MARE MOSCOVIENSE, LUNAR FAR SIDE, 2179 AD
Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time we cannot measure. We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess.
[Rasmus Nyerup, (Danish antiquarian), 1802 (in Trigger, 1989:71)]
Simon Cordell turned his floater’s lights to maximum, opened the access door, and dropped to the cavern floor. Above his head, the large saucer-shaped drilling machine still thrummed away in neutral, sound carried by the three-metre diameter vertical sink shaft, which ran over a hundred metres to the surface.
Breakthrough had been a birth into a strange, new world. The walls of the cave were not dull and lifeless, but sparkled with crystalline rainbow colours and shining white speckles of light. He had seen nothing like it on Earth. And this was his discovery, his stamp on lunar exploration!
Although he now yearned to return home, he realised he had been only too anxious to flee the dysfunctional planet he hadn’t seen for over three years. The effects of the last great conflict, though decades past, still lingered.
His spacesuit disguised his tall frame; his helmet shielded his long, determined jaw, sharp nose and deep-set blue eyes. He took an easy step forward. Laser measurer in hand he quickly checked the cave’s dimensions. It was large enough to house the mining team, deep enough to economically maintain a constant temperature, and robust enough to protect from anything the solar system might throw at them.
As he scanned the cave, he saw something nearby that didn’t look natural. He moved towards it cautiously.
Even before he truly perceived the objects, he was coated in sweat. It couldn’t be true. It must be an illusion; a weird rock formation created millions of years ago. He blinked, testing his sight, not believing his eyes. He saw the impossible: a table on a slim pedestal, perhaps one metre wide, four or five long. He may have screamed. There was a sphere on the table, the size of a football, perfectly round.
His heart started to race. The surface of the table was like glass, harshly reflecting the light from his helmet. The sphere just sat there as if floating on a sea of luminescence.
How could anyone have been here before him? Was the sphere alive? He slowly stretched out his hand, touched the top of the table. Nothing happened. A small part of him was disappointed.
He turned and walked towards the nearest cave wall, trepidation stalking every step. Shapes started to emerge from what should have been a rough, rocky surface. Fear seized his mind. His mouth became dry. There were figures in the wall, seemingly engraved within the rock itself. Scores of them, probably hundreds. They looked like an army stood to attention, all the same, motionless, and as alien as the rock that surrounded them.
Simon felt his pulse throbbing in his ears. He thought he was going to faint, swayed uncertainly on his feet, took a step forward to avoid falling. He looked at the rock as if in a dream. The figures were arranged in neat horizontal rows, one on top of the other, five rows in all. It was like looking at an ancient Masonic work of art, but these appeared to be real beings placed upright into the cave wall, not quite touching, and undoubtedly alien. His heart was in his mouth and if one of the strange figures had moved he probably would have died on the spot.
Their height was around a metre. They weren’t clothed but there did not appear to be any distinguishing sexual characteristics. Limbs were thin and the arms seemed to have two elbows as well as a wrist. Each hand carried three long fingers, one opposing the other two. The hue of the skin was green and sparkling. Their legs were thin but the thighs, like in humans, were thicker than the calves. There were no toes on the feet but there was a knuckled joint half-way down the instep.
Simon found it hard to stare into the alien faces but the first thing he noticed was that they all looked the same. Certainly, their expressions in death (or sleep) were alike. The faces were, in fact, remarkably human with two large eyes, small ears and mouth. Nostrils were not immediately obvious but there was the faintest hint of a small flap beneath the eyes. Overall, the head had a triangular shape, broadening towards the top.
“It’s like a morgue or a graveyard,” Simon breathed to himself, “or a storage centre.”
He clambered inside his floater, ascended the shaft, radioed in and headed the vehicle swiftly back to the mining complex.
Earth responded by shipping out palaeontologist, James Templeton, supplemented by a medico from Mare Tranquillitatis on the near side of the moon, Kendall Le Blanc. They took carbon datings from the creatures, but it didn’t help. There were no Carbon-14 atoms present in any of the minute samples Templeton had taken from the femurs of over twenty individuals.
Templeton smiled. “There’s no organic carbon – these creatures are not carbon based. Could be silicon, not sure. Probably unlikely.”
“We’re going to bring one up,” Le Blanc announced suddenly. “Give it the full works. Find out what makes it tick.”
Simon paled. He could still recall his initial sighting of the creatures. “Is that really necessary? Why not let them rest in peace?”
Le Blanc spread his soft, smooth hands. “Such an opportunity, don’t you think, to study the anatomy of an alien race?”
Simon rose. “I only know I wouldn’t like it,” he said, and left the room.
Le Blanc had chosen a cadaver nearest the centre, and as they had prised it carefully from its rocky cradle the sphere pulsed with white light. Something was live in the strange orb, something was watching. They left it there, afraid to touch it.
Back at the Moscoviense base they placed the alien in a sealed, transparent cryogenic tube and attached a vacuum pump to the adaptor. Only then did they take off their suits.
Le Blanc wiped his brow and peered through the tube’s canopy at the face of the alien.
“Didn’t weigh much and not bad looking when you look up close. Amazing eyes,” he said.
“What first?” Simon asked nervously.
Templeton gave him a patronising smile. “Probably the brain,” he said. “But in the morning I think. It’s been an exciting day.”
Le Blanc nodded. “That’s right, the brain. Find out what makes it tick.”
The mass exodus started at 3:13 am and was captured on the radar screen of the Moscoviense comm centre. It was also significant enough to trigger the warning siren of the mining complex, rudely awakening the twenty-three souls currently asleep there. The director, white-haired and wiry framed, afraid of losing control, was in the comm centre within thirty seconds.
“What the hell’s happening?” he snapped at Paul Hurst, the young operator.
Hurst shrugged and gestured at the large screen. It was filled with movement, a dense gaseous cloud ghosting across the screen. The director frowned. “Go get Templeton and Le Blanc,” he ordered. “I’ll talk to the rest.” And then as a second thought, “Are we recording this?”
Paul nodded briefly and left to find the scientists. The director went to the adjoining corridor to intercept the growing crowd. He held up his arms. “Sorry folks – a malfunction. Pass the word along.” There were the usual mumbled questions, but eventually they dispersed to be replaced by Templeton, Le Blanc and the operator Hurst. They turned their attention to the radar screen.
The cloud moved off the top of the monitor and vanished. Without being asked the operator replayed the action.
“Is it gas?” the director asked. “From where we sank the shaft?”
“Bats,” Templeton murmured. “It reminds me of an old video I saw of bats at dusk in an American town.”
Next to him, Le Blanc had turned pale. “Is it really them?” he gasped. “And how can it be? How are they breathing? Where are they going?” He collapsed onto a chair. “They’re obviously not as dead as we thought.”
“Told you we should have left them alone.” Simon Cordell was leaning against the door. He was staring straight past them and out through the small port into the dark sky.
“They’re fifty kilometres up already,” Paul said, “and starting to change direction.” He glanced at the director. “If I didn’t know better, sir, I would say they’re taking the same route as our Earth-bound shuttles.”
In the laboratory Templeton and Le Blanc stared aghast at the cryogenic tube. Incredibly, part of the alien was outside the high density plastic – what looked like an arm with a huge sleeve was slowly waving around in the air like a broken windmill vane. Inside the head was rolling from side to side, eyes white and even larger than before. Le Blanc slowly approached and saw that the alien’s arm had somehow breached the wall of the cryogenic tube, though with no apparent damage. It was as if the arm and the tube were one and the same – each an extension of the other. The alien’s mouth was moving but there was no sound in the room save an intermittent dull thud as its triangular head hit against the side of its prison. Movement stopped as it suddenly saw Le Blanc and Templeton. And then the head pushed against the tube and slowly began to emerge. It stopped with just the eyes free, staring at its captors. The liberated arm flapped and then dropped. The eyes glazed over and, as if the effort had been too much, the alien lay still.
Templeton grew closer, looking at the tube where both arm and head lay outside the dense plastic.
“Is it dead?” came Le Blanc’s voice, from behind.
Templeton donned a pair of medical gloves, tentatively lifting the alien’s arm to reveal a taut, thin membrane stretching between the shoulder and the wrist. The membrane was so translucent he could distinguish the details of the room beyond it. He looked at the eyes. They were cloudy. Symbolising death? He looked closer at the areas where the alien had started to emerge from the tube. It was as if it had parted the molecules to force its way through.
“Not sure,” Templeton belatedly answered Le Blanc’s question. “Probably.” He ran his finger along the joint where the arm had emerged – perfect, as if the material had fused to form a single entity. Flinching slightly he did the same around the partial emergence of the head. He had seen it happen, but he did not believe it. The arm and head had partially passed through the heavy plastic in an attempt, presumably, to escape the cryogenic tube.
“Silicon-based?” Le Blanc asked in an effort to remain rational.
Templeton was sceptical. Since the discovery of silicon-based organisms at great depths in the Earth’s crust, debate raged within the scientific community on the feasibility of more advanced silicon-based life forms elsewhere in the universe. Templeton did not believe it was possible. However, this particular life form, situated half in and half out of the cryogenic tube, might be the thing to change his mind.
“Whatever it is,” Templeton said, “it somehow permeated its own matter between the molecules of the tube walls.”
Le Blanc approached the tube. “Can we get this open?” he asked. Templeton pressed the requisite button and the lid of the chamber hummed open dragging the featherweight body of the alien with it. It hung grotesquely, face down over the tube lid, its arm touching the floor.
“Let’s get to it,” Templeton said. “Find out what we can.”
The director and Simon Cordell revisited the cave at 4:47 am. The cupboard was, as expected, bare. Not one single body remained. The strange sphere and table had also vanished.
“They’ve gone out there with no suits!” Cordell exclaimed. “No pressure vessel, no support of any kind. Not only that, they have defied gravity and flown out of the moon’s field in a non-existent atmosphere.” He looked at the director through his faceplate. “What’s happening?”
The director had no response. “Let’s get back. I need to talk to Templeton and Le Blanc.”
Near side radar at Mare Tranquillitatis had picked up the cloud at 4:07 am but within ten minutes of the initial signal the image had dispersed. Hurst remained in contact with them until it was pointless to continue further whereupon he signed off with a request for them to transmit their recording to Moscoviense. Leaning back in his chair, he never felt the blow to the back of his head. His skull fractured like an eggshell and he was dead before he hit the floor.
Simon and the director brought their floaters to the ground at the same time. For a while dust obscured the view they both fervently hoped was a mirage, a spell cast by the strong luminous beams of their vehicles: shadow games among lunar rocks. However, as their screwed-up eyes pierced the gloom, they saw that the usual large smooth hemispherical shell of the station was replaced by an ugly misshapen form, wilted and lifeless against the dark sky. They cut power, disembarked and approached the entrance, helmet lights dancing and probing as if trying to make sense of the scene.
The airlock was open but dead, devoid of power. Within seconds of entering the limp hemisphere it was obvious that normal survival was impossible. The illumination from their suits provided the only relief from the gloomy darkness within.
All the generators had been sabotaged; cables disconnected and hanging loose, reminiscent of lifeless umbilical cords. Connections had been cut clean and were impossible to repair without the right tools. They found four bloated bodies in the perimeter corridor, more in the capsular dormitories, personnel having returned to bed following the earlier disturbance.
“Eighteen,” Simon said grimly. “There are four more.”
“Sit tight,” the director replied. “I’ll be back in a minute. Just need to get something.”
Simon felt his heartbeat drumming in his ears. Sweat soaked his palms and brow. He didn’t trust his own thoughts anymore. This was crazy – an impossible nightmare. “Where are you now?”
“It’s okay. Nearly there. I’m outside my room; what’s left of it.”
“Be careful. Someone might be in there.” Simon thought about the generators. Someone had obviously gone mad, or the alien creature … he shook his head. That was surely impossible.
“It’s alright. I’m on my way back.”
“Right.” Simon wanted to take his helmet off, tackle the sweat on his brow. He needed to find tools to fix the generator cables. The director came round the bend. He had a weapon in his hand, and it was pointing directly at Simon.
“What the hell are you doing?” Simon blurted.
“Sorry,” the director said. “I can’t take any chances. You might be involved in this.” He motioned with the laser pistol. “Let’s go to the comm room.”
They walked slowly and Simon suddenly said, “There are three more around here somewhere, excluding Hurst in the comm area.”
“Who’s counting?” the director snapped. “Just keep moving.”
As they approached there were two more bodies in the corridor. Their distorted features were hard to recognise under the feeble helmet lights. They had to step over one of them.
“Two left including Hurst,” Simon said as if to annoy the director.
The comm centre was a mess. They immediately saw Paul Hurst slumped over the console. There was blood splattered everywhere and the console itself had been thoroughly trashed.
“That’s that then,” Simon proclaimed. “We can’t contact Earth or the near side, even if we can get the power back up.” He heard the director start to hyperventilate and yelled into his suit mike. “Stop it! Keep calm. We’ll find a way out of this.”
They both heard the noise behind them at the same time and turned as one to investigate. A suited figure stood there brandishing a large pair off cable cutters.
The intruder took a step forward, brandishing the cutters menacingly. The director raised his pistol, firing at point-blank range. A gaping hole suddenly appeared in the assailant’s suit, and the occupant swayed unsteadily on his feet. Somehow he found the strength to lunge at the director as the next shot was fired.
Simon saw the tear in the director’s arm and knew he was gone. He lunged for the gun before it fell to the floor, grasping the barrel between gloved fingers. The attacker staggered backwards. The director fell forward catching the arm of their assailant. Simon swiftly transferred the pistol to his other hand.
“Help me.” The words were faint in Simon’s ears. He didn’t know if it was the intruder or the director.
And then he gushed bile onto his faceplate as he witnessed one of the aliens somehow emerge from the suit of the attacker. The suit and the cutters fell to the floor. For a moment the alien stood there, wide eyes staring at Simon, as if contemplating the next move. Simon, panic driven, levelled the pistol and fired. The beam nicked the creature on the arm before it sped for the door and disappeared. Simon did not follow, could not follow. He looked at the two bodies on the floor knowing both were now dead. Kneeling, with one eye on the door, he slowly removed the assailant’s helmet and saw the distorted face of Le Blanc. How the hell did this happen?
Simon rose slowly, thoughts spinning and headed for the door. He had to pull himself together, concentrate on survival. How could he get out of here? Could he escape from the alien? Oh God! How much air is left in his suit?
He made his way back to the main airlock, watchful for the re-appearance of the strange creature that had somehow wormed its way inside Le Blanc’s suit, if not his very body.
Simon paused at the airlock and looked out at the dark lunar landscape. The two floaters stood around ten metres away, faintly reflecting the light from his helmet. He was the only survivor of an act that was, as yet, beyond his comprehension. Mare Tranquillitatis was too far away. The small Hercules base, on the near side, was his only chance. However, that would depend on the floater’s energy charge.
He knitted his brow – what was the range of a floater? Perhaps three thousand kilometres if the cells were fully charged. Enough, but with little to spare.
He started towards the vehicles but suddenly froze. The alien was standing in front of the nearest one. The creature was totally dwarfed by the floater’s bulk. Even from where he stood Simon could sense the large eyes bearing down on him.
They stared at each other for a full minute, neither making a move. It was almost as if the creature had worked out that the floater represented Simon’s only means of escape or, perhaps, the only means of escape for both of them. Why isn’t it flying off like the others did from the lunar cave?
As if reading his mind the alien raised its arms to spread its wings. Simon kept the being under his helmet light, gripped the pistol but did not aim it. The wings really were huge, the span running almost a metre on each side, way out of proportion to the body. And then the creature lifted four metres off the ground, scaring the hell out of Simon. He chased the motion with his light, and it ascended a few more metres. Then it partially folded the membranes and gently descended.
Keeping the beam of his helmet trained on the alien Simon watched as it dropped in slow free fall, raising dust as its jointed feet hit the surface.
For a while neither of them moved.
Simon took a tentative step forward, pistol at the ready. The alien tapped the floater with its bony arm. Christ, Simon thought, it’s trying to communicate! He gritted his teeth. Somehow, he had to get inside one of the cockpits. The director’s vehicle might be a safer bet – he’d probably have taken a fully charged unit. On returning from the cave he recalled descending to the right of the director’s floater, which meant that the alien was standing next to the one he wanted. Coincidence? Probably.
The laser pistol felt heavy in his hand, even though under lunar gravity it weighed next to nothing. The alien tapped the floater twice. Simon cursed under his breath as he realised that if he shot the creature he would hit the vehicle. The damn thing was standing right in front of the power unit! Maybe he should have shot it while it was off the ground. Had the alien taken that risk consciously? What was it trying to tell him? He trained the light fully on it again. Once more the wings unfolded and retracted, and Simon felt entranced by the simple alien choreography. Reinforcing its previous unknown message, the creature once more tapped twice on the floater’s hull.
Inhaling deeply, Simon took a step forward and raised the pistol. The creature moved swiftly – to the other side of the vehicle. So fast! Now he couldn’t even see it. Decision time again. Either he could seek and destroy, risk it breeching his suit, or he could make a dash for the cockpit and move on out.
He chose the cockpit and made it easily, feeling more secure as the hatch sealed reassuringly behind him. Slamming into the seat he took a swift look outside and then brought up the power. He glanced at the glowing screen, and his heart sank when he saw the charge bar at eighty-five per cent. Touch and go but it was all he had.
Swallowing his disappointment, Simon enabled the switch for floater atmosphere but for now he kept his helmet on. The auxiliary unit clicked in and he turned on the forward beams, illuminating the familiar lunar landscape.
And suddenly the alien was hovering with wings fully extended, bathing in the floater’s beams. The creature manoeuvred gradually towards the vehicle until it was no more than five metres away, membranes translucent under the high luminosity. Simon could see the skeletal structure beneath the skin, except it was not really a skeleton, more like an internal carapace. Instinctively, he switched off the lights and in the short afterglow he saw the creature descend slowly to the surface.
“I’m with you,” he breathed. “You use light, radiation, solar winds maybe.” But how had the others left the cave? Suddenly he knew they must have had their own light source, probably the mysterious sphere, enough to beam them to altitude, so they could reach the currently sunlit near side, maybe even catch some high-flying peripheral solar energy. All premeditated, all calculated. He shivered inside his suit. And from the near side, anywhere, maybe even Earth. No oxygen required, no pressure suit, no water and no food. So different. So damn bloody alien.
He knew he was looking at the creature that had somehow murdered his colleagues. Yet it was the human scientists who had taken it from its fellow beings in the first place. Now there was just the two of them, with an almost impossible journey to undertake.
Simon gunned the floater and it slowly lifted, the alien hovering in the beams like a forward sentinel. A layer of moon dust, created by the floater’s thrusters, added to its strange spectral appearance. He took his helmet off, screwed his nose up at the smell of remnant stomach contents, and engaged forward drive. The alien moved along, keeping the same distance.
“For now,” Simon muttered, clenching the pistol, “we survive together.”
WEST AUSTRALIA, EARTH
Laura Sinclair sighed heavily, derailed the camper and pulled into the side of the Eyre Highway some two hundred and fifty kilometres beyond the South Australian border. She had passed through the checkpoint two hours ago and was enjoying the splendour of a relaxed moonlit cruise, the vehicle controlled by one of the shiny ribbons of embedded nano-ceramic that snaked along the pitch-black road like silver eels. The positioning system showed that they were five kilometres from Cocklebiddy, and she was looking forward to getting to camp and settling in for the night.
She cast a glance at Jason beside her. “Well, if you want to go, go.”
Fourteen years of age, tall and slim, he shot her a toothy grin, opened the wing door and stepped out into the night. He disappeared around the back of the vehicle and into the bush.
A low and large full moon shone in the sky, competing for attention with the splendour of the Milky Way, the galaxy occupying a significant expanse of Laura’s overhead vista. Fingering the gold crucifix around her neck, she marvelled at the clarity of the night panorama and then, taking advantage of her son’s absence, she took a swift look in the mirror. Her elfin features gleamed yellow in reflected moonlight and, by some trick of the light, her close-cropped hair appeared more white than blonde. She was eager to be at the Cocklebiddy campsite and annoyed at Jason’s sudden call of nature.
Cocklebiddy had grown from the ruins of an Aboriginal mission over two hundred years ago, evolving into a thriving tourist precinct based upon the extraordinary caves nearby. The cave system was unique in that it extensively penetrated an aquifer situated ninety metres below the Nullarbor Plain. Within Cocklebiddy Cave were a number of vast limestone caverns, rock falls and saline subterranean lakes that extended for several hundred metres.
Something flashed in the distance, interrupting Laura’s thoughts. Seaward, a pale flickering brightness dropping to earth. How far away? It was hard to tell. Perhaps not far. She flashed her headlamps and yelled through the open door. “C’mon, Jason, hurry up. Let’s go.”
She searched for the strange light again, briefly lost it then picked it up near the horizon, growing in size. Was it getting closer? A shiver ran up her spine. It was a weak light but definitely approaching. Could it be an aircraft?
Jason dropped in beside her. “Let’s go then, Mum,” he said cheerfully. “What are we waiting for?”
She pointed through his open door. The light source was brighter now, much larger than the moon, not whole she realised, but a composite of flickering beats with pinpricks of darkness between.
“Way out!” Jason exclaimed. He dived beneath the control panel and emerged with his camera. Zooming the lens, he took several swift exposures before his mother closed the door and shot the vehicle back onto the westward rail.
Laura took a swift look at the dancing lights and accelerated.
“Wait, Mum!” Jason yelled. “It’s getting nearer.”
“No way.” Laura risked a final frantic glance. Birds on the wing? Hundreds of them. She cooled off on the acceleration and took a deep breath. Why had she panicked? The camper’s engine purred as it settled down to a healthy rhythm.
Jason took a few final shots over his shoulder before the phenomenon disappeared from view. Normally pale, he was flushed. “What was that?” He looked through his pictures, expanded ten times, and started to make out separate bodies. He groaned as his mother ran her damp palms over her jeans. “Just bats or something. Must have been hundreds.”
Then Laura screamed as two fluttering silver-green shapes suddenly appeared at the windscreen, darting in and out, flapping like maverick kites in the wind. And then within seconds they were gone.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Jason screamed, jumping around in his seat.
“Stop saying that word!” Laura yelled. She felt sick. What had happened? They were so far away. And then so close. Part of a satellite falling to earth? Bats? She could feel her heart racing. It was a brief encounter, but the images were burnt into her mind.
There was nothing in the publicity for Cocklebiddy that mentioned local bat colonies. She breathed deeply to calm her nerves. A warm shower and a good night’s sleep at the campsite were what she needed now. Closing her eyes, she willed the retinal images to go away, opened them again to reveal inky dark road and shining ribbons ahead.
A flashing light on the console indicated the turn-off to their destination was approaching. They would turn left, seawards, in two minutes. The rail would take them to the check-in point, and then she would take the camper to the pre-arranged berth. She had requested a cliff-top zone, somewhere where they would be woken by the crash of waves fifty metres below.
Laura took a furtive glance in the mirror, noticed her short fair hair damp across her brow, a trickle of sweat on her cheek mingling with the freckles she had carried from childhood. She sighed heavily. The holiday had been Jason’s idea, but she had readily agreed for she carried a burgeoning secret in her heart, one she had not yet had the courage to raise with her son. He had the conclusion of exams to celebrate and she had a fifth anniversary to do likewise. Not that the painful divorce from Dek seemed all that long ago. Dek, with his pretentious two-hundred-year-old ideas on a ‘woman’s place in the home’, had wanted more children, and she hadn’t and the ghost of a non-existent second child had driven an ever-growing wedge between them. How could she have loved a second child as much as the first? This one before her now. Beware! Time was such a distorter of reality.
It was not that her job as a senior architect at Blue Sky Homes was setting her soul on fire but she hadn’t wanted to leave it to have another child. Now, of course, it didn’t matter. The job was gone. Change had commenced. And Jason knew nothing. Nothing about giving her job away, nothing about…
“Oh my God!” Jason exclaimed in an exaggerated tone of reverence that adequately reflected his mother’s wishes for moderation of language. Laura grimaced. She wasn’t appreciative of blasphemous expressions all that much either. The swing of the camper southwards accompanied a low whistle from her son, and she found the camera dumped in her lap.
She took a look, handed it back. She could really do without this. A shiver ran down her spine joining its predecessors to nestle in her tailbone.
Jason took a sideways glance at his mother’s face and decided not to persevere with the issue, not until the light of day at least. They sped on in silence towards the campsite.
All was quiet at the Australian Defence Force base at Eucla. Sergeant David Jameson Cooke took another swig of coffee and squinted at his timepiece. It was 21:30 on a hot summer’s night. Staring through the window he could make out a cloudless sky illuminated by an enormous moon. The radar display on the wall hummed at a low pitch, summarising data from pulses that projected over a radius of over 250 kilometres. Part of the southern coast bordering the Great Australian Bight ran across the entire screen width. Small dots showed the principal localities.
Suddenly, near the edge of the screen, something flickered. Not rainfall as that was always depicted blue. This was more of a deep red, possibly a flock of birds. Cautionary words from the manual ran through his mind. The radar may sometimes detect echoes from aircraft, areas of smoke/ash from large fires, swarms of insects, flocks of birds or even the ground when unusual atmospheric conditions bend the radar beam back down to the surface.
Cooke looked again. The image was right on the edge of the radar map, locating it over two hundred kilometres to the west. He confirmed that data was recording then pressed the computation button. The image was fairly large in area, which ruled out a hostile aircraft, unless it had a sophisticated camouflage system. He ran his eye over the incoming data: ten thousand metres and descending. Not birds then, but definitely separate entities, not a whole. He looked at the screen up close. He had never seen anything quite like it. Checking the output data once more, he called the Esperance base. Nothing showed within their range he was assured. It was all his!
He was getting nervous. After another scan of the data, he called the small choppa operations group at Cape Pasley.
“Unidentified objects ranging two fifty kilometres west of Eucla,” he said. “Suggest airborne recce immediately.” He glanced at the figures dancing on the monitor on the desk and added, “Area of image some three thousand square metres.”
“Read you,” came the reply. “Choppa on the rise.”
It would take less than thirty minutes to get there, Cooke mused, studying the screen. They, whatever they were, were dancing on the radar’s peripheral vision, almost as if they were trying to avoid recognition.
Banking his rapid machine at a sharp angle Pilot Officer James Vanelli headed northeast, flying low over Point Dempster and skimming the moonlit coast. Whilst the machine he piloted was known as a choppa, an acronym representing CHief Operational Patrol and Pursuit Aircraft, it bore only a slight resemblance to its helicopter ancestors of over a century ago. Lift was supplied by manoeuvrable nozzles located in the structure beneath the single seat and direction controlled by a rotating aerofoil disc that hummed sweetly above the transparent cockpit. The short tail boom carried an adjuster jet, which only cut in when sharp direction changes were required.
He called Cooke at Eucla. “Got something on the screen now. Bearing north east, velocity forty-three. Intersect time four minutes twenty seven.”
“Read you. Altitude?”
“Low.” Vanelli squinted at his optics. “Thirty one metres.”
“Camera running and fine.” Vanelli shot a glance down on his starboard side. Breakers were rolling in, one after the other, illuminated by the powerful moonlight: power in motion, eternal.
“Cannon primed?” Cooke needed to be sure, according to the book.
“Absolutely – but they look like birds, probably a huge flock of pelicans or something.”
Cooke didn’t mention the earlier high-altitude reading.
Vanelli was closer now. At first glance: hundreds of birds. Ten seconds more and he saw that they were certainly not birds. The wings didn’t look avian. Bats, maybe. He slowed the choppa down and hovered two hundred metres out. The bats were coasting inland, as a group, obviously on a dedicated course. Suddenly, two of them broke away and veered towards him. Christ! They were huge; he estimated perhaps a metre in body length, maybe over two metres wingspan. Moonlight glanced off their outstretched wings, silver against the dark sky. Their arms were thin and appeared reticulated. He glanced beyond them at the flock – and abruptly the two members of the splinter group were clawing at the choppa’s canopy. He started to swing away but yelled in surprise and panic as both seemed to claw their way through the transparent plastic. And then, unbelievably, they were inside.
He saw huge eyes, boring into his own and then one of them was invading his flight suit. It was pushing into him, through his suit and through his skin. The triangular-shaped head was half inside his chest but there was no pain. He felt nothing but fear as his heart raced out of control. He tried to grab it with his arms but there was no holding it.
The choppa lurched sideways and then shot upwards. Vanelli wheezed into his microphone, “Help me, for Christ’s sake …” His voice sounded strange and strained. And then the vehicle fell away, plummeting to the ground. Within eight seconds it collided with hard soil and disintegrated in a cloud of dust and debris. Just before the choppa hit, two figures abandoned the machine and rapidly rejoined the flock. Dust settled and the moon bathed the scene in quietude as if wishing not to remember the violence and invasion that had so abruptly occurred and just as swiftly vanished.
In Eucla, Cooke was still hearing Vanelli’s words as he called Cape Pasley once more. “Please confirm your choppa is down,” he said simply. “Immediate recce required.” He glanced at the screen. It was completely blank as if nothing had happened. He replayed the event, watching in disbelief as two small echoes latched themselves onto the choppa like slow-motion missiles. Something was wrong here, very wrong. He returned to real time.
Three dots entered the screen – the recce party – taking no chances this time. Somehow Cooke knew that the birds or bats or whatever the hell they were would be long gone when the search party arrived. He didn’t know Vanelli, but still felt troubled at the loss of a fellow serviceman, if indeed the choppa pilot had died. He certainly didn’t rate his chances at the rate of descent he had witnessed. Cooke groaned. No doubt an enquiry would be on the cards. He rose from his seat. Another coffee was in order.