Tell Your Children When

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(written by Robert M. Schroeck; posted March 27, 2007)

"Okay," Bob said. "Let's do it."

Worlds grow old and suns grow cold
And death we never can doubt
Time's cold wind wailing down the pass
Reminds us that all flesh is grass
And history's lamps blow out

April 20, 2012
11:45 PM
Kearney, WV

Dan Hendra stepped out onto the front porch and lit himself a smoke, grumbling at the restrictions his wife had placed on him. "No smoking in the house! If you're going to smoke, do it outside!"

Least it's halfway warm out here tonight, he thought to himself. Man needs a smoke before turning in.

He had finished the cigarette and was grinding the butt into the painted concrete with his toe, when he heard it. It was a strange sound, like a powerful electric motor spinning at high speeds, and it seemed to come from everywhere at once. Dan frowned, then stepped off the porch and into the yard. He wandered a little toward the pasture where the horses spent their days, trying to follow the noise to where it was loudest.

As he turned the corner of the barn he stopped short. There, beyond the line of trees that marked the border between his property and the next, a wall of... something, glinting faintly in the harsh light of the flood lamps that lit the yard, seemed to be growing. It was glassy, with huge triangular dimples in it, and it was hurling itself into the sky with no indication that any kind of bottom was going to appear any time soon.

Stunned and disbelieving, Dan stood and watched as more and more wall grew out of the ground. Whatever it was made of, it seemed to him that it almost... fluttered at first, for lack of a better word, before growing rigid as it climbed into the night.

As it rumbled and shot up into the dark sky, his wife Jeanne joined him in the yard, as baffled as he and frightened by the strangeness of it all. She clung to him as the mysterious wall blotted out more and more of the stars. Holding tightly to her, Dan looked for the first time to left and right -- the wall stretched off into the darkness in either direction.

Finally, the wall stopped growing, and a deep and distant rumble like thunder on the horizon rolled off it. There was a moment of silence, and then with an electric crackle a rainbow shimmer rippled across the glassy, dimpled surface.

A burst of confidence seized Dan, and he took a step toward it. Jeanne tugged on his arm to pull him back. He patted her hand reassuringly and pried her death grip loose, then took another step to the pasture fence. As he swung one leg over the top rail, the mysterious wall lurched up into air with a clap of thunder. A powerful wind blew toward it, forcing Jeanne up against the fence and almost tearing him off and carrying him along. Dan clung to the rail with all his strength until the wind suddenly ceased; he wasn't sure how long it had been blowing, but he knew his arms would ache in the morning.

As he carefully climbed off the fence, Jeanne made a wordless sound that seemed to roll wonder, fear, shock and surprise all together into one sharp utterance. Dan turned back to the wall to see it was moving again, this time faster and speeding up as they watched. The nature of the wall had changed, too -- although still glassy and dimpled, it was dark, barely visible in the faint light, and it seemed to be moving away from them.

Within moments, stars were visible once again over the trees.

As one, Dan and Jeanne lifted their eyes to the sky, where a black disk obscured the stars, a disk that grew smaller and smaller and higher and higher.

When he could no longer bear to stand with his neck bent back, Dan turned his eyes on the treeline, and wondered just what he would find beyond it, come the day.

"Dear god in heaven," Jeanne murmured from beside him. "What was that?"

Cycles turn while the far stars burn
And people and planets age
Life's crown passes to younger lands
Time sweeps the dust of hope from her hands
And turns another page

April 21, 2012
12:04 AM EDT
Charlestown, WV

Sachin Mehta softly muttered Hindustani profanities to himself as he locked the door to the convenience store his family owned. He swore because the night had sucked, right from the outset, and he had complaints about just about every part of it.

The majority were reserved for his father, who had insisted Sachin look after the store on a Friday night -- a Friday night on which he'd had a date, a date now canceled, with a girl who now no doubt hated him.

But he also had complaints about the shop itself -- on the northwestern edge of rural Charlestown, practically in the farmland that surrounded the small town, it was in the complete opposite direction from any place of interest. From any place any of his friends might care to visit on a Friday night.

He had complaints about the customers, as well -- his last of the night had been a couple of racist rednecks who'd thought the price of a pack of cigarettes and a can of chaw let them play "mock the foreigner". He'd had to smile and thank them even as he'd inwardly seethed and just hoped one of them would do something to justify pulling out his father's baseball bat from where it lay under the counter.

He even had complaints about the store's stock, for he'd been tasked by his father with inventorying and packing away all the non-perishable Easter goods which hadn't sold by the previous Sunday. He'd told his father that five cartons of "Paas" were too many, especially at the prices they had to charge, but did the old man ever listen to him? Ha. Not likely.

Sachin twisted the key savagely in the lock and growled when it almost snapped off in his hand. He yanked it out of the lock with a snarl, then spun on his heel to stalk off to his car in a suitable fit of outrage and anger.

And stopped as he watched what for a moment his baffled eyes told him was a rare sight -- the new moon in the old moon's arms, a hair-thin crescent of white along the edge of a disk of grey only a shade lighter than the black sky around it.

But it was moving too quickly to be the moon.

And it was rising in the northwest.

What the hell?

Shortly after midnight, the police department in nearby Charlestown received a report of a UFO.

They ignored it.

April 21, 2012
12:09 AM EDT
Frederick, MD

Ten minutes after midnight, the police in somewhat more distant Frederick also received a report of a UFO.

They, too, ignored it.

But we who feel the weight of the wheel
When winter falls over our world
Can hope for tomorrow and raise our eyes
To a silver moon in the open skies
and a single flag unfurled

April 21, 2012
12:11 AM EDT
The sky over Maryland and West Virginia

In the nearly eleven years since 9/11, a vast array of radar installations -- some camouflaged, some obvious -- had been built in concentric rings around Washington, DC, with the outermost some fifty miles away from the heart of the city. These radars constantly scanned the skies and fed their results into a system that used a combination of computer and human evaluation to locate and identify any air traffic that seemed out of the ordinary -- traffic that might be another terrorist threat against the capitol. It tied into NORAD, the civilian air traffic control system, and several other groups/networks/operations that were considerably less public.

Shortly after midnight on April 21, 2012, this system declared a priority one alert.

Its human overseers weren't sure what they were seeing, but the procedures were clear -- anything large and unidentified constituted a potential danger until proven otherwise. And in the nearly ten-year history of the system, no bogey had ever been as large as this. That and the fact that it was a mere sixty miles from Washington made it a class-A threat, even though its vector showed no sign of coming anywhere near the city -- at least for the moment.

Squadrons of fighter jets were immediately scrambled from air force bases up and down the east coast of North America -- from as far north as Hanscom AFB in Massachusetts to as far south as Pope AFB in North Carolina. The First Response teams came from Dover, Andrews and Langley AFBs -- the rest would be the second and subsequent waves, if they were needed. And ahead of them all was an initial flight of three F-22s from Andrews sent to scout out the mysterious bogey.

It took them less than five minutes to reach the object. They had no trouble finding it.

"Holy Mother of Christ," Captain Ricardo "Hightop" Lorefice swore under his breath when they were still ten miles out. "Either my radar is waaay broken, or that is one huge mother."

"You're not kidding," flight leader Major Randall "Czar" Czarneki muttered. "Andrews, this is India Foxtrot One."

"Go ahead, India Foxtrot One," crackled over the radio.

"Andrews, confirm, please. Bogey is almost three-quarters of a mile across? Over." There was a long pause, during which Czar whispered "Jesus!" to himself.

The radio crackled again. "India Foxtrot One, this is Andrews. CRAW and NORAD both confirm. Bogey is over 3500 feet across. Repeat, over 3500 feet. It is at Angels 15 and ascending at 150 knots. Over."

"It's the wave, it's gotta be," Lieutenant Rory "Khaki" Dokker announced, a quaver in his voice. "Something that big, flyin' that fast? Hell, flyin' at all? Someone's pulled a fuckin' huge wavejob right outside of DC!"

"If it is, everyone from the brass up to the President are going to go nuts," Czar said. "Andrews, this is India Foxtrot One. We are closing with the target. Over."

"Understood, India Foxtrot One." There was a brief pause. "You have been authorized to fire upon the craft if it does not respond to hails. Over."

Czar grimaced. "Roger that, Andrew. India Foxtrot One out."

Khaki snorted. "Yeah, right, like a Sidewinder is going to do anything more than scratch the paint on that thing."

"You never know," Hightop interjected. "We blow their vacuum seal, they can't go into space, and we force them to land. Something that big's gotta take a lot of power to lift -- they can't possibly keep it up for long."

"Bull," Khaki spat. "It's the wave, that shit is magic."

Czar cleared his throat. "Gentlemen, we'll worry about that if and when we need to."

"Yes, sir."

"Yes, sir."

Jet engines roared as the three F-22s closed with the object, then banked sharply to the right before settling into a continuous counterclockwise "orbit" around the great mass looming before them, following sharply upward as it continued its rise into the dark sky.

Czar couldn't help but glance to the left every few seconds. The moonless night offered almost no light by which to see the impossibly huge craft, save for the faintest limning of starlight and the reflections of their own running lights.

The combination of its rise and their pursuit meant they had to keep banking to the left and climbing at the same time, tracing a spiral up into the sky. It was almost enough to make Czar dizzy. He checked his IFF -- no signal of any kind from the thing, not that he'd expected it. With an annoyed grunt he switched his radio to the most common frequency used by the Fen for ship-to-ship communication and hit the transmit key. "Attention unregistered aircraft! This is Major Randall Czarneki of the United States Air Force. Your flight is illegal! You are ordered to land immediately. If you do not comply you will be fired on. Do you copy?"

"'Aircraft'!" Khaki snorted. "This thing's going to space. It's the fuckin' Death Star, that's what it is."

"Can it, Khaki!" Czar snapped. The damned thing was rising too rapidly -- more than half a mile in just the time it took to issue the warning. At that rate it'd hit their operational ceiling in just a few minutes. He was going to have to make a decision fast. He keyed the transmit again. "Repeat: Attention unregistered aircraft! Ths is the Air Force. Your flight is illegal. You are to land immediately or you will be fired upon!"

He silently counted to 20 -- another mile up, he noted on his altimeter. No response. "Khaki, Hightop, follow me." He lightened his pull on the joystick and the jet shot out and away from the huge spherical craft. As he looped back to point the nose of his jet back at the bogey, he switched bands again. "Andrews, this is India Foxtrot One. The unidentified craft has ignored hails and is continuing to climb. I am arming missiles for launch."

"Acknowledged, India Foxtrot One," came crackling back as he flipped the molly-guards and toggled the switches that armed the missiles.

Czar checked his radar. The main force from Andrews was almost here. Launching an air-to-air missile would signal the start of hostilities. The missile guidance systems had complained at first -- the thing was simply too large to register as a valid target, but he overrode them into a point-and-shoot mode; precision wasn't needed here. A quick glimpse at the console clock told him he had less than 10 seconds before the sphere passed through their operational ceiling; he had to decide now.

"Lauching," he spat, and fired.

Czar's jet jinked as the missiles dropped and ignited, one after the other. They shot off into the dark, everything but their exhausts lost to the night.

Moments later, two blossoms of flame erupted in the distance. Hightop whooped, while Khaki muttered unintelligibly to himself. Czar just watched, and realized that a shimmer of rainbow light had flared into existence beyond them, a shimmer that remained for a few moments even as the explosions faded away. It shone brightly enough, for long enough, to reveal what he had feared -- an undamaged, unscarred surface glinting in the strange multicolored light.

"Shit," Hightop spat.

"Yeah," Czar agreed. He checked the altimeter. Angels 55. 55,000 feet. The F-22s' ceiling. He levelled off, and the others followed.

Khaki whistled. "Force field, gotta be some kind of force field."

Czar toggled the transmit. "Andrews, this is India Foxtrot One. Direct hit, but no damage. Craft appears to be protected by some kind of field effect. We are also at operational ceiling and are breaking off pursuit."

Andrews took a little longer than usual to respond, and when they did, Czar could hear muffled expletives in the background. "Acknowledged, India Foxtrot One. Return to base."

As Czar led his men into a wide bank that brought them onto a heading back to Andrews, he only half-listened to Khaki and Hightop banter as the recall orders went out to all the other squadrons. For a moment he wondered what motivated the Fen to head into space. Then he remembered the moment when he first knew he wanted to fly, as a ten-year-old watching the first space shuttle to launch after the long post-Challenger hiatus.

It was a dream that in one form or another had carried him since then. He'd given up on being an astronaut before he'd gotten out of his teens, but fighter pilot wasn't a bad substitute. Still, it had been a quite a while since he'd thought about the roots of his long quest for wings. Maybe he did know what motivated the Fen, after all.

Czar shook his head and smiled to himself. "Good luck, guys," he whispered. "Have fun out there."

From all who tried out of history's tide
A salute for the team that won
And the old Earth smiles at her children's reach
The wave that carried us up the beach
To reach for the shining sun

April 21, 2012
12:30 AM EDT

In dozens of habitats and ships surrounding the Earth, variations on the same theme played out over and over:

"Commander, something just took off from North America. Something big."

"Who are these guys?"

"Christ on a pogostick. That's insane. Where's it coming from?"

And as the myriad inhabitants of the space around it watched, the great shining sphere burst from the shadow of the earth into the glorious light of the sun.

We know well what Life can tell
If you will not perish, then grow
And today our fragile flesh and steel
Have laid our hands on a vaster wheel
With all of the stars to know
That the Eagle has landed, tell your children when
Time won't drive us down to dust again.

-- Leslie Fish, Hope Eyrie