The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Eight


I'm getting too old for this, Robert thought, wearily. I was really beginning to fall for his flying saucer fairy tale.
Hans Beckerman was staring at the metallic object on the ground, a confused expression on his face. "Verfalschen! That is not it."
Robert sighed. "No, it isn't, is it?"
Beckerman shook his head. "It was here yesterday."
"Your little green men probably flew it away."
Beckerman was stubborn. "No, no. They were both tot - dead."
Tot - dead. That sums up my mission pretty well. My only lead is a crazy old man who sees spaceships.
Robert walked over to the balloon to examine it more closely. It was a large aluminium envelope, fourteen feet in diameter, with serrated edges where it had ripped open when it crashed to earth. All the instruments had been removed, just as General Milliard had told him. I can't stress enough the importance of what was in that balloon.
Robert circled the deflated balloon, his shoes squishing in the wet grass, looking for anything that might give him the slightest clue. Nothing. It was identical to a dozen other weather balloons he had seen over the years.
The old man still would not give up, filled with Germanic stubbornness. "Those alien things ... They made it look like this. They can do anything, you know."
There's nothing more to be done here, Robert decided. His socks had got wet walking through the tall grass. He started to turn away, then hesitated, struck by a thought. He walked back to the balloon. "Lift up a corner of this, will you?"
Beckerman looked at him a moment, surprised. "You wish me to raise it up?"
Beckerman shrugged. He picked up a corner of the lightweight material and lifted it, while Robert raised another corner. Robert held the piece of aluminium over his head while he walked underneath the balloon toward the centre. His feet sank into the grass. "It's wet under here," Robert called out.
"Of course." The Dummkopf was left unsaid. "It rained all yesterday. The whole ground is wet."
Robert crawled out from under the balloon. "It should be dry." Crazy weather, the pilot said. Sunny here Sunday. The day the balloon crashed. Rainy all day today, and clearing tonight. You don't need a watch here, what you really need is a barometer.
"What was the weather like when you saw the UFO?"
Beckerman thought for a moment. "It was a nice afternoon."
"Ja. Sunny."
"But it rained all day yesterday?"
Beckerman was looking at him, puzzled. "So?"
"So if the balloon was here all night, the ground under it should be dry - or damp, at the most, through osmosis. But it's soaking wet, like the rest of this area."
Beckerman was staring. "I don't understand. What does that mean?"
"It could mean," Robert said carefully, "that someone placed this balloon here yesterday, after the rain started, and took away what you saw." Or was there some saner explanation he had not thought of?
"Who would do such a crazy thing?"
Not so crazy, Robert thought. The Swiss government could have planted this to deceive any curious visitors. The first stratagem of a cover-up is disinformation. Robert walked through the wet grass, scanning the ground, cursing himself for being a gullible idiot.
Hans Beckerman was watching Robert suspiciously. "What magazine did you say you write for, mister?"
"Travel & Leisure."
Hans Beckerman brightened. "Oh. Then I suppose you will want to take a picture of me, like the other fellow did."
"That photographer who took pictures of us."
Robert froze. "Who are you talking about?"
"That photographer fellow. The one who took pictures of us at the wreck. He said he would send us each a print. Some of the passengers had cameras, too."
Robert said slowly, "Just a moment. Are you saying that someone took a picture of the passengers here in front of the UFO?"
"That's what I am trying to tell you."
"And he promised to send you each a print?"
"That's right."
"Then he must have taken your names and addresses."
"Well, sure. Otherwise, how would he know where to send them?"
Robert stood still, a feeling of euphoria sweeping over him. Serendipity, Robert, you lucky sonofabitch! An impossible mission had suddenly become a piece of cake. He was no longer looking for seven unknown passengers. All he had to do was find one photographer. "Why didn't you mention him before, Mr Beckerman?"
"You asked me about passengers."
"You mean, he wasn't a passenger?"
Hans Beckerman shook his head. "Nein." He pointed. "His car was stalled across the highway. A tow truck was starting to haul it away, and then there was this loud crash, and he ran across the road to see what was happening. When he saw what it was, the fellow ran back to his car, grabbed his cameras and came back. Then he asked us all to pose in front of the saucer thing."
"Did this photographer give you his name?"
"Do you remember anything about him?"
Hans Beckerman concentrated. "Well, he was a foreigner. American or English."
"You said a tow truck was getting ready to haul his car away?"
"That's right."
"Do you remember which way the truck was headed?"
"North. I figured he was towing it into Bern. Thun is closer, but on Sunday all the garages in Thun are closed."
Robert grinned. "Thank you. You've been very helpful."
"You won't forget to send me your article when it's finished?"
"No. Here's your money and an extra hundred marks for your great help. I'll drive you home." They walked over to the car. As Beckerman opened the door, he stopped and turned toward Robert. "That was very generous of you." He took from his pocket a small rectangular piece of metal, the size of a cigarette lighter, containing a tiny white crystal.
"What's this?"
"I found it on the ground Sunday before we got back on the bus." Robert examined the strange object. It was as light as paper and was the colour of sand. A rough edge at one end indicated that it might be part of another piece. Part of the equipment that had been in the weather balloon? Or part of a UFO? "Maybe it will bring you luck," said Beckerman, as he placed the bills Robert had given him in his wallet. "It certainly worked for me." He smiled broadly and got into the car.
It was time to ask himself the hard question: Do I really believe in UFOs? He had read dozens of wild newspaper stories about people who said they had been beamed up into UFOs and had had all kinds of weird experiences, and he had always attributed those reports to people who were either looking for publicity or who should have thrown themselves on the mercy of a good psychiatrist. But in the past few years there had been reports that were less easy to dismiss. Reports of UFO sightings by astronauts, Air Force pilots and police officials, people with credibility, who shunned publicity. In addition, there had been the disturbing report of the UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, where the bodies of aliens had purportedly been discovered. The government was supposed to have hushed that up and removed all the evidence. In World War II, pilots had reported strange sightings of what they called "Foo fighters", unidentified objects that buzzed them and then disappeared. There were stories of whole towns that had been visited by unexplainable objects speeding through the sky. What if there really were aliens in UFOs from another galaxy? Robert wondered. How would it affect our world? Would it mean peace? War? The end of civilization as we know it? He found himself half hoping that Hans Beckerman was a raving lunatic, and that what had crashed was really a weather balloon. He would have to find another witness either to verify Beckerman's story or refute it. On the surface, the story seemed incredible, and, yet, there was something nagging at Robert. If it were only a weather balloon that had crashed, even if it did carry special equipment, why had he been called into a meeting at the National Security Agency at six o'clock in the morning and told that it was urgent that all the witnesses be found quickly? Was there a cover-up? And if so ... why?