It was a cold evening in the Utah desert. Sand and stone don't hold heat long without the sun shining on them, and a few hours past sunset was enough to radiate everything back out into the air. In the high desert, there can even be nighttime snow in places that, during the day, could kill a man with heat stroke.
Tonight, though, something warmed up a small patch of desert. Specifically, a red-hot bundle of metal and antennas, screaming through the atmosphere with enough force to punch a rather impressive crater in the desert floor. Which, of course, it did.
Had this happened a few dozen miles north, the noise of its impact would've woken families, set dogs to barking, and resulted in a police cordon within an hour. As it was, the only one to hear it land was a middle-aged Ute man, a veteran who'd seen too many things that only cheap, harsh tequila could drown out. And the desert subsided quickly back to the normal sounds of predators and prey and the wind whistling across rock.
And the barking of a dog.
It didn't sound happy.
Special Agent Ian Walsh drove in a half-daze, the empty stretch of road lulling him into a kind of stupor. He knew that some people were energized by driving, especially through the kind of fantastic terrain found in southern Utah, but it always threatened to knock him unconscious. The only reason he was driving was because if he was in the passenger seat, he'd have been asleep after fifteen minutes on the road. As it was, the wind past the windows and the heat of the sun on his lined, tanned face were trying to turn drowsiness into sleep.
Walsh suddenly snapped out of his reverie back into full consciousness as he glanced over at his partner. Special Agent Roger Fredericks was new to the FBI, having graduated from Quantico only the year before. His thin, wiry frame always seemed to almost vibrate from nervous energy, even when he'd been sitting in a car for hours. Just watching his fidgeting was enough to exhaust Walsh some days.
"I've gone through these reports forwards and backwards over a dozen times and I don't get why we're having to investigate this. It sounds like a tourist saw a meteorite land, thought it was a UFO, and blew it up into some big thing like back in '47. Heck, there's even a note from one of the Park Rangers saying that the guy who reported it was drunk enough to smell it from a yard away. So why is the Bureau so interested?"
From the corner of his eye, Walsh could see Fredericks fiddling with a paperclip from the file in his lap, twisting it over and through his fingers like a little metal toy. Walsh shrugged slightly and stifled a yawn, then replied.
"I don't know for sure, but I think somebody high up is worried about the Russkis. You hear all the time about how they're trying to shoot a missile over at us. I don't think any could reach this far, though. Even if it's nothing, you can get a rock sample for your kid brother or something."
"I guess. It just seems weird that we'd be sent all the way to Zion on a wild goose chase."
Walsh shrugged again. "You never know. Now just sit back and relax. It's about another hour to the ranger station, I think." He knew that Fredericks wouldn't take the advice, but he nevertheless felt a little better for at least trying to get the high-strung young man to calm down.
Dry dirt crunched under the wheels of the low-slung black Ford as Walsh pulled the car to a stop outside the lonely building. A tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in the characteristic tan-and-olive uniform of a park ranger stood outside. Fredericks popped out of the car like a jackrabbit, but Walsh took his time to get out, adjust his hat, and walk over to the station, taking in the stranger carefully. It wasn't very often that you saw a Negro in Utah, much less in a government job.
"Afternoon, folks. Sam Ecks. I'm going to be your guide while you're out here. Not sure why some drunk's ramblings were enough to bring out the FBI, though."
Walsh shook his hand, noting that it was good and strong. A good sign of an honest man, that.
"I'm Special Agent Walsh and this is Special Agent Fredericks. We're just here to check and make sure there's nothing unusual or a national security concern before some whacko starts blabbing that little green men are coming to invade and civilians start getting panicky. We're not expecting anything, but can't be too careful now-a-days, what with the Reds."
Fredericks quickly shook Ecks' hand and stepped back, his eyes darting around beneath the brim of his hat, never settling too long on any one thing. Ecks nodded at the two of them and led them into the building. A ceiling fan turned lazily, futilely trying to stir a breeze to cool the overly-warm room. Ecks walked them over to a desk with a large map laid out across it. He leaned over it and circled an unfortunately large area with one thick finger.
"We can't be exactly sure, but there were another couple of eyewitnesses who came in after the report was sent to you. Between them, I'd say that the most likely landing spot is somewhere in this area. We can head out now and take a look if you want, but we probably wouldn't get to see more than a quarter of the area."
Walsh inspected the map and the indicated area. It looked like a couple of square miles and he was already feeling the sweat soak through his shirt. It would be best to get as much over with now as they could, though, so he could send at least a partial report back to headquarters in the morning.
He looked over at Fredericks, who was also poring over the map intently, then nodded at Ecks.
"Yeah, we should take a look now. Who knows? We may luck out and find it in the first fifteen minutes."
Ecks nodded back. "I'll go get the truck."
It turned out that Walsh was wrong; even though he was next to the passenger's window on the bench seat of the truck, the random jolts as Ecks drove it across the rocky terrain was enough to keep him awake. Fredericks sat between them, the map folded open on his lap. They'd been slowly driving a winding loop through the national park for more than two hours and were on the last stretch before heading back to the ranger station, when Ecks braked hard to avoid hitting a coyote that darted in front of them.
Walsh swore involuntarily as he banged his head against the edge of the door-frame and his hat was knocked off his head out the window.
"Dang it. Put it in park, Ecks. I need to get my hat."
With that, he opened the door and slid out. Shading his eyes with his hand, he saw where the light wind was blowing his hat across the vegetation on the side of the road. It was already about a dozen yards away and still going. It was weird, too. The hat should've caught on one of the low bushes by now.
He started picking his way through the scrubby plants, alternating between watching his footsteps and keeping an eye on the hat. After a few yards, Walsh heard the truck door open again. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Fredericks heading in his direction, apparently to help him.
Together, they followed the hat another hundred feet until it tumbled around a thick pillar of rock. When they turned the corner, they both stopped, forgetting the hat. About a quarter mile away, down a low rise, was a fresh crater with smoke rolling out of it. Something in the bottom shone red in the setting sun.
"Go get the camera from the truck, Fredericks. Looks like we found our target."
Fredericks scrambled back towards the truck as Walsh started walking towards the crater. As he went, he saw his hat continue tumbling on, well to the left of the crater. Frowning, he grumbled under his breath. "If it really is little green men, they owe me a new hat."
Twelve hours later, Walsh was rubbing his eyes in frustration as he tried to keep from sighing into the telephone.
"No, Mayor Broadbent, I'm not saying that there's a nuclear threat. But we did find an odd-looking meteorite out here and we'd like to check it for radioactivity before we move it. So, again, does the civil defense shelter have any Geiger counters or radiation suits that we could borrow?"
He listened for another minute and gave a tense smile. "Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I'll be by in about an hour."
He hung up the phone and stood up from the table. Fredericks hovered nearby, twiddling a pen between his fingers as he waited for orders. Walsh motioned for him to follow as he headed out the door.
"Ecks should be back in a few hours with those locals he's rounding up, so we have time to head up to Cedar City and pick up the gear that the mayor is so graciously lending us. While I'm getting that, you go find a store and buy more film for the camera."
He slammed the door of the Ford a little harder than necessary and started the engine. "Let's go find out what those Commies hid in their little ball."