“Yes, Corporal?” Lieutenant Beck moved casually, yet carefully, between the row of personnel to the young man who had called him. He leaned over and stared at the green neon screen glowing in the darkened room.
“I’ve been tracking this one for some time now, sir. It is very small and as it neared our moon, I realized it was headed for us.” Corporal Mendez glanced up at his supervisor. “Maybe I should have brought this to somebody’s attention earlier?” There was just a slight, anxious tone in his voice.
“How small?” Beck’s voice was calm and soft. Until he could ascertain an approximate size, there was no reason for unneeded action. Beck continued to watch the incoming object approach the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Approximately a quarter of a meter in length, just a little smaller in diameter.” Mendez drew in a deep breath. “It seems the target touchdown will be about seventy-two miles north and west of us, sir.” He moved a candy wrapper to the side. “ETA is in twenty-four minutes and sixteen seconds.”
Mendez’s eyes darted back and forth across the keyboard as he furiously thought. Do I tell him about the minute vector change during its en route path?
“Twenty-two minutes, forty-one seconds, sir.” Mendez cocked his head to watch the officer.
Lieutenant Beck straightened up and inhaled deeply. “These things tend to explode in our atmosphere. A couple of years ago they had one about the size of mini-van come racing in. It blew up and other than causing a minor amount of disturbance to the locals in California, it really wasn’t environmentally destructive.” He reached over and grabbed his partially filled coffee mug. “This one is a practically insignificant in size. Off hand, I’d say in about twenty minutes we’re going to feel some vibrations but nothing to fret over.”
Mendez watched Lieutenant Beck saunter off toward the coffee corner of the darkened room with its myriad glowing screens. He glanced down at his screen as the object once more made a minor adjustment in its trajectory. Mendez quickly calculated the new destination; it was more northerly and about another one hundred and seventeen miles further away than he originally estimated. He shrugged his shoulders and knew Beck would forget all about it, if not already.
* * * *
The meteorite hit the ground, bursting open at impact. An iridescent, thin skinned oval package glistened on the burnt out tundra. The item wobbled and quivered on the quickly refreezing ground then evaporated in a swirling mist. All that remained was two halves of what appeared to be a space geode in glittering shades of silver, red, blue, gold and green.
I stood there, mesmerized, holding my breath while the thing coiled around me, its scales glistening in shades of blue, silver and black.
A chill raced down my spine making the fine hairs on my arms stand up. Another chill and I felt the goose bumps ripple on my arms. Suddenly I shivered and I felt the electric chill shoot down into my legs. I was cold.
A coil tightened. My arms were pinned against my body.
Hiss The snake-like creature’s tongue flicked in my direction and its beady eyes stared at me.
“Corporal Hastings? Are you okay?” Canadian Corporal Jennings stared up from his desk at her pale face and listened to her winded breathing.
I blinked and swayed a little at the realization I’d been day-dreaming. My hand went instinctively for the desk to steady myself. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through me.
“I’m fine,” I stuttered, more in an attempt to convince myself than him. The chair beside his desk looked very comfortable and stable. He could offer me a seat if for no other reason than just common courtesy.
Jennings glanced at the chair then looked up at me. I waited patiently as the young man worked his way through the pile of papers I had handed him. To keep from day-dreaming again, I glanced about the austere building and silently took in its integrity for only being in existence the last eight months. It appeared the building had been in its location for upwards of two or three years.
“Is this your first time here, Corporal Hastings?” Jennings asked without looking at me.
My gut reaction was to give a smartass reply like “Oh, I was here two years ago with the USO show” but noticed the officer sitting in the corner. “First time,” I replied and smiled down at Jennings who wasn’t looking back. Maybe the guy is just trying to make idle conversation, I thought.
His head snapped up, catching me off-guard; a sly grin crossed his lips. “Sign here and I’ll get your bedding allocation. You’ll be bunking in number thirteen.” Without looking at his hand, he twirled the paper around , presented me a pen then stood up.
“Thirteen?” I whispered and stared wide-eyed into Jennings’ face as he stood there before me, a commanding young man of almost six feet in his Canadian Army fatigues.
“Not really,” Jennings replied with a snicker. “Just giving you a little rub there. We have two floors of twelve bunks each. You’re upstairs with a window view; 9-B.”
“A window view?” I questioned, intrigued by the idea of being able to stare out a window while still in the bunk. Less than two hours ago, my mind wandered, I’d been standing at Command Central in Visalia, California listening to Major Nancy class=SpellE>Arness explain some of the complexities of visiting a foreign military base. Now I stood at Hopewell, a newly formed multi-cultural military base in the wilds of northern Canada, north of Yellowknife, in reality, much closer to the Arctic Circle.
“Corporal Hastings? Corporal?”
Jennings’ voice broke into my reverie. I shook my head. “You were saying?” I asked.
“As I was saying, we’re very informal here. Would you mind being called by your first name or would you prefer your title and last name? My name is Terrence Derrick Jennings but everyone calls me T.D.”
I smiled at the man leading me across the room to an open doorframe where I could see the stairs leading up. Beside it was a door leading elsewhere. Perhaps the lower bunkroom? I thought. “My name is Barbara Hastings,” I replied. “I guess you can call me Barbara or Barb.” I stretched out my hand. “Glad to meet you T.D.”
T.D. smiled. “There is only one enlisted person here who you have to be—.”
“Sergeant Franklin Buck,” I said, cutting T.D. off. “I’ve already been warned about him.” I giggled. “Supposedly when he says ‘the buck stops here’ it means him and class=GramE>he —.”
“Has met his match, corporal.”
The voice was deep, ominous and cold. I turned to see all six-foot-three-inches of Sergeant Franklin Buck staring down at me; his deep brown eyes pierced into my very soul.
“I’m sorry, sir. I wasn’t—.”
“Don’t ever call me ‘sir,’ corporal. I am a sergeant; I work for a living.” He glared at me, the whites of his eyes flaring. “Am I understood?”
Before I could reply, the hulk of a black man pushed by and raced up the steps, taking them two and three at a time.
“That, Barb, is The Buck, as we call him.” T.D. straightened up and his eyes widened as he glanced up the staircase. “Never, ever say that to his face; always call him ‘Sergeant Buck’ and pray he is in a good mood.” T.D. rolled his eyes while making a grimace of a face before starting, once more, up the stairs.
“Obviously I’m not off to a very good start. Any other little tidbits I should know about?”
T.D. stopped and placed a hand to his chin in thought. “Nope, I think you’ve got it all under control… now.” He grinned. “We’ll go to the closet and get your linens and then I’ll show you to your bunk.”
Although the stairwell had plenty of light, I was surprised by how bright the barracks were. Large windows lined both walls which were painted white. Small five-foot high, six-foot long partitions stood out from the walls creating small cubicles. I noticed how each cubicle had three windows, one directly in front of the desk and two others, one on each side of the big one and at the head of the bunks.
T.D. led me to the closet, pulled a key from his pocket and opened the door. “Here you go, Barb. Sheets, pillowcase and a blanket.” He stacked them into my arms. “If you’re like the rest of us, you probably won’t use the blanket too often until the real winter sets in and the temperatures linger below zero.” He locked the door. “Now follow me to your bunk.” He started down the pseudo aisle between the two rows of cubicles. “Here you go,” he said and pointed at the right bunk in the last cubicle.
I glanced over at the cubicle on the opposite side of the aisle. Sergeant Buck sat on his bunk vigorously spit-shining a boot. He put the boot down and strolled toward me.
“My name is Sergeant Franklin Buck.” He offered his dark hand to shake. “This is my barracks and I expect those on this floor to maintain a sense of dignity and respect for one another.” He glanced down at my bunk. “Each morning I expect that bunk to be made and able to bounce a quarter. Have all your personal gear stowed away.” He casually turned to the other bunk in the cubicle and pointed at the wall. “You may have personal pictures and items on the wall but nothing that would be considered inappropriate. Is that understood?”
I wanted to crawl under the bunk and just slink away back to the chopper that had brought me and be home.
Buck smiled; his white teeth glistening in drastic contrast of his blue-black skinned face. Even his eyes seemed to have taken on an edge of mirth. “Welcome to Camp Hopewell, Corporal Hastings.” He nodded, did a snappy about-face and returned to the opposite side of the barracks. He grabbed the boot from his bunk, sat down and started polishing again. Finally he glanced up and winked at me as I stood there staring.
“Okay, Barb, just a few more details.” T.D. pointed at a door I’d not noticed. “That leads to the showers and latrine facilities. Chow hall is downstairs and to the left. We eat breakfast at seven sharp in the morning so duties can be assigned and decisions from the prior day announced, lunch is between eleven-thirty and one with supper at six p. m. sharp. Everyone eats the morning and evening meal together so we can assess the day’s activities before and after.” T.D. glanced out the window. “Any questions? If not now, you can always ask me later or one of the others on this floor. By the way, my bunk is the first one on this side by the stairs.” He looked over at Buck. “Sergeant Buck has been here the longest and knows all there is to this place. Right, sergeant?”
Buck casually looked up from his work. “I know how to keep my ass safe, if that’s what you mean.” He looked back down at the boot, spit on it and applied another layer of black polish.
“I have one question.” I glanced about the barracks. “Can you tell me how many other females there are at Hopewell? I attempted to figure that out before I left but all I got was a head count.”
“Counting you, there are a total of nine females. One officer, five enlisted and three civilian. At the present time our current billet allows for twenty-four enlisted personnel; we have nineteen.” T.D. hesitated as if he were going to say something, glanced at Buck then looked down at the floor for a moment. “We have four more incoming personnel over the next three days to complete our billet.”
I frowned, something wasn’t making sense but I had time to figure it out later. T.D. turned and headed back down to his desk and I started to unpack.
“You’re not stupid, corporal.” Buck’s voice was low and serious. “It’s already burning at you so you might as well sit down and ask me so I can tell you.” He slowly turned and looked at me. “You don’t ask; I don’t tell. I keep a simple life.”
The chair at the desk was lightweight and I yanked it out and flipped it around, spread my legs and plopped my butt onto the seat while folding my arms across the chair’s back. I lowered my chin onto my hands.
“You have a complement of nineteen. You have four more coming. When I was being versed on Hopewell, it said you have a current working billet of twenty.” I paused. “That was counting me. So, what gives?”
“Hope…” Buck stared at his feet. “Hope is what we call Camp Hopewell.” He turned his gaze on me. “Do you know why we are here? What our true mission is?”
“To bring together those of different ethnic and national backgrounds to jointly work in an environment of peace and friendship,” I quoted from the textbook answer. “Not to interfere with, hinder or destroy in any way another intelligent life form.” I smiled at my recitation. “We are to glean all knowledge for the good of humankind and sharing our brotherhood with others in our exploration.”
Buck dejectedly nodded his head. “Haven’t you ever considered the words ‘life form’ rather strange to use for us here at Hope?”
I paused and stared out the window in Buck’s cubicle. “Well, I thought it was a fancy reference to us, a collective group of nationalities. I mean, we’re supposed to be sharing brotherly love, no hate, no war, no outward actions of animosity.”
“It was until two days ago.” Buck’s voice was stoic.
I sat straight up in the chair and frowned at Buck. “If that is so, there should have been a report made and I would have been made privy to that fact before coming.”
Buck stared at the gray steel flooring. “We haven’t made a report. We still don’t know what happened. Junior Sergeant Braden Yablokov was on a typical patrol. We lost contact with him and his last report was… was…” Buck slowly turned to me, a tear welled in his left eye. “I’m not trying to scare you, but the last thing we heard from him was a blood-curdling scream in a very high octave.”
“A woman’s scream?” I asked. My mind raced at the thought Yablokov might have made contact with a female in this God-forsaken wilderness.
Buck shook his head. “No, Hastings, it was his. The fear factor so strong, it raised his voice that high.” He paused. “Do you have any idea the fear necessary to do that to a man?”
Once more a tendril of chill curled around my spine and slowly worked its fingers up it. I could feel the goose bumps building and then I held my breath as the final catch caught and pushed the hairs of my arms up with goose bumps. I shivered.
“No,” I whispered and slumped my chin onto my crossed arms, pulled in my lips and stared at the floor before me.
“That’s why we only have nineteen for now.” He nodded at the bed behind me, but not mine. “That’s Yablokov’s bunk. Until we know, it stays the way it is. I make sure the bed stays tight and will help you clean the cubicle if you want.”
“Any mess will be mine,” I whispered. “I’ll do it myself.” I stood up and somberly walked over to my bunk and continued to unpack and store my equipment and personal belongings. It was time for me to move in.
I glanced out the open window at the changing green; fall was quickly approaching. In the distance I heard an eagle screech and songbirds singing nearby. It seemed it was all a façade to lull me. I shivered.