Stranded in a Foreign Land
Chapter 13: Waiting for Something to Happen
Copyright© 2014 by Vincent Berg
As the President entered the crowded White House Press Room it was obvious the assembled press reporters were edgy. They were anxious to understand what the White House was up to so they could report it to the public, and so far they had no real clue what was real and what wasn't.
President Alan Atkinson, however, appeared unconcerned. He walked into the room without even glancing at anyone, not wanting to encourage them. Striding to the podium, he pulled out his prepared notes and finally glanced up at his audience.
"I only have a short announcement. I won't be taking any questions as we're still studying the situation, but I wanted to make a short statement," he explained, trying to meet the eyes of several reporters but never keeping eye contact for longer than a second or two.
"We've lost several valuable service people, men who sacrificed their lives defending us against an alien invasion. Now, give me a second ... here we are," he said before resuming.
"Corporal Peter Bridges, Captain Frank Johnson, Private As ... Asga ... Asgatharia Niki—"
"We already know all the names," one reporter Alan didn't recognize shouted out, daring to disturb the President. "At least you could have taken the time to learn their damn names. They died doing your dirty work!"
Alan glared at the reporter, hoping to intimidate him with the power of his office, but he immediately saw the entire press room was abuzz with excitement. An excitement they'd be unlikely to curtail easily. The fact that an established reporter felt free to interrupt a prepared speech by the President of the United States didn't bode well for him as it showed they were ready to rake him over the coals at the slightest misstep. Alan felt an irritating tickle as a long drip of sweat began to form along his neck.
"I'm trying to honor those who have sacrificed—"
"You're not honoring them by mispronouncing their names," someone else shouted. "We already know who each of them are. We have their ranks, branch of service and IDs, not to mention their death photos. Give us something we can use."
Alan took a moment to consider the room. They were seriously out of control and it was clear that if they were willing to interrupt him, they weren't going to allow him to give his prepared speech. He started scrambling for something to say that could restore his control of the situation. President Alan Atkinson didn't like being out of control. His damp collar had spread to his arms as his shirt seemed to cling to the moisture on his skin.
"These men died defending each of us!" he announced, taking a more forceful tack and abandoning his carefully constructed script. "We're facing an unprecedented attack, and as their deaths prove, these new invaders will stop at nothing to hurt us."
A senior reporter for a smaller respected newspaper stood and addressed the President directly. "These men, your men, died because you decided to conduct an autopsy without taking into consideration the risks or even bothering with normal protections. Your rush to gain new weapons for your own arsenal has threatened us all!"
President Atkinson clasped the podium, squeezing it tightly as he glared at those speaking out. "I'm not going to listen to this. This is a massive threat to each and every citizen of this country, and you, the members of the media, are trying to portray these criminals assisting an alien invading force as heroes!" The president's voice had risen in pitch, his face turning dark as he shouted at the reporters scattered before him. The room lit up as photographers snapped photos of the President losing control during a scheduled press event, making his dark scowl appear even more extreme. Realizing the position he was putting himself in, Atkinson lowered his voice to a steely toned warning, contrary to his actual words. "I can't tell you what happened on that base, as I wasn't informed of the proceedings. We have the commander of the base who made the decision that put everyone at risk flying to D.C. to inform us what happened. But for now, this press conference is over. It—"
President Atkinson's tirade was interrupted when someone in a dark suit approached him, leaned in and whispered quietly in his ear. The President quieted as he listened, his eyes widening in surprise and his mouth forming a perfect "O" as he finished. Glancing wildly about, Atkinson grabbed his abandoned notes, spun around and stormed out of the room without a word.
Perplexed, the reporters proceeded to demand some information, some idea of what had just happened.
The man who'd just delivered the message glanced behind him, looking clearly confused, then leaned in to the microphone and dropping his voice, whispered "The wind changed. Everyone on the base is now dead." With that he too turned and hurried from the room as the press corps hurriedly broke apart, each rushing to write their notes and broadcast this newest bombshell.
"Josh? Are you in here?" a familiar voice called out.
"Shh. Keep it quiet. I'm in the back," he called out in a barely audible whisper.
The two girls slipped into the old barn, closing the massive wooden door behind them and slipping through the dark structure.
"There you are," Becky said, finally seeing him silhouetted against the hay bales stored above their heads.
"What are you doing here?" Cynthia asked, glancing around.
"I'm lying low," Josh answered, leading them upstairs into the hayloft. "As you know, once I dropped everyone off with Fred's uncle and brought you back, I wanted to stick around where I could keep track of what's happening. But I couldn't very likely go into town."
"I'll say," Cynthia said. "There are road blocks everywhere. On the way over here I was stopped three times. If they're looking for you, you wouldn't get very far."
"Exactly. Plus, people have stopped by the house just to check who's here. When they have, they've specifically asked who was out in the field while I was away from the house. So I decided it was safer remaining hidden in here. The hay helps cover my heat signature, so hopefully the government satellites overhead won't pick me up in here."
"So that's why you have so many cows in here," Becky observed, wrinkling her nose. Despite living nearby Josh's farm, she'd never been much of a farm girl or ranch hand, and really preferred having nothing to do with the vile creatures.
"If you're so busy hiding in the barn then why didn't you stay in the mountains with everyone else?" Cynthia asked, surveying the barn and considering what it would be like living there for any period of time.
"Ah, actually I've been monitoring quite a bit. You, Fred and Peter stop by to keep me up on what's going on, Mom runs into town almost daily for supplies and talks to people in town. I can monitor how many helicopters and planes fly over. This is the hotbed of the search for our friends, so I need to be here to know just how busy the government is."
"Aren't you afraid of being discovered?" Becky asked, worried about her ex.
"A little, but they have no evidence that I'm who they interviewed, and as long as they don't see me out on the streets they don't know where to look. Anytime anyone stops by I'm out in the field. If they say 'no he's not', then Mom just tells them I must have gone into town for something. If anyone comes out here to search, there are dozens of good hidey holes. I think I'm relatively secure."
"Relatively," Cynthia reminded him. "After all, if you're worried about thermal scans, they could easily distinguish you from the cows."
"Don't worry, I've got a few more aces up my sleeve," Josh assured them. "As for thermal signatures, you'll notice I installed some additions to the roof," he added, pointing above them. They couldn't see it in much detail, but there was some kind of metal plate stuck to something on the ceiling. "I added an aluminum sheet with an attached electric blanket. It's a potential fire risk, but it'll produce a diffused thermal signature which will disguise my own."
"So what have you been doing since we got back?" Becky asked, already bored with the discussion. "My father hit the roof when I finally returned, and he's had me on lockdown ever since. He wasn't crazy about me coming here to bother you, but I managed to talk him into it because he's so curious about what's happening with you himself."
"Still wrapping him around your finger?" Cynthia asked quietly, glancing at Josh meaningfully. There was no way Becky could have missed it, even though she couldn't see the look Cynthia used, but she chose not to respond.
"Well, as you know, we wanted to maintain the illusion of everything being as it usually is. I don't spend that much time in town anyway, so it's not unusual for me not to be seen. And everyone around here knows that we spend a lot of time either out in the field or visiting other farms and ranches."
"So they buy that your sisters are actually here?" Cynthia asked a bit skeptically.
"Well, a lot of people keep asking about Janet, but we simply tell them she's busy with another client, so whoever needs her calls one of the other vets in the area. It's an inconvenience, but they don't worry too much about it. In Francis's case, we either say she's out in the field or off at the library studying, and no one ever pushes it."
"Well, I can understand the government's inability to track you. The White house has been tap dancing trying to explain what it's doing. They keep stonewalling, but Congress is demanding specific answers. The deaths from that secret camp haven't spread very far, but every time someone else dies it reignites everyone's outrage over them potentially exposing the world to a deadly virus with no treatment options."
"Performing that autopsy was incredibly stupid, and apparently they did it without checking their equipment. I'm not sure how it got into a hazmat suit, but it killed a couple of people in them, so apparently the virus was more pernicious than most Earth based viruses."
"So what about everyone left behind?" Cynthia asked, ignoring Becky's interest in flirting with Josh. She hadn't wanted to accompany her, but when they both arrived at the same time she couldn't very well go home just to avoid her. Getting here was too difficult to waste a trip.
"Our military trio stayed behind, along with my sisters. Jeffery contacted me. Seems he'd left a secure phone with his wife, stored away safely at a remote facility. She texted him some preset codes. Apparently the police descended on their house, interrogated the entire family, took every device they owned and are interviewing everyone they know. Apparently their name is mud and they can't show their faces in public."
"So they're stuck with nowhere to go?" Becky asked, her alarm at someone actually being hurt overriding her combined fascination with Josh and boredom with the current conversation.
"Apparently so. I wish I could help somehow, but I've got no idea how to fix this," Josh lamented.
"Not everything can be fixed," Cynthia advised.
"Yeah, they knew what they were getting into better than you did," Becky replied, looking more resolute than she had a few moments before.
"Jeffery and the others may have, but their families never signed on for this," Cynthia reminded her.
"Maybe so, but right now they're stuck with no way out," Josh replied with a frown, upset his personal mission had cost them so much.
"Can the government track down my father through them?" Becky asked, alarmed that her actions might hurt her family.
"Ah, according to Jeffery, he went into this anticipating getting caught. Your father's request was conveyed via an associate in a carefully worded message. Even so, Jeffery scrubbed his computer and created several false leads, also scrubbed, only some more than others. It'll take time to track down each one, and by the time they reach your father, they'll likely be questioning whether any of the leads are meaningful. But you'd better warn him to expect a call before long. If they do uncover his initial communication, they'll probably jump on it with both feet, knowing you live in this region."
"Speaking of telephone calls, how are you communicating with the others without them tracking you too?" Becky asked.
"Ah, via the magic of our friends. Our little flying cargo craft intercepts their calls and conveys the messages directly to me," he explained, tapping his ear. "All the government wiretaps pick up are prerecorded messages, while we can say anything we want. Unfortunately, we can't tell it to do the same if we call anyone else."
"I'm curious, why did you send the craft away as opposed to storing it in the mountains like you'd planned?" Cynthia asked, trying to get the conversation away from Becky's potential exposure. She thought Becky was unreliable enough, if she was frightened about getting caught she might react even more unpredictably.
"Mostly to keep it away from the government's prying hands," Josh reflected. "I didn't really trust its continued ability to escape detection. Where would it be safer than in deep space where it was designed to hide and where it has remained hidden all this time. Plus, that was the only way to get rid of its dangerously infected cargo."
"So it just ejected it into space?" Becky asked, sounding more frightened about the dead alien than about the other risks. But then, Josh had to concede it made sense, since it could potentially infect anyone who might come in contact with it in the future.
"No, it apparently sent it on a direct path to the sun at a fairly high rate of speed, so no one here will ever be able to overtake it. As it nears the sun, the sun's gravity will accelerate its approach. I've been contemplating a lot of what we saw, sitting here alone in the dark. It seems to me the craft's acceleration has a lot to do with how it changes direction so rapidly."
"Do tell. I've been wondering that myself, but haven't come up with any good explanations." Cynthia took a seat on the floor against a bale of hay. Becky glanced at her, eager to join the others in a discussion of what each thought, but she wasn't as eager to sit on the dirty floor. She wasn't about to spoil her favorite jeans, which she'd worn specifically to impress Josh, but so far he'd barely noticed her in them. But seeing that Josh and his friend weren't concerned with such things, Becky bit her tongue and settled down beside Josh after moving the irritating straw and muck aside with her boot.
"Einstein planted the seed for faster than light travel years ago in his early writings. The speed of light seems to be an absolute limit on the speed anything can attain, but the first big bang had the universe traveling much faster than light. The explanation is that as the universe expands it stretches the fabric of the universe, warping the effects of space and time much the same way gravity affects space. Most people now believe that faster than light travel can be accomplished by expanding the universe directly in front of a craft, while simultaneously shrinking it behind the craft as it passes. Thus the craft is pulled/pushed through space faster than light can travel."
"I think I've heard that before," Cynthia said, looking reflective while chewing on a hay straw. Becky, though, felt lost. She'd spent as much time as the others in college, but she'd never studied or even heard of such a thing. She'd focused on the arts, politics, media and communications, so she was a bit lost by the discussion. But not wanting to appear foolish, she decided to remain quiet and see what she could contribute. She figured she might have to do some research when she got home.
"I suspect our friends handle stellar travel the same way they do faster than light interstellar travel," Josh continued. "They can cancel out the effects of gravity and rise straight up in the air without firing off a massive amount of firepower because they expand the universe in whatever direction they want to go, and they get sucked along. Likewise, if they want to change direction quickly, they just expand it slightly in a given direction and the craft jumps in that direction."
"That's an intriguing idea and would certainly explain everything we saw the ship doing," Cynthia reflected, her eyes growing glassy as she contemplated the ideas Becky found so confounding. "But my question is: if you picked all this up so quickly, how much do you think the government's scientists have pieced together?"
"I'm not as concerned with what anyone figures out on their own," Josh responded, waving her concern away. "If they observe something and then figure out how to duplicate it, trying to calculate how to make it work takes enough effort it will slow their development down sufficiently. What I'm concerned with are people trying to jump ahead of their own knowledge, attempting to duplicate technology which they don't understand. I'm not worried about advancing our knowledge, but if the government got their hands on that craft, they'd have dozens of planes using the technology in operation in a year, all without knowing what effect it had on the environment, their pilots or the world around us.
"Besides, we were the only ones who ever actually saw what the ship was doing. While a few people may have glimpsed it taking off, it wasn't there long enough for them to see how it moved. All they saw was it traveling incredibly fast, which could have been due to any number of different reasons."
"There you go, once this is over and done with you can become the primary expert on the topics and earn yourself a Nobel Prize based on your observations," Cynthia teased, grinning at him as she said it.
Becky, though, didn't catch her teasing tone and glanced at Josh with wide eyes, amazed he might become the next Einstein. She'd always seen him as lacking ambition, but his actions of late had disproved that, and now Cynthia was intimating he might have an innate genius which Becky had never noticed.
"I'm really not interested in research. I'm fascinated in the science but I'd be next to worthless in a lab. I like to learn things on the fly. I'd rather dive right in and figure things out as I go along."
"Kind of like a test pilot?" Cynthia suggested.
"Yeah," Josh laughed, "exactly. Except the government would never hire me, and they'd never trust me with the technology I've already mastered without them."
Becky was once again amazed at her two companions. Here she was, positively buzzing with excitement over what they were discussing, even though she couldn't understand it, and yet both were just shooting the breeze, not taking anything said very seriously. Josh didn't seem to realize he was discussing things no one else on Earth was qualified to discuss, and he'd already accomplished more than most people could accomplish in a dozen lifetimes. Becky felt herself surrounded by greatness, something she could never hope to accomplish herself. She, just like Cynthia and Josh, had been pulled along, just as the alien's craft was, by the expanding universe opening before them.
"So what's next?" Cynthia pressed. "How long are you going to remain? Do you think you can hide in plain sight indefinitely, or do you plan on eventually hiding someplace safer?"
"I'm not actually sure. I feel safe I can slip away fairly quickly—after all, I did it once already—but I know I can only slip by unnoticed for so long. Every hour I remain here is a risk. I'd be much safer hiding away in the mountains where no one would think to look, as opposed to here where everyone is scouring the countryside hoping to get lucky by stopping the right person. But right now it's a matter of timing. The aliens, while improving, are still incredibly weak and are only healing slowly. Ideally, once they're ready, things will move quickly. Once we can get them back to their ship they'll be able to take off and most of the heat will be off. Everyone will still be hungry for my flesh, but it won't matter anymore what they do with me. They won't discover anything they can steal from me."
"So essentially you're waiting, either for our 'friends' to get better, or for someone to stumble across you?" Cynthia pressed.
"Yeah, that's about it," Josh laughed.
"You realize that's a pretty poor method of planning for the future?"
"Well, it's been my modus operandi so far. I'm not so sure how well it works, but it's what I'm most comfortable with."
"Until it doesn't," Cynthia reminded him. "It'll work perfectly until it doesn't and then there will be hell to pay!"
"You know, I was going to mention something else," Becky said, thinking of a way of contributing to the discussion. "There have been a lot more people around than there normally are."
"Yeah, I've noticed that," Cynthia observed. "There are new faces every time I turn around now."
"My mother has noticed that as well, every time she heads into town," Josh admitted.
"Do you think it's actually undercover police?" Becky asked, worried who might be listening to what she might say unintentionally.
"I don't think so," Cynthia answered. "Someone approached me at the gas station on the way over. Something that's been happening a lot more lately than it normally does. Most locals tend to leave each other alone. They'll ask each other about the weather or their families, but they aren't as interested in the actions of the police and who is or who isn't trying to evade them.
"Anyway, this guy asked what I thought of all the 'space creatures' flying around. Needless to say I didn't bother to respond, so he started to just shoot the breeze, talking about sports of all things," Cynthia revealed, rolling her eyes at someone discussing professional sports with her. "Only this guy, he doesn't say 'football' like the rest of us do, he accents it oddly, saying 'football' like the rest of the world speaks of soccer."
"Ah, there's the rub, isn't it?" Josh asked. "I had the same suspicions myself."
"What, that we have visitors coming here from elsewhere just to see what's going on?" Becky asked, not quite making the necessary connections.
"No, it's not like typical tourists are showing up," Josh explained, "or even city folk from elsewhere, though there do seem to be more of those as well. Instead it's foreign nationals. Foreign nationals that speak perfect English and know all about our sports and culture." He took a moment for the import of that statement to sink in before continuing. "We're talking about foreign spies. I suspect that virtually every foreign government has pooled all their resources and has sent everyone they can spare here to try to gain access to what our government is so busy attempting to grab."
"You're talking about a space race, if you will," Cynthia suggested, "except instead of trying to be the first into outer space, they're all trying to be the first to carjack someone else's spaceship."
"Exactly. They're all looking to jump-start their own technology, looking to gain influence in the wider world by getting something everyone else wants."
"Wouldn't our government be trying to stop that from happening?" Becky asked. "After all, they need passports to get into the country in the first place."
"I'm guessing our government is too focused on hunting us and keeping poor immigrants out of the country. They aren't overly concerned with keeping out the people with money, education and the same mindset that they have. I suspect with the right documents and training, foreign agents would have no trouble slipping into the region."
"So all the new people around here are spies, each willing to do the same things to us that the government is?" Becky asked, shocked that the local police weren't the only threat they faced.
"That's partly why I returned and why I've remained here for so long, and why I'm not intermingling with the public. I want to observe what's happening but still remain invisible. By getting reports from the two of you, Fred, Peter and my mother I'm getting a good idea of what's happening without exposing myself."
"No, you're still exposing yourself, but you're just deluding yourself that you're not putting yourself at risk," Cynthia told him.
"You're right," he conceded, "but still, this is the kind of intel I need and can't get from a simple phone call."
"So do you have any plans on how to cope with them?" Becky asked, leaning forward now that she had a new concern worrying her.
"Alas, there really isn't much I can do," Josh admitted, tossing a strand of hay he'd been playing with over the edge of the loft. "If I leave, I'll never be able to determine what's happening, and while we've eluded detection by using throw away phones so far, I don't trust that ploy to work indefinitely. Conveying information person-to-person, like we're doing now, is always safer than transmitting it over the open airwaves."
"Frankly, it doesn't sound like you have any real plans then," Becky insisted, unhappy Josh wasn't taking a more proactive position.
"Nope. I've got no plans at all. Frankly, I've been reacting so far. None of this was planned. I'm dancing as fast as I can, and this is just me catching my breath before I'm forced to dance even faster!"
The two men dressed in recently purchased coveralls and t-shirts approached the barn from the entrance on the far side of the house. They'd parked down the road and in a little alcove where their car was largely hidden. The taller man kept a lookout while the shorter, stouter one opened the large wooden doors of the barn. Noting there were cattle inside, they kept the door mostly closed, as the last thing they needed were a couple of wandering cows to give away their position. However, it's difficult to keep animals quiet, and although these animals were used to humans they were curious, so several came over to sniff the newcomers out.