Excerpt for Fallen Star by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


FALLEN STAR

A PROJECT GAUNTLET MISSION

RICHARD TURNER



Copyright © 2017 Richard Turner

This story within is a work of fiction. All events, institutions, themes, persons, characters, and plots are completely fictional inventions of the author. Any resemblance to people living or deceased, actual places, or events is purely coincidental and entirely unintentional.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the author.

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Table of Contents

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1

July 9th, 1947

Northwest of Roswell, New Mexico


Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Lloyd turned the wheel of his blue 1947 Chevrolet Aerosedan over in his callused hands and drove off the empty highway onto a dirt track. A brown-haired coyote running alongside the trail saw the car coming, and stopped to watch as it passed by. Lloyd rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand. The muscles were as tight as steel. He grimaced. If Lloyd didn’t get some good news, a full-blown tension headache was only minutes away. Lloyd looked out over the desolate landscape and wondered how everything had gotten out of hand so quickly. Since the end of the war things in his office had been relatively quiet, and that was just the way he liked it.

Colonel Lloyd was a career soldier who had served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force in the skies over Europe. Under a pair of dark sunglasses, his weary brown eyes were bloodshot. Lloyd’s chestnut hair was almost all gone from the top of his head. His round face was well-tanned, from having been outside under the hot New Mexico sun for the past couple of days. Lloyd wasn’t wearing his usual army uniform. Instead, he wore a pair of brown slacks and a tan-colored shirt.

Just up ahead, he could see a farm. Lloyd slowed down and approached the front gate, where a couple of military policemen stood guard dressed as farm hands. Lloyd fished out his identification and flashed it to one of the MPs. The man quickly checked his ID and opened the gate. Lloyd drove toward an old, white-painted wooden house with three vehicles out front of it. He parked his car and got out. Right away, the dry, scorching, late-afternoon heat struck him. It was like walking into an oven.

The front door to the house opened. A man in his early thirties with thick, blond hair waved at Lloyd. “Good afternoon, sir,” said the man. “How was the drive?”

“Long and hot,” Lloyd replied gruffly. He had been on the road for close to eight hours, and was looking forward to a shower and a cool beer or two after he concluded his business at the farm. “Is the rest of the team here?”

“Yes, sir. Major Gordon and Captain Thurman arrived a couple of hours ago.”

Lloyd followed the man inside and smiled when he saw a full pitcher of iced lemonade sitting on the dining table.

“Here, let me pour you a glass,” said the blond-haired man.

Lloyd took the glass and drained it in one long drink. “Another one, please, Captain Jones.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Besides Lloyd and Jones, there were two other men sitting at a round table in the small kitchen. Although there was a fan in the corner running at full power, the temperature inside the house was stifling. Both were dressed in casual attire. Major Gordon had thinning, black hair, while Captain Thurman was bald and wore silver-rimmed glasses on his pudgy nose.

“Okay, gents, fill me in on what we know,” said Lloyd, as he took a seat.

Major Gordon spoke first. “Sir, as you are aware, yesterday, the public affairs officer at the Roswell Army Airfield issued a statement to the press indicating that a flying disc had been found and recovered by personnel from the base.”

“Yes, the damn fool caused quite an unneeded panic in the Pentagon,” said Lloyd, wiping his sweat-covered brow with a red-and-white checkered handkerchief. “He’ll be lucky to find work as a janitor after that monumental screw-up. Wasn’t he aware of the Fallen Star Protocols?”

“Apparently not. The orders were locked away in the base commander’s safe, and by the looks of things had yet to be read by anyone on the base.”

“Goddammit. It’s a priority-one document. It should have been read the day it was received.” Lloyd shook his head. “When I get back home I’ll speak with the ops staff at the Army Air Corps Headquarters, and make sure the word gets out for everyone to read the protocols immediately, before we have another one of these incidents.”

“Yes, sir,” said Captain Thurman. “A new statement was given by the base’s commanding officer to the press earlier today, refuting the initial claim of a flying disc being discovered.”

“What was the new cover story?” asked Lloyd.

“A weather balloon, sir.”

Lloyd chuckled. “Inventive, yet highly plausible. Has this gone out on the newswire?”

Thurman nodded.

“Have they done anything to reinforce their story?”

“Yes, sir,” said Gordon. “An old weather balloon that crashed in the desert late last year was shown to the press. Afterward, it was loaded up into a C-54 transport plane and flown to Los Alamos for further examination. Once the crash team at Los Alamos sees the wreckage, they’ll issue another press release confirming the weather balloon narrative.”

“Very good. This should put this incident to bed quite nicely.” Lloyd emptied his glass and wiped his parched lips with the back of his hand. He looked around the cluttered farmhouse. “Say, who owns this place?”

“It belongs to a man called Fred Deckard,” replied Jones.

“Is he trustworthy? I don’t want this all falling apart because someone couldn’t keep their damned lips shut.”

“Sir, don’t worry, Mister Deckard is very reliable. He fought in the First World War with the Marines, and is a true patriot. When we asked him if we could rent the place for a week to test some equipment, he never batted an eye. He refused to take any money from me, and insisted it was his national duty to help us out.”

“Where is he now?”

“In town with his only daughter and her three kids.”

“Where’s her husband?”

“He died during the war. At Okinawa, I think.”

Lloyd turned his head away for a moment before standing up. He had lost a younger brother and two cousins in the war. He knew the pain of dealing with the loss of a loved one all too well. Lloyd looked at the men in the room with him. “Okay, let’s not drag this out any longer than we have to. Where is it?”

“It’s in the barn behind the house,” explained Gordon.

Together, the four men walked to the barn. A man with an army-issue M1 rifle stood guard outside. Thurman opened a side door and held it while everyone else walked inside.

Lloyd had barely stepped inside when he stopped in his tracks. His eyes widened the second he saw the large, silver, metallic disc sitting on the back of a vehicle trailer. It was about twenty meters in circumference, with what looked like a cockpit for two pilots in the middle of the craft. The front of the ship was damaged, from where the disc had struck the ground. He walked toward the ship and placed his hand on the outer shell. It was smooth and cool to the touch.

Lloyd shook his head. “Can you believe it? This is the third one of these to crash in as many months.”

“Sir, when it gets dark we’re going to cover the craft with a tarp and drive it to Los Alamos where it will be flown to Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton,” explained Jones.

“Will you three be accompanying it all the way to Ohio?”

“Yes, sir.”

Lloyd let out a tired sigh and ran a hand over his unshaven chin. “I suppose there’s only one thing left to do. Where are they being held?”

“I can show you. If you’ll follow me, sir,” said Gordon, motioning back to the door.

The two men walked out of the barn and to a silver trailer parked next to a decrepit-looking stable.

Lloyd stopped at the door and looked at his colleague. “How are they doing?”

“Fine, sir. They haven’t said a word, but seem to be in remarkably good health considering how hard the disc hit the ground when it crashed.”

“Okay, wait outside while I talk to them.” Lloyd opened the door and stepped into the air-conditioned trailer. The instant he saw the two occupants sitting at a table, sipping water, he shook his head. “For the love of God, I should have known it would be you two!”

One of the pilots flashed a pearly-white smile at Lloyd and said, “Guten tag, Herr Colonel.”



2

Iraq – present day

Coalition Special Forces Training Camp – North of Al Kut


Captain David Grant walked out of his tent, heading to the showers, when something made him glance upward. With almost no local population located anywhere near the secret training establishment to create light pollution, it was easy to see the beauty of the night sky. Millions of stars twinkled overhead. He stood and watched as a shooting star streaked above the base before burning out. Grant had just come from the gym, where he and a friend had pumped iron for over an hour. With some reluctance, he turned back toward the showers. His recent weightlifting session had turned into an hour long bench-press competition with one of his friends. Now, he was tired and sore. And to rub salt in the wound, he’d lost by just one kilo.

They’d have to see what happened in the rematch, scheduled later in the week.

Grant pulled open the door to the shower tent and walked in. The place was deserted. He removed his sweat-stained clothes and hung them up, before stepping under a shower faucet. Grant turned the water on, lowered his head, and let the hot water massage his tired and aching shoulder muscles. After soaping and washing himself off, he reached over and turned off the taps. Grant ran a hand over his face to wipe away the water, before grabbing his towel and drying off his taut body.

His mind drifted back to the last conversation he’d had with his father. Grant had just turned thirty, and was facing what his grandfather used to call ‘that inevitable fork in the road.’ Grant’s ailing father had once more asked him to leave the army and move back home to take over the family business. Grant had joined the army to get away from home in the first place. As far back as he could remember, he had always wanted to see the world and serve his country. He hoped to have at least a twenty-year career in the army, before moving back home to run his family’s vineyard. To further muddy the waters, Grant was waiting on word from his commanding officer to see if he was going to be promoted to major later in the year. The only thing Grant knew for certain was that he didn’t know what to tell his father the next time they spoke.

After pulling on some clean shorts and a tan army T-shirt, Grant walked over to a row of sinks along the wall of the tent and stopped to look in a mirror. Although his hair was already cut short, Grant couldn’t decide if he should get a trim in the morning. What little hair he had on his head was a light-brown color, and his sharp eyes were a medium sky-blue. He stood just under two meters tall, and was, without a doubt in the best shape of his life. After one last look at himself, Grant grabbed his laundry, pushed open the door, and stepped outside into the cool night air.

Camp Bayonet was a coalition Special Forces training establishment, where American, British, Canadian, and Australian soldiers taught Iraqi special operators how to be squad and platoon leaders. Normally, the camp would be home to over three hundred Iraqi soldiers and civilians, but now was almost empty. The last batch of recruits had graduated two days ago, and the next crew wouldn’t arrive for another week. The quiet time allowed the coalition staff to conduct a personnel rotation of their own. Half of the training staff assigned for the year would soon be replaced by fresh instructors.

Grant welcomed the peace and quiet. It gave him a chance to catch up on the mountains of paperwork, which seemed to pile up on his desk on a daily basis. His job in the camp was that of a company mentor, who helped guide his Iraqi counterpart through the training of his new squad leaders. After ten months in theater, Grant was looking forward to rotating back home to the States. Where he was going to next was still up in the air, but he had asked to be posted back home to the 82nd Airborne Division. Grant walked back to his tent, dropped off his dirty clothes, put a pair of old runners on his feet, and then retrieved his M4 carbine which he slung over his back.

Outside, the Muslim nighttime call to prayer came over the camp’s speakers. Grant had heard the pre-recorded calls five times a day for months, and was now mostly oblivious to them. He stepped out of his tent and watched as a handful of Iraqi security personnel accompanied by some of the camp’s civilian staff made their way to a small mosque built at the other end of the base. Grant was of two minds. He wanted to forget the last conversation he had with his dad and watch a movie on his computer, but a nagging voice in the back of his mind told him to do an hour of work at his desk before calling it a night.

He was halfway between his quarters and his office when, without warning, the camp plunged into darkness. Grant stopped in his tracks and looked around. Every light in the camp was out. An uneasy feeling swept over him when he couldn’t hear the base’s power generators running. He brought his watch up to check the time. Like everything else, it had ceased to work. The only light came from the full moon high above the camp.

“Hey, does anyone know what the hell is going on?” called out a man with a strong Australian accent.

Grant turned toward a shadowed figure standing outside of a tent. He walked over and recognized Sergeant James Maclean from the Australian training team.

Maclean held up a satellite phone. “I was chatting with my sister back home in Sydney when the bloody phone died on me.”

“Odd, isn’t it?” said Grant. “Everything in the camp with an electrical circuit switched off all at once. Even my watch has stopped working.”

Maclean checked his wristwatch and swore. “Mine’s not working, either.”

Several more men walked out of their tents and looked around the darkened camp.

“Someone must have forgotten to pay the bills,” called out a man in the night, eliciting a few nervous laughs.

“I wonder how far this blackout extends?” said Grant to Maclean.

“Only a small portion of the camp is on the Iraqi electrical grid,” explained Maclean. “Most of our power comes from our portable generators. Besides, what could have caused our watches to stop working?”

“I once read that an electromagnetic pulse could cause everything using electricity to stop working. But it would take a fair bit of power to knock out all of the electrical circuits in the camp.”

“Okay, I’ll buy that, Captain. But what could have caused an EMP out here in the middle of nowhere?”

Grant shrugged. “Perhaps it was from a massive solar flare striking the atmosphere somewhere above us?”

“Maybe, but I’m not sure that’s the answer. I’ve never read about something happening quite like this anyplace else in the world.”

“There’s got to be a first time for everything, Sergeant. Come on, let’s climb the nearest tower and see if the local villages are affected, as well.”

At the top of the tower, they found two Iraqi security guards, sitting on the floor, smoking cigarettes.

“On your bloody feet,” said Maclean, grabbing one of the men by the collar and hauling him up.

Grant looked out toward the horizon. It was the same everywhere he looked. The countryside was pitch black. “Whatever happened, it’s big. It knocked out everything around us for kilometers.”

“Sir, we should let Colonel Rodriguez know what has happened, so he can organize some form of security with the local Iraqi police until the power comes back on,” suggested Maclean.

“Yeah, good idea.”

They had taken fewer than half a dozen steps from the bottom of the tower, when a dark shadow flew across the base.

Grant looked up and blinked. He was sure he had just seen something resembling a helicopter, but this one didn’t make a sound. A fraction of a second later, the ground where the other allied soldiers had congregated to see what was going on seemed to boil, as thousands of tiny projectiles tore the hapless soldiers to shreds.

Maclean grabbed Grant’s arm. “Come on, sir, we’ve got to take cover.”

“Where?” asked Grant, watching the last of the doomed soldiers drop to the ground.

“There,” said Maclean, pointing at one of the camp’s mobile generators.

With his heart pounding away in his ears, Grant followed Maclean. They ran toward a nearby generator bolted onto on the back of a vehicle trailer. The two soldiers came to a sliding halt underneath the trailer.

“Why the hell did we take cover under here?” whispered Grant.

“Don’t say another word or move a muscle, sir,” warned Maclean.

Grant glanced over and saw his colleague staring at the Hesco bastion wall just off to their right. He froze in place and watched as a couple of figures crawled over the wall and down onto the ground. In the silvery light of the moon, Grant could see the two intruders were wearing skintight outfits that covered their entire bodies. Even their faces were hidden behind a blackened glass faceplate. Each one carried a short rifle, with what looked to be a silencer built onto the muzzle. The two men moved with cat-like stealth from body to body, checking to see if they were still alive.

Throughout the camp, the flimsy tents and office trailers were systematically shot to pieces by the circling helicopter. Anyone caught out in the open, running for their lives, was killed within seconds.

“Buggers,” muttered Maclean, when the intruders shot and killed a wounded man trying to crawl away from them.

The attackers took one last look for survivors before moving out of sight.

“I don’t understand; why didn’t they see us?” whispered Grant.

“Because whoever is attacking the camp is undoubtedly using thermal imaging to target our people,” replied Maclean. “If we had stayed out in the open, it wouldn’t take them long to see the heat coming from our bodies and pump a couple of hundred rounds into us. I was praying that the heat from the generator would mask our bodies from observation. Anyone looking in the direction of the generator would only have seen a glowing, white-hot blob, and not us.”

Grant slid his M4 from his back and flipped off the safety. His mouth was dry with fear. He had been in combat on a number of occasions in Afghanistan, but nothing he had done in the past compared to what he had just witnessed. Grant took a couple of deep breaths to calm his speeding heart and shifted his weight, intending to poke his head out from under the generator and take a look around.

“Don’t, sir,” Maclean whispered harshly. “We don’t know how many of them there are in the camp. If you fire your rifle, they’ll hear it, and come running. No matter what, we need to stay alive to report what happened here tonight.”

Grant lowered his rifle and looked over at Maclean. “Who the hell were those bastards? I didn’t recognize a single piece of equipment on either of them.”

“I don’t know, sir, but we can eliminate ISIS as the attacker. They don’t have that kind of equipment or training. One thing’s for sure; whoever they are, they mean business.”

“But why attack us? We’re just a training establishment. We’re not a threat to anyone.”

“Captain, someone out there doesn’t agree with you.”

Grant clenched his carbine tight in his hands and listened to the absolute silence surrounding them. “Well, I don’t hear them anymore, and I, for one, am not going to sit here and wait for someone to come and help us. There were over one hundred people in the camp before we were attacked. I need to know why we were targeted for extermination.”

“Okay, but I need a weapon,” said Maclean. “Mine’s still in my quarters.”

“There’s one,” said Grant, pointing at a dead Iraqi’s AKM lying on the ground.

Maclean crawled out from underneath the trailer, crept over to the dead body, and picked up the assault rifle. He made sure it was loaded before making his way back to Grant. “I say we climb back up in the tower and see what we can see.”

Grant nodded.

As silently as possible, the two men made their way to the tower. At the top, they found the guards’ bodies. Both had been shot with a single round to the side of the head.

Grant got up on his knees and peered out into the darkness but couldn’t see a thing.

“Here, try using these,” said Maclean, handing him a pair of binoculars taken from one of the dead guards.

Grant brought the binoculars up to his eyes and looked around. Although nowhere as good as a pair of night vision goggles, at night, binoculars were the next best thing. The camp was deathly quiet. Grant ground his teeth together when he saw the unknown attackers had not only murdered every human being in the vicinity, but also the camp’s guard dogs.

“Sir, I thought I saw something,” whispered Maclean. “Take a look out to the northeast.”

Grant turned around and adjusted his binoculars. In the silvery light of the moon, he saw a group of men dressed like the intruders standing out in the open. One of the men pointed at a dry riverbed which ran behind the camp. As one, the assailants nodded and ran toward the wadi.

“Sir, you gotta take a look at this,” said Maclean.

Grant lowered his glasses and turned around. He froze as a large, dark shape flew over the camp. Like the other craft, it had been modified to barely make a noise. Instead of a thunderous sound from the rotor blades slicing through the air, the helicopter was no louder than a finely-tuned car’s engine. It slowed down and then began to descend to the ground. Dust and debris kicked up by the helicopter’s powerful rotor blades’ down blast swirled up and around the ship as it landed.

“That looks like a Russian Mi-26 heavy transport helicopter to me,” said Grant. “But I’ve never heard of one that can fly nearly silent.” He handed back the binoculars. “Here, take a look.”

Maclean adjusted the eyepieces. “Yeah, it’s a Mi-26. But why the hell would the Russians attack us?”

“I don’t know. Lots of other countries own Mi-26s, so it might not be the Russians.”

“Hey, sir, look! They’re off-loading a couple of backhoes.”

Grant shook his head. “Say again?”

“Whoever they are, they’re going to dig something up.”

Grant took back the binoculars and watched, as the two digging machines were led over to the top of the riverbed before driving out of sight.

“None of this makes any sense,” said Grant. “I have to see what they’re after.”

“Yeah, me too,” agreed Maclean. “There’s an old goat path that runs by the eastern wall. We should be able to use that to sneak our way over to the wadi without being seen.”

Grant nodded. “Lead on.”

Like a pair of ghosts in the night, the two soldiers used the shadows to hide in as they crept through the camp. Everywhere they looked, there were dead bodies. Most had died right outside of their tents. Grant fought to block the images of his friends lying facedown on the sand from his mind. He silently swore when they had to step over the dead body of their commanding officer. Payback is going to be a bitch, he thought to himself.

They slipped outside of the camp and waited a moment to make sure they weren’t being followed before pushing on. Maclean pointed at a trail which led past an old abandoned home. Grant trailed behind the Aussie. It was when he stepped on a sharp rock that he remembered he was dressed in shorts, runners, and a T-shirt; hardly the best attire to wear when sneaking around in the dark, but he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

Maclean stopped in his tracks and raised a hand.

Grant froze and held his breath. Had they been spotted?

A couple of seconds later, Maclean lowered his hand and carried on to the edge of the wadi.

Grant let out his breath. Both men climbed down onto the rock-strewn, dry riverbed. The sound of the backhoes’ excavators clawing at the ground filled the air.

“Thankfully, that noise will drown out everything else,” said Maclean over his shoulder. “It should help us get real close to whoever these bastards are.”

Grant nodded. “I agree. Let’s see what they’re up to.”

Just as they were about to move, an ear-shattering explosion tore through the night. Less than fifty meters away, rocks and dirt shot straight up into the night sky. Grant and Maclean dove for cover as the debris began to rain back down onto the ground. A rock as large as a volleyball struck the sand right next to Grant’s head, startling him.

“I guess they’re in a bit of a hurry,” said Maclean, standing up from behind a tall boulder. He brushed the dirt off his uniform and looked down the riverbed. “The coast looks clear.”

With the sound of the blast still ringing in his ears, Grant flipped his weapon’s safety off and brought it up to his shoulder. As quiet as a pair of mice, they crept forward until they could see the backhoes. The two soldiers took cover behind a jagged boulder that jutted out from the ground.

To Grant, it looked like the intruders were busy digging out what looked to be a crashed airplane. He could only see half of it sticking up out of the sand, but it was unlike any plane he had seen before. Instead of being long and narrow, like most craft, this one appeared to be circular and had what Grant took to be its cockpit in the center of the craft. Grant’s fear subsided somewhat and gave way to curiosity. As the backhoes removed more earth from the craft, it was clear the plane, or whatever it was, was still in fairly good condition.

“Ever see anything like that before in your life?” Grant whispered.

“No, sir, not unless you include the movies,” replied Maclean. “Looks like they’re going to lift it out of here using the chopper.”

Grant brought up the binos and examined the craft. The backhoes pulled back as several men crawled up onto the ship and attached steel cables to it. The heavy transport chopper took off and maneuvered itself over the top of the craft, and slowly descended until one of the men fed a heavy metal hook attached to the cables into a sturdy shackle on the belly of the helicopter. The man jumped down and waved over at another man, standing at the top of the wadi. Right away, the chopper began to take up the slack. As soon as the line went taut, the helicopter pilot applied more power to help lift the craft out of the ground. For a few seconds, nothing happened, and then ever so slowly, the ship began to move. It didn’t take long for the rest of the craft to escape its resting place. The pilot brought the helicopter and its cargo high in the sky before banking over silently and heading east toward the Iranian border.

Grant popped his head up and watched as the rest of the intruders crawled up out of the wadi and ran to a smaller helicopter waiting for them in the open field. Within seconds, the darkened craft lifted up into the air and flew after the larger helicopter.

“If I hadn’t seen with my own eyes what had just happened, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Maclean.

Grant nodded. “I doubt those bastards will be back. It looks like they’ve got what they came for. Sergeant, we’ve got to get back to the camp and look for survivors.”

“Yes, sir. I’m with you. The scent of blood carried on these winds will bring the wild dogs down from the hills, and I’ll be damned if any of them are getting near any of our mates. We can build a couple of really big bonfires near the camps’ entrances. That should keep them at bay until the sun comes up, or help arrives.”

With that, the two soldiers jogged back to their devastated camp, lost in their thoughts about what had just happened and what was to follow.



3

Ali Al Salem Air Base – Kuwait


Grant pushed the plate of food away from himself, stared up at the clock on the wall, and saw that time was creeping by slowly. He let out a dejected sigh and drummed his fingers on the table. The thought of yet another pointless interview with some nameless individual in a dark suit had driven away his meager appetite.

It had been a week since the attack. They had been found the next day by a U.S. Army Special Forces team, who arrived to look for survivors. The two soldiers had been flown directly from Iraq to the sprawling allied air base in Kuwait, where they were summarily locked up in an old maintenance hangar far away from the rest of the station’s personnel. All of their dirty clothes had been taken from them the moment they landed at the base, by soldiers in full decontamination gear. After showering, they were examined by a team of doctors before being separated and interviewed by a seemingly never-ending stream of experts. Some of them were in uniform, and some not, but all of them asked the same question: what happened that night out in the desert? Grant had not seen or heard from Sergeant Maclean for over four days, and was beginning to wonder if he had been released to the Australian authorities on the base.

The door to the room opened, and Maclean stepped inside. Like Grant, he was wearing a set of tan coveralls. The man didn’t look any worse for wear. He stood as tall as Grant but had broad muscular shoulders. His blond hair was cut short on his head. He had bluish-green eyes, and a nose slightly askew, likely from the numerous fights he’d had in his youth as a private in Australian Army.

“Good afternoon, sir,” said Maclean, after looking for his watch, which he’d forgotten wasn’t on his wrist, then checking the time on the clock.

“Afternoon, Sergeant,” replied Grant, nodding.

Maclean took a seat at the table. “I don’t know why, but I always feel naked without my watch.”

Grant chuckled. “I know how you feel. I thought they’d let you go.”

“No such luck. I guess they’re tired of talking to us separately. You gonna eat that?” said Maclean, pointing at Grant’s uneaten BLT sandwich.

“No. Help yourself.”

Maclean picked up the sandwich and took a bite. “Have you been interviewed yet by the slender woman with short, black hair and pale, white skin?”

“Yes. She came in dressed in a dark suit, so I asked to see her ID.”

“And?”

“She smiled and said I didn’t need to see it.”

“Same thing happened to me. I don’t know why, but that woman creeped me out.” Maclean devoured the rest of the sandwich.

“Sergeant, I was wondering, have you been in contact with anyone from your armed forces?”

Maclean shook his head. “No, not a one.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit odd? There were over a dozen Australian officers and NCOs in the camp when it was attacked. You’d think your government would want to hear what happened there. Especially from one of its own people.”

“Yeah, I thought about that, too. But I assumed your government was keeping mine in the loop. At least, I hope they are.”

The door swung open. A military policeman stood to one side as a small man with curly red hair walked in, carrying a stack of file folders in his arms. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, and wore a rumpled blue suit with a white shirt and a red bowtie. Freckles covered his round face. He placed his folders down on the table and removed his glasses so he could clean them with a handkerchief.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said the man with a strong English accent. “My name is Doctor Jeremy Hayes, and I work for the British Ministry of Defense.”

“Have they run out of Americans to interview us?” quipped Maclean.

Hayes shook his head. “Sorry? I don’t follow what you’re saying. I’m here as a representative of Her Majesty’s government. To save time, I’m going to debrief the two of you together.”

Maclean let an exasperated sigh. “For the love of God! Haven’t the Americans shared the information we’ve already provided with you people?”

“Oh yes, very much so,” replied Hayes, lifting up his pile of folders. “That’s why I’m here. May I sit down?”

Grant smiled and pointed to the nearest chair. “If it’ll speed things along, please join us at the table.”

Hayes sat. “I’ve read all of your testimonial evidence and only have one or two questions for the two of you.”

“What would you like to know?”

Hayes opened two files, pulled out two pieces of paper, and placed both down on the table. “These are the drawings you both made of the object that was extracted from the riverbed in Iraq.”

Grant glanced down at his picture and nodded, as did Maclean.

“They’re remarkably similar,” said Hayes. “You both captured the scale of the unidentified object with impressive detail.”

“It was hard to miss, when it was hanging from the underneath a modified Mi-26 helicopter,” said Maclean.

“Yes, of course. Now, when asked to identify the type of craft you think you saw, you had startlingly different answers. Captain Grant, you wrote that you believed it was either a Russian or Iranian experimental stealth UAV which had inadvertently crossed into Iraqi airspace before crashing. Sergeant Maclean, however, wrote that he thought it could possibly be a UFO.”

Grant looked at his colleague and shook his head. “Really, Sergeant, a UFO?”

“Hey, why not?” replied Maclean. “I’ve never seen a UAV that’s disc-shaped. Have you, Captain?”

“Just because you haven’t seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” said Hayes. “There are dozens of highly experimental prototypes of aircraft and drones being flown and tested by the NATO powers that the public has no knowledge of. It only stands to reason if we’re doing it, so are the Russians, Iranians, Chinese…etc.”

“Yeah, but they had to dig it out of the ground,” countered Maclean. “If it were some type of experimental drone it would have crashed recently, and would surely have been found by the farmers living around the base. No, sir, this plane, or whatever you want people to call it, crashed there a long time ago. A bloody long time ago.”

Grant saw the logic in Maclean’s argument and began to re-evaluate his opinion. He decided to push Hayes a little. “I have to agree; Sergeant Maclean could be onto something.”

“Gentlemen, I feared this might happen,” said Hayes, putting the two pictures away. “In the MOD, I work for the advanced propulsion workshop, and I can assure you that the craft you saw was a drone, and not some kind of UFO from outer space.”

“Then why did the locals never spot it, and more importantly, why did the people who slaughtered our friends have to blast it out of the ground?” said Maclean.

“I can’t say why the Iraqi farmers never came across the drone,” said Hayes. “There was a powerful sandstorm in your region a week before the attack. Perhaps that’s when the UAV was lost. The blowing sand could have easily covered the drone lying at the bottom of the riverbed. And the reason they had to use explosives to free it was because when it crashed it jammed itself tightly into the rocks.”

Grant and Maclean looked at one another and shook their heads. They weren’t buying Hayes’ explanations.

The professor placed his hands palm down on the table and smiled patronizingly. “Gentlemen, just because you can’t identify something doesn’t make it an extraterrestrial craft. For that to occur, you would need some form of proof, and you have none. In fact, there has never been an alleged alien crash site that has ever held up to scientific scrutiny. Trust me when I say that there are no UFOs or alien bodies being held by anyone inside or outside of the U.S., nor any other allied nations’ governments. No extraterrestrial culture or technology has ever been uncovered by anyone anywhere in the world. You have to face facts. To date, there has been no irrefutable evidence found connecting UFOs to extraterrestrials. If you want the truth, you have to realize that what you saw was a manmade craft and not some downed alien disc.”

“Well, if you put it that way, I guess I may have been mistaken,” said Maclean.

“It happens. A few years back I thought I saw a UFO, but it turned out just to be some flares dropped by a C-130 during a training exercise on the Brecon Beacons in Wales.”

“Is there anything else you would like to discuss, Doc?” asked Grant.

“No, I think I’m done,” replied Hayes, scooping up his folders and standing. “Good day to you two gentlemen.” He turned and exited the room.

The second the door closed, Maclean jumped out of his seat. “That man’s full of crap. His job was to come in here and convince us that we didn’t see what we both saw.”

Grant sat back and linked his hands behind his head. “Agreed, but we’re not really sure what we saw. Now are we?”

Maclean shrugged. “No, I suppose not, but I’m not convinced that what I saw was a UAV. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that since the first day we arrived here, these so-called experts haven’t asked us a question about our dead mates?”

“Yeah, but I thought they had all they needed from us.”

Maclean grew agitated. “The craft is all these bloody people care about. Not you, not me, not our dead friends.”

The door opened, and a tall, African-American U.S. Air Force Colonel with a shaved head walked inside and closed the door behind him. He had a black leather briefcase in his right hand, which he placed on the floor by his feet.

Both soldiers respectfully came to attention.

“Please take a seat, gentlemen,” said the colonel, pulling out a chair at the other end of the table.

Grant and Maclean resumed sitting.

“I’m sure by now you’re both sick and tired of talking to people, so I’ll keep this short. My name is Colonel Oliver Andrews, and I have been brought in to conduct this investigation.”

Grant raised a hand. “Sir, I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but why is the Air Force investigating the attack of Camp Bayonet? Shouldn’t the army be doing that?”

“That investigation is already over, Captain,” replied Andrews. “It has been determined that ISIS sympathizers infiltrated the camp dressed as Iraqi security personnel, and waited until it was quiet before attacking and killing everyone there.”

“That’s a load of bull, and you know it, sir,” said Maclean. His voice grew loud. “It wasn’t ISIS. It was someone else who killed all of my mates. I was supposed to be going home on leave in a month with Sergeant Adams. He was going to get married, and I was supposed to be his best man. Someone’s going to answer for his death.”

“That may be so, Sergeant, but as far as the U.S. and Australian forces are concerned, what I told you is the official story.”

Grant leaned forward in his chair. “What about the two stealth helicopters that we saw? How do you explain those, Colonel?”

Andrews fixed his dark-brown eyes on Grant. “They weren’t there. In fact, it would be in both of your best interests to never say a word to anyone about what you believe you saw one week ago.”

Grant shook his head. “Colonel, over the past few days, we’ve told more than a dozen people about what happened in Iraq. They have our sworn statements, and now you want us to pretend that it never went down the way it did?”

“Correct, Captain.”

Grant sat back and crossed his arms. “May I ask why, sir?”

Andrews reached down and lifted his briefcase onto the table. He opened it and placed a photograph in front of the two soldiers. It showed the burnt hulk of an Mi-26 helicopter sitting in the desert. “This was taken by a military surveillance satellite over Iran the day after the attack on the camp. As you can see, whoever was behind the attack flew north of the City of Dehloran and landed. They then transferred the craft you saw dug out of the ground onto a waiting plane. Since they didn’t have any further need of the Mi-26 anymore, they set it on fire. Intelligence analysts believe the tire marks on the ground next to the wreckage belong to a Russian-built An-12 transport aircraft.”

“Damn. So, it was the Russians who did this,” said Maclean. “Those bastards! Why would they do something so stupid as to risk a war with NATO to retrieve a crashed experimental drone?”

“First off, there is no direct evidence connecting this to the Russian government or their armed forces,” said Andrews. “Secondly, the craft you believe you saw doesn’t correspond with any known Russian aircraft or drones.”

“So whose was it, then?” asked Grant.

“We don’t know. That’s why I’ve been brought in.” Andrews reached into his case and brought out two pieces of paper, which he slid across the table to Grant and Maclean. “Gents, before I say another word, these are your non-disclosure agreements. If you wish to leave this base before you grow old and die, I suggest that you sign them without delay.”

Grant picked his up and read it. He raised an eyebrow and looked over at Andrews. “This non-disclosure form is for the rest of our natural lives.”

“Yes, I know,” replied Andrews, as he placed a fountain pen on the table.

“Hey, I don’t work for you or your armed forces,” protested Maclean. “Before I sign this, I want to speak with one of my own officers.”

“I thought you’d say that.” Andrews stood and opened the door. A Royal Australian Air Force officer got out of a chair in the hallway and nodded at Andrews. “Wing Commander Wallace will be more than happy to fill you in on your government’s position regarding this investigation, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir,” said Maclean, getting to his feet.

When they were alone, Grant placed his paper down on the table. “Colonel, if I sign this, then what? Are we free to go?”

Andrews shook his head. “Not yet. As you two are the only people to have seen the crashed craft, and the men who took it, I need your help with my investigation.”

Maclean strode back in the room, picked up the pen and signed his name. His face was pale. He looked at Grant. “I’d sign it if I were you, Captain.”

“Why?”

“Have you ever heard of a place called Diyarbakir prison?”

“No.”

“I’m not surprised. It’s in Turkey, and I’ve been reliably told that it’s a nasty place to be locked up for the rest of your life.”

“So? What does that have to do with us?”

“Because, sir, I’ve been told that Amnesty International declared it one of the most brutal prisons in the world. My people told me to sign on the dotted line, or we’d both end up in a secret military installation somewhere in the Indian Ocean that makes Diyarbakir look like a holiday spot.”

Grant looked at Andrews and saw he was smiling. A shiver ran down his spine. He was being boxed into a corner with no recourse. Grant pursed his lips, took the pen, and wrote his name on the paper.

Andrews took both forms and slid them into his briefcase. “Now that that’s out of the way, there are a couple more people you will need to see before we leave.”

Grant’s head was swimming. “Leave? Where are we going, Colonel?”

“To Batumi, Georgia,” replied Andrews. “That’s where the An-12 landed.”

“Sir, before we have any more discussions or board a plane to Georgia, can we at least speak with our families to let them know we’re still alive?” asked Grant, knowing his parents would be worried sick, wondering if he was still alive or not.

Andrews sat back and ran a hand over his smooth head. “Unfortunately, no.”

“Why not?”

“Because both of your families have been told that you were severely injured in the attack and are in hospital recuperating from your wounds. You have my word that you can speak with them when this is all tidied up.”

“Sir, you won’t be able to keep this a secret forever. The truth is bound to get out.”

“You’d be surprised what has been kept secret from the public over the past few decades. Besides, if the truth somehow leaked out about what happened, it would only be because one of you two said something you shouldn’t have. Any breach of the non-disclosure agreements that you both signed will result in hard jail time for the rest of your lives. As for Camp Bayonet, the world’s media is already reporting this as the worst incident of ISIS infiltration into the Iraqi security forces since we re-deployed our forces into Iraq. Trust me; the message is being carefully controlled. Hell, even ISIS has gleefully taken responsibility for the attack, even though they had nothing to do with it.”

“I see you’ve thought of everything, sir,” said Grant.

“That’s why I work in the Special Investigations Branch in the Pentagon. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to make a few calls before we depart.”

“And when might that be?” asked Maclean.

Andrews looked at his watch. “In precisely two hours and thirty-one minutes.”

Both men stood as Andrews left without saying another word.

“What a bunch of horse crap,” said Maclean. “My God, they’re laying it on pretty thick. I can see it in his eyes. That Colonel is deliberately not telling us the whole story.” He stood and pushed his chair across the room with his right foot. “I honestly don’t give a damn about that alleged UAV. All I want to know is who killed my mates, and how I get my hands on them.”

“In a matter of hours, Sergeant, I think you’re going to get your chance,” said Grant. “If there is a secret drone sitting in the back of a plane in Batumi, you know it’s going to be guarded, and I’m willing to bet it’ll be the same bastards who attacked our camp.”

Maclean clenched his right hand into a fist until his knuckles turned white. “God, I hope so. It’s high time somebody paid for what happened.”



4


An all-white Learjet entered Georgian airspace at an altitude of ten thousand meters, and flew straight toward the coastal city. Built on the shores of the Black Sea on the remains of an ancient Greek colony, the picturesque Batumi was the second largest city in Georgia.

Grant and Maclean sat in the passenger compartment, accompanied by Colonel Andrews and Professor Hayes. The two soldiers had traded their coveralls for some of their civilian clothes recovered from the camp, and some new ones bought on the base in Kuwait.

Hayes opened his briefcase and produced a handful of photographs which he handed to Grant. “Captain, this is the An-12 we believe was used to transport the downed UAV from Iran to Georgia.”

“How can you be sure this is the same jet?” asked Grant, as he studied the pictures, showing the transport plane parked inside a spacious hangar.

“We have our sources,” Andrews curtly replied.

“If this drone is so important to someone, why is it still there?” asked Maclean. “It’s been over a week since the attack. Why haven’t they moved it?”

“We don’t know why,” said Hayes. “Hopefully, you can determine that for us once you find a way inside the hangar and positively identify the craft you claim to have seen being dug out of the sand in Iraq.”

Maclean leaned forward and like a jackhammer, he jammed his right index finger into Hayes’ chest. “Listen here, Professor, I know what I saw. The captain and I aren’t making this stuff up for kicks.”

Hayes’ eyes widened. He sat back, trying to get out of reach of the Australian Sergeant.

“Sergeant, calm down and sit back in your seat,” warned Andrews. “Before we boarded this plane, your armed forces posted you to my office, so until you’re told otherwise I am your new commanding officer. Learn to control that temper of yours.”

Grant looked at his colleague and nodded.

Maclean let out an infuriated sigh and stood up. He walked to the back of the aircraft and poured himself a glass of water.

“I take it I’m also posted to your office?” said Grant to Andrews.

“That is correct,” responded the colonel. “It’s only temporary. When this investigation is wrapped up, you’ll both be sent back to your respective organizations.”

Grant smiled thinly. He wasn’t sure if he believed Colonel Andrews or not.

“Sergeant, please take your seat,” said Andrews.

Maclean walked back and sat down.

“Before we land, there are a couple of things we need to go over,” said Andrews. “First off, quit using each other’s rank. First names only from now on.”

“I don’t even know your first name, Captain,” said Maclean.

“It’s David,” replied Grant. “But you can call me Dave; all my friends do.”

“And I’m Jim. Only my sister calls me James. It’s going to take some getting used to, calling an officer by his first name.”

“Now that that’s out of the way, here are a couple of surveillance devices we need you to wear,” said Andrews. He nodded at Hayes who opened his briefcase and gave the two soldiers a couple of small boxes each.

Grant opened one and saw there was a contact lens case inside of it. “I don’t get it. I don’t wear contacts.”

“Those aren’t ordinary contact lenses,” explained Hayes. “Inside, you will find a lens with a built-in camera.”

“You’ve got be kidding,” blurted out Maclean, as he checked out the lenses.

“There’s no need to put them on now. You can slip them over your right eyes just before we land.”

“And what’s in the other box?” asked Grant.

“Near-invisible hearing aids,” explained Hayes. “We’ll be able to hear everything you say. We can also speak to you via the device.”

Maclean chuckled as he looked at Hayes. “If you work for the advanced propulsion workshop at the British MOD, then I’m a male underwear model.”

Hayes shrugged and turned to look out of the window.

“Sir, will there be someone there to meet us when we land?” Grant asked Andrews.

“Yes. I have an asset on the ground who has been watching the An-12 ever since it landed,” said Andrews.

“Has this person had any luck getting near the plane?”

“No. My orders to her were to observe and do nothing else. She’s the one who secretly took the pictures of the plane in the hangar.”

“Colonel, what if we can’t get close enough to the plane to see what’s inside?”

“Be creative. I need to know if the UAV is still there. If it’s not, we could be in a world of hurt.”

Grant found the last statement to be strange, but let it go. He sat back and closed his eyes. He let the enormity of everything that had and was about to happen sink in.


The Learjet landed smoothly, and taxied to a building used for private airport customs and reception. The front door of the jet opened, and the stairs were lowered by the co-pilot. Almost right away, a heavy man in an ill-fitting, dark-blue uniform boarded the plane.

“Passports, please,” said the man in English.

The co-pilot handed over everyone’s passports. The man smiled and stamped the books, without even reading the passports. The last book, the co-pilot’s, held the usual two-thousand-dollar bribe.

“Please enjoy your stay in Georgia,” said the customs agent before leaving.

“That’s it?” said Grant.

“For now,” replied Andrews.

“Hello in there,” called out a woman’s voice. Her English was good, despite her Georgian accent. “Permission to come on board?”

“Permission granted, Tatiana,” replied Andrews, smiling.

A slender woman in her mid-fifties with salt-and-pepper hair, walked up the stairs and into the plane. She was wearing a blue jacket over a short dress. In her left hand was a shopping bag. A pin on her jacket identified her as a member of the Georgian Customs Agency.

“Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Tatiana,” said Andrews. “She is my best asset here in Georgia.”

“You flatter me, sir,” said Tatiana.

“I’d like you to meet Misters Gray and Black,” said Andrews, indicating with his hand to Grant and Maclean.

Grant held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Tatiana.”

“It’s not my real name, but the pleasure is all mine, Mister Gray.”

“Evening,” said Maclean.

“Oh, Mister Black is handsome, and, judging by his accent, he is from Australia,” said Tatiana, smiling. “I do like a man with an accent. Do you think you could leave him here with me for a few days after we finish our job?”

“I don’t see why not,” said Andrews.

“Hey, I’m standing right here, you two,” protested Maclean. “How about we get to work?”

“He’s all business,” said Tatiana, pouting. “Such a shame.” Tatiana placed her shopping bag on the carpeted floor. “Here are the coveralls you asked for, Colonel, along with the necessary identification badges.”

“Get changed,” ordered Andrews.

Grant and Maclean nodded and pulled on the dirty-white coveralls.

“This fits perfectly,” said Grant. “I’m impressed.”

Da, I had your sizes forwarded to me,” explained Tatiana.

“Along with our photos,” said Maclean, admiring the fake ID.

“Okay, gentlemen, I will lead you to the hangar where the plane is parked,” said Tatiana. “I have a young mechanic who is quite enamored with me, waiting to let you in via a back door. He’ll go with you as far as the plane, but he’s been told not to step inside.”

“Armed backup?” asked Maclean.

“None; you’re on your own,” replied Andrews. “I can’t afford to risk the life of my only agent in Batumi.”

“But we’re expendable?”

Andrews shrugged. “Try not to get caught, and this should be over in the next thirty minutes or so.”

Grant slipped on his contact lens and blinked a couple of times to get it in place.

“It’s working,” announced Hayes, looking up from his laptop.

Maclean slid on his lens.

“Got you, as well,” said Hayes. “Now let’s check your hearing aids.”

“Can you hear me?” said Grant.

“Loud and clear,” replied Hayes in Grant’s earpiece.

“Keep the engines running while we’re gone,” said Maclean. “I don’t want to spend twenty years to life in a squalid Georgian military prison.”

Hayes raised a thumb. “Got him, too.”

Andrews placed a hand on Grant’s shoulder. “Captain, I have no doubt that you think I’m acting in haste and possibly throwing you two to the wolves.”

“The thought had occurred to me, sir,” responded Grant.

“Trust me, if there had been another way, I would have used it. You two are the only people who have seen this drone, and time is of the essence. All I need you to do is get inside and confirm for me that it is still there, and then get the hell out.”

“Colonel, what’s going to happen after we confirm the UAV is the one we saw and is still on the plane?”

“We’ll depart right away, and another team will take possession of the plane.”

“What other team?” asked Maclean.

“That’s on a need-to-know basis, and right now, you two gentlemen don’t need to know,” said Andrews. “Now, please follow Tatiana to the hangar, and do your job.”

Grant looked over at Maclean. “Come on, Mister Black. Let’s tempt fate for the second time in just over a week.”



5


The night air was hot and sticky.

Grant and Maclean walked behind Tatiana, as she headed toward the closest of three hangars in a row at the end of the airstrip. Her high heels echoed off the walls as they walked to the back of the building.


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