Bootstrap – Part Four

Neal was sitting at his workstation when the door slammed open, knocking over the remaining pile of printouts stacked on the cabinet against the concrete wall. A group of soldiers flooded the room, parting to allow a tall man wearing a dark suit. His demeanor suggested any resistance would be met with swift reprisal.

“Agent Reed. You’re Mr. Watkins, I presume?”, Reed snapped shut his identification, reflecting gold highlight from the badge briefly blinding Neal’s eyes.

Neal blinked. He slowly straightened in his chair and folded his hands.

“Yes, I’m Neal Watkins.”

“We’re taking control of this facility. You are to turn over any materials that you’ve collected in the last week.”

It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command. Neal looked downward at the keyboard and smiled.

“Something funny about that?”, Reed’s voice crept up a register, daring Neal to break into a laugh.

“No, nothing funny. Just that it would’ve taken a polite request instead of bulling in here with an armed squad.”, Neal pushed up his glasses, gesturing to the workstation in front of him.

“If you need it, its here. I can’t vouch for whether its been sent upstream to the project archives. I don’t monitor the backup schedules or the servers that contain them.”

Reed stood motionless, as if considering several responses.

“Good. We’ll begin securing the site now. Please step away from the machine.”, Agent Reed motioned to the men stationed in the room. They began pulling connections and stacking printouts. Neal backed away from the machine, standing near the coffee machine as Reed directed with curt commands.

Neal was completely outnumbered. He briefly entertained dashing for the door and jumping into his car, but they were fully armed and from the sound of their arrival, had full air support as well. He wasn’t going anywhere.

The soldiers methodically boxed and carted out the contents of the office, leaving the filing cabinet drawers pulled open, like burglars with no fear of being caught. Outside, a loud diesel engine roared into the parking lot. So there had been a convoy on the way after all, Neal mused.

Neal watched as most of his life started walking out the door in rectangular storage bins, each marked with a barcode. It felt a little like dying, inside.

“So, what exactly are you looking for?”, it sounded amateurish as soon as it left his mouth, but Neal’s curiosity wouldn’t let him stay silent.

“You’ll be debriefed when I see fit. Sergeant, please escort Mr. Watkins to the conference room.”

The soldier gestured to Neal, following behind him as Neal exited the room.

Agent Reed touched his earpiece. An incoming transmission squawked in his ear, updates from central control. Nodding, Reed sat down, putting his feet up on Neal’s desk.

The conference room was the least used space at the facility. Dust covers were on most of the chairs except for the few clustered near the entrance. The large projection screen had been lowered into place. Neal glanced upward at the Sergeant standing guard at the door.

Not a chance of getting out of here.

Neal sat at the closest seat to the exit, sweaty palms on the burled walnut table. Hadn’t there been a speakerphone? Neal scanned the room, spotting the tri-lobed grey pod hurled into a corner, cord hastily wrapped and cut at an oblique angle.

“Thank you Sergeant, that will be all.”, Reed entered the room carrying a laptop, which he plugged into the projector patch cord. The soldier exited the frosted glass door, closing it silently behind him.

“You’ll have to excuse our methods, but this is of utmost importance.”, Reed sat down in the opposite chair, regarding Neal with a grim stare.

“So important that I have no rights? So important that you couldn’t describe what was going on when you called?”, Neal was boiling mad, some part of him pleaded restraint, but damn it, he was at his limit.

Reed shifted, leaning back in the chair.

“Mr. Watkins, I understand the frustration. What I’m going to tell you may answer some of your questions, but do not press me further than necessary. I’m not a patient man.”

Neal nodded, heartbeat slamming in his throat. Don’t let him get to you. Just act like a rational scientist and hear him out.

“Good. What you are about to see is restricted material, but given how you are involved already, I’ll just have to risk it.”, Reed invoked the projector output, lights dimming in response.

A grainy photo flipped up on the screen, a string of numbers on the left hand edge. It was an enhanced photo, spindly panels extending from a smaller cylindrical mass.

“This is — or rather was, one of our birds up in low-earth orbit. It was taken a few weeks ago.”, Reed advanced to the next slide.

“This is what is left of it now. We are sure that it wasn’t sabotage, at least not terrestrial based.”

The next shot was a jumble of debri and scattered shapes, the largest of which still centered around where the satellite had been.

“What does that have to do with me?”, Neal pushed up his glasses, squinting at the screen.

“Depends. You intercept anything interesting in the last week?”

“Define ‘interesting’.”

Agent Reed sighed, like he had caught Neal in the cookie jar.

“I really was hoping you’d be more cooperative. I’m going to ask you one more time. Have you intercepted anything non-terrestrial of interest?”

Neal took off his glasses, cleaning the lenses with his t-shirt. Reed had to know, but Neal wasn’t about to hand it over on a silver platter.

“The algorithms tag my observations, if there’s anything to find it will be in the logfiles.”

Agent Reed stood, summoning the Sergeant outside.

“Well then, lets both have a look, shall we?”

Neal rose, marching back to the office like a man condemned. He had to stall them. Just long enough to find out what the hell it was they were looking for. He thought about his log book, safely hidden in the weather-proofed junction box.

Neal wished he could’ve hidden there too, amongst the cables and wires.

(To be continued.)