By Robert Drake
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
No one knows more about Project White than Agent-Analyst Hans Reed.
"Arbitrage, Korvo, Winterveldt. Any one of them could have called, but it was Van der Gris. I'd never worked with the Colonel before, but I knew his reputation and he knew mine. Not a surprise really. We IRS folks get around."
Hundreds of miles away, astronomers Ronald Tults and Rachel Hughen were in the cold-shouldering phase of a recent argument. The origins were personal-- too many nights working far from their families. This night's initiating cause however, was an unknown object spotted near Orion's Belt. Breaching protocol, Dr. Hughen had posted blurry screenshots to the social media account StarryEyes72. Her nominal boss Dr. Tults had gotten upset when Rachel's fiance suggested the blurs looked like her eyes. The subsequent discussion of personal boundaries delayed any calculation of the object's trajectory.
Even further away, Hissene Nouri, a Bedouin herdsmen living near Ain Galaka in northern Chad noted the distant arrival of what appeared to be a flame-retardant aubergine. As it neared, three camels were spooked and a fourth ran toward it. The morning that followed quickly became an exhausting search across sun-blasted hamada, a desert so desolate it barely even had sand. Serendipitously Hissene had recently received a new pair of basketball shoes from a nearby NGO.
Back at the labyrinthine IRS office-- the result of cross-wired change orders fulfilled with prejudice by the DOD-- Agent Reed was picked up by Lieutenant Barkhane and brought to a nearby airport. Agent Camilla de Soto, most recently on loan from State, was introduced on the tarmac. Befitting their training both agents lied about their careers. Lieutenant Barkhane then prepared them for their flight to Faya-Largeau.
"Our dossier was inadequate." Agent Reed still looks infested with sand. "Barkhane told us we had drones over northern Chad doing surveillance, but all we saw were bombed out photos of calcite and marlstone. Only thing in focus was a camel."
Back at the observatory, Drs. Tults and Hughen were met by Sergeants Andy Black and David Blue. Fearing a public nuisance charge, or worse a loss of funding, Dr. Hughen attempted to hide in a cleaning closet. She was quickly found and later incensed to find Dr. Tults helping the Sergeants remove the recent posts made by StarryEyes72. Dr. Tults was similarly surprised to find his pettiness government sanctioned.
Romy DuSuche drove a Berliet GLR. These monstrous 6-wheeler transports had become famous in the 1970s for long distance treks across the foreboding Sahara Desert. With the Tchadien distaste for publicly acknowledged French activity and the arrival of extremely disavowed American security operators, Mademoiselle DuSuche had recently begun contracting her Berliet to various blank-name dog tags. Most recently that included a mysterious Colonel Van der Gris. He had never contacted her previously. He sounded serious though, and came with legionary recommendation.
When asked about the timing, Agent Reed shrugs. "Only thing at home was a pair of Guinea pigs and they're used to holding down the fort." Agent de Soto is far less cavalier. "Up to 48 hours away without warning? Don't they know I have children?" "Right," Reed coughs, "But who else speaks Toubib?"
Ms. Sundry, Colonel Van der Gris' personal secretary, was late but not enough to warrant calling in Sergeants Andy Blue and David Black. Ms. Sundry attempted to distract them with hard caramel candies, but the Sargeants only stayed long to drop off a pair of disheveled astrologers. The two new arrivals introduced themselves as Dr. Something and Dr. Something Else but otherwise didn't say much. Ms. Sundry printed copies of the horoscope on their behalf.
Lieutenant Barkhane prepared for the landing at Faya-Largeau by reconnecting with Colonel Van der Gris. The Colonel had thus far been unable to locate an unidentified object arrival procedure or any suitable authority on camels. Instead he gave the Lieutenant access to a Reaper drones armed with AGM-88 missiles.
Romy DuSuche found the Lieutenant's rotisserie chicken skin and breadbox haircut bien chic bien genre, but her two charges wearing dress pants were slightly more genial. Neither seemed all that keen to jump into the Berliet, but they'd hired her, no? Half his words were mumbles, but the male in particular was busy arguing with the Lieutenant to fulfill some obligation. Clearly annoyed, Barkhane reluctantly acquiesced.
Similarly aggravated, Sergeants Andy Black and David Blue wrenched open a lock then entered a minimally furnished apartment located around the corner from a popular BBQ joint and tasteful suburban sports bar. After speaking with the Lieutenant by sat-phone, they located a bachelor-sanitary kitchen and began chopping lettuce.
"You got the Toubib thing and French...but why me?" Agents Reed and de Soto spent the long drive to Ain Galaka tepidly sharing their background. It took a half day of lies to establish de Soto had been involved in military intelligence and Reed had done terror cell analysis. Neither, sadly, had any experience with downed satellites, Bedouin herdsmen, or aerospace-born aubergine. Their working knowledge of northern Chad was similarly lacking.
Through the judicious use of coffee creamer, Ms. Sundry was finally able to produce written statements from Drs. Tults and Hughen indicating their failure to note anything unusual the prior night. Indeed, despite Mars being in retrograde-- the likely cause of their discomfort-- the doctors were in marginally better spirits. Approximately one hundred miles away, Guinea Pigs DJ Dowser and Senor Yanice finally received their breakfast.
At approximately 2pm local time, Lieutenant Barkhane received his first live report from the crash landing at Ain Galaka. The oasis itself was an untouched wasteland of brackish marsh and tripwire palms. According to Agents Reed and de Soto the landing zone showed neither signs of a crash landing nor the obvious remnants of either meteoric or satellite material. Instead they found flame blasted sand, multiple confused camels, and a single footstep bearing the mark of an easily identified global show brand.
"What do you mean there's nothing there?" Colonel Van der Gris transmits a new set of photos to Barkhane care of StarryEyes72. "Find whoever saw that landing."
Sergeants Andy Blue and David Black had ample experience piloting drones. Neither however had done so amongst electronic dance music played by an inconsiderate upstairs neighbor. Ms. Sundry was sympathetic to their complaints but was herself busy interrupting the inappropriately amorous intersections of Drs. Tults and Hughen. The latter, she agreed, did indeed have blurry eyes.
Romy DuSuche could barely understand the woman's French. Perhaps she was Quebecois? In any case it was clear they wanted to find Monsieur Footprint. The male agent, who would have been cute if he smoked, said nothing. After thirty minutes of mistranslation, Romy gave up trying to explain that she had no idea where the herdsmen was and instead drove to the nearest promontory. There she laid down the horn in Morse code. One canyon echo later everyone heard "I...I...I want...want...want camels...camels...camels."
"Get me Sergeants Black and Blue." The Colonel's orders were very clear, but Ms. Sundry misheard completely and would not have remembered anyway. More importantly, the astrologers had finally gotten around to scribbling furious calculations on the horoscopes she had provided earlier. Just as she came in with additional copies they arose in unison and yelled, "Chad!"
As a rule, Hissene Nouri avoided the French. They so often brought war and so rarely bought camels. The Americans weren't much better, but you could usually bill them for something. Curious though, why had they come to Ain Galaka? Perhaps the Aubergine was theirs?
Romy squeezed her lips to a pout and walked a short distance away.
"She ignored me when I asked her to stay inside the truck. Grabbed a cigarette instead." Agent Reed didn't speak Toubib so he watched Romy while de Soto interrogated the Bedouin. From their tone, he gathered they were haggling, but he was too distracted by the French woman's dirty Kepi to follow up further.
"You're telling me an unidentified craft the size of a grain silo landed in the Sahara Desert, spotted a herd of feral camels, then left twenty minutes later?" Colonel Van der Gris received de Soto's transcript through Lieutenant Barkhane. A few rooms away Drs. Tults and Hughen were finally inducted into Project White. Their first task was to review Reed and de Soto's landing zone photos and also the cuter ones sent by Sergeant Black. The latter proved far more comprehensible.
"My kids-- they'll live in a completely different world." De Soto frowned into the wind. "Why come all the way to Earth just to turn around?" "Bet they didn't like the weather." Reed tossed aside a bummed cigarette and borrowed another from Romy, "And they always do."
Hissene Nouri counted the fresh American bills. They wouldn't replace his lost camels, but the story would earn him the difference as soon as he got to market. Shame he had not taken a photo of the aubergine or the Americans would surely have paid more. Enough perhaps for one of those big trucks...
"You fill the water?" Sergeant Black leaned away from his laptop to check. "Sure thing." "Missile status?" Sergeant Black looked back to the drone software. "Armed and ready. Should we tell the Colonel?" Sergeant Blue checked the cage one last time. "The squeeks are tucked in so, yeah, call him up." Sergeant Black performed the necessary operations and the Colonel appeared on their screen. First thing he heard were two guinea pigs waking up.
"Overkill obviously." Agent de Soto shows a photo of Ain Galaka covered in ruptured stone and annihilated riparian biomass. Agent Reed agrees, "All the majesty of a first world cruise missile brought to bear on an abandoned sub-Saharan watering hole." After the attack, Agent de Soto tied the gray strands of her hair into a sailing cable. "Any idea why we just explosively appropriated mankind's first contact?" "Safer than letting anyone else look around." "But we told them there was nothing here?" "Too late," Agent Reed snuffed out another cigarette, "And I bet the arrival procedures were written when Martians were as red as the planet."
DJ Dowser and Senor Yanice reacted badly to the departure of Sergeants Carrot and Lettuce. Despite not caring much for their video game, the Sergeants had given them more snacks then they'd ever had before. Now that they were gone, the little corporals sniffed around for the pale one that usually stopped by. Hopefully he'd be back soon. They were both getting a little hungry...
Rory's drive back was quiet except for the rumbling of the 12 cylinder engines. They were nearly 40 years old these Berliets and impossible to replace. Someone should have warned me about the drones. If they had, she'd have parked further away.
Ms. Sundry brushed wood chips off Sergeant Blues' uniform. "The Colonel will see you shortly. He's just setting up the video link with Faya-Largeau." That didn't mean much to either Sergeant, but the coffee was good.
"We're here, Sir." Lieutenant Barkhane adjusted his laptop so that Agents Reed and de Soto were in view. Far off to the side, Romy DuSuche smoked another cigarette. The first order of business, she hoped, was paying the bill.
"Our meeting was super top secret." Agent Reed draws a stick figure. "Like ten times more secret than normal top secret." When pressed, Agent de Soto is willing to paraphrase a few lines. "He said we should all thank our messiahs of choice the unknown vehicle landed in Chad and not the Lower West Side." Agent Reed smiles, "Oh yeah, and he promoted my guinea pigs to Corporal."
After the formal establishment of Project White, Lieutenant Barkhane made arrangements for return flights to the United States. Romy was paid handsomely for her time and discretion...and then drove to her lover at the French Embassy. Astronomers Hughen and Tults soon fought again over some comment from her fiance. A room away, Ms. Sundry finally informed Colonel Van der Gris of an astronomical anomaly the night before. For his part, Colonel Van der Gris vowed to never hire from the civil service lists ever again.
"Quite the day." Agent Reed shakes his head wistfully, "But sure better than chasing tax dodgers." "I'm not sure what to say." Agent de Soto is far less optimistic. "That's how it happened whether we like it or not."
After reviewing their statements, Lieutenant Barkhane quietly crosses out any confidential information and submits the transcript to the IRS. Unknown to him, or anyone, the mysterious spacecraft known as the aubergine is struck by space junk near Mars.