The view was unexpected. Giant satellite dishes gleaming whitely in the sun. Rockets on the launch pad pointing skyward just waiting to spring free. Buildings with the look of Secret Government Black Ops – Stay out! – about them. The complex appeared out of empty countryside when Mariella Cruz tore around a sweeping corner and the woods gave way to fields. Niles Gule, Cruz’s partner on the Baltimore Police Force, on vacation with said partner, frowned at the sight. The pair had traveled for nearly an hour out of Ocean City, Maryland to this remote place, passing by towns long forgotten and too many abandoned houses to count. He swore they’d driven to the back of nowhere.
And yet, after they whizzed through a crossroads where a tavern, a bank and a gas station stood leaning against each other as their paint curled away and vines crawled out of their innards, this strange, futuristic place suddenly appeared.
“What is it?” the vampire asked as the complex drew closer.
“Wallops Island Flight Facility.” Cruz’s smile could outshine the sun. “So my surprise really is a surprise, huh?”
“But what is it? And what’s it doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“It’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere,” Cruz chided. “The Atlantic Ocean is right over there and so is Chincoteague. I thought we’d head there for dinner and watch the ponies.”
“We saw ponies of Assateague.” Niles’ eyes, safely protected from the blazing sun by wrap-around blacked out sunglasses, studied the facility. “And we rode one.”
Cruz laughed. That was a memory she’d not forget, riding a wild pony with a vampire. She gestured at the array of satellite dishes. “Wallops Island is where NASA launches its suborbital stuff.”
Cruz took her eyes off the road to give him a surprised look. “I thought you knew everything!” When he shrugged, she explained. “They launch smaller rockets from here. Not the big Saturn 5 things that took man to the moon. Smaller ones that go into low orbit. For sticking satellites up there, launching weather balloons, that sort of thing.”
She pulled the car into a space before one of the buildings. “Williams has a cousin who works here,” she said.
“Williams has a cousin in every city of every nation,” Niles grumbled.
“Don’t complain, it’s convenient.” Cruz popped out of the car. “He got us a behind the scenes tour. No hanging out in some lame visitors’ center for us.”
Six-feet-six Niles unfolded himself carefully from the tiny Fiat. An hour cramped in a tuna can played havoc on his long limbs. Yet he had to hurry. To survive just the short walk between the car and the launch facility, he needed a hat and scarf to keep the sun from broiling him. Contrary to myth, vampires didn’t vaporize in sunlight, but they suffered terrible radiation burns that could kill them. Niles seldom ventured out during the day but Cruz had insisted for this side trip on their vacation, they had to take it during business hours. Now Niles understood why.
Williams’ cousin Herb met them at the door and ushered them into a high tech workshop. Herb was just what Niles would have expected for a NASA employee. He was short and balding, with thick glasses. He wore a white shirt and dress slacks but no tie. His face beamed with pride as he took his two guests on a personal tour of the facility, chattering as he went.
Although he was an alien whose ancestors had come from the stars, Niles wasn’t particularly interested in the space sciences. However, he found the tour fascinating. Herb took them right through the workshop, hoping over this, sliding carefully around that. Niles and Cruz looked around with avid interest.
The guts of a rocket lay spread open on a table, wires dangling, control modules circling around like the victim of a robotic horror movie. To the left rested a giant plastic tarp which Herb explained was the skin of a weather balloon.
“Be careful,” the man warned. “We don’t ordinarily let visitors in here. Sensitive stuff. But since you’re friends of Jonas, he convinced me you’d be cool.”
“We’re definitely cool,” Cruz agreed.
Herb looked up at tall, blond, Nordic Niles. The look on his face told them he concurred.
“What’s the rocket out on the launch pad?” Cruz asked.
“An Antares. We’re testing parachutes to be used to land rovers on Mars.” Herb stopped near a control board where several people studied computer screens when one of the scientists, an African-American lady wearing a name tag of Greer, flagged him down.
He gestured at them absently to wait. “Hold on.”
He bowed his head and listened as the woman pointed to something on her screen.
“That’s odd. Where’s it coming from?”
Greer lifted her hands. “That’s what’s so strange. It’s not terrestrial. At least I don’t think so.”
Herb leaned in and typed some commands. The screen changed. His frown grew deeper.
“What the hell?” He tried something else.
Curiosity getting the better of them, both Cruz and Niles edged closer to see what was happening.
“It’s not something that will affect our launch schedule at this point,” Herb commented, “but we definitely need to figure out where that signal’s coming from. I don’t like it.”
“Do you think it’s the Russians?” Greer asked, partly in jest.
“More likely the Chinese,” Herb said with total seriousness.
Greer started then turned back to her screen.
Niles couldn’t help using his superior eyesight to study the screen. Even at a distance of several feet, he could clearly read it. It portrayed a graph with signal frequencies. Alongside ran a list of coordinates indicating where the signals were originating from. Three were local, probably from the facility itself. But one appeared to be coming from space.
“Looks like a repeater of some sort,” Herb murmured. “Like an automated beacon.”
Greer picked up a telephone. “I’m calling Houston. See if they’re getting this.”
Niles reached in and took the phone from her. Even as she gasped, he placed it back in his cradle.
Herb rounded on him. “Excuse me. Don’t interfere.”
“I have to.” Niles gave the three humans a hard look from his brilliant blue eyes. “I know that signal.”
Cruz gasped. “What? How?”
He tried to bore a hole in her head with his gaze. “Let’s just say I’ve encountered it before.” He turned to Herb. “Leave it be,” he said. “If we’re all lucky, it will move on.”
Herb sputtered. “Now wait a minute!”
Niles pulled the cable from the monitor so that it went black. “Do everyone a favor, Mr. Williams. Forget what you just saw. And pray it goes away.”
“Who are you?” Herb demanded. His eyes darted between Niles and Cruz. “Who are you really?”
Niles tugged on Cruz’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Cruz protested, but at the hard stare, she relented. With a flop of her shoulders, she allowed him to drag her from the console.
“Niles! What is going on? What’s that signal?”
Niles waited until they were outside before he rounded on her. “It’s nothing good, Cruz. I’ve seen it before.”
Cruz planted her hands on her hips. “Yeah? Where?”
“At my father’s house.” Niles drew an unsteady breath. “It’s a Vanapir signal.”
© 2018 Newmin
Niles comments: Yep! All true. One of those hidden little gems that takes work to find. If you’re into rockets and space flight, Wallops should go on your bucket list.