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Shut it down! It's running wild!" Wesley Jones shouted to an assistant technician. "No, wait! We've got something!"
Jones kept his eyes on the gauges, hoping he didn't blow up half of Nevada trying to bring the object to the earth. Nor did he want to land it right on top of them. It was big! "Hold it…hold it…now!"
The wild humming roar of the generators wound back down to silence. Wesley ran to the window where others from the team were gathering. He pushed through the crowd and looked outside.
"My God," he breathed. "We did it. And we not only did we do it-we captured an airliner!"
Gilbert Collins, head of Research and Development of The Advanced Research Projects Agency, moved quickly. It wouldn't do for this to get out. Not until they figured out where the plane was from. He picked up the phone. "Security to the control room now!" Within two hours, the Boeing jet had been moved into the confines of a building big enough to serve as a hanger. The stunned and confused crew and passengers offered no resistance as they were sequestered for questioning. Indeed, they seemed pleased just to be alive.
Before they were allowed to leave, he extracted another secrecy oath from everyone involved in the experiment, and this one he worded in terms scary enough to silence a politician running for reelection. The passengers were secreted in apartments of the huge underground cavern originally constructed as a bomb shelter. Only after all that had been taken care of, were the very few government officials who were aware of the experiment notified. They were also sworn to secrecy.
• • •
In the predawn darkness blanketing the Kingwood suburb of north Houston, Linda Vesprie heard the thump of the Houston Chronicle hitting the sidewalk. She sighed with pleasure. Perfect timing, her coffee should just be ready. Linda lived in a different time zone than most people. Her internal clock had her out of bed right before five, regardless of whether she was taking the day off, on vacation, or had just stayed up later than usual the night before.
While most of the city still slept, she showered and dressed-today was April thirteenth, so her choice was her green mini with the scalloped neckline. She had started wearing the dress on the thirteenth day of every month five years ago. She had been wearing it on August thirteenth when she signed her first book contract and now she wore it on the same date every month. Her mother and father had been the only ones to catch on to her little quirk and she had taken some teasing from them.
At the thought of her parents, a fragment of last night's dream surfaced; her younger sister laughing and smiling as she hugged the ratty teddy bear she'd had since she was two. She remembered the entire scenario only vaguely, something about wavering lights and her parents beckoning to her. Pain touched her, bringing a tightness in her chest. A psychologist would probably say the dream was manifested by the upcoming anniversary of her parents and little sister's deaths. It was five years ago this month their plane had gone down.
She slipped the dress over her head, gave herself an appreciative wink and was ready to read the paper and get her caffeine fix up to an acceptable level before considering what else the day might hold.
Today it held little, other than the urge to put away the article she had been working on and see if this were the day her new novel might come together.
She poured her first cup of coffee and carried it into the den and set it on the side table by her favorite easy chair, then headed for the front door to retrieve the paper. Another thump sounded outside, louder than the first, as if a sandbag had been dropped onto the sidewalk hard enough to split it open.
Now what could that be? Impelled by curiosity, she went a little faster.
She unhooked the chain and punched off the alarm, then unlocked the deadbolt, wishing for the thousandth time she lived in a security-controlled development rather than in this suburban house, but so far, she had been unable to sell it. The real estate market had taken a nosedive just about the time her divorce and property settlement became final.
Linda flicked on the porch light and pulled open the door. Outside, on the tiny covered entryway, she scanned for the paper in the orange glow of the recessed light. Her gaze traveled up the sidewalk, then stopped as abruptly as a car hitting a brick wall. The paper was there, but it was half-covered by the arm of a recumbent figure crumpled in a heap as if her bones had suddenly collapsed. The body was female; she could tell that much from the length of the straight red hair that resembled her own and the fact it covered part of the swell of breasts.
She must have fainted. But what was she doing here at this time of the morning? Had she been kidnapped and raped, and either gotten away or been dropped off in the area?
She ran forward and knelt by the fallen woman, trying to remember the primary principles of first aid from high school health class more than a decade ago. The only procedure surfacing was to check the woman's pulse. She grasped one of the woman's wrists and twisted it around. The hand felt cold and clammy, like a thawed, raw chicken breast, and it had as little muscle tone. There was no pulse she could detect. I'm not doing it right, she told herself, even as the chilling skin began to suggest she hadn't found a pulse because there was none to find. She felt her heartbeat speed up like the ripple of a drum being tested before the opening number. She brushed locks of hair from the woman's shoulder and eased her upper body over a little in order to see if she was breathing. The woman's head lolled into full view, face slack and lips parted, eyes half open but unmoving, as if suddenly frozen in the midst of a blink. A gold crown glinted from inside her mouth, like a barely discernible candle seen through a thick fog.
She stared, mesmerized. It was like looking down at her own face, complete to the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose! There was the same gold crown where she had broken a tooth years ago, even the same straight red hair, worn long enough to hang below her shoulder blades. Dizziness began deep down inside her, as if she had just stepped off a tilt-a-whirl at a carnival. Finally, she remembered to breathe again. As she pulled fresh air into her lungs, she saw it wasn't just the face and hair that was like hers. The woman was even built the same, slim, a narrow waist and breasts a little too generous. She even wore the same dress-short, green, and sleeveless, with a scalloped neckline. With trembling fingers, Linda looked inside the dress's neckline, her stomach taking another dive when she read Liz Claiborne . The motionless woman had even matched the white belt and low-heeled shoes. Something most women didn't bother to do anymore. The skirt of the dress had ridden up an outstretched leg to midthigh and was bunched under the other one bent beneath her. A white purse lay a short distance away. It matched the one she carried when she wore her green dress.
Tentatively, she reached out and placed a hand on the woman's breast. She could feel no breathing, no rise and fall of her chest. The drum roll of her heart went into percussion mode, pounding hard enough that she felt a pulse beating at her temples. What to do? CPR? Oh God, why hadn't she ever learned the technique? No, wait! First call 911 and then try. She got to her feet and rushed back inside. She fumbled with the phone, dropped it and then misdialed once before managing to get the right number the second time.
She's not breathing! I think she's dead! My address? My address…" Her mind went blank. Beside her on the table was this month's electric bill and she grabbed it and read off the numbers.
As soon as she was assured an ambulance was on the way, she dropped the phone, not bothering to disconnect the call, and ran back outside. She knelt again by the still form, extended her arms and pushed on her chest. It was like pressing down on a slab of cold meat. She shuddered and pushed again and again, then paused, wildly hoping she would see the chest rise with the intake of air. It remained still. She bent over and blew into the slack mouth. It was horrible, as if she were desperately trying to reanimate her own dead body. She was still trying, tears of frustration and fright streaming down her cheeks when the ambulance arrived, followed shortly by a patrol car.
Copyright © 2005 Darrell Bain and Barbara M. Hodges