“Professor Steinmetz? Professor Henry Steinmetz?” asked a man in a dark suit and sunglasses approaching him as students filed out from his afternoon lecture on particle physics.

He nodded. “Yes. Can I help you?”

The man looked official; he could see a gun holstered on his belt beneath his suit jacket. Although never employed by the DoD, he’d acted as an advisor to certain projects conducted under the aegis of DARPA and had co-authored briefing papers for both the Pentagon and the White House, so was used to the occasional official approaching him like this.

The man flashed a badge and said, “I’m Special Agent Olsen, NCIS. Please, come with me, sir.”

“Sorry?”

“Your presence is required by the Navy. I’ve been sent to fetch you. NCIS is –”

“I know what NCIS is. I should imagine everyone does.”

The man quirked a half-smile. “Yes. I find we don’t need to explain ourselves as much as we once did.”

“But, what do you want with me? I mean, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Not that I know of, sir,” the Special Agent replied with a smile. “All I know is your presence is required by the Navy. In an advisory capacity, as far as I can tell. Nobody has given me any details. All I know is that I’m to deliver you to a Marine C-130, which will take you wherever it is you’re needed. No time to pack or anything, I’m afraid.”

“Oh. It sounds serious.”

Olsen gave the slightest of shrugs. “They want you urgently. Whether it’s serious or the brass have just decided it’s serious… who can say? You can probably hazard a more informed guess than I can.”

As he followed the man to his car, Steinmetz considered that he probably could guess. Unfortunately, given his specialism, the odds were that it wasn’t anything good.

#

Special Agent Olsen had handed him over to a female Marine Corporal named Banks at the bottom of the C-130 loading ramp. She’d ushered him onboard and within minutes the plane was taking off. He was surprised to find himself sitting alongside a squad of Marines and two more confused civilians. As far as he could tell, Corporal Banks was their babysitter, intended to keep them away from the other Marines and in the dark: none of them had a clue what was going on.

He recognised one of the two civilians as Doctor Barbara Younger, an expert on high-energy physics. They’d attended many of the same conferences and had co-authored a briefing paper together. He didn’t recognise the other, but she introduced him.

“Hi, Henry; this is Professor Mike Corso. He’s an astrophysicist. Mike, this is Professor Henry Steinmetz, particle physicist.”

“Particle Physicist? Astrophysicist? High-energy Physicist?” Henry said, slowly.

“Sounds like the start of a bad joke to me,” Mike quipped, the jolliness of his voice strained.

“What on earth do they want the three of us and a squad of Marines for?” Henry went on.

“No idea,” shrugged Mike.

“We asked her,” Barbara said, nodding towards Banks, “but she said nothing. Something weird is going on, if you ask me.”

“Well,” sighed Henry, trying to keep his dinner down, “we’ll find out soon enough, I guess.”

#

At their destination, somewhere in the South, Corporal Banks directed them onto a truck and they were driven to a Coastguard base. As they climbed out of the back of the truck, they were surprised to discover the gathering darkness had been replaced by a bright light.

“Hello,” said a man in a light, grey suit. “My name is Hall and I am the agent in charge here.”

“Here? Where is here?” demanded Mike.

“Cayuna Coastguard Base, Georgia.”

“Why have we been brought here?” Henry asked.

“Well,” replied Hall, his face an expressionless mask, “we’ve had a bit of an incident here. To be exact, there is an object that requires your attention.”

“Object?” Henry and Barbara managed to ask in unison.

“Uh-huh. Well, that’s what we’re calling it.”

“I don’t understand…” said Mike.

“What sort of object?” Barbara asked, confused.

“Well, that would be what you’re here to tell us. Perhaps it would be best if I show you.”

The Marines, except for Corporal Banks, who still stood nearby, had disappeared off on whatever mission brought them there. Now, Agent Hall led the four of them to the dock where a Coastguard cutter and two smaller launches were moored. But, they paid the vessels no attention. It was the source of the bright light that seized their attention. For a moment, as they approached the dock, they imagined there must be a lighthouse offshore; there wasn’t.

“That’s the object,” Hall said.

They all stared in amazement. Some distance off shore – perhaps a mile, but it was difficult to judge – and a height above the still, mirror-like sea was a large glowing ball of light. The strange thing about it was that, although it gave off enough light to let them see clearly, they could look at the ball without difficulty. The ball was brightest at its heart and hazy around its edge. It just hung there, silent and still.

“What the hell…” Henry muttered.

“Well, this is it,” Hall said. “The object. It appeared here approximately eighteen hours ago. Just appeared out of thin air, according to reports. Just hung there, doing nothing. A perimeter was established and nobody has gone near it. We have no idea what it is. It is a mystery we hope you can resolve. And, yes, technically, although stationary, it is a UFO.” He clearly found the word distasteful.

“Interesting,” murmured Henry.

“What measurements have you taken?” Barbara asked.

“None,” said the Agent. “As soon as it appeared, the place went into lockdown. That’s your job.”

“What equipment have we got?” Mike asked him.

“Quite a bit. It’s in the storage shed over there. Anything you need that isn’t there, we can get it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much of it will be of use.”

“Oh?” Henry raised an eyebrow.

“There was an electromagnetic pulse when it appeared which fried most of the equipment here. The EMP has continued, disrupting communications, too.”

“Ah, that is awkward.”

Barbara and Mike nodded their agreement.

“Oh, well,” Barbara sighed, “let’s see what we can do…”

#

Their initial examination of the object was limited. As Agent Hall had said, the ongoing EMP had interfered with much of their equipment. That uncertainty combined with its seeming inactivity was strangely unnerving.

Having done what they could, they sent Corporal Banks to fetch Hall so they could share their preliminary findings.

“Well,” he asked at his arrival, “what can you tell me?”

“Firstly,” said Barbara, “we’re pretty certain it isn’t solid and probably isn’t alien. As far as we can tell, it’s probably some sort of atmospheric plasma, something like ball lightning – only larger and more stable than any ball of plasma we’ve seen in nature or produced in a lab. The light isn’t given off by the object itself, but produced by it charging the air – sort of like the Northern Lights.”

“However,” added Mike, “there is a rhythmic pulsing of the light from the object itself which may – and I stress may be deliberate; a message.”

“So, it could be intelligent?” Hall asked.

“It could be anything,” Henry told him. “We still don’t really know what we’re dealing with, not yet.”

“There is one test we want to try,” Mike said.

“What?”

“You said we could have any equipment we need.”

“Yes…”

“Did you ever see the movie Independence Day?”

Hall looked at him confused.

“I’ll take that as a no,” said Mike. “They tried to communicate with the aliens by using lights mounted on a helicopter. We want to try the same thing here. Send up a chopper and flash lights at it, see if it responds.”

“Okay,” nodded Hall. “I can arrange that.” He turned to leave, then halted and asked, “How did things turn out in that movie?”

Mike gave a nervous chuckle and Barbara said, “As I recall, they didn’t go so well.”

“Well,” said Hall, walking off, “I hope you do better than Hollywood…”

#

Half an hour later, an Apache helicopter with Marine markings came whomping along the coast. Henry was amazed to see it had a set of floodlights mounted on each side where, normally, missiles would be loaded. Did the Marine Corps really keep some so-equipped ready to fly? If not, how had Hall managed to whistle one up so quickly?

They watched as it slowly approached the object and halted. It was facing away from them, but they could discern the flashes of light. Mike had written out a sequence for them to try.

The helicopter nudged a little closer to the object. How close it needed to be and how close was safe were questions that still vexed them.

Suddenly, a plume of purplish plasma, a tendril of energy, exploded out from the object in complete silence and struck the helicopter. The lights blinked off and the rotor blades began to slow and it started to drop. But, before it hit the water, as it left the embrace of the plasma, it exploded into flames with a horrendous roar.

Barbara screamed. Mike vomited. Henry suddenly felt very weak.

Burning wreckage scattered itself upon the calm sea.

Hall showed no sign of any emotion, merely asked, “Well, was that deliberate?”

Henry shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe we said the wrong thing. Maybe the helicopter just got too close to it. We still don’t know anything.”

Mike swore. “We know not to get too damn near to it.”

Hall nodded. “Yes. Containment remains imperative.”

The object continued to sit there, unmoving, pulsing as it had done. Nothing had changed. As soon as the flames on the wreckage died, it was almost as if nothing had happened.

Henry found himself gazing into the light, watching the pulses, timing them, counting them, attempting to discern their meaning. It was almost mesmeric.

#

The object invaded Henry’s dreams. He found himself standing on the dock, staring out towards it. Rather than a sphere, it seemed to have become a funnel; a tunnel. It was a long, pulsing, purplish tunnel that flowed through spacetime. Where did it lead? What secrets did it conceal?

Henry threw himself from the dock and began to swim out towards it, desperate to reach it, only finding himself floundering in the blazing, oily sea. Then, the maw of the purplish tunnel descended to devour him, seizing him and sucking him up, swallowing him in great pulsing gulps towards infinity.

Henry awoke, sweating and gasping for air.

#

In daylight, the object looked, if anything, more real than the night before. In the darkness, it was almost possible to imagine it was a special effect, an optical illusion, but in the harsh light of day, there was absolutely no denying it. The light it gave off was more of a shimmer, a heat haze.

“Have you noticed?” Henry asked as they got on with the rest of the tests. “No birds.”

The others nodded. There were no birds; normally, you’d expect plenty of seabirds to be about. The presence of the object seemed to have driven them away.

It seemed as if they’d completed as many tests as were possible from a distance, and were still none-the-wiser. Mike was convinced the pulses were a message and wanted to translate it, and Henry was inclined to agree with him, but Barbara was certain the object was a natural phenomenon and not guided by an intelligence. Henry did wonder if it was a by-product of a naval experiment; he knew they were investigating energy weapons and various means of detection or avoiding detection. If it was, nobody was telling.

“That’s a waste of time,” Barbara sniffed at their efforts to decode the pulse. “We need to get nearer, learn more.”

“You two go,” Mike said, “and I’ll keep working on this.”

Barbara rolled her eyes, then said, “Whatever you like.” Then, to Henry, “Let’s take one of the launches.”

The two of them, assisted by Banks and a couple of Coastguard officers, loaded the boat with equipment before motoring towards the object. The engine was unaffected, but the radio, GPS and other equipment seemed to have been knocked out by the pulsing of the object.

Barbara cursed up a storm when she tried to get a reading. “It’s messing with the equipment. It’s no good. Let’s get a little closer.”

“I’m not sure,” said Henry, gulping nervously.

“Closer.”

They drew nearer.

Suddenly, a plume reached out like a tentacle and snatched Barbara up. When he tried to recall what happened, Henry always found it impossible to be certain whether it actually seized her and lifted her up into itself, or whether she just vanished; whether it took her or just disintegrated her; it all happened too fast. She didn’t even have a chance to scream and he’d barely registered her disappearance when the equipment they’d loaded aboard, the dead radio and GPS, the engine, all began to spark then explode into flames. A moment later, the boat was torn apart by an explosion and he was floating in the water. Henry found himself staring upward, unblinking, into the glow of the object. It was almost as if he were in his dream, only Barbara had been taken and he’d been left behind. Rejected.

#

They were dragged out of the water after an unpleasant ten minutes, Henry, Banks and one of the Coastguards. The other Coastguard was dead, killed in the blast. Banks had a broken collarbone.

“There’s no sign of Doctor Younger,” a Marine said, as Henry was carried across the dock.

“She’s gone,” Henry gasped.

“What?” demanded Mike.

Henry explained what he’d seen or thought he’d seen, then spent ten minutes arguing about whether she’d been disintegrated or sucked up, unable to decide himself. Hall didn’t much care which, merely that she was gone and he was allowing nobody else near the object.

“Three personnel dead and one advisor missing, presumed dead,” he muttered, stalking off to file a report.

Henry had to admit he wasn’t sure whether the destruction of the launch had been a deliberate attack or the result of getting too close. They didn’t really know any more than before, although Mike thought it must be deliberate and was still keen to discover the meaning of the pulses.

Unable to keep his focus, Henry eventually returned to the base medic.

“I have a terrible headache,” he told him, “and I keep getting these nosebleeds. I thought it was from the explosion, but it just won’t shift…”

“Interesting,” said the medic without explanation as he sat Henry down and examined him. Agent Hall arrived a short while later.

“Well, what have we here?”

“Headache and nosebleeds. I suspect an MRI scan will show lesions on the brain and intracranial bleeding.”

“What!” Henry was shocked at the squeakiness of his own voice.

“Corporal Banks and Coastguard Sullivan both showed the same symptoms,” said Hall.

“At first, like you,” the medic added, “we assumed it was the result of the blast. But, similar symptoms have been experienced by personnel who were on the dock watching events.”

“We suspect it is an effect of the object,” concluded Hall.

Henry sighed. “Give me some painkillers and some cotton wool to shove up my nose and let me get back to work.”

“You should rest and go for a scan,” the medic said.

Henry shook his head and groaned at the pain it caused. “I think it’s imperative I get back to work, see what I can learn.”

“Good man,” Hall said. “Give him some drugs,” he told the medic.

A few minutes later, Henry was back with Mike, trying to discern the meaning behind the pulses of light.

#

Night had fallen and Henry was standing on the dock, staring out at the object.

“Professor Steinmetz?” a voice called, but he didn’t respond. He just kept staring.

Agent Hall grabbed his shoulder and pulled Henry around to face him. Blood was pouring from his nose like an obscene crimson beard and ran in a river delta of stains down his shirt.

The agent swore. Henry blinked and looked at him with unfocused eyes. Hall called for help.

“It’s calling,” Henry managed to mumble, before slumping into the arms of a Marine who’d responded to Hall’s cry.

“Take him to the sick bay,” Hall ordered.

As he watched the Marine drag the professor away, Hall wondered how many more at the base would succumb. Feeling a dampness on his lip, he reached up and came away with a bloodied hand. He swore. It was affecting him, too, now.

He walked into the office that had been turned into a makeshift lab.

“Well,” Hall asked Mike, “anything to tell me? Do you know what it is yet? Decoded any messages? Anything? This ol’ dog could do with a bone.”

Mike shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve got nothing more. I’m convinced it’s under intelligent control, but…” He spread his hands, sighed, then yawned.

Hall found himself yawning, too. “Dammit, go to bed, get some sleep. Start again tomorrow.” He turned and left.

#

The object invaded Henry’s dreams again that night, although he couldn’t remember exactly what it did. He just felt an awful sense of loss as he awoke.

#

Henry woke up in a cot in the medical bay. His head was still hurting, but not as badly. The medical bay was empty.

“Anybody there?” he called. The medic wasn’t around and he could hear nothing. Even the medical equipment was silent, dead. Only hearing his own voice told him he hadn’t gone deaf.

Getting out of the cot, he found his legs were shaky and weak. He felt as if he’d been hit by the ‘flu. None of the electronic equipment he could see was working; he guessed the object must have released another EMP and killed them all. He went outside.

As he wondered through the base, he was shocked by how silent it was. There was a discarded rifle where he remembered a Marine standing guard. What had happened?

Suddenly, Henry heard someone calling his name. It was Agent Hall.

“What happened?” he asked Hall.

The agent gave a vague half-shrug. “Gone.”

“Who’s gone?” he prompted.

Hall shook his head and looked at him as if he’d only just seen him.

“Hall, who’s gone?” Henry repeated.

“Most of the people are gone,” he said as if in a daze. “Two-thirds. Corso’s gone. It’s gone.”

“It? The object?”

“Uh-huh. Gone.”

Henry left him standing there and staggered down to the dock. Hall was right: the object was gone. There was nothing there, no heat haze, no light. Nothing, except a slick of oil and some floating wreckage that had yet to be retrieved from the sea. Only that detritus offered any evidence that anything untoward had occurred.

He heard Hall walking towards him. The man still seemed dazed, but called to him.

“Professor, what happened? What was it? Where did it come from? Where did it take them?”

Henry shrugged and fought an urge to vomit. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. I guess only they know; if they’re alive. All I know is that I’ll be glad if I never see it again.” Only that wasn’t quite true.

Henry felt a drip of blood run from his nostril, but ignored it as he began to sob.