primly in the driver’s seat, he looked severely out of place in his black suit, starched white shirt and black silk tie. It was almost comical thinking about this banker-looking man trudging across desert wasteland. But then, I was going to be there, too.
“Why do they make us wear these suits? They’re so out of place — and uncomfortable.”
“Agency rules. Wanna keep your job?”
I nodded in response and looked back to the map. “But why us? You’re a theoretical astrophysicist. I’m a deep-sea oceanographer. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“I guess we’ll find out when we get there, Tommy. It’s all compartmented crap, you know.” Smirking, Will continued, “They never tell us more than we need to know. This one’s got me, too.”
“Yup, same old same old. Keep everyone in the dark. I just love this job.”
Will smiled and kept driving across the lone Highway 375.
* * *
We had been on the road for a little over an hour and we hadn’t spoken in almost that long. Hundreds of miles from real civilization, Will had locked the car’s XM radio on a classical channel — not my favorite — but an acoustical pacifier for our thoughts. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” had been playing forever. The scenery wasn’t even pleasant, nothing but cacti and sand dunes, so we both regressed into our thoughts of what lay ahead — and behind. Days like this could never be predicted but they were always a mix of extreme crisis and extreme boredom — no in-between. We were prepared for anything.
Almost dozing, I saw a small sign for FM 466 off to the left. “Turn here!” I yelled.
Will slammed on the brakes and fishtailed onto the small dirt road. A roostertail of red dust grew behind us as we sped onward.
“That’s what it says: FM 466.”
Amidst the final strains of “Winter” Will’s satellite phone began to beep from his vest pocket.
“Hello?...” “No, sir....” “Yes, sir, we will...” “In a few minutes, sir...” “Thank you, sir. Goodbye.”
Will placed the phone back in his vest and continued to drive. Our roostertail had created a dust storm across the land behind us. “Red phone?” I guessed.
“What’d he want?”
“To know if we’re there yet. He’s anxious for an answer.”
“Oh... of course.”
* * *
Twenty minutes later we approached a small convoy of camouflaged vehicles off to the side of the road, looking somewhat like an Iraqi War encampment. Will slowed the car as a cadre of tan-uniformed soldiers surrounded us with rifles drawn. A light tapping on the window was answered by Will’s smiling face. “Hello, what can I do for you?”
Pointing his rifle directly into Will’s face, the soldier snapped back, “Where do you guys think you’re going?”
“Whoa, soldier — at ease. Shoulder your weapon. We’re from OUST. We’re here to see the unidentified vessel. Official business.” Will flashed the golden OUST shield from his wallet.
“OUST? What’s that?” He scrutinized the gold badge.
“It’s the Office of Unidentified Space Transportation,” I interjected. “Straight from the White House.”
Will lowered his badge. “We’re supposed to meet up with General Mills. He’ll know us — Tommy and Will from OUST.”
“What’s the password? It should have been given to you by now.”
“Kaboom!” Will was right on top of it.
“Wait here. I’ll get the General.”
A few moments later the soldier returned from a nearby dune with a large burly grey-haired man wearing a camouflaged tan baseball cap. Across the front were four golden stars.
“Hello gentlemen. Come with me.” The General was no-nonsense and blunt. Before we could even get out of our car he was twenty paces in front of us.
Panting and wheezing, we caught up with him halfway to the incident. “General... can you tell us anything about the craft?” We could see a group of ten or fifteen Abrams A1M1 tanks several hundred yards ahead circled in a very broad formation.
“All I can say, boys, is that it’s from space.” He repositioned a short cigar stub between his teeth and chuckled, “It appears to be some kind of boat. Damndest thing I ever saw.”
Will looked at me and back at the General. “A boat? A big boat?”
“You’ll see.” We walked for several more minutes, awaiting the surprise of our lifetime.
“There it is.” Pointing forward, the General cajoled, “Some UFO, huh?”
As we entered the perimeter of the tanks’ circle, we saw in front of us two massive half-shells of a gleaming metal cylinder and some plastic-looking debris that appeared to be deflated cushioning balloons. In the center of the debris field was a four-foot-long craft that looked like a small golden sail boat beached in the desert. It was listing to starboard on the sand. I started to chuckle, as did Will. As he gained his composure, Will quietly observed, “Looks like they missed their target, sir.”
“Oh, how’s that, son?” The General cocked his head awaiting an answer.
“Well, sir, the Earth’s surface is 71% water and they happened to land in the middle of one of the highest, driest damn deserts in the world. Pretty funny — and unlucky — if you ask me.”
As they bantered, I moved closer to the vessel, my oceanographic mind kicking into gear. It was indeed a tiny deep-water sailboat. A robot sent from some other world to explore ours. Amazed, but almost sad... I squatted and spoke softly to it. “Hello little camel — oh, ship of the desert. You’ve come a long way to land in the wrong place. Where did you come from?” I reached out to touch it.
I quickly retracted my hand at the General’s order but I had already touched it. A tiny motor began to whine inside the ship, opening a small round hatch on its deck. I jumped up and ran back to the tank circle perimeter, awaiting the worst. The tanks honed their barrels in on the boat.
As we watched, a small metallic cylinder at the end of a telescoping arm rose out of the open port. The cylinder robotically searched for vertical, then paused about two feet above the boat. Seconds later, a small rocket fired climbing high into the clear blue sky. A thin trail of yellow smoke followed it skyward. As it exploded at least a few miles up, a deep black cloud formed. Loud electric arcs, resembling lightning, began to periodically eject from the little boat directly into the cloud. It was deafening.
Then the entire sky went black. Without warning, angry clouds rolled over us; the sky became an ominous grey, swirling and whirling in place. Moments later, sheets upon sheets of heavy rain began to pour down. Lightning struck all around us. We ran for cover under the nearby command tent and looked out in amazement. The land was beginning to flood.
The General pointed toward the boat, “What’s it doing now, fellows?”
I thought for a second and replied, ‘Well General, it looks like it’s trying to... to float!”
“Good God, son, we’re at four thousand feet here. If it does manage to float, most of the Earth will be underwater.” The General was now nervously rolling his cigar between his teeth.
Will grabbed his satellite phone from his soggy vest pocket and held it up. “I forgot to call,” he sheepishly admitted as he pressed the phone’s red button. The General rushed over to the command console and began screaming orders to his troops.
I looked back at the boat which had now turned a dull glowing red as it spat fire and lightning into the roiling sky. The rain that fell back on the boat was vaporizing to steam. It was a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
Looking back at Will, I saw him ending his call. “What did he say?”
“He said that it’s beginning to flood in Washington and... and all over the world. He said that it must be destroyed before everything’s under water. He’s not a happy man.”
I returned a forced smile, “Well then, let’s tell the General.”
We walked over to the General and pulled him away from his console with weather maps up on every screen. Will shouted in his ear, “General, we have to destroy it. It’s flooding the world.”
The General looked up with a sly smile on his face, “Well, boys, I’m gonna give it another thirty minutes — we haven’t had a drop of rain in this God-forsaken desert for 182 days, now... it’s a welcome rain.”
* * *
Thirty minutes later the General issued the order to the tanks, now lined up like a monstrous firing line executing an ant: “FIRE!”
In a millisecond there was a blinding flash and deafening roar. The boat was vaporized and in its place there was a huge crater. Clearing skies quickly swept the rain away. As the smoke cleared I looked at Will and said, “Let’s go home, our work is done here.”
The next morning, as we left our motel for Washington, I picked up a local newspaper. The headlines read: “After 182 Days God Answers Locals’ Prayer For Rain.” Under the headline was another small headline: “Meteor Crashes in the Desert Leaving Huge Crater.”
Will smiled at the headlines. “Same old same old.”
The Top-Secret High-Desert Incident was placed in the “False Sightings” files at OUST, but there are a few of us out here who still remember the little golden boat. We’re not gonna talk.
Copyright © 2009 by John P. Cater