"Holy shit!" The pilot pulled back on the stick, jolting upward.
The black mountain of steel rose before them out of the waves without warning. A gargantuan unmarked submarine blew its ballast and rose on a cloud of bubbles.
The pilots exchanged uneasy laughs. "Guess that's them."
As ordered, the transaction proceeded under complete radio silence. The doublewide portal on the peak of the sail opened and a seaman flashed them signals with a strobe light. The chopper then moved over the sub and dropped a three-man rescue harness, essentially three rubberized loops on a retractable cable. Within sixty seconds, the three unknown "danglers" were swinging beneath the chopper, ascending slowly against the downdraft of the rotors.
When the copilot hauled them aboard-two men and a woman-the pilot flashed the sub the "all clear." Within seconds, the enormous vessel disappeared beneath the windswept sea, leaving no trace it had ever been there.
With the passengers safely aboard, the chopper pilot faced front, dipped the nose of the chopper, and accelerated south to complete his mission. The storm was closing fast, and these three strangers were to be brought safely back to Thule AFB for further jet transport. Where they were headed, the pilot had no idea. All he knew was that his orders had been from high up, and he was transporting very precious cargo.
When the Milne storm finally exploded, unleashing its full force on the NASA habisphere, the dome shuddered as if ready to lift off the ice and launch out to sea. The steel stabilizing cables pulled taut against their stakes, vibrating like huge guitar strings and letting out a doleful drone. The generators outside stuttered, causing the lights to flicker, threatening to plunge the huge room into total blackness.
NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom strode across the interior of the dome. He wished he were getting the hell out of here tonight, but that was not to be. He would remain another day, giving additional on-site press conferences in the morning and overseeing preparations to transport the meteorite back to Washington. He wanted nothing more at the moment than to get some sleep; the day's unexpected problems had taken a lot out of him.
Ekstrom's thoughts turned yet again to Wailee Ming, Rachel Sexton, Norah Mangor, Michael Tolland, and Corky Marlinson. Some of the NASA staff had begun noticing the civilians were missing.
Relax, Ekstrom told himself. Everything is under control.
He breathed deeply, reminding himself that everyone on the planet was excited about NASA and space right now. Extraterrestrial life hadn't been this exciting a topic since the famous "Roswell incident" back in 1947-the alleged crash of an alien spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico, which was now the shrine to millions of UFO-conspiracy theorists even today.
During Ekstrom's years working at the Pentagon, he had learned that the Roswell incident had been nothing more than a military accident during a classified operation called Project Mogul-the flight test of a spy balloon being designed to listen in on Russian atomic tests. A prototype, while being tested, had drifted off course and crashed in the New Mexico desert. Unfortunately, a civilian found the wreckage before the military did.
Unsuspecting rancher William Brazel had stumbled across a debris field of radical synthesized neoprene and lightweight metals unlike anything he'd ever seen, and he immediately called in the sheriff. Newspapers carried the story of the bizarre wreckage, and public interest grew fast. Fueled by the military's denial that the wreckage was theirs, reporters launched investigations, and the covert status of Project Mogul came into serious jeopardy. Just as it seemed the sensitive issue of a spy balloon was about to be revealed, something wonderful happened.
The media drew an unexpected conclusion. They decided the scraps of futuristic substance could only have come from an extraterrestrial source-creatures more scientifically advanced than humans. The military's denial of the incident obviously had to be one thing only-a cover-up of contact with aliens! Although baffled by this new hypothesis, the air force was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. They grabbed the alien story and ran with it; the world's suspicion that aliens were visiting New Mexico was far less a threat to national security than that of the Russians catching wind of Project Mogul.
To fuel the alien cover story, the intelligence community shrouded the Roswell incident in secrecy and began orchestrating "security leaks"-quiet murmurings of alien contacts, recovered spaceships, and even a mysterious "Hangar 18" at Dayton's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the government was keeping alien bodies on ice. The world bought the story, and Roswell fever swept the globe. From that moment on, whenever a civilian mistakenly spotted an advanced U.S. military aircraft, the intelligence community simply dusted off the old conspiracy.
That's not an aircraft, that's an alien spaceship!
Ekstrom was amazed to think this simple deception was still working today. Every time the media reported a sudden flurry of UFO sightings, Ekstrom had to laugh. Chances were some lucky civilian had caught a glimpse of one of the NRO's fifty-seven fast-moving, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft known as Global Hawks-oblong, remote-controlled aircraft that looked like nothing else in the sky.
Ekstrom found it pathetic that countless tourists still made pilgrimages to the New Mexico desert to scan the night skies with their video cameras. Occasionally one got lucky and captured "hard evidence" of a UFO-bright lights flitting around the sky with more maneuverability and speed than any aircraft humans had ever built. What these people failed to realize, of course, was that there existed a twelve-year lag between what the government could build and what the public knew about. These UFO-gazers were simply catching a glimpse of the next generation of U.S. aircraft being developed out at Area 51-many of which were the brainstorms of NASA engineers. Of course, intelligence officials never corrected the misconception; it was obviously preferable that the world read about another UFO sighting than to have people learn the U.S. military's true flight capabilities.
But everything has changed now, Ekstrom thought. In a few hours, the extraterrestrial myth would become a confirmed reality, forever.
"Administrator?" A NASA technician hurried across the ice behind him. "You have an emergency secure call in the PSC."
Ekstrom sighed, turning. What the hell could it be now? He headed for the communications trailer.
The technician hurried along beside him. "The guys manning the radar in the PSC were curious, sir... "
"Yeah?" Ekstrom's thoughts were still far away.
"The fat-body sub stationed off the coast here? We were wondering why you didn't mention it to us."
Ekstrom glanced up. "I'm sorry?"
"The submarine, sir? You could have at least told the guys on radar. Additional seaboard security is understandable, but it took our radar team off guard."
Ekstrom stopped short. "What submarine?"
The technician stopped now too, clearly not expecting the administrator's surprise. "She's not part of our operation?"
"No! Where is it?"
The technician swallowed hard. "About three miles out. We caught her on radar by chance. Only surfaced for a couple minutes. Pretty big blip. Had to be a fat-body. We figured you'd asked the navy to stand watch over this op without telling any of us."
Ekstrom stared. "I most certainly did not!"
Now the technician's voice wavered. "Well, sir, then I guess I should inform you that a sub just rendezvoused with an aircraft right off the coast here. Looked like a personnel change. Actually, we were all pretty impressed anyone would attempt a wet-dry vertical in this kind of wind."