Signs & Portents
Lights in the Sky
He must have been lost for several hours. There was no way to be really sure how much time had elapsed, it could be most of the night or longer, his watch had stopped for some inexplicable reason. A thick opaque fog swirled through this odd terrain where the soil itself seemed to have changed to gritty black sand. He scooped up a handful and let it slip through his fingers. It felt strangely metallic.
Earlier, he'd been proceeding down the transbay freeway, three friends in the car with him, all of them off shift from the airport. Pete Lindsay was a co-pilot just in from Honolulu, Frank Mayburn and Paul Shrader were air controllers, like himself.
At just past midnight, they'd been driving through heavy mist, almost, but not quite raining—typical of San Francisco weather. For a moment, Carl thought he had been mistaken when he caught sight of a fire in the sky. It had vanished for long minutes, only to reappear vividly closer to the car, the whole freeway had been lit up by it.
"Hey," Pete spoke up, "that flight's in real trouble."
Carl had swung off the freeway and they'd all got out of the car, shading their eyes against the drizzle, trying to see the disaster in the sky.
The entire plane was engulfed in a fireball, and it was headed for the airport. In another quarter of the sky, Carl saw another flash of light and turned to look. Lightning, he'd thought for a second, then a broad ribbon of red sizzled across the sky, catching the burning plane in a wash of light. The plane began to break up then. Pete ran out into the open expanse beyond the freeway to get a better look and Carl followed.
"What the hell is going on?" That had been Frank, from just behind him.
The next minute, a bright hemispherical shape swung into view and another streak of red darted out from it across the dark sky. Carl could no longer see the plane, what was left of it must have gone down. The hemispherical craft received a red blast from a hidden direction and bloomed into a blinding pulse of light, black shards drifting in the brilliant illumination of its destruction.
Carl called out to Pete, who was no longer in sight, but soon the panorama of sky had his full attention. Ribbons of light were crisscrossing the whole sky and often ending in blooms of deadly white light. Craft were exploding with thunderous sounds. It was like a mad fireworks display and made no sense at all. It could have been only a few minutes, before Carl turned back toward the car and Frank and Paul. Neither were in sight, nor was Pete, who'd been in front of him. This did not particularly alarm Carl at first, he couldn't keep his eyes off the aerial battle, still trying to encompass and comprehend what he was seeing.
Perhaps the other three had taken cover, it didn't seem to be a bad idea in the circumstances. He sank down himself, nothing was striking the ground as far as could be seen, but there was obviously quite a war going on overhead. After some minutes, he noticed that the fighting was moving off, fading into the distant horizon. He called again to the other men and received no answer. Soon, there was nothing but an occasional lightning like flash and the gray fog had closed in. He could no longer see the car, but his sense of direction had not abandoned him, he began to walk in what he was certain was the right direction. He walked on and on, finally stopping when he realized he must have walked much too far. Fog obscured the sky now, and he knelt, considering the gritty metallic sand. It all seemed wrong. There was no sand like this in the whole Bay Area. No longer able to find the freeway or his car, he abandoned caution and began to shout, trying to locate the other men.
He'd wandered this strange landscape for what seemed an eternity, calling out until he was hoarse. He'd been unable to locate his companions. A few times, hope surged up in him when there seemed to be faint distant calls on the wind. But he soon concluded these were most likely his imagination. Perhaps they were all dead, he didn't like to think about that, but he was coming around to it, as the seriousness of his predicament came home to him.
What had happened to the world? Exhausted from his long search and the long shift at the airport that had preceded it, he sank down in the sandy grit to rest, looking up at the sky for any new sign of the saucers. This wasn't right, he'd got out of the car and stepped into a world which had nothing to do with the San Francisco bay area where he'd lived. There were faint glows that could not be stars, but they seemed very distant. He was tired and let himself doze briefly only to start awake. He judged he had slept a fairly short time, yet it seemed to him that the fog was lifting and a distinct shape which he greeted with a surge of joyful relief. He was up on his feet in an instant. It was his car, a focus for normality and hope. Paul, he remembered, had perhaps not followed the rest of them. Even as he ran to the car, he could see no one in it. He was still alone, but fresh hope came with the return of normal things, what a relief to see the freeway again. He quickly got into the car and started the engine as a numbing chill spread over him, nearly engulfing him with fear and nausea. Currents of warm air from the car's heater soothed and calmed him, but he knew that it wasn't going to be that easy. The world was not going to be the same again. Warm enough, he lowered the windows, and looked around to see if he could catch sight of his companions.
Could they have hiked back to the airport? They were only a couple of miles from the airport. But why had they left him? Had he passed out or something? But why should they have left the car behind? The keys were still in the ignition where he'd left them.
The night was still drizzling and cold and he discovered his slacks and jacket were damp from the long exposure. He turned his gaze up to a quiet sky which no longer seemed too likely to suddenly erupt into flying saucer style fireworks. In the direction of the airport, he could see a glow which probably marked the spot where the plane had gone down.
There had been a crash, and he knew he had also seen a UFO fire on the plane, a civilian plane, with what appeared to be some sort of laser. Then he'd watched as it in turn was destroyed by another of its own kind. After that, there'd been such a violent dog fight between different UFO's that no one could have kept track of it all. Finally, he realized that most likely his companions had fled from the aerial battle and becoming separated from him, they'd probably flagged down a passing car and either gone on to some other destination or, more likely, returned to the airport. He supposed that the airport and its vicinity were now littered with wreckage, all kinds of wreckage, he realized, recalling the saucers and he could not imagine what the next steps would be for anyone.
Circumstances were hardly normal, the earth had actually been invaded from outer space, or more likely, gotten in the way of an interstellar war of some kind. He considered his next move. Exhausted though he was, he should go back to the airport, extra help would be needed and he could also find out more from there. The freeway was not crowded at this time of night, he decided to cross the freeway median. It would get him headed back to the airport quickly. At the control center, Carl saw that the airport workers gathered in small worried looking groups, absorbed in conversation. Probably wondering what would come next, even as he was. A lot of them were air controllers, apparently the job of diverting flights flights away from San Francisco had been largely achieved, no doubt helped by the lighter air traffic this time of night, a good thing in view of the big problem. There was an emergency drill designed for a disaster situation, very soon he'd see it in operation. Through the wide expanse of glass, fire trucks were still flashing by, odds and ends of flaming wreckage were still lit by flickering light.
"Carl," Bill Hudson, his shift relief called to him, "Lucky you've come back. The Supe wants to talk to you about the last air to ground transactions before the crash. I never had a chance to deal with it before it started down."
This information stunned Carl, it seemed absurdly mundane on the other hand, he was a little aghast to learn that he had apparently had contact with the airplane before its destruction. He opened his mouth to make an inquiry about the UFO's, but closed it deciding to get the ordinary business over with first.
"You'd better get in there, he's been trying to raise you on the phone. Most of the crew are staying on tonight, so I'll see you later." Bill gave him an anxious smile as he walked away down the corridor.
Carl hesitated, it did seem absurd, it wasn't everyday that the planet was invaded from outer space but he strode across the hall and pushed open the Supervisor's door.
Joe Armetto looked up from his desk.
"Carl, get in here, I'm getting nothing but gibberish. Where did you put Flight 842?"
Joe summoned the problem to his desk terminal for both of them to view. The numbers that streamed across the screen were gibberish, Carl winced. He'd had enough of strange for one night and this mundane downbeat approach to an incredible situation left him reeling, but he attempted to match it, maybe there was a need for this information that he didn't understand.
"Well, that's bad data, of course," he said as calmly as he could and made his own effort to call up the real data. Gibberish numbers were again the only response. He waited for the navigator's voice to log in and check landing details, but there was only an eerie whining noise.
"Does anyone have a clue to what is going on now?" he demanded, "I saw it happen from the freeway on the way home. That's why I came back. Did Paul and Frank come back too? They were with me in the car. How about Pete Lindsay, is he here?"
"I've not seen them," Joe responded, "but I have been kind of busy. Something must have run into 842, is it just possible you stacked some private flight too close to the slot? You know those pilots sleep until ten or fifteen minutes before landing, they'd probably not even notice until they were hit."
"Now wait a minute," Carl said, "I did not stack anything too close to 842's slot. Is everyone around here blind or something? Something hit 842 all right. It looked like a laser or some kind of ray. You had UFO's in a dog fight for well, I'm not sure how long they were blasting each other out of the sky, it got pretty hectic up there. What about that?"
An anguished look crossed Joe's face. His mouth opened and closed several times before he found words. "Now, Carl," he said anxiously, "you're tired, it's been a long shift. Why don't you go home now and come back in the morning. We'll try to tidy things up then."
Carl stared at him disbelievingly, but the message seemed clear. Joe had rather quickly decided he was out of his mind, and an air controller out of his mind was not a proposition that Joe wanted to hear about at this time. Carl shook his head in dismay, had no one witnessed the incredible demise of 842 or the other wild activity? This was a proposition that Carl found incredible, but he was tired, and Pete, Frank and Paul were not here, although perhaps they hadn't arrived yet.
"It's all right, Joe," now he was trying to reassure Joe, "something odd has happened to the computer, but we'll hack it out."
He suspected the data had been mangled by the UFO battle, at least, it seemed a reasonable explanation. He turned without another word, thinking only that he had better locate Pete Lindsay before he took off on another flight. Obviously, they'd seen nothing from the airport.
As he crossed the room where the others still talked in small groups, occasionally glancing through the window to watch the clean-up operation, he managed to gather the information that there had been no survivors on flight 842. Also, that neither Paul, Frank or Pete had turned up at the airport.
The terrible suspicion immediately rose up in him that none of the other men had found their way home again. Before he left, he telephoned them, but got only the answering machines, nor could Pete Lindsay be found at his hotel. On his way home, he slowed and tried to locate the place where the four of them had witnessed the whole thing. He was freshly horrified to discover that he could not be absolutely sure just where the spot was, that stretch of the transbay freeway was decidedly nondescript, void of helpful landmarks. He pulled off again anyhow and stared for a time out into the open spaces, hoping that he would catch sight of one or the other of the men. He gave it up after a while, especially as there seemed to be nothing to mark the spot where he had stepped into his strange adventure.
Vaguely, he wondered if he should try to report to someone in authority. A lot of strange things were going on in the world, he'd heard stories. It was an irony that he could think of no one to report to. It had been rather calm here, but now something had come to the Bay Area, unless, of course, he was suddenly subject to hallucinations. Whatever wherever he had been, the evidence seemed to have evaporated. He still held on to the hope that someone had seen the incredible aerial battle, but he'd just have to wait and see. Some instinct told him his only strategy was to take it day at a time, waiting for further evidence, if that's what it took. Whatever had happened, he'd been lucky, he feared the other men were still lost out there in the gray fog.
Two days later, the report on the crash cleared Carl of any culpability or negligence, the disaster was attributed to spontaneous combustion of the fuel tanks, a freak sort of accident that no one quite understood.
Carl made his report of the crash of Flight 847. He'd tried to be conservative about the language, however, he waited for what he knew would be the reaction. It wasn't long in coming.
"You have to rewrite this report, O'Leary, and leave out any damn mention of lights in the sky. Are you reading me? Absolutely no mention of lights or any other mind warping events happening around this crash." Joe Armetto tossed the report across to Carl.
"But," stammered Carl
"No buts, Carl. I want you to rewrite that report. You've always been reliable, Carl. Don't blow it all away on this stupid" Joe seemed to be at a loss for words. Abruptly, he left.
Carl reflected on his experience. Already it had become unreal but one fact obliterated everything else from his mind Pete, Frank and Paul, who had left the airport with Carl, never returned to work. For that reason alone, Carl insisted on filing a report of what he had seen from the freeway that evening. He pointed out that his missing companions as at least some sort of evidence that something very strange had happened on the night of 842's crash.
But to his chagrin, officials at the airport and the San Francisco police came up with many excuses for missing persons, none of them involving UFO's. After all, as one San Francisco police detective pointed out, there was no real proof that the three had ever left with Carl. He left politely unsaid that the word of a man who raved about UFO's was obviously just a little bit suspect.
His insistence on filing the UFO report marked the beginning of the end of his job at the airport. He was first put on extended leave, just until the investigation was over, Joe had told him. He was never actually fired outright, but reductions in staff were taking place all the time and the hard fact was that he was being quietly phased out. It was done quite fairly on the basis of seniority, but Carl had the guilty feeling that a number of less senior air controllers had been dismissed in order to reach his level. Perhaps he should have resigned. Of course, he'd known that flying saucers were an old joke, and he realized that an air controller subject to seeing them was not good public relations for an airport.
There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed and then no more of Thee and Me
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam