"I know the truth. I remember all that happened, and I'm not going to forget. Worlds lived, worlds died. Nothing will ever be the same... I like to remember the past because those were better times than now. I mean, I'd rather live in the past than today, wouldn't you? I mean, nothing's ever certain anymore. Nothing's ever predictable like it used to be. These days... y-you just never know who's going to die... and who's going to live." – The Psycho-Pirate, "Crisis on Infinite Earths" #12.
Had there been enough atmosphere to carry the sound, the noise of the event would have been deafening; as it was, the entire cataclysmic instance came and went in complete silence. A sudden burst of heat and light and radiation accompanied the tearing open of a hole in the very fabric of reality. The hole existed for only a moment, if such things can be said to exist at all, but that was enough for it to spit forth a flesh-and-blood figure of human shape and proportion, clad only in the skin it had been born in. The figure had been propelled as if it was a bullet fired from a gun.
Xander Harris blinked, twice, utterly surprised at his whereabouts. A moment ago, he had been on the streets of Sunnydale, escorting a group of children while they gathered candy on Halloween. He had been wearing the horribly embarrassing costume... the girl's costume with the blonde wig and the fake gag breasts that Cordelia Chase had forced him into after he lost the bet. He remembered talking to Buffy and Willow at one point, then the three of them splitting up. Then there was a muted grayness from which he could discern events with which he had no mental connection at all. And then suddenly he was here, above the earth, falling uncontrollably.
As he took a very short second to wonder how he'd ended up in this position, Xander had flashes of memory. The flashes involved his protecting a screaming woman, and a ghost, and a girl in a cat costume from being attacked by monsters. He had a vague memory of a tall blonde man's face changing into something horrible in front of his eyes... but these flashes came and went without him being able to concentrate on them. The truth was, Xander was having trouble concentrating on anything other than the ground, which was climbing up to punch him like a very slow-moving fist.
It took him a moment to realize where he was, and for the terrible knowledge that low orbit above the Earth was, naturally, an untenable position for a naked human being to find itself in. His first thought had been that he was floating... and then he realized that not only was he moving across the landscape, but that the landscape below him was getting closer every second. Naturally, he immediately opened his mouth and began screaming like a little girl.
Not that there was enough air around him to carry the sound yet. He was beginning to feel the slips and scraps of atmosphere around him, but by no means was it enough to carry sound. Or to allow him to breathe at all. With a concentration that could only be gained through being in such overwhelming physical danger, he recognized that he really should be choking to death at any minute; he should be freezing to death, or suffering the effects of explosive decompression. None of that was happening, which confused him even more. The knowledge that he was still alive when he should be swiftly dying did nothing to calm him down, and he screamed some more.
He had two odd thoughts as he fell and screamed. While his conscious mind was busy being terrified by his onrushing doom, his subconscious mind had been analyzing everything he'd seen and was thrusting two startling conclusions into his head. The first was a recognition that he was high enough to see the curvature of the Earth, which meant no doubt that he was doomed to die in fiery re-entry into the atmosphere. The second was the same thought every astronaut had ever had, viewing the Earth from this distance: Wow! Isn't the world an amazingly beautiful place?
After a few minutes, he began to hear a high-pitched keening, and it surprised him to realize what it was. It was his own voice. The air around him had thickened to the point that he could begin to hear himself screaming, and he did sound just like a little girl.
The air around him was beginning to glow from the friction of his passage through it. A few second later and he was surrounded by streamers of heated gas; the air was literally catching fire from the heat generated by his fall. The same part of his brain that recognized that he wasn't strangling to death on the vacuum of space noticed that he wasn't burning. Atmospheric friction could melt and burn meteors composed of solid iron until such rocks were nothing more than ash and cinder, but he wasn't burning. He could feel a mild warmth, but not the multiple-thousands of degrees that tumbling through the atmosphere at such speeds as he was traveling should have caused.
As the feeling of warmth increased, the heat began to get uncomfortable, but never really turned painfully hot. The air pressure had increased to the point that the wind thundered in his ears, but he was not deafened. He could still hear himself screaming over the roar of the surrounding wind.
Below him the Earth had turned from a vast expanse of blue gray to a light tan, and then a vast expanse of pale tannish white. At first Xander thought he was falling into snow. Eventually his mind caught up to itself and he realized that flashing by below him was a desert. He had a slight grasp of his trajectory and realized that he was going to smash into the range of low mountains currently sitting just this side of the horizon.
He stopped screaming. The entire experience had become too much. Xander knew that his likely point of hit the ground didn't matter at all; no matter where he landed, he'd be touching down with the force of a bomb. The force of impact would be enough to vaporize him, most likely, and he would probably be dead before he had a chance to realize he'd struck the surface of the earth.
He had time to start praying, and did so. While he'd never been an overly religious person, Xander's experiences with the supernatural had convinced him that God existed, and that there was a Heaven. It was basic logic: such things as demons and Hell could not exist if their counterpart angels and Heaven did not. His mind couldn't conceive of a world that unfair. And so, in desperation, he prayed. He prayed to God, to Jesus, Mohammed, Vishnu, Thor, Odin, Zeus, Chango. Being a George Carlin fan, he even tossed a quick prayer in the direction of Joe Pesci.
Xander Harris was still praying when he barreled into the side of a mountain at nearly the speed of sound. His impact was harder than any human being had any right to survive, and created a crater nearly seventy feet wide and forty feet deep. He was almost instantly unconscious from the shock of it all.
The radar screen was obligingly clear. Occasionally, the radar pick-up would read a scheduled space launch from Cape Canaveral, or from Jiuquan in China, Baikonur in Khazakstan, or Kagoshima in Japan. But mostly from Cape Canaveral. The launches from the southern hemisphere were monitored by a separate facility. On other occasions, they'd pick up high-altitude testing of experimental aircraft, or a trans-polar passenger plane, or a larger-than-normal meteor. And on very rare occasions they could track the atmospheric re-entry of one of the larger pieces of space-trash.
Once they'd been able to track the homicidal artificial intelligence known as Ultron as it attempted to escape the Avengers. That was a fun night, with many a bet made between radar operators.
But tonight, nothing was being launched, and that was a good thing. When you were a radar telemetry specialist for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, "boring and empty screens" was the preferred status. 'Boring and empty' meant none of the members of the Worldwide Nuclear Club was angry at another member. 'Boring and empty' meant that, for tonight at least, there wasn't going to be a nuclear war.
Senior Airman David Keller was tired and hated it. In his opinion, it wasn't fair; no matter how much sleep he got, he still felt exhausted during the overnight shift. His body just wasn't adjusting to not sleeping at night. But he was damned if he would fall asleep on the job before he reached the end of the week. Falling asleep while you were on the line was not the way to make the officers and senior non-coms you worked for happy, and unhappy officers tended to do silly things like dock your pay and take away your weekend liberty.
The weekend was the Holy Grail for him. He had a week of leave coming up, and a plane to catch back to Tampa where he belonged. It wasn't that Keller didn't love his job; running a FARLOOK radar station as part of the "shield of the sky" against incoming missiles was an important and vital job, and it could be a lot of fun as well. And it was both technical enough to be interesting and simple enough to not need a PhD to do it well. But he was a Florida boy, born and bred; Alaska was about as far from Florida as one could get and still be in the United States. And it was all wrapped up in that one word: Alaska. He's make it a new curse word had he the power to do so. As far as Keller was concerned, Alaska sucked serious ass. The weather sucked. The lack of beaches sucked. The fact that all the lakes were freezing cold sucked.
And of course, the ultimate problem with Alaska, in David Keller's opinion, was that you couldn't get decent citrus here. No decent lemons, no decent grapefruit, and especially no decent oranges. All you could get was those shriveled up pieces of crap citrus from California. California! Couldn't you just laugh? His brother had once air-mailed him ten pounds of Florida navel oranges straight from the Hale Groves in Indian River. He'd taken one of his precious soft-ball sized navel oranges to the mess hall specifically to compare them to the piece-of-shit tennis-ball sized California oranges. The mess sergeant had shrugged in a "what can you do" way. And then he'd offered Keller five bucks for one of his navel oranges. Keller had taken the five bucks, and the next time he talked to his brother, he'd asked Jim to send him another load of oranges.
In Keller's opinion, calling Alaska a shit hole was an insult to shit holes.
Keller blinked, then blinked again. Then again. Almost casually, he rubbed at his eyes, trying to keep the crinkly-around-the-edges feeling from taking them over. Without realizing he was doing it, Keller yawned. He caught it before it went too far and began berating himself for yawning, only to immediately do it a second time in the middle of his self-directed rant.
He brought his hand up to his eyes again and closed them, pressing slightly. While his eyes were closed, he yawned a third time, wider than the last two times. It was during this third yawn that a white circle about the size of a grain of rice popped up onto his screen out of nowhere. His computer, which thought infinitely faster than he did immediately labeled the new contact 001-000X.
Keller reopened his eyes and spotted the white spot on his screen. He stared at it a moment before realizing what it indicated. Oh shit! How did that get there! The contact's label caught his attention. The computer apparently didn't recognize the contact by its radar-return silhouette, which was odd. He immediately entered the command to run the analysis program he and his fellow radar technicians referred to as the "dishwasher program." It analyzed the signal over and over and over, cleaning it of chaff and false returns as much as possible to get a better radar-return and potentially identifying the object. The white circle on his screen got smaller, but the -000X indicator did not change. The computer still had no idea what this thing was. He started an impact track and, finally managing to conquer his nerves, hit his comm button. "Control, Station Four."
"Go four." The voice of the current duty officer, Lieutenant Loraine Pye, came back to him almost instantly.
"Control, I have a re-entry event at 58.351422 by 134.511579, angels 35 and falling fast." Keller entered a re-confirm command into his terminal, just to make sure what he was telling the duty officer was accurate. "Contact logged at..." the airman glanced at the time readout in the corner of his computer screen. "Make that logged at 0241 hours."
"Contact at 58.351422 by 134.511579 angels 35. Copy. Do you have an identification, Four?" Keller heard the Lieutenant's voice both in his headset and from outside of it, telling him that she was swiftly approaching his station. He ran the contact through the wash for a second time. Again, the best that happened was that the contact rang back with a better positional fix. That gave them its general size, but by no means identified what sort of object it was.
"Negative. No identification." As the lieutenant was now standing next to him, Keller pushed his headset away from his ears to avoid the possible feedback squeal caused by her headset's close proximity. "Ma'am, I've washed it three times and still can't tell you what it is." He tapped a series of commands into his keyboard and a second window opened on his screen that listed the little information he did know. "Its reading dense, but not as dense as metal or stone. The wash says that it can't be more than two meters long. Irregular return means that we don't have smooth surfaces; I don't think this is a missile at all. And the return is pretty soft, too. See?"
He tapped his monitor screen with a fingernail, and Lieutenant Pye helpfully leaned over his shoulder to look for herself. He was quiet for a moment as his duty officer contemplated the information he was feeding her.
"Okay," Pye said slowly, still thinking. "So, it's not a missile, and its softer than metal. What would your best guess be?"
Keller was quiet for a long while, thinking. Pye wasn't the type of officer who would bite a guy's head off if he made an educated guess and was wrong. That said, she was the kind of officer who would bite a guy's head off for having all the information and still being wrong.
"If I had to guess, I'd think it was a chunk of one of those stealth bombers. They read like this when they have their bomb bay doors open."
The lieutenant nodded. "And you know what that looks like on a radar screen?" she added with a grin.
"Ask me no questions, ma'am, and I'll tell you no lies." It was an old joke. The people who flew the USA's fleet of stealth aircraft liked to brag about the fact that they were functionally invisible when they were in the air. The truth is, if the radar in question was powerful enough, no amount of stealthing would stop a flight detection. And NORAD had the most powerful radar emitters on the planet, outside of the observatory at Arecibo in Puerto Rico and its 385-meter-wide radar dish. The men and women who manned the nation's sky defense system didn't ever intentionally rub the fact that their little invisible planes were clearly visible to the radars of NORAD in the pilots' collective faces. Because that would be wrong.
Pye grinned. "Okay, let's consider this." She pulled her headset back into its proper position and spoke into the microphone. "Firewatch, this is Control."
A slightly electronic-sounding voice came back to her within moments. "Firewatch. Go Control."
"Sergeant Baker, do we have anything that even looks like a launch detection? We have a contact with no go-alarms." She returned her gaze to Keller's radar screen.
"Control, I have negative on launch detection. We do have a notification of a commercial launch out of Great Mercury Island, but it's supposed to be geo-stationary and not enter our AOC at all." Baker had naturally been monitoring when Keller called Pye. "Should we go to alert, ma'am?"
"Wait one, Firewatch." Lieutenant Pye turned her full attention back to Keller and his contact. "Okay, so nothing but a commercial satellite launch out of New Zealand. How's this thing's arc. Is it a ballistic?" Ballistic contacts were free-falling rather than guided, and most ballistic contacts were natural objects like meteors.
Keller taped a few commands. "That's affirmative, ma'am. It is on a free-falling course with no corrections. I'd say it was completely unguided. Radar-return says its juking slightly, probably because of the winds." He shrugged. "Might not be all that aerodynamic if it's a natural."
"I don't know." She had a vague, questioning look on her face. "A non-aerodynamic ballistic that reads like a stealth aircraft? You ever see anything like that before?" When Keller shook his head, she muttered, "Neither have I." She continued to stare over Keller's shoulder for a moment. "Time to impact?"
"Um... hold one." The radar tech entered several commands before finally turning to the duty officer. "Looks like about six, maybe seven minutes."
"Any idea where it's going to hit?"
The tech tapped at his computer, bringing up a map. "Projected impact in the Silver Island Mountains in Nevada. That's near the Bonneville Salt Flats, ma'am. Big wide open are without a lot of people except the gear-heads who like to race their cars on the sale. Shouldn't be any casualties and only minor environmental damage."
"Roger," Pye nodded. "Give me an update if anything changes." She turned back toward her own station. "Firewatch, Control. Take us to Alert One." She sighed. "I'll give the CO a call."
Everyone in the room heard it when the PA system announced, "Condition set to Alert One. The count has started." On the digital screen at the front of the room, a man of the western coast of the United States and Canada suddenly appeared. The contact was indicated by a small white circle. A white line extending behind it showed where it had been, while a red line projecting ahead of it showed its anticipated course.
Less than five minutes later, both Captain Tillend, Lieutenant Pye's immediate superior, and Colonel Ball, the commander of the post, stormed into the operations center. Both were frowning, though whether it was from the mysterious nature of the contact or the fact that Pye had called them in at two in the morning was anyone's guess. Both newcomers walked to the control station, staring at the big board. The contact's path was plotted, and was expected to hit somewhere near Bonneville in Nevada within the next couple of minutes. The projected impact site had a blinking yellow circle around it.
After a few moments, the Colonel turned to Pye. "All right, Lieutenant, tell me what you have."
"Yes sir. At 0241, Senior Airman Keller recorded a ballistic contact on re-entry. Radar-return says that the object was either very small or was non-reflective. The object was clearly unguided and was experiencing course interference from the wind. The air resistance was not corrected, so it was ruled unguided. Keller also said it was giving a return like what we get from the stealth aircraft, which lead us to further believe that whatever it was made of was relatively soft. I tasked a couple of SIDELOOKS and the silhouette on this thing was just too irregular to be a missile. Honestly, it looked more like one of the old Sputniks. Or maybe a really strange-shaped chair. And no, sir, I don't think it was a Sputnik or a chair. Just making a connection," she finished in response to the Captain's quick grin.
Colonel Ball smirked. "Yeah, that would be something. I can see explaining to General Praley how Nevada got bombed by a piece of furniture from outer space." This caused both Pye and Tillend to chuckle.
"Anyway, sir, according to the SIDELOOK radar, the object is between a meter and a half to two meters long, roughly a meter in diameter, and is semi-permeable to the radar." She took a deep breath. "Off the record, sir, I'm willing to take a shot and call a meteor. Probably made of one of the softer types of rock rather than nickel or iron. Must have started out huge to keep that much mass after re-entry burn. We won't know until someone retrieves it."
Ball turned back to the board. "Is that 'best guess', Lieutenant?"
"Yes sir," Pye gave a quick, curt nod. "Second best guess would be some sort of spacecraft debris or a dead satellite. Lord knows, there's enough of that hanging around in orbit."
"Both sound plausible." He took a quick glance at the Lieutenant. "Got anything else?"
He knew she would have told him, but he had to ask. "Radiologicals?"
"No sir. At least, not according to that new toy the people from Stark installed last month." She started to say something else, but stopped herself.
"What is it, Lieutenant."
"Well, sir, there was one other thing and it was really, really weird." Pye consulted her notes. "Thermal imaging showed the thing had been heated up by atmospheric friction. We expected that. But at its warmest point, the object was still cooler than any object we've ever seen that had just burned through the air. It's warm, but still colder than it has any right to be. And according to the thermals, it cooled off far faster than could be explained by standard heat loss."
As they watched the big board, the red line indicating the object's projected course got shorter and shorter until finally the yellow circle marking the estimated point of impact began blinking red. "Still nothing on radiologicals?" Colonel Ball asked.
One of the technicians answered. "No sir. Still zero on radiologicals".
"Very well. Good work, everyone. Well done." The Colonel turned to Captain Tillend and his duty officer. "Okay, I'm going to get on the horn to General Praley and see if we can't get a team spun up out of Mountain View. They're the closest to the impact site. Hopefully the General can convince them to go look at the impact site and confirm if it's a meteor after all. In the mean-time, everyone carry on their regular duties."
The colonel picked up the phone at the control station and hurriedly tapped a series of numbers.
Four hours later, two Air Force search and rescue helicopters flew south from Mountain View Air Force Base in Idaho. It had taken them twenty minutes to reach the general area of the impact site in the Silver Island Mountains, and they'd been searching for another ten.
"Hotel-99, this is Hotel Lead. According to the map we can't be more than about a kick out from where our target came down. You spotted anything yet?" Major Doyle Duffy curved his HH60-G Pave Hawk helicopter on a slow left-leaning curve, all the while checking the ground with both radar and his night scope. So far, the only visible evidence for their target was the high-altitude contrail left by the object as it fell; the contrail was still glowing slightly from the heat of the meteor's passage and was only now seriously diffusing because of the wind. Unfortunately, it didn't reach below 5000 feet anyway, making it useless to find the fallen object. The UFO and chemtrail wackadoos were no doubt going to get a lot of mileage from it, though. All Duffy knew was that, at six o'clock in the morning local, it looked pretty in the morning light, and he believed the world could always use more pretty.
The voice of Lieutenant Phillip Mickelson, the pilot of the other helicopter, came back to him over the radio almost immediately. "Negative, Hotel Lead. I'm going to take the opposite curve and will meet you in the middle." Duffy watched as the trailing helicopter began a slow right-hand turn that mirrored his turn to the left.
"Roger, 99." Duffy responded. He nodded as he spoke, knowing that the other pilot wouldn't be able to see the gesture. Beside him his co-pilot, Lieutenant Jamie Hall, rolled her eyes at her pilot but didn't say anything. "Keep an eye out for anything unusual. According to NORAD, this meteor was really weird. They didn't tell me how, so keep your eyes open for anything."
"I still can't believe they deployed us to hunt for a rock." Hall's comment was sardonic and spot on. It had been an odd thing for the SAR crew to be tasked to do.
"You and me both, Jamie. You and me both." Apparently, they'd been given the job because they were the ones spun up and ready to go. It was being listed as a training flight. "They didn't give me any real detail on this, so I figure we're doing Mushroom Duty." Duffy's second in command just nodded. Mushroom Duty was informal code for any job Air Force personnel were given without any explanation, just a command to get it done. The phrase's origins hearkened back to the joke that mushrooms were 'kept in the dark and fed a steady stream of bullshit.'
"Right." Lieutenant Hall grimaced. "This is why I joined the Air Force, sir. So I could spend all night looking for rocks in the middle of Nevada." She shook her head and added, just softly enough to hear, "Like there aren't tons of rocks in Nevada..."
"Just remember, it could be worse. We could be making this search in Afghanistan. Or Iraq, heaven forfend." Duffy completed his turn and began another turn in the opposite direction, quartering the landscape as best as he could. "99, I'm starting my second turn." The helicopter straightened out, extending its line for a hundred meters. He then angled it right.
"Roger. Second turn," was the only reply on the radio.
Hall's mouth tightened into a moue as the maneuver was completed. "Is forfend even a word?"
Before the Major could reply, a deeper male voice sounded from the cabin behind them. "We're flying over a desert made of salt crystals. The only thing making Afghanistan worse than this are that there are people in Afghanistan shooting at us." Technical Sergeant Aaron Cruz was the EMT for the flight. While their orders for this deployment didn't mention the possibility of casualties, Major Duffy had long ago learned that it was a dumb idea to ever leave base without his medic. "And even then, if I had to choose between being shot at and having to walk out of this shit if we crashed? I think I'd take being shot at."
"Wait! I think I got something." Lieutenant Hall said. "Just about two o'clock. Looks like... okay, looks like a police cruiser, a fire truck, and an EMT bus. They've got their lights on; if they hadn't moved into the shadows I'd have missed them."
It took a moment for Duffy to spot what she was pointing at. "Good work. Let's go look." He angled his helicopter towards the ground vehicles. "99, this is lead, we've spotted a group of emergency vehicles. Probably heading for our target. Fall in behind me and we'll see what we see."
"Roger, lead." Within a minute the other chopper was in formation with him. The two aircraft did a careful fly-over of the first responders. The three vehicles were climbing an unpaved dirt path into the deeper into the Silver Islands.
"Anyone else wonder where they're going at this time in the morning in this empty and forbidding landscape?" Cruz asked from the back. His tone made it clear that he had no doubt at all in his mind where the civilian authorities were headed.
"Maybe we should ask them," the co-pilot observed.
"What an excellent idea." Duffy pushed a couple of buttons on the radio, switching its frequency from the operational channel to the standard civilian emergency channels. "Jaime, try and find a call sign; might be on a vehicle chassis. I'd hate to just call them 'Hey you, emergency guys'" He maneuvered his helicopter to the right side of the road, high enough to not spook the first responders while simultaneously being visible to them.
The radio locked onto the emergency channel and the helicopter crew could hear a smattering of chatter. It sounded like none of the first responders had noticed the two helicopters yet. That would change in a hurry. Helicopters were a lot of things, but quiet was not one of them. And those designed, as these two were, to be used to assist in rescues and disaster relief have been made intentionally louder than the standard helicopter, because a louder helicopter made it easier for stranded survivors to hear and, the reasoning went, signal. The sound of the rotors of this model of helicopter was as much a part of its 'rescue equipment' as the MREs, blankets, and medical equipment that was kept on board.
Major Duffy listened for a call-sign from one of the vehicles. "Whatever happened to the days when police vehicles had their call-signs painted on the roof, like in Adam 12?"
"What's Adam 12?" Lieutenant Hall gave him a quizzical look.
Duffy just sighed, suddenly feeling very old. And he really wasn't all that old. "There was this TV show when I was a kid. It was originally broadcast during the 60s, but it was on as reruns in the 70s. Cop show. One of my favorite shows when I was growing up. It was about these two beat cops; one was a veteran and the other a rookie. And they had their call-sign, which was 1-Adam-12, painted on the roof so police helicopters would know who they were." He paused and listened. "Okay, I think I got something."
One of the vehicles had called another about the helicopters, using a call sign. Duffy waited until the channel was clear, then broke in. "Rescue Victor David 8, this is US Air Force Hotel Flight. Hotel Lead speaking." He waited for the acknowledgment from the EMT bus before continuing. "We're out of Mountain Home and are under orders to investigate an object that fell out of the sky near here. Can we render any assistance?"
There was a moment as the people in the vehicles below him registered his presence and what he had just told them.
"Roger, Hotel Flight. This is Kilo Lima 14; I'm in the Sheriff's Department vehicle. We'll take any assistance you want to give us. There's small groups of cabins all over these mountains. Most are empty except hunting season, but we do have a small population of home-industry silver miners up here all year round. Given the meteor and all, County figured we ought to come up and check, make sure everyone's all right." There was a pause. "You could see that thing burning through the air for miles, so we figured it was gonna be a big one."
"Roger, 14," Duffy responded. "Understood. Hotel 99 and myself will fly ahead and see what we can see and report back to you." The Major switched back to his regular frequencies and said, "99, Hotel Lead. Did you copy?"
"Okay, let's get ahead of the first responders and see if they know where they're going any better than we do."
There was a chuckle from the other helicopter pilot. "Roger. That would be nice for a change."
Fifteen minutes later, Lieutenant Mickelson, the pilot of Hotel-99, signaled that they had found something. Major Duffy circled his craft around and came in close, hovering almost nose to nose with the second chopper. Hotel-99 had its spotlight on, panning it across a large crater. The hole in the ground had to be thirty feet deep and at least three times as wide. What had caught the attention of Hotel-99's crew was the halo of expelled rock and dirt surrounding the crater. That led them to the center of the hole. A circle of light as bright as daylight crossed the crater once, twice, and then settled on the center. A few minutes later, Hotel Lead's spotlight did the same. First it scanned the area to make sure they weren't missing something before settling on the center of the hole.
"Well," Major Duffy said after a moment. "There's something you don't see every day. You seeing this, Mick?"
"Yeah, I'm seeing it. Don't believe it, but I'm seeing it." Mickelson's voice was steady. Air Force pilots, even their helicopter pilots, were trained to never lose their cool. It was unlikely that Mickelson's voice would have betrayed any emotion if the man had been on fire.
Lying on her side in the dead center of the crater was the last thing he ever expected to see: a completely nude woman. She had blonde hair, but otherwise Duffy couldn't see any details other than she looked uninjured. This was odd enough. A person falling from the upper atmosphere would have been a charcoal briquette; not to mention smashed to a pulp from the impact. This woman looked unharmed.
"I think we're about to disrupt her nap," came Mickelson's voice.
Duffy chuckled. Then he put his radio back on the local emergency channel. "Kilo Lima 14, this is Hotel Lead. We've found what looks like the impact site. We have a crater here approximately ten meters deep by thirty meters wide." His co-pilot softened the brightness, allowing the projected spot to get wider, if slightly dimmer. "14, it looks like we've got one casualty. We've got two medics with us; we're dropping them into the crater but will await your arrival for further action unless otherwise necessary."
"Uh, roger that, Hotel Lead. We can see you guys up ahead. Looks like we'll be there in six or seven minutes."
"Six or seven minutes, roger." Duffy turned his head toward the third man in the chopper. "Okay, Cruz, you're up." He signaled Hotel-99 and ordered the deployment of their medic.
"Roger, Lead. Buck is getting prepped as we speak. We were just waiting your word."
"Roger. Tell Buck he can deploy as he's ready." Duffy turned his attention to his crew. Lieutenant Hall had climbed into the back and was helping Cruz rig himself to a rappelling line. The man already had his full kit on his back.
"I got to say, Major, I don't know how much good me and Eddie are gonna be." Cruz said as he hooked the line to his harness. "Either she was caught in the meteor impact, in which case she ain't walking away from this, or else she was the meteor, in which case she really ain't walking away from this."
"I get you, Sergeant. But ours is not to wonder why..."
"Yeah, yeah." The medic grinned at his pilot. "Okay, five seconds on the drop, sir!"
"Five seconds, roger." Duffy hit his radio. "Mick, tell Buck that Cruz is about to drop. He's going in five, four, three..." the pilot turned his head to see Airman Buck, the other helicopter's medic, drop out of the side door, sliding easily to the ground on the extended line. Trust Buck to want to beat Cruz to the ground.
"Okay, Jaime get on the horn to that ambulance crew, make sure they know we have a casualty. They should only be a couple of minutes out by now." Duffy adjusted his position regarding the other helicopter. The spotlight stayed where it was, but the downdraft from the rotors onto the crater ended. He nodded to himself as he watched Mickelson do the same. "No reason to make it hard for the medics," he commented to no one in particular.
Cruz hit the ground just a few seconds after Buck. He unhooked himself from the rappel line and watched as it retracted itself into a reel on the helicopter. Satisfied that the line was no longer flapping loose in the helicopter's downdraft, he did an initial equipment check. It was redundant; he'd checked his gear before dropping out of the helicopter. But the redundant check was habit. Only when he was certain he had all the gear he needed for a triage assessment did he turn toward the body in the middle of the crater.
The two medics did an initial appraisal of the woman, then very gently moved her on to her back. As the senior-ranked medic, Cruz took the lead in reporting back to his pilot. "Okay. We have a Caucasian female, anywhere between fifteen and twenty-one. Hard to say more precise than that. Hard to get a height, what with her laying down, but I'd say she's at least as tall as I am. Muscular. More than usual for a woman. Looks like an athlete, maybe a weight-lifter." The only reply was acknowledgment of his report. This was his show until the locals arrived, so no one was going to override him or countermand him.
Buck pressed a couple of fingers into her neck just below the jawline, checking for a pulse. He was in that position for longer than usual. His head cocked to one side as he moved his fingers higher on the woman's neck. Then he nodded to Cruz. "Its thready and weak, but it's there. I'd hate to guess what her BP is," the younger medic reported. That said, the medic began to unlimber the blood-pressure cuff.
While Buck did that, Cruz began the procedure EMTs sometimes jokingly referred to as 'the rub down;' the careful check for possible broken bones done by gently feeling the limbs, chest, hips and skull with the hands. "No apparent broken bones. We do have heavy bruising on the woman's legs, arms, and chest. Abrasions on her face and extremities. Only minor bleeding and even that appears to have stopped on its own."
"I'm getting no BP read at all, Cruz. Nothing. Needle isn't even ticking over. But I swear, I read a pulse!" Buck unstrapped the cuff and put it back on her. He inflated the cuff, and then released, trying again to read the girl's blood pressure. "Still no reading."
Cruz felt at the woman's neck. He, too, could feel a weak but steady pulse. "Okay, I got a pulse here, too. Never mind blood pressure for right now. Move on." He reached into his backpack and pulled an infrared thermometer and stuck the end of it into one of the woman's ears. After a few seconds, it beeped, and he dutifully recorded the result. "Her temp is only 94 degrees. I'm grabbing a blanket and a heat pack."
Buck nodded and took a penlight and flashed it into her eyes to check responsiveness. "Pupils are dilated but responsive."
Cruz draped the woman with the bright orange survival blanket, then cracked open a couple of the chemical heat packs and placed them along her body at the standard heat loss points: the groin, the armpits, the hands and feet. He tucked a last one under her neck. He suddenly found himself staring at the woman. She was, to put it crudely, massively mammalian. Cruz shook himself suddenly. What the hell am I doing? This wasn't the first naked woman he'd treated. He checked for signs of breathing, and couldn't find any.
"Buck, grab an inhalator! She's not breathing!" With that, Cruz bent over the woman, straightened her head slightly, opened her mouth, cleared her tongue, took as deep a breath as he could, covered the woman's mouth in his, and exhaled. It was like he was trying to fill an oxygen tank. Her chest didn't even move as he breathed for her, and the effort to force air into her lungs almost made him dizzy. Nevertheless, he did it again, pausing only to motion Buck toward her so he could start chest compressions. As Cruz sat up to get a bigger lungful of air, he noticed that Buck was putting his full weight on the woman's chest and wasn't moving it at all.
At the fifth exhale, he felt something change. The woman inhaled, very slowly, and just as slowly exhaled. He watched, dumbfounded, as the woman didn't breathe at all for what seemed like minutes. And then, like clockwork, she did it again. Slow inhale, slow exhale. "Eddie, stop. She's breathing, but its way slow and shallow. Time this for me." The two of them watched the second hand on their watches go around nearly four times before the woman took another breath. It stunned them to the point that neither of them noticed when the first responders pulled up.
To Cruz, it looked like the two County EMTs – their names were Roberta Rush and Frank Webber – were as confused by the situation as he and Buck had been. Cruz had given the two men his report when they arrived, then assisted with placing electrodes for the EKG. The same EKG that was not reading a thing, for some reason. All four medics could feel a pulse; they could tangibly experience proof that the woman's heart was beating, however slowly, and that she was breathing, however slowly. But they were getting no indication of it from the monitor. They did get a result from the finger cuff; it measured pressure changes in the finger, and not the electrical output of the heart. He had watched, amazed, as they wasted three IV starters on the woman, trying to get her started on a saline drip. Nothing they had could penetrate her skin. In the end, the four medics decided that the best they could do was wrap her up and get her to a hospital. Major Duffy had agreed to ferry the woman to Universal Medical Center in Salt Lake City, the closest trauma-rated emergency room.
"Okay, Major, drop the gurney." Cruz and the other three medics watched as Hall tipped the mobile stretcher out the helicopter's side door, winching it downward.
"Hey! What do you people think you're doing?" It was Zipp, the Tooele County deputy sheriff. Almost as soon as Cruz had spoken to the man, he had decided that this person was a disgrace to his badge. Racial prejudice oozed out of the man's pores. Cruz's reaction to Zipp, whose first name was Arnold or Ardwright or Adolf or something like that. "Son, I can't let you do that."
It was only made worse by the fact that he kept calling Cruz 'son'. Cruz was proud of his accomplishments in the military and refused to be condescended to anyone. To say that what he really wanted to do was knock this pendejo jerk-off on his ass was understating the situation. "We're moving her to the hospital in Salt Lake City. We can't treat her out here."
"Say that again, son?"
Gritting his teeth, Cruz repeated what he had said. "There are too many strange things going on. We don't have the equipment to treat her out here. So, we're moving her to a hospital."
"Strange things? That what you call it? You can't stick a needle in her arm without it bending or breaking, you can't get your electro-whatchamacallit-machine to read her. Not to mention how she fell out of the fucking sky buck-nekkid without getting' kilt! That the strange things you talking about, boy?"
Cruz couldn't help but react. "Do not call me boy and don't call me son, deputy! I am a senior non-commissioned officer in the Air Force. You call me Sergeant, or Technical Sergeant if you must. You call me boy or son one more time, and you and me will have words."
The deputy looked slightly amused. "Whatever you say, flyboy." Oh, he did not just do that! "I've already put a word in. SHIELD's gonna want to take a look at your little mutie girl there."
"Officer," Cruz began, knowing that deputy sheriffs hated being called 'officer' as much as Air Force personnel hated being called 'flyboy.' "I don't know where you're getting your intel, but we've seen no real indication that she's a mutant. That's just supposition on your part."
"No indication she's a mutant?" The Deputy's grin was cruel and unpleasant. "My fat white ass! How about all those problems you were having with her? How about the fact that she fell out of the sky so hard she made a crater?" The deputy's cruel grin got wider. "What's the matter? Get a good close look at a set of huge tits like that, and suddenly you can't think but with your little head?"
Cruz was suddenly in the other man's face. "You better secure that shit." He pointed back toward the crater, just to drive the point home. "We don't know who she is, or how she came to be here. But she's still an injured human being, and as such she deserves our respect and our care and does not deserve your pathetic creepy eyes all over her. Do you understand me?"
The Deputy wasn't giving ground at all. His eyes narrowed as he growled, "You'd better take a step back right now, boy, or else I may have to put you in cuffs for attempted assault on a law enforcement officer."
"Try me, fat man. Try it and see just what happens to you if you try that." Cruz stared into the man's eyes, hoping he'd get the hint.
The deputy just smirked. "Fine. Whatever. Go take care of your precious mutie girl. Like I said, I've already talked to my Captain, and he's calling SHIELD as we speak, and they'll put her in prison where she belongs." Cruz almost punched the guy in the teeth just on general principles. If there was one thing that pushed all of Cruz's buttons, it was a bigoted asshole, even if he wasn't all that fond of the group the bigoted targeted himself. And this deputy was a huge, flaming asshole.
Cruz gave the guy up as a bad job and a waste of time. He walked back down the wall of the crater to the rest of the rescue crew. Buck was directing things; Cruz had put him in charge while he had gone to talk to Deputy Douche-Bag. Buck had seen Cruz's face as the senior medic approached. "There a problem?" The look on Cruz's face said it all. "I take it the cop said something untoward?"
"That man apparently has a hard-on for putting mutants in prison just because they were born. He figures she's a mutant because..." Cruz made a motion with his hands mimicking something falling from the sky and smashing into the ground. "Plus, he made a crude remark about her... um..." Cruz put his hands up in front of his chest in the universal male symbol for a well-endowed woman, causing Buck to grin slightly. Cruz dropped his hands and shrugged. "Guy says his superior is on the phone to SHIELD, about her, and that they're likely to meet us at UMC."
"Well, I don't know if she's a mutant, but she's definitely seen better days." Rush said as she helped guide the gurney into place. "She's one solid bruise. You know, if she didn't lack the scars I'd wonder where she had her work done. I don't envy her the back problems. My sister wasn't that big and had to get reduction surgery done, she was in so much pain."
Talk ceased when the gurney hit the bottom of the crater. The four medics moved it until it was as flat as possible and as close as possible to the woman as they could it. Cruz positioned himself at her feet while Webber took her shoulders. "Okay," Cruz said. "On three. Ready?" At Webber's nod, he counted. "One. Two. Three." and he lifted. Or rather, he tried his best to lift the woman onto the gurney. She hadn't budged, and Cruz almost dropped her legs. The two medics stopped and straightened up, and Webber grabbed at his back.
"Wow." Cruz looked down at the woman, then back up to Webber. "What do you think? Four hundred? Maybe five?"
"What's up?" Buck asked.
"She's too heavy for the two of us to move. We're gonna need your help. She's got to be close to five hundred pounds easy." Cruz moved so he was straddling the woman's knees. "You to get on either side of her."
"She sure don't look like no five hundred pounds, even with as much muscle as she had on her. I'd have pegged her at one sixty at most, maybe." Rush moved to the woman's right side as Buck took her left.
"Okay, let's try this again. On three. One. Two." On three, all four lifted this time, and managed to get her onto the gurney. Buck and Rush began strapping her in as Cruz stretched. Webber stayed bent over for a while.
"Christ Jesus, she's heavy." was all the man had to say.
With their patient strapped to the mobile bed at the knees, belt-line, and shoulders they put neck brace on her to hold her head still, then used the four-contact pulley to drag the gurney out of the crater.
"Come on." Cruz took the handle on one end of the gurney. "Let's get her secured in the back of the chopper. Heavy as she is, we don't want her breaking loose and rolling around in the back while we're flying."
The flight to the hospital was a long forty minutes. The girl never stirred, though her breathing sped up at one point (going from a rather frightening one breath per four minutes to a comparatively Olympian breath per two minutes), but even that 'excitement' had faded swiftly as the woman resumed her slow, almost imperceptible rate of respiration. For the rest of the flight, there was nothing. Just the constant sound of the helicopter's engines and the beep-blooping of the monitor attached to the woman's finger cuff. The flight to the hospital was a long forty minutes.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the property of Warner Brothers in conjunction with Mutant Enemy Productions. The Marvel Universe is the property of the Walt Disney Company. Power Girl is the property of DC Comics, which itself is the property of Warner Brothers.
2. I am constantly making edits to this story, correcting some grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, adding missing words, correcting whatever misspellings I find, and so on. I'm also tinkering a bit with some of the language used. In any case, it's slow going and gradual because I don't have any sort of beta reader helping me with it and because of my physical situation. So, if anyone spots any errors, please feel free to let me know. I need all the help I can get.
3. This story has its own TV Tropes page. Due to my long-standing argument with Fast Eddie (the guy who runs that site – I may have once called him an arrogant jackass), I'm not allowed to update it myself. If someone wants to go over there and tinker with it or leave a review, feel free to do so.
4. Just to issue the usual warnings, there is explicit language in this story, but no explicit sex. The main character is a gay woman, so if the idea of two women getting together offends you, sorry but there are other stories out there you might enjoy more. And because I don't want to have to repeat myself here, let me drop a huge spoiler on you: this is not a gender-bender story. It is not about a guy who gets turned into a girl; it's about a girl who has a bit of a psychotic break and thinks she's a guy.