Anthropomorphic Foxes In Space….

Chapter 2


AFIS 4.21 Postcards from Ultima Thule

Chessec:

My husband sat motionless, his back against the base of a smooth-barked sycamore tree, eyes focused on the wood line across a stubbly cornfield. Still undetected, I dropped down on my haunches along the forest edge about twenty feet behind him, I watching the hunt. The abnormally warm fall evening made him sweat under his orange hunting vest, and I'd have located him by scent even without its bright shade. While us Diyim'yi of course have to take humanities' word for the 'orangeness' of its sandy yellow color; it was certainly bright enough. The dim light still illuminated the fabric as if a spotlight shined on it. It probably looks the same to a deer, too, I suspect. But prey species are more trusting of outward appearance, I guess.

It was late in hunting season, and Dave had decided to stake out the nearby field. I came up from the house to find him, moving along the ravine, crossing the spoor of the buck he was waiting for, then backtracking around the field to this vantage in order to keep from spooking the deer. While some of my relatives stalk and kill big game for sport, I don't see the attraction: I've never had the urge to chase anything bigger than a rabbit. I waited in silence for him to finish. Human are almost purely sight hunters, going maybe 95 percent by eye and all-but-a-fraction of the rest hearing. I guess the darkness had almost deepened beyond the ability of human eyes gather light before the deer cautiously entered the cornfield. Dave slowly raised the rifle from his lap and peered through the scope. He breathed out and tightened his finger on the trigger. After a few seconds' pause, he lowered the rifle and stood, stretching his stiff back with a grimace.

"Decided you don't want that one?" Although I spoke softly, the buck raised his head at my voice, spooked and jumped back into the ravine. Dave watched him go.

"I guess not. I find myself with a lot in common with hunted creatures, all of sudden. I've been sitting here, wondering if we'll use any of the meat I've already put in the freezer, whether we'll even be able to live here much longer. I'll let that one go; maybe he'll still be here when all this blows over."

"I'm the one they're really after."

"I disagree. You they want, me they just want rid of. I know the current crisis has them distracted right now, but pretty soon, somebody's going to realize they can use all the new state surveillance apparatus to track us, too. And we're barely hidden; it wouldn't take too long."

We walked back to the house together, nothing but the rustle of dry leaves and the hooting of an owl to distract us from our thoughts. I guess we could give things a break and leave the country or even the planet until things returned to normal. But doing either for more than a few months would cost Dave his job and house, at least. I'd become attached to the place, too; almost as much as I'd become attached to him. Any feeling of affection for the human no longer triggered the reflexive thought: Is this my own emotion, or my sister's? One thought I knew was straight from me: I hated leaving our territory.

It was time for a decision, though. He couldn't pretend to be on vacation any longer, he'd either have to quit his job or go back. While Dave cleaned his hunting gear, I sat down in front of the computer and checked our correspondence.

"You've got mail," I mimicked the computer voice with annoyance. "That should be: 'You've got junk mail'." I tapped my clawtips on the desk while it downloaded. Deleting the obvious junk, I moved my fan mail and the mailing lists into their proper categories, and then considered the few remaining. Three separate messages with the subject line 'Bigger Penis in Minutes', and an attached, (and disgusting) jpeg file;" all possibilities. "I wish they'd use something in better taste to hide these things." Just to be sure I ran another antivirus scan on the attachments, comparing the image files to each other. One was significantly larger (file-wise) than the other two decoys. I stripped the coded message from the file and got ready to delete all three as trash.

"Whatcha got there, Chessec?" Dave, returning from the basement, looked over my shoulder at the screen. He smelled faintly of gun oil, covered by soap.

"Just online shopping. Seeing if I can find something in another size." I gestured with both paws spread apart. "Seriously, it's the weekly update message from H'raawl-Hrkh and the Canadians. Everyone's fine. They decoded the ship arrival dates I sent, and agreed to meet them. They'll make a phone call to confirm in the morning at 0500."

"What about the new project? Did you get any definitive results this time?" Based on something Mitzep and Annas had seen on Nurnkh, I'd been tracking down evidence of a possible previous Jaguar visit to Earth.

"The assumption is that the Jaguars visited earth in late 44 or early 45. What I wanted to determine was whom did they talk to? The allies have at best a rudimentary rocketry program during the war, so I looked at the German program. Some basic structural and guidance methods seem to be common to both planets, and could be parallel developments; but the applications are so similar it seems more than can be explained by coincidence."

"That means either us or the Russians got it afterward. We'd have real trouble getting our hands on any on-going military or NASA hardware to check it out. The Russians might tell us, for a chunk of cash. Otherwise, it will have to be from historical sources, like you say. I'll probably have to visit some university libraries while I'm recruiting, I guess."

"What about the evidence from the whole postwar UFO craze? There has to be something concrete, but there is so much junk, I don't know where to look." Dave thought for a moment, then laughed the way he did when he was about to pull a practical joke. I frowned, unsure whether I was about to be made fun of. He reached over my shoulder and typed a few keywords with one finger into the search tool I had open on my browser.

"Oh, Boy! We're going to Roswell." He chortled, scrolling past two pages of citations before he hit a link. "UFO central, here we come."

"Nonsense! Everything I've read says that was a fake. Greys don't look anything like any alien life forms I've ever seen, and believe me, I know aliens. Why go there?"

"Specifically, we're going to the UFO museum. It attracts plenty of wackos, crazies and oh, by the way, has one of the best reference libraries on UFOs. Hmm, that's another thing we'll need some money for. I'm certain that for the right price we can search through it. Plus, I have a few local angles to work. I want to go to the fine arts museum, too. You'll see why, if I can get you inside. Best place I can think of to pick up a 50-year cold trail. It's one of those places I know people."

"I thought as much. You always know people in places like that. Are you sure you're not a member of some vast conspiracy?" Dave laid a finger alongside his nose and winked broadly. "You better be kidding. Let's remember this is just a side-issue. The mission is still more important. And we still need to decide what to tell that stranded crew when they call."

"Personally, I think it's going to be very hard to keep a shuttle on the ground for very long without attracting to much attention and pressure from our government. They'll need to land and get out, quick. But I'd like to get the crew home and replace them with a proper science team sooner rather than later. And since I doubt we'll be able to legally cross the border under the current conditions, the student pickups need to be in the US. We ought to scout some more landing sites."

"Then let's do them last. If we can get H'raawl-Hrkh's crew out first, we can put everything else on hold."

"Agreed. Do we want to tell them anything else? What about the trip to Roswell?"

"They can watch the news just as well as we can. I should think the rest would be obvious. Lets leave that for now."

I shut down the laptop and climbed out of my chair, grabbing the hem of his bathrobe.

"We have a few hours to use up before time for that phone call." He sat down on the recliner and I climbed up onto his lap.

"I can think of a few ideas." His hand strayed towards the remote. As I moved my left paw to slap it away, he shifted direction suddenly and grabbed me behind the opposite knee, flipping me suddenly belly up on top of him. I bared my teeth, spoiling the fierce expression when my tongue slipped out one side of my jaw. "And here's one."

He kissed it, and while he was looking down, I dusted his nose with the tip of my tail.


AFIS 4.22 High Plains Drifting

H'raawl-Hrkh:

My oversize parka rode up too short in the midsection and too long in the arms; the heavy quilted pants were impossible: I had finally shortened the legs by half just so I could stand upright. The boots: forget it. No size I'd been furnished yet worked with the shape of my feet. I pulled on two pair of heavy wool socks, knowing my claws'd shred them before the day was out. I threw open the door and tiptoed outside into a wet, sloppy snowstorm.

The slush on the path instantly soaked my feet as I shuffled to the door of the tour bus, banging on it for the guard to let me inside. It whooshed open, and a hot blast of air from his space heater melted the snowflakes on my whiskers. Nodding to the young constable, I passed through the curtain to the table that doubled as our office and dining room when we were on the road. Inspector Colin McOwen, official keeper of my little band of castaways, was already at work.

"I hate winter!" I stripped out of the human winter clothes I'd so laboriously put on not three minutes before. He tossed me a towel, which I used to dry my damp muzzle, tail and feet, stretching my hind legs and spreading each digit to remove the bits of slush.

He deadpanned, "winter doesn't really start for another two weeks. This is still fall, and a mild one at that." More of his native humor.

"Did I mention I hate your so-called 'fall' too?" Colin laughed, retrieving the towel and spreading it across the heater. I liked him. We'd become friends during the busy months since my crew and I were stranded on Earth. Their government had assigned him as our watchdog and keeper, and he pretended to be a policeman. Dave assured me he was almost certainly a with their intelligence services, probably a CSIS officer. The Canadians moved us constantly from one secret location to another to avoid the possibility of another American commando raid like the one on the airfield. Sometimes I think I've slept on the hard seats of this bus more often than in a bed. The rest of my crew: Navigator Lossp, Nurse Berypt and the cubs, could stretch out on the built-in bunks. I'm built too long.

So, when we could, we stopped beside the highway, somewhere in the middle of the bunch of wheat fields that seemingly made up most of this country. The last three towns had names he said came from the hottest part of the Indian Subcontinent, but all I saw was more miles of Saskatchewan. Tonight, as we did each weekend, we used the facilities of a small rural school while it was closed. His protective services contingent kept away casual trespassers, while the science staff studied and interviewed us inside the building.

Colin and I planned the next leg of our journey. We had started holding joint office hours at the table in the tour bus by mutual consent, once we got tired of being pulled into every petty crisis we wandered past. The convenience of its radios made for a natural command center, and the climb up the stairs gave it a 'police court' appearance that intimidated our accompanying scientists and security personnel enough to think twice about bothering us with trivia. Colin looked down at his mail while I settled in.

"Doctor Blevins was released from the hospital today. Do we want him back here, or bring in somebody else?" Blevins was a research biologist one of the cubs had accidentally scratched. They were holding him in isolation, just in case we carried any strange diseases.

"Oh, bring him back, if he'll come. Maybe this will improve his bedside manner. It's not his fault he started out as a veterinarian. I know studying aliens didn't come with the skills he learned at University. He's got to expect to be studied right back."

"He said he'd had experience with big cats."

"And that was his problem. If he'd told her what he was doing, and treated her like any other six-year old instead of a wild jaguar, he would have been fine."

"Do you think she'll be too scared to continue to be a patient of his?"

"No. The cubs I'm not worried about. Those youngsters can adapt to anything. I'm more worried about Berypt's response. She's a nurse, not their mother, but she's become very maternal about those cubs."

"She's not big enough to bite his arm off."

"No, she probably would poke him with a syringe, although you'd be surprised how sharp a Diyim'yi's little teeth are. This whole trip has been hard on her. Lossp and myself, we've trained for this. Berypt was thrown in with all four feet. She's been most isolated of us, too: long hours mothering those cubs, in some pretty awful conditions. Since she's not a natural linguist, she's had trouble communicating with your team.

"What about you? Does it bother you, being in charge of a small party this far from home?"

"I've been a long way from home most of my life. I've learned to build my family among my associates, to accept what I'm given. I've adapted." I lowered my voice, rumbling with humor. "Don't tell any of my Diyim'yi friends, but I love teasing them. They're so cute."

"So you're coping just fine." I wondered if his sudden concern was genuine, or something one of the doctors had suggested. We'd been purely businesslike, so far.

"Maybe I am. You know what really bothers me? The secrecy. Why can't we just hold a press conference, and bring everything out in the open?"

"Because the politicians don't know what to make of you. And, you've come at a bad time, especially for the Americans. They're afraid to give the public two crises at once, so I guess they're pretending you didn't happen. Since you did, they've got to make you go away."

"I guess. I just hope Dave and Chessec are still safe. I'll be glad when we can call again. Maybe I can convince them to come north." I sighed. We still had work to do. "What's next?"

"Doctor Urquart."

"Joy, my second most favorite scientist. Well, send him in." He called over to the other building. A few minutes later, the doctor stood diffidently in front of us, waiting with ill-concealed impatience for me to finish reading the clipboard Colin passed me. The man smelled of his eagerness for his Nobel Prize in comparative alien physiology, should they ever award such a silly thing. I skimmed his proposed testing program one more time, looking for any reference to needles, or intrusive procedures. It wasn't too likely there'd be any, as his arm still had a rash from the previous injections I'd tested on him first. Berypt had a more pointed discussion about the way dosages got measured for people instead of livestock. Lossp translated, so I didn't hear, but I guess the message had been received.

"You've included the cubs in a four-hour motion study series again. They don't have that long an attention span. You know that. Just film them as they move, you know, normally. Besides, we'd have to pull them out of class." I lined through the item, signed it with a flourish, and then returned the clipboard. "I'll give my list to the secretary tonight. Have we got anything else?"

"Nothing we haven't discussed before, Commander."

"All right. Thank you." He left the bus. I wiped my runny nose on one of the towels. "What's left, Colin?"

"How about a workout? This place has a gym, you know. We still have a few hours before we roll out of here. Let's get out of this bus and clear our heads. Besides, It'll give the crew a chance to clean this place." He gestured to the paper-strewn table.

"I'm not crazy about going out in that slush, again." Still, I struggled back into my winter coat. He threw on a light jacket. (How can they stand this weather? I've got more fur than any human. Must have something to do with being born in this climate.) We went back into the school, padding through the darkened, silent halls.

Seeing the lights turned on in a classroom, I looked through the small window to see the cubs lying on a rug, coloring construction paper. Berypt and one of the researchers looked up as they saw me pass.

The gym was a small but welcome treat. The human off-duty staff taught us volleyball a few weeks before, and we'd had a mixed team tournament going ever since. The cubs loved playing on the wrestling mats, and I'd occasionally join them. My normal routine was to run a few sprints, some tumbling and calisthenics, followed by weights. Colin wasn't a great believer in exercise, but he kept in shape, and like now, occasionally joined me. I stripped down and started stretching; in a few minutes he joined me wearing shorts. I repeated our standard joke, saying that he wasn't entirely a hairless ape. We worked through our solo routines, watching each other. It was interesting to watch just how inflexible humans' spines and major joints were compared to my own. I subtly exaggerated my twists and stretches; pleased he was similarly watching me.

Once we loosened up, he lined up next to me for some sprints. Again, I blew past him, finishing half a length ahead on the first run, slowing to neck and neck by the fourth. I flopped down on the mats before he beat me on a fifth.

"Why don't we try something else," I panted, sucking air in gulps. "So, how about that wrestling match?"

He grinned, barely breathing. We faced each other on the mats. He had a loose, upright stance that, if anything, seemed as feline as my own.

"Let me get a chair and whip," he joked. He'd explained the reference the first time he'd told the joke, weeks ago.

"You'd find yourself tied to that chair. Come and get me. You're the one wearing the padding." It was true. Their skins showed bruises plainly. I insisted he wear as much protection as possible, but he confined his to a mask, knee and elbow guards. I wore only a pair of boxing gloves over my hind feet that we'd found. When one of the guards asked why, I'd replied, "my hind claws are not as consciously under my control as my fore claws." I demonstrated, swiftly expressing and retracting the sharp inch-long nails. "Any time I get the back ones stuck in, it's hard to pull them out while the preys' still alive." He was suitably impressed.

We sparred. I am larger and I believe, stronger than the average human. I made sure to pull some of my strikes, didn't deliberately overpower him with my sheer mass, and was ever so careful to keep my claws and teeth away from his tender sin. He was an expert fighter, I'm sure he did the same for me. I'd seen Dave box Chopka on the ship, and respected human fists. Besides, neither of us wanted the other to know their full capability. It made for very intelligent fighting, moves thought out several steps in advance on both sides. I enjoyed it as much on an intellectual level as for the physical.

I labored with one disadvantage, though. I find him extremely attractive. Now, I have been accused of lack of discrimination in that area before. But this time, it wasn't (all) my fault. My sister Jena's human-born tastes had transferred across to me, and Colin was the kind of man she apparently liked. It was a challenge, therefore, to have the pad of my nose braced in his neck for a control move: he smelled too good. As I say, I certainly wouldn't have minded; but unfortunately his tastes didn't match. He might be a cat person, but not if that cat was a person. A frustrating dilemma. I could almost hear Old Captain Amkro counseling me on the importance of a professional relationship with my human counterpart.

We sparred until both of us were tired, quitting before either one could make a wrong move. Finally, we both lay side-by-side on the mats and talked about inconsequentials until midnight.

A few hours of sleep, we packed up everything before dawn and bundled the scientists, supplies and still-sleeping cubs into the tour bus. Colin's communications technician stuck his head around the corner. "Your call just came through, press line one." He closed the curtain.

"Dave and Chessec here. I figure we're as secure as this will get, so what's new?" The speakerphone gave his voice a hollow echo. Colin gestured for me to speak next.

"Hi, Dave. It's H'raawl-Hrkh. I've got Colin and Lossp with me on the speaker. Things are going as well as can be expected. We'll be moving again as soon as we're done, so talk as long as you feel comfortable. We got the data already, and I'm looking at a printed copy. Are you sure they can make the pickup, with the current crisis?"

"They're going to try. After everything got grounded last month, we had to stop using the fake plane for a while, so they're going back to a shuttle. Sorry they couldn't make a stop for you last trip, but they've promised us at least the ones on the sheet." The email listed dates and times for an additional ship each month for the rest of the year. "They're going to replace you with a permanent team, if Colin's people agree."

"We've been more than happy with H'raawl and her crew, but we understand they have other places to be," Colin interjected. "I, for one, will miss them. Dave, both of you are more than welcome to come north if you think it's too dangerous in the States."

"I think Chessec and I are alright for the moment. At least until the government starts random checkpoints, we can still drive wherever we want. We'll get by."

"The invitation's open."

"Besides, I've got some more interviews to do: Oh, I forgot! They approved the exchange student program. About a dozen human students and staff, at first. I've been recruiting them."

"We've been recruiting them," Chessec interrupted. "He's doing the face-to-face, I've been picking them out. Dave's too much of an old fart. He'd disqualify anyone with an unusual body piercing, if I let him." Dave laughed in the background. She continued, "Commander, on another subject…The information your government sent about possible Nurnkh activities on earth seems plausible. We're going to do a little more research and see what else we can turn up."

"Yeah, the Corps was interested, to put it mildly. They took photographs of the objects back at the museum on Nurnkh based on Mitzep's description. I let Colin's people copy them, and they found some matching items in Germany. I'd say it's pretty definite the jaguars were here during the war, but either the Americans or the Russians took all the records afterwards."

"Dave wants to ask somebody here about it. Well, that's about all we'd better discuss on the phone. Time for us to get moving, and I'm sure you will too. Bye, now."

"Take care, then."

"You, too." I hung up the phone. Looking through the curtain, I watched the technician clip the connection at the pole, coil up his patch wires, and climb into the trail vehicle. Our caravan rolled across the snow-covered prairie, heading east into the sunrise.


AFIS 4.23 The MI&E Rate For Concrete, North Dakota Is 30 Pieces Of Silver.

Cindy:

I had the office to myself for almost a month. Chuck was in the field, at some NORAD base on the Canadian Border. His emails were short and cryptic, mostly because he couldn't figure out how the new PDA he'd been issued worked. But I gathered things weren't going well. The military was ignoring us as much as their civilian bosses would allow: NORAD finally had a mission besides watching for incoming ICBMs, and they were like a dog with a new chew-toy. With the country on war footing for all practical purposes, our little sideshow seemed less important to them and Space Command, several of the military staff asked outright whether we ought to just shut the deep space radar scans down in order to better watch the borders.

However, the shadowy government types whose anti-UFO program we provided cover for were adamant that we continue, insisting we redouble our efforts to discredit actual sightings and exaggerate fake ones. By the time Chuck got back to the Springs, I was ready to hire another worker to help with the avalanche of paper and new security reporting requirements.

Chuck threw his London fog across the partition and slouched into his chair, reaching immediately for a blank expense report form and sitting at his desk. Two bad signs: He was a 'film noir' buff, and only wore the coat when he wanted to feel like he was Sam Spade, or some other hard-bitten, cynical fictional detective. The expense report meant he planned to leave on vacation as soon as he finished and filed it with corporate. Since when Chuck was like this his vacation consisted of serious, solitary drinking, and because I wanted to know what actually happened up in North Dakota, I walked over and handed him my cup of coffee, pretending it was fresh from the pot. He grunted thanks, then took a swallow, spitting all over the blank form. It was cold, and he didn't use artificial sweetener.

"Blech!" He patted the liquid off the ruined form with another piece of paper. "That's horrible."

"Good morning to you, too. Nice of you to notice I'm here. Are you going to tell me about it, before you drop out of sight, again?" He exhaled, rubbed his temples with both hands, looked around the room with unfocused eyes, and squinted up at me.

"I'm sorry. It was a bad one. A week in North Dakota, then out to headquarters in DC. If I weren't so close to retirement, I'd quit."

"That bad, huh. Tell you what. Why don't we go get some better coffee and you can tell me all about it."

Going out for coffee gave Chuck a chance to complain about the price at the corner coffee shop, something that always put him in a better mood. The fact that he was still serious after berating the counter clerk showed me more than anything how wound up he was. I waited until we were settled in our booth before I asked how things went.

"They made another attempt to grab the foxes. Sent some kind of strike team over the border, pissed the Canadians off. Didn't get anything, but the news story about Canada suspending their NORAD membership until we reconsider our position on the ATBM treaty is a cover for the diplomatic fuss. And, of course, after the terrorist attacks, anything to do with aliens got swept back under the rug."

"We don't have to do anything about it. They've been perfectly happy for us to go through the motions before. Mark time until retirement."

"You know the answer. Everything's changed. We're all fighting to save democracy, or something. Defending the Homeland, empty phrases like that. They'll expect us to produce."

"You don't know that. The cover-up might still be what they want. Just don't take it so personal, and you'll make it. Pretend nothings changed (they expect you to be a stubborn grouch.) It's your character."

"I've changed, because it's personal now. You were right, of course. Aliens exist. That was OK in the abstract. But I've met one, and she seems a pretty nice lady. I'd hate for anything to happen to her. And the junior G-men here just don't act like the bunch I'd like to "interview" her. Not polite at all. So what do we do? We're going to be expected to do our part, you know: that's the official line. They're going to get blanket wiretap authority to try to track her and any human she contacts, next. That'll probably be when I quit. The thought of giving some nineteen-year-old furry fan the third degree just because he's one of Chessec's pen pals fairly makes my stomach churn."

"Well, we can't just refuse. We'd just end up in jail." I looked him squarely in the eye." So what do you want to do about it?"

"I don't know. A drinking binge sounded like a good plan earlier."

"That lacks some finesse." We sat quietly until the waitress passed by our table. "Why don't we find out what Chessec's plans are? That way, you might be able to do some good."

"But we don't have any way to get in touch."

"Sure we do. Dave was on that UFO panel with me last year, I'm sure the convention director had some way of reaching him. At least an email address?"

"It's worth a try, I guess." I took that as a yes. I could see the gears in his head starting to turn.

"So, are you going to come back to the office?" He examined the cup in his hand, looking down into the bottom at the dregs of his coffee.

"No, I'm going home, finish a bottle of single malt that's been waiting for me all month, then get some sleep." He set down his cup. "I'll be in tomorrow, but not until after ten."

"Fair enough." He stood, pulling on his London Fog and placed his hat over his bald spot. He started out the door. "Chuck," He turned, and I motioned shooting him with my finger. "You be careful."

"Sure thing, toots."


AFIS 4.24 Sleep Tight, America

Dave:

The heavy drapes were closed in the back of the van, and the only light was the orange liquid crystal display of my scanners. Nothing on the police channels, and it was a quiet night over northeast Nebraska: An airliner tracking over the horizon heading for Seattle; two National Guard fighters meeting up with a KC-10 tanker above Offut Air Force Base, almost 400 miles east. I'd been listening since sunset for unusual traffic. Nothing but the unexpected German accent of the pilot of a NATO AWACS radar plane that landed about 9:00. As quiet as we could hope for on a Saturday night. Mitzep's shuttle was due in just after midnight.

The mother ship made brief radio contact while it was overhead, letting us know both shuttles started their descents together, someplace over Siberia. We would be below their horizon until just before landing, and I had maybe two minutes to warn him if anything went wrong. 45 minutes: Annas' ship ought to be on the ground in Alberta.

I faintly heard Chessec's cell phone ringing once outside. She pulled open the van's sliding door, letting in a billow of icy frozen air and showing me a broad vista of snow-crusted fields lit by moonlight. She stuck her head inside, frost melting off her whiskers. Her only concession to the near-zero temperature was a light windbreaker and scarf.

"Dave, that was H'raawl-Hrkh. They didn't make the pickup. Annas had to abort: some kind of problem, she doesn't know what." She reached for the small set of wide field 7x35 binoculars in the pouch behind the passenger seat. "They said Mitzep is coming the rest of the way in."

My first warning came from the tanker. An angry boom operator cursing a fighter who broke free while he was still pumping fuel. An equally hot retort from the offending party, and an angry "Go Secure!" from his wingman. Military UHF became nothing but the dead-air intervals of secured radios. The regional Air Traffic Control center diverted my airliner 20 degrees south of his previous course within five minutes, and ordered a Kansas City flight to return to his origination point. Twenty minutes later, an alert went out over HF, dutifully transcribed by the software on my laptop. Two Strategic Command stations acknowledged, both probably airborne command posts, and my buddy the tanker was repositioned to another track. I checked my catalog of peacetime refueling tracks: they hadn't reassigned new code names: he was headed for the South Dakota-Minnesota border.

"Come on outside, I can see lights." I struggled into my parka and plugged the extension headphone jack in, grabbing my night vision scope. Chessec pointed off to the Northeast.

"That's not him, too far east." I leaned back against the side of the van. The moon was about halfway to the horizon and half full, the van cast a long shadow. I spotted the pinpoint of light. In the 'scope, a faint contrail of ice glowed behind it. "Fighter going north, I think." I did a sweep of the night sky. The aging contrail of my airliner bisected the moon, and another trail was faintly visible on our western horizon. "They know something's going on. NORAD called an alert right about the time they were supposed to make the first landing."

"They're still coming." She said that with a confident voice. "Mitzep thinks he's the hottest pilot around, he's going to come in." I glanced down at my watch.

"Seven minutes." Chessec pulled the portable radio from her jacket pocket, holding it in one hand, the binos, against the bridge of her muzzle, in the other. Someone filled a channel on my in my headphones with an angry squeal of data, before the tuner skipped past it. There was a bright flash and a streak of light from the fighter. It vanished over the northern horizon. "Missed," she said, quietly. Chessec keyed her transmitter. "Tell him abort, Marie." She held it to her ear. "I understand."

"Tell them there's more aircraft to the west." She looked up at me.

"Mitzep sees them on his scope. Another airborne laser, he thinks. Two F-15s out of range to the east. He's going to abort, but he'll be making his turn right over our heads in one minute." She pointed at the northern horizon. "There they are."

Through my scope, the leading edge of the saucer was the brightest thing in the sky. Mitzep made two short zigs left and right, then seemingly pointed the nose vertical. Now, the exhaust plume was visible to the unaided eye, and I lowered my scope to watch. The neglected headset barked out "Flare! Flare!" in the clear, and Mitzep's drive suddenly billowed like a 4th of July roman candle. Seconds later, We were both blinded by an almost-violet beam of light across the sky from west to east. It intersected the tip of the drive flame, and there was a brilliant fireball. Chessec screamed, and slumped, unconscious.

Blinking my eyes to see anything besides spots, I knelt over the vixen. I felt a hammer of shock when I realized it's likely cause: with her telepathic link to Marie, she must have felt her twin's death. I lifted her into the van and loosened her clothing. I thought I would cry or scream or feel something, but I kept functioning. Everything kept going; the world hadn't stopped like I expected it would. Maybe I'd feel it later.

I rubbed the fur on Chessec's muzzle and ears, and after a minute, during which the delayed sound of the explosion reached us, she opened her eyes.

"She's dead, isn't she." I held my remaining spouse close to my chest.

"No, silly." She wiped a tear I hadn't known I'd shed off my face with her paw pad. "Marie screamed with fright and then passed out from g-forces when my hotshot brother kicked the main drive to full emergency and jinked left."

"What about the explosion?"

"Apparently, when one focuses a high energy laser on an expanding cloud of magnesium chaff, exciting things occur." She licked off another tear. "C'mon, let's get out of here before the cops show up."


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