by Jack Curtin
Something had fallen out of the sky off Kauai, opposite the sheer cliffs of the rugged Na Pali coastline. The trajectory was such that whatever it was probably landed close enough to the shore that recovery might be feasible with access from the often treacherous Kalala'u Trail which runs through the island's cliff region. Recovery was an absolute priority.
I'm too old for this, Rick Foley told himself, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He'd been pulled out of his ten-year retirement from field duty and sent to take on this assignment on the eve of his 60th birthday, evidence of how seriously his superiors took the situation. Around him, the rest of the recovery team slapped ineffectively at mosquitoes which buzzed and bit at their bare arms and legs. All they knew was what he had told them, which wasn't much, but all trained to accept that knowledge about their missions, for an agency of the government they could not even name, was well above their pay grade. Those who'd made fun of his long-sleeved pullover and long pants when they first arrived now gazed unhappily at his relative comfort. They should have known better. Foley had been here before.
"Okay everybody, listen up," Foley said when they'd caught their breath. They were four miles in, just finishing a sub-section of the main trail known as the Hanakapi'ai, and their trek was about to get much tougher. Unknown to his companions, he was going to leave them on their own for the remainder of the journey. "It will be slower going from here. It's almost straight up and the trail will be a lot less traveled. I'd suggest you enjoy the view, because it's not going to be much fun otherwise."
He paused, wondering how much more he needed to say. He'd already told them about his backpacking trips through Na Pali in his younger years. Back then, he'd been content enough to wander comfortably into the unknown and befriend the strange tribes who lived deep in the heavily wooded cliffs as they sat naked around their midnight campfires. He'd willingly shared the powerful pipes and hand-rolled cigarettes they freely passed around while he won their confidence. Some said there were people in these hills who'd not left since the Sixties. He'd never been able to confirm that.
"You have the maps," he continued. "With a little attention, you'll easily find the various trails that lead down to the beaches. Check out each one, see if there's anything that seems to be what we're looking for. Anderson will be in charge for the rest of the way." He gestured toward the next most senior member of his six-man team, still a callow youth by his own standards.
He held up his hand to quiet the questions before they could start. "I'm not deserting you and I'm not turning back to sleep in a comfortable bed tonight. There's one small beach near here which is accessible only from a path which just a few people know about. I happen to be one of those people and I'm going to go take a look there. We'll have radio contact if you need me." He paused, grinning. "One last thing. The currents on these beaches are much too treacherous for swimming, so no matter how hot and uncomfortable you get, remember that."
Foley watched the others move up the trail, metal detectors banging against their backs, and thought about the importance of their search. If there was something to be found, his team must be the one to find it. Others would come seeking the treasure from the sky, but they were here first. If the object was what he thought it was, its secrets could change the course of history if they were revealed. With a sigh, he set out along the barely remembered path one of his midnight campfire friends had shown him nearly two decades earlier. Though the distance was less than two miles, it took well over an hour of climbing over the rocks before he could begin the downward trek toward the ocean, his own metal detector heavier with each step.
The beach was located in an almost imperceptible cove, high reefs and waves making it virtually invisible from the great rubber rafts which regularly carried hearty tourists along the coastline and overhanging trees on a jutting cliff above shielding it from helicopter tours. Another consequence of those geographic factors, one he hadn't confessed to his team, was that this was the only beach on Na Pali which was actually safe for swimming. He was looking forward to that.
First things first. There was no sign of anything having come down in the area at all. No debris, no disturbances to the landscape. Fortunately, it was low tide, so the full expanse of the beach was easy to explore. He dropped his backpack with a grateful sigh and started at the water line, sweeping the detector back and forth, expecting very little, his mind still half-focused the cooling waves. On his fifth pass, the detector gave a strong beep. "Whoa!" he said aloud. He moved the detector slowly over the area and centered it over the spot when the beep was strongest. When he dropped to his knees to look closer, he could see there a faint impression where a hole had once been before the incoming tide had filled it with wet sand.
Foley began clawing at the spot with his hands. It didn't take long to uncover what he was seeking. He dug some more and pulled a familiar glowing red sphere free from the wet sand. As his government had feared, it was one of the long-range data recorders. It must have broken loose from the robotic mother ship constantly orbiting the Earth. He raised both hands over his head and smiled up into the bright blue sky in triumph. No doubt one of the other recorders had been reprogrammed by now to concentrate on him and the image would tell those at home that the crisis had been averted.
These recorders were a key element in the anthropological study to which Foley had devoted his life. He'd left his family, his culture, his world, in order to take up an identity on this primitive planet. It would have been a disaster if discovery of the existence of his team and their spaceship compromised the work now. He had spent decades slowly working his ways upward through the halls of power so that he was now nearly invisible, except when he wanted to be seen. His entire team had no idea that their paychecks came not from any governmental agency, but from massive private funds he had easily accumulated early on through unnoticeable manipulations of the stock market. It was worth all the sacrifices and deceptions, of that he was sure. His nearly completed study of these complex and sometimes frightening Earthlings would be the culmination of his professional career and cause a sensation throughout the inhabited universe. More importantly, it would be the basis for how, or if, the United Federation would make its first contact with Earth.
Foley picked up the recorder, wiped off as much of the wet sand as he could and walked over to his backpack. He slipped the recorder inside it and then reached into another pocket to pull out a battered and deeply burned outer plate from one of the humans' weather satellites, a piece he had brought along hoping for just this situation. With a few minutes work, he easily made it seem that the plate was what he had found buried in the sand.
When he was satisfied, he radioed the others and told them to turn back and come and join him. They would be satisfied with his fabricated recovery, happy to be out of the hot hills more than anything else. What the hell, he thought as he stripped off his clothes and heading for the inviting waves, maybe he'd even invite them for a swim.
Copyright © 2006 Jack Curtin
Return to Opening Page