The desert sky was vast and salted with stars. Bill stepped away from the telescope so Margo could look. The telescope was powerful and expensive, a present from Margo to Bill on his 60th birthday, the month before. He lifted the bottle of wine from the hood of the Jeep and poured some into their glasses. Bill took a sip and looked at his wife standing at the tripod, her back to him, her hands out and away from the delicate instrument, which tracked the chosen target with a computer and a silent motor. Margo leaned slightly at the waist. White summer dress. Thick brown hair. She was still shapely and Bill felt lucky to have married her those 30-plus years ago. He had never fully believed that he deserved her, though she was an occasional challenge.
“I wonder what that is,” she said.
“Out over the hills.”
He looked and saw nothing. It was just before 10 o’clock and the fierce Mojave heat was gone. Bill took another sip of wine and felt the thankfulness come over him. Their health was good. Their children were on their own now, both doing well. The LAPD pension was ample. They still owned their longtime Simi Valley house, and their renters were dependable.
The new job out here in the desert was every bit as challenging and goofy as he had hoped it would be. Police Chief Bill Overlake of Majestic, California, population 378 humans, 12 horses, 10 to 20 dogs not counting wild ones, and six burros. The job kept him active, brought in money, and got him and Margo away from Los Angeles. But they were still close to Las Vegas, where their son Zach and his family had settled, close enough to L.A. for visits and shopping, and close to the Sierras for fishing. And they were living under the clear Mojave sky for stargazing, the newfound pleasures of which had surprised them both.
“I don’t see anything but stars,” said Bill.
“I’ll sic the computer on it. Satellite I bet.”
“Plenty of those.”
“Spying on us,” she said.
“That’s just the media scaring people, honey. Fear sells.”
“I have nothing to fear because you’ll protect me.”
“And serve. In any way you want to be served.”
“I know what that means, Mr. Billy Goat. No lights on that UFO, whatever it is.”
“No lights. A smuggler?”
“Maybe. Slow, for a plane. Either that or it’s further away than it looks.”
“Let me see.”
Margo stepped away. “It’s tracking perfectly. This computer is something.”
Bill settled into gazing position, his wife’s perfume and faint body heat still lingering near the aperture. He saw the movement, something dark suspended within the larger darkness. It was shapeless from here, flying low and slowly and, to Bill’s eye, in a straight line, east to west. Then it appeared to turn toward them. He watched for a moment to make sure he was seeing it right.
“Coming this way now,” he said.
“What is it?”
“I still can’t tell.” He watched it moving closer. Things like this—small, unusual, unexplainable things—were part of what made stargazing what it was. Meteors and satellites. Weather balloons and UFOs. He lifted his face from the telescope for a moment and peered naked-eyed toward the low sky over the hills and saw that some of the heavenly points of light were going out then coming back on as something passed between them and him. Eye again to the scope, he saw it was closer now.
“Bill, is that a motor I hear?” Her ears were better than his now, after his years at the range, qualifying for the job and shooting on the team.
“Oh wow,” he said. “It’s a fixed-wing something-or-other. It looks like a glider. Weird, though, without the lights.”
“There it is! Way out there. And I do hear a motor.”
The pale blue underbelly of the aircraft squared itself in his rearview mirror. Shit, he thought.
Bill watched the craft coming toward them. The engine groaned distantly. It didn’t sound strong enough to keep something that large aloft. Now that it was closer he saw that the underside was pale and faintly, icily blue, like moonlight. The wings were long and wide and the body slender. It looked lighter and less substantial than an airplane, but larger than the Predator drones he’d seen, not clunky like an ultralight, but graceful. And now that it was no more than half a mile away, Bill’s birthday telescope revealed the faint, flickering lights inside a bulbous faceted head and the four missiles—two under each wing—fixed tight to the body. “Damn thing’s armed,” he said. “Gotta be dummies. Am I seeing this right?”
“I swear to God it’s coming lower, Bill. And right at us.”
“I hear it now.”
“I’m afraid. What do we do?”
Margo was quicker to fear than her husband, so he often found himself acting on her fear rather than by his own calmer nature. But it was important to keep your spouse feeling protected and served. A 30-year L.A. cop learned that. And so far as the food chain went, he was right up at the top. Awareness, not fear. Preparation, not worry. Cool, not hysteria.
“We better do something, Bill.”
“Give it five more seconds.”
“Why? And then what?”
“Okay, okay—we’ll play it safe, Margo. You hustle away from here the same way we came in. Careful with the knee. Find some cover, hide and wait. I’ll take the Jeep the other way then circle back and get you. Go now. It’s okay.”
She looked at the thing, then back at him, wide-eyed. “I love you, Bill.”
“I love you. We’ll laugh about this later.”
He watched her run up the two-track they’d come in on, brown hair bouncing, elbows in and forearms up.
When he looked up toward the hills again he was surprised how much closer the strange, unlit craft had come. He felt that a truth was dawning on him, but he wasn’t sure exactly what truth it was.
Bill grabbed the tripod and swung open a rear door and dropped the instrument onto the backseat, its legs still splayed. When he shut the door the wine bottle teetered and the wineglasses shivered and Bill backhanded them off the hood and into a creosote bush. He got in and started the engine and looked at Margo. She had already put some good distance between them. As if she felt his eyes on her, she glanced back midstride and Bill laid into the horn to say I love you too, then threw the shifter into drive and gunned it into the flat dark desert.
The desert was not as flat as it looked. The Jeep sat up high, and the faster he went the harder it jolted and jumped when it hit the mounds of dirt and rocks and bushes and cacti, only to plummet gut-droppingly into the soft low pockets of sand. He tried to steer around such things, but soon he was going too fast to avoid anything. He shot a look into the sideview for Margo: nothing but bouncing black earth. He roared up a hillock, and when he cleared the rise, the pale blue underbelly of the aircraft squared itself in his rearview mirror. Shit, he thought. But good. On me. Margo okay. He charged across the small plateau, down the other side and back onto the flats, the airborne thing still glued to his rearview, unvarying and slowly closing, maybe a quarter mile back.
HOT READS: EXPLORE PLAYBOY FICTION
Against all odds—but in keeping with his faith in a higher and beneficent power—at least one of the bullets must have hit its mark. Because Bill saw a quick puff of white smoke, then a red ember—a small explosion. Had he hit a fuel line? Sparked a fire? Then the ember sprouted a white tail and streaked across the sky toward Bill. It came very fast, then much faster. Bill raised his sidearm to the flaming, smoke-tailed devil, settled into his shooter’s stance and gauged his lead.
Margo saw the fiery descent of the rocket and heard the explosion. A lump of orange light rose from Bill’s direction. She was in the middle of the Mojave Desert, bent over, hands on her knees, breathing rapidly. Not so much as a boulder to hide behind. Not a tree. Not even a low spot for cover. Faint and far out, the mother ship banked into a neat pale-bellied turn, and came straight toward her.
She turned and ran. Ran with all her heart. And more. Legs so heavy. Stars and tears. Tears and stars. Bill. Zach and Jan. Sound of the engine coming. And her own breath bellowing in her ears, roar of life, in and out.
Sucking air, she slowed and stopped and turned to see. It came. Half a mile out? A quarter? The orange dome of flames still glowed in the east, now tipped in black. She went to one knee and picked a rock off the ground, a round throwing-size rock. She’d pitched softball in college, partial scholarship, high 60s on a good day. She was feared. When the missile bloomed silently she stood to face it, cradling the stone before her in both hands—as she used to do on the pitcher’s mound—ready to windmill her arm and shift that weight to her rear leg. Just before the delivery she would tell herself: You can’t hit me, you can’t hit me. She waited, her arm now a sling against this Goliath.
Forty-eight minutes later, just after 11, the little convoy came barreling across the desert on a faint two-track. A truck-mounted crane bounced nimbly on oversize tires designed for desert warfare. A railed flatbed dually came next, its cargo hold containing two crude wooden trunks, reinforced with metal bands, the size and shape of coffins. Bringing up the rear was another flatbed, empty. These three vehicles were chromeless and painted matte black, and the windows were dark and nonreflecting. Leading the charge was a short, low-slung, big-tired sand buggy with a roll cage and two powerful headlights, and a warning whip now curved backward with speed. Matte gray. The driver, in a ball cap and goggles within the cage of his speeding vehicle, played back and forth across the sand, rhythmically, like a downhill skier, his gloved hands relaxed on the wheel.
Suddenly all 60 surveillance monitors went dark. Great, she thought. The most interesting thing all night, now a blackout.
Dixie’s Talon-2 autonomous unmanned airborne vehicles featured fourth-generation Owl surveillance clusters. The Talon-2 was technically still in development, but the marketers were already taking orders worldwide. It could deliver real-time, high-res video of, say, a sand snake—a foot long at best—from 35,000 feet away. As the name said, it was unmanned, thus no onboard pilot needed. And because it was autonomous, the Talon-2 required no remote pilot either. No human required to fly its mission, once the programming was done. A flying machine with a mind, literally, of its own. Or so the designers liked to say. Employees of Alpha-Neutronica were forbidden to call an AUAV a drone—ever, under any circumstances, even to friends. A company spokesman was once fired for using the word in an interview. Nevertheless, AlphaNeutronica was known within the military industry as the world’s largest manufacturer of drones and strategic nuclear weapons.
The dog on the floor beside her extended its legs in a quivering stretch and took a noisy deep breath without waking up. Orwell was a world-class sleeper. Dixie was about to turn her attention to the much more interesting interior surveillance screens in Majestic when something on screen eight, top row, caught her infallible eye. At first it looked like one of the light-hungry moths or beetles that occasionally got into the room. But Dixie saw that the motion was part of the feed. A vehicle had just entered Sector NW-1, the northwestern boundary of AlphaNeutronica’s surveillance grid. As programmed, the Talon-2 hovered and Owl zoomed in. Zoomed again. Using the controls on her console Dixie overrode the Owl sensor ball and came in even tighter.
She saw a late model Jeep, black and white, with a light bar on top, speeding crazily across the desert. She recognized the vehicle and driver—the recently hired Majestic police chief Bill Overlake. For some weeks now Dixie had observed Bill and his wife out here at night, their little telescope set up, drinking wine and talking about whatever old married people talked about. No sign of her now. Margie? Maggie? Bill and his wife seemed like nice enough people. Dixie had seen them at the Roadrunner Café, and at the Red Face Trading Post, buying newspapers and coffee. Bill was sure in a hurry now. With the Owl zoom locked in at maximum, Dixie could see the sweat on Bill’s face, saw him glance up at the rearview, his expression grim.
She pulled back to see what was behind Bill Overlake, but suddenly all 60 surveillance monitors went dark.
Great, she thought. The most interesting thing all night, now a blackout. It was probably one of the occasional unannounced blackouts engineered by Marcus Spahn himself and later revealed to be part of cybersecurity countermeasures. In that case, the monitors would be back online in a few minutes.
Dixie sat in the screen-darkened theater. The lights and air conditioning were still on. Orwell had sensed the change, so he plodded over and looked up at her, his face filled with sleepy devotion. Dixie bent over and rubbed the back of one ear, then the other. He crashed to the carpet with pleasure, tail tapping.
To Dixie, there was something beautiful about the unconditional love that Orwell gave her. Dixie was six feet three inches tall and full-bodied. For most of her life she had been told she was hulking, so she thought of herself as hulking. She embraced her hulkishness by wearing loose black clothing and big black Dr. Martens boots that looked as if they were made for moonwalking. She stood up straight. She had dense black hair that formed a kind of privacy screen around her pleasant face, a peaches-and-cream complexion, and blue eyes behind nerdish glasses.
PLAYBOY PAGE-TURNERS: FANTASTIC FICTION
She swiped her employee card at the exit and waited for the door’s complex unlocking sounds to finally resolve. When the door closed behind Orwell the same sounds locked them out. In the lunchroom, security guard Nelson was pouring coffee while guard Weber sipped his own, looking through the steam at Dixie.
“The monitors are all down,” she said.
“Spahn probably. I just made coffee.”
“No, thanks. I’m going outside.”
“It’s a free country.”
“That’s funny, Weber, considering what we do here.”
Through the coffee steam she caught his look, a perfect security guard’s combination of humorlessness and suspicion.
She went outside and upstairs and stood at the railing of the employee patio, looking down at the AlphaNeutronica compound below and the dark desert beyond. There were a few lights on in Marcus Spahn’s beloved lethal autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle annex, where the armed, autonomous crafts were designed and assembled.
Dixie saw people moving around down there, most unusual for this time of night. Then she heard vehicles starting up. “What do you make of all that, Orwell? What’s Marcus up to now?”
Could be anything, she thought. As AlphaNeutronica’s top test engineer, Spahn had a hand in most projects. But the LAUAVs were his babies, and very little was known about the LAUAVs outside of Spahn’s elite team. The Lethal Team. They were a happily arrogant crew. Marcus Spahn was darkly handsome and he knew it, and he hired unreasonably attractive people too, so that you didn’t need to ask if any one of them was LAUAV; it was pretty much written on their faces.
Although there was something genuine about Spahn’s face, in Dixie’s opinion. Not that she saw him up close very often. Surveillance analysts, grade three, such as Dixie—and other lesser players here at AlphaNeutronica—were not even close to cleared for LAUAV annex access. Her employee badge would literally set off alarms if she tried to swipe her way in. And the whole annex was surrounded by butt-ugly, desert-rusted, 10-foot-high chain link anyway. The beautiful, swashbuckling LAUAV people had their own mess hall and kept their own hours. For days, sometimes weeks at a time, they’d all be gone—out at the fabled proving grounds, or perhaps in meetings with AlphaNeutronica founder Dr. James Vermange in his Nob Hill mansion, Tahoe compound or San Marino estate.
Now something unusual was afoot down in the annex. She heard idling vehicles and thumping sounds and low sporadic voices that were carried back to her by the dry desert breeze. Curt voices. Serious. Someone in charge. Spahn? Hard to say. Going? Going where? Too bad her monitors were all out or she could just sit back and watch the show. Then in the dim moonlight Dixie saw the convoy heading down the LAUAV-only dirt road toward the LAUAV-only gate in the LAUAV-only chain-link fence that separated them from the rest of AlphaNeutronica and the world.
One hour and 40 minutes later Dixie’s monitors were still nonoperational but the Lethal Team was on its way home. In the break room she looped Orwell’s leash to a table leg, clocked out for her break and took the back stairs down to avoid Nelson and Weber. She stayed within the desert blackness as she made her way toward the LAUAV annex. Of course the Lethal Team area was verboten, but one of the gates was often left unlocked by scofflaw employees. And she knew that if she could find Spahn before one of his underlings threw her out, he just might let her know what all the excitement was about. She believed this because, in the exactly six times that she had made eye contact with Spahn, his peaceful-looking gray eyes had held her gaze with steadiness, curiosity and—she thought—interest.
Her lucky night. She closed the gate quietly behind her and followed the path toward the compound. The vehicles were shutting down and doors were opening and closing and short bursts of conversation came from the central terminal—an enormous metal barn with four rolling metal doors along each long side and small windows set at eight feet to admit sunlight and defeat the curious. Now only minimal light from inside.
She stopped in the solid darkness, short of the weak terminal light. She saw princely Spahn and two of his knights in conversation. Saw two Lethal Teamers pulling down tarps from a charred vehicle standing on a flatbed. A Jeep. With a star-shaped outline on the door where an emblem had apparently melted off. Light bar half severed, half dangling.
Dixie’s heart dropped. She backstepped farther into the dark, then circled to one side of the building and came up close. Darkness and dirt under her boots, the mumble of voices inside. She crept to the edge of the raised rolling door. A good view from behind them now: two grim-faced men she’d seen but never met, handing down a coffin-like box to two other men she’d seen but never met. Spahn and the others watching. The box didn’t look heavy, just big. Then another. When the boxes were resting side-by-side, Spahn opened them. The lids stayed up on hinges.
Dixie turned her back to the metal wall, stood still as she could. Felt the big booms of her heart and wondered if the people inside could hear them too. If that wasn’t Bill Overlake’s Jeep, and Bill and Margie, Maggie, shit, Mrs. Overlake inside those boxes, then what? Who?
Suddenly an argument erupted inside the terminal. Voices loud, then louder. Dixie could hear Spahn talking over them. “A terrible accident is still an accident,” he said, but one of the women yelled that right and wrong mean something too. Voices she could not identify:
“We should have left them out there.”
“We sure as hell can’t take them back!”
“The DoD will cover us if we come clean.”
“I will not spend the rest of my life in prison.”
Then Spahn again in a booming voice: “This is the cost of freedom! There are always mistakes in science. You know this. We all came here with our eyes open.”
The argument ended as suddenly as it had begun. An eerie silence. Dixie risked a peek inside and saw almost exactly what she had imagined seeing: the eight AlphaNeutronica employees standing in a semicircle around the two open boxes, heads bowed at this strange service.
She clocked back in from her break, saw that she’d overstayed the allotted 30 minutes by six minutes and 18 seconds. She unhooked Orwell, knelt and stroked his fine heavy head. She felt like she was in a dream she could not escape from. Everything familiar but everything changed, everything wrong.
Back in the surveillance theater Dixie put on her black cardigan against the aggressive AC, then sat heavily in her wheeled task chair. Orwell collapsed with a humpf. Her monitors had come back to life and she watched the black night on them. Third tier, second from left: kangaroo rat. Bottom tier, third from right: owl. She was too distracted to even care about her human Majestic friends, oblivious as they were to her.
Her shift would end at six a.m. and wild horses couldn’t drag her from duty before that appointed hour. Her duty was her life. So she sat there, replaying every second, every frame of the past hours. She believed that Spahn was smart, and the others were smart too, and that they would find a way to destroy the evidence of their accidental homicides. Of a policeman and his wife. Nice couple. She believed the DoD and CIA would probably move heaven and earth to protect their interests here, their programs, their people. As would James Vermange, billionaire recluse owner of AlphaNeutronica, the world’s largest purveyor of drones and strategic nuclear missiles. As would the president, if the president knew.
And as for her, hulking Dixie Willoughby, grade-three surveillance analyst offering her devotion and her life to this Republic? Who was she to defy them? Why should she defy them? And if she were to defy them, how?
She finished her shift, collected Orwell and punched out. Waved to Nelson and Weber. She drove the private road ahead of the soon-incoming day shift, which started at 7:30. She passed the village for AlphaNeutronica employees, a sun-blanched little hamlet of modular homes that smacked of military-base housing. Small market and stores. High prices. A park with swings for the kids. Scaled-back “express” fast-food franchises. The employees who lived there called themselves AlphaNeuroticans and their home Neurotica Acres. Dixie’s address was 12 Sam Colt Drive.
She drove past Neurotica Acres, took the highway north into the hills where she liked to hike and hunt rocks with Orwell. It was sere and forbidding land, wind-contoured boulders and sharp, shivering plants, but it was beautiful too, especially at sunrise, like now, and at sunset.
She walked slowly because Orwell was no longer young, and the early-morning temperature was already in the high 70s. And because she, Dixie, though 28, no longer felt young, as of last night.
As she crunched along, Dixie thought of Majestic’s 378 human citizens she had secretly observed for the last two-plus years. None of them yet suspected they were human lab rats, so expertly hidden were the tiny interior cameras and so utterly silent the AUAV observations made from far above. She was quite fond of most of her people, in spite of their faults. She wanted what was best for them and often spent her long graveyard surveillance hours imagining what she would do for certain Majesticans who just needed a little help. Such as Lance, the mentally retarded teenager who ran off into the desert for days at a time, collecting odd objects to bring back home to his disabled war-vet father. What about a better pair of boots for him? And a new TV for Cathy, the ancient, lonely baseball fan whose television was failing. There was Bethany, the cute blackjack dealer who commuted all the way to Las Vegas and most nights cried herself to sleep in her faded yellow trailer. A tough case, that one. And others. In a way, she loved them. It was an invisible, noninvasive, impersonal love, but didn’t that count?
She had no siblings and no friends, really, except her very preoccupied UCI Med Center parents—Dr. Mom in Neurosciences and Dr. Dad in Hematology. Some distant cousins back east, God knew where. People in general annoyed and disappointed her. Men so self-obsessed and women so angry yet desperate. She just felt too big and clumsy and conspicuous. Hulking. She had Orwell, her job and her modular home in Neurotica Acres—and that was about it.
She sat on a smooth rock and let the rising sun heat her face. Closed her eyes and conjured to mind every time she’d seen, in person, gentle Bill Overlake and his sweet wife—name of Margo, thank you—and how they’d seemed like two parts of the same animal. She’d seen them in reality only a few times. Said hello once outside the Roadrunner Café, once in the Red Face Trading Post. Waved from her car at them, pulling out of the gas station. She’d observed them undetected in their own home, of course, a hundred times or more—kitchen, living room, bedroom. Never watched them in intimate, hygiene or potty moments. Ever.
For some reason—well, she knew exactly what the damned reason was—those memories of the Overlakes hurt her now, deeply. Because she knew the Overlakes would never, ever be alive together again. However, the scalding truth was: When she’d had the chance, just what had she offered them, these newcomers to this vast and hostile land? Two hellos and a wave in passing? Secret surveillance? A faulty prototype weapon to blow them off the face of the earth while they stargazed?
She opened her eyes. Orwell had found the shady side of her rock and lay on his side.
Dixie got out her phone and powered it up and found her voice recorder app.
“My name is Dixie Willoughby,” she began. “I am a grade-three surveillance analyst at Alpha-Neutronica. Something happened last night at our R&D compound out by Majestic. Everything I’m about to tell you is true.”