Joe Beard sat at Gularte’s kitchen/dining room/living room table, its top cleared and cleaned off as I’d never seen it before. He sat behind a gray plastic box that looked like a small suitcase except for its sharp edges and pointed corners. Joe looked across the top of the foot-thick box, his glasses having slid down to the bottom of his nose as he was farsighted to a nearly extreme degree. How he’d gotten into any Marine Officer program I’d remained surprised at but never mentioned. Since discovering that he was secretly working for the San Onofre gang, as I mentally called them, helped explain just how he might have gotten into the Corps. His physical state was also always in question, as he could barely walk, much less run, on legs that seemed made of half-hardened noodles. No OCS program or Basic School would ever pass him through. I realized, in looking at him closer, that no OCS or Basic School ever had.
“What’s that?” I asked, my curiosity piqued after the box made some strange electronic noises. I walked to Joe’s side and peered down. A keyboard was hinged to the bottom edge of the box and a small television screen was mostly covered in tiny letters and numbers.
“It’s nothing just yet,” Joe said, pushing a button and causing the T.V. screen to go dark. “It’ll soon become a portable IBM computer, however. This is just one of the test models. One day everyone in the world will have one.”
I didn’t ask him what some guy like him, a reject from the real Marine Corps, the way he’d always termed himself, was doing with such a device.
Joe pushed back from the table, crossed his arms, and looked up into my eyes over the top of his glasses.
“Aliens,” he said, not saying the word like it was a question.
“I wanted to get your attention,” I said, trying to be as honest as I could, despite the obvious fact Joe hadn’t been honest about anything in his life with me since I’d known him.
“Aliens,” Joe intoned, saying the word the same way he’d said it a few seconds earlier.
I sighed silently, understanding that the man in front of me was truly intelligent and probably knew more than I would expect he’d know.
“What if you ran into a substance, an object, that didn’t obey the given rules we have come to understand the universe is formed around and have based all our building and functioning on?” I asked, unwilling to admit much of anything of real substance.
I couldn’t feel it emotionally, as no threat issued out in any form of magnetospheric transmission from the man’s comportment, facial expression, or engagement, but I felt he was somehow truly dangerous. Cobb was dangerous. Richard is dangerous. Such beings, I was coming to find, were not unlike the Gunny back in the valley. The Gunny was mission-oriented. He was going to survive and he had. No obstacle or other person’s needs or commitments would stand in the way of such survival. Anyone around who might not support that mission or add to helping accomplish it was at risk – at great risk depending upon the nature of the mission which was usually kept very secret. The A Shau had been a valley of truth, where what was necessary, needed, experienced, and felt was all real, just as it was. Death was thoughtless, indifferent, and waiting right there, inches or millimeters away. I slightly shivered, and then backed away from Joe and the desk a few feet, doing so in such a way as to not make my slight retreat obvious.
“You’ve engrossed the unseeable element,” Joe replied, his stare so penetrating that I looked away, surprised that anyone or anything could have the power to make me do that. “Have you been in its presence?”
I said nothing, returning my eyes to meet his own. The seriousness between us had never existed or been present before. It was like we were both different men entirely from the two who’d spent many hours rebuilding an old MG together.
“Please tell me it is real, that you’ve witnessed, stood in awe, seen what nobody on this planet will admit they’ve seen.” His voice changed as he made his wholly unexpected appeal.
It was as if the man I knew was gone, replaced by some replicant whose drive to pursue something was the kind of mission orientation I could now recognize and fear. Such mission orientation couldn’t be used with any sort of trust. It instead would use you. I backed up a few steps further but didn’t avert my eyes. I’d faced death and ran from the fight. I’d faced death and remained in the fight. Neither was acceptable as a survival tactic because death in such places, whether in the heart of the valley of combat or standing in a cheap apartment in San Clemente, California was dependent almost solely upon the circumstance death brought to the game. I realized that what I wanted most was to not be in front of Joe Beard now or possibly ever again. I also realized that I needed to mollify him and convince him that I did not know about the artifact or anything about the oddity of its physical existence. The second part would be the easiest as I’d avoided going any further to handle the object or draw natural truths of behavior from it.
“I know what I’ve heard, so I came to you,” I began, holding up my hand as he made to interrupt me. “I know only that I am extremely curious, as you have indicated you are. What do you know that might help me better understand if this thing might be real or just another UFO rumor or hoax?”
“The admiral’s here, yes, in person if you can believe it. I don’t know much at all, although I had so hoped you would. I need that man off my back and working over some other poor wretch. I’m out of the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge but they gave me another I.D. card any way that says I’m something called ‘Indefinite,’ and that scares me.” Joe reached back for his wallet.
I carried the same I.D. card, for the first time realizing that I wasn’t the only one with such a strange document. Joe probably had the same kind of service-ending DD214 I did, if there was any way that such undefined and unexplained service could end. I motioned for Joe to put his wallet back into his pocket.
“I know all about that kind of I.D. card, Joe,” I said, not making much sense, but causing him to re-pocket his wallet.
I couldn’t simply walk through Gularte’s front door and depart, as I so badly wanted to do. For the first time, I felt the danger inherent in not only knowing about the object but in possessing it. No wonder nobody of any importance at all wanted anything to do with it.
“The rumor I heard,” I said, not wanting to continue but having to run out the clock with Joe before I could disengage with as little clinging suspicion as possible. “The rumor is that it’s not obeying the laws of physics,” I finished.
Joe replied, “I’ve given that some thought, even if this thing is a fictional creation of some sick person’s mind or something that’s been put there simply to make Rickover even more furious with me than he already is.”
I waited, as Joe turned back to his machine and pushed, and then held in a larger key located on the upper lip of its keyboard. The machine’s fan turned on, sounding as loud as the distant surf from the not so nearby ocean.
“Gravity, inertia, weight, heat, and the other elements of our human systems of measurement and experience. All of those things are laws, which means the repeatable and never-changing effect of their existence, actions, or reactions is so well documented that those are always the same. The unseeable object would have one or more of those laws converted by deviant observation, and, accordingly, then reduced instantly back down from law to theory.”
I stared, trying not to look either stupefied or simply stupid. I understood Joe’s words but couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the potential of what he was getting at. It then occurred to me that the only way his whole presentation might make any sense was if I closely examined the artifact, something I hadn’t been and now definitely wasn’t excited about doing.
Gularte walked through the door and I was never so thankful to see him.
Joe looked toward him, and then back at his computer screen. The machine made an assortment of clicks and whistles before quieting down.
“What are you guys up to?” Gularte asked, heading immediately toward the nearby kitchen, no doubt for a bottle of Coors beer.
He seemingly ignored the strangeness of both Joe and I meeting in his apartment with no invitation or warning.
I walked over to apologize to Gularte for invading his space, even though I knew Jim didn’t think that way, at least not about me or any of his other real friends. I spoke to him for a few minutes about beach patrol and the coming crash of the Western White House as we’d come to know it to be, but my conversation was all cover to give me the time and excuse to get away. I walked past Joe working on this secret computer, only to see a fuzzy photo of a box on his screen. The screen was slowly turning a dark gray as the machine shut down. Joe’d killed the thing upon my approach, and I knew there was no wonder. The box was the box in my possession. How he’d gotten a picture of it, or where that photo had come from was anyone’s guess. Joe knew a whole lot more than he was saying and I could only hope that Mardian had been, and would remain, the vault he seemed to be with classified or secret information.
I needed a new place to live and a place to store the artifact, the explosives, and even the UDT underwater rebreathing rigs, and I needed that storage facility very quickly. There was no way I could leave the artifact with anyone. The box it came in was just too much of a temptation for anyone encountering it. Why NASA or whoever hadn’t designed something less distinctive, maybe even buying a commercial traveling case, I had no idea, nor time to consider. The tapes were another issue, as the information on them was also damning. I had to listen to the last one and then get those to my special storage I didn’t have, as well.
I drove from Gularte’s straight to Avenida Pico in the north Industrial part of San Clemente. Right near the city yard where patrol cars were serviced and fueled up, there was a storage facility. It was called, seemingly appropriately, Acme Storage. It advertised protection from rain or water damage, electric doors, lighting, and twenty-four-hour-a-day access by special key and key card. It took only half an hour to get a ten by twenty-foot space and the price was almost ridiculously low. I stood outside the space, having taken less than ten minutes to offload the explosives and the rebreathers into the space. For the box, I needed a bigger cardboard one plus Gularte and his truck. There was no way the thing was going to fit into my Volks. Having the police department operating its vehicles right next to the place made me feel at least faintly secure once I got the box into the space.
Next was the box, so I drove directly back to Gularte’s hoping the man hadn’t gone anywhere. Now that I was taking action to protect myself and my family I didn’t want to let anything stand in the way.
Gularte was still there, and there was no Camaro in sight. Joe had left and stayed gone. I breathed a sigh of relief. It took only a few moments to fill Jim in on making the transfer of the box from my garage to the new storage area. He agreed that it was a wise decision. Back at my place, it took no time at all to load the box into the bed of his truck and get back over to Pico.
I opened the box using the simple combination and center-mounted button. I knew the size of the artifact, although its small size was the weirdest part about what had happened when Gularte had slightly dropped the box. The box had fallen all of six inches, and although seeming to weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds the box had landed with a huge crashing sound. Both of us had moved it further inside by pushing it, and the pushing hadn’t been that hard. We both looked back toward where the box had fallen its seemingly slight distance. The concrete floor was cracked right where the metal corner of the box had struck. The storage facility was almost brand new. Neither Gularte nor I had checked the place out and examined the floor closely before bringing the box over but both of us were certain the box had caused that damage…which, of course, wasn’t possible.
“I’m not comfortable being around whatever’s inside that box,” Gularte said, edging his way toward the still-open door.
“Go outside, have a cigarette, and close the door until I’m done,” I instructed, my tone analytical as my full attention was now on the box and preparing myself to handle whatever was inside.
There had been no discussion ever about radiation, but I did not have a Geiger counter so it didn’t much matter. It was time to deal with the object as best I could. I was tired of being afraid of something that was so far mostly made up.
I peered inside the box before slowly removing the straw-like material that surrounded the ‘golf ball,’ as I thought of it. It was more like a baseball in size, however. I noted that the iron, or steel that lined the box, explaining the container’s heavy weight, was pocked with slight indentations that were mild but slightly curved in their formation.
“What the hell,” I whispered, figuring out how those marks came to be there. When the box was jostled, the unsecured ball moved to strike the insides. Why was the object not secured to keep it from doing that, I wondered, before very gently picking it up in my right hand.
There seemed to be nothing to it, like it was simply a rather modest ball of aluminum, although the metal didn’t look like that element. I hefted it a bit, raising and lowering my closed fist around the object. It seemed okay, although there was a strangeness to its movement. Inertia, I realized. Joe had talked about inertia being one of the areas of difference the object might exhibit. I pulled a little away from the container, held the ball about three feet up from the floor, and then dropped it, expecting the thing to hit, bounce, and roll.
It hit alright, with a small but very harsh boom, like a sledgehammer striking the cement when done at full force, and that result stunned me. The ball did not bounce, it penetrated the concrete to the point where half of it was sitting in front of me with a thick perimeter of white dust heaped up around it. Dust also filled the air and I pulled back from the thin cloud.
“What the hell are you?” I asked out loud, the hairs on the back of my neck fully erect. Even my body knew that I was in the presence of something truly alien to my or even past human experience.
The door was pulled up and Gularte came into the storage area.
“You all right?” he asked, looking all around. “That sounded like a gunshot,” he went on, stepping past me to stare down at the box before his eyes focused on the artifact, sitting embedded into the concrete like it’d been very intently and well placed there with some invisibly powerful tools.
“That thing did that?” Gularte asked, squatting down to examine the object a bit closer.
“It violates the law of inertia,” I murmured, “that’s what Mardian was talking about, and that makes no sense at all. Nothing violates the law of inertia.”
“Gravity, you mean?” Gularte asked, getting up and backing away a bit.
“No, I don’t know about that, but what happened when I dropped it a few feet is self-evident, sitting right here in front of us.
“But that’s impossible,” Gularte replied, his eyes glued to the unmoving and unreacting artifact.
“No, obviously it’s not impossible, as we both can see,” I said, thinking about what I knew of physics from high school and a bit of college study, not to mention twenty-some-odd years of living on the planet.
“You just dropped it from your hand a few feet from the floor?” Gularte asked, the tone of his voice expressing doubt.
“I understand where you’re going,” I said, laughing a little and shaking my head. “It’s easier to believe this didn’t happen, or you are being fooled as part of some prank than it is to believe the truth. But then, you were outside and didn’t witness the event, you only heard it. You want me to do it again?”
“No,” Gularte said, speaking the one word loudly and expressively. “I believe you. What does it mean?”
“It means, since this is an effect of the universe responding to the motion of this thing, that we don’t really understand the universe and its laws nearly as well as we think we do.”
“You realize that if we keep this up you’re going to be buying the owner of this place a whole new floor, if not foundation, and even now, how do we explain this?”
“We’re not telling anybody,” I replied, leaning down and gently prying the object out of the half-sphere hole it had made.
I examined it closely, turning it in my grasp until I was sure that there wasn’t a mark on it. The concrete had been like nothing to it. I looked beyond the artifact toward the far wall made of stacked cinderblocks. I knew, almost without a doubt, from what I’d been told and now proven to myself, that if I threw the object it would penetrate the wall completely and quite possibly be very difficult to find somewhere outside, or inside the walls of some building beyond.
“Don’t do it,” Gularte said, holding out his right hand. “I can see what you’re thinking.”
I hadn’t been serious about throwing the object, but I made no response, instead replacing the artifact in the box, and carefully inserting the straw in and around it before closing the box. The box, looking like it’d been through a pretty extensive surgery with all of its plates and rivets, clicked soundly, as if it was some sort of heavy safe instead of the rather flimsy container it appeared to be.
“What now?” Gularte asked.
“It’s Christmas,” I replied, “the first gift of the Magi, and now on to the second,” I replied, knowing Gularte wouldn’t understand at all.
Gularte lit another cigarette, as his other one had burned down to ash until it reached the skin of his fingers.
“Man, just knowing you is an adventure all in of itself,” he said, sucking in a breath before blowing the smoke out in one big cloud.
“You coming over for Christmas Eve?” I asked him, heading for the light switch before exiting the place. We weren’t having a party but so many people had said they would be stopping by it was certainly likely to become one.
Gularte followed, smoking his cigarette faster than I’d ever seen him do in the past.
“I didn’t see anything,” he said, more to himself than to me. “I just came into the storage, helped get the weird special box set inside, and then left until called to see almost nothing.”
“There’s some truth to that,” I agreed, pulling the door down and then securing it with the big padlock I’d borrowed from the police locker located in the service area next door.
The padlock was made with a special tungsten core, like some of the bullets hand-loaded into the .44 Magnum rounds inside my illegal duty weapon. Nobody would be getting the lock off with a set of picks or even a heavy-duty cutting device. The lock would have to be torched off, and even that would take a special gas mixture. Gularte could not accommodate what he knew to be true, about not knowing how things worked in a world where almost all humans depended for their very lives on things working as they were so far known to work.
“I’ll be there,” Gularte said, getting into his truck. “What are you doing today, other than beach patrol tonight?” he asked, starting the rig up and then letting it settle into a rough but normal idle. “It’ll be good that we ride together and all that,” he continued until I held up one hand.
“This is all difficult stuff, I know, Jim, but, like in the war, it’s stuff that we can either accept or let eat us alive. That’s why it’ll be good to ride together tonight,” he replied, as I climbed in next to him on the passenger side.
“I’ve got to pick up Mary and take her to see a friend,” I finished, not wanting to reveal, even to Gularte, that I was receiving some sort of mental therapy, no matter how informal.
Gularte dropped me off at the apartment. Mary was ready to go for the unusual visit to Straight Ahead. I didn’t know what Paul might be thinking but I needed the man more than ever in my life. My wife could only help me, as far as I could see, so I had no reservations about setting her loose on him. I smiled at the thought as we drove, having no idea at all about what the results of their fateful meeting might bring.