LITTLE PIECE OF CLOTH • by Fred Warren

It’s amazing how little useful material you can salvage from a crashed UFO. They crash hard and burn hot. Most of the really good stuff is usually fried artificial intelligence modules, navigational systems, antigrav, weapons, and, of course, the crew.

This recovery was different. We almost missed something important, but Sergeant Kowalski’s obsessive/complusive streak was acting up again, and he snagged a tiny square of shimmery fabric sticking out between the outer hull and the inner bulkhead. Nobody thought anything of it at first. We bagged and tagged it with the rest of the debris, and sent it off to Groom Lake for analysis.

That’s when the fun began. Two weeks later, Kowalski and I found ourselves in the commander’s office at Groom, standing between two extraordinarily apelike guards as we explained to General Didrickson and his staff exactly where and how we recovered that little piece of cloth.

It was a short story, and the general didn’t like the ending.

“Colonel Hargis,” he rumbled, “How many downed alien craft have you recovered since you assumed command of Extraterrestrial Salvage Division?”

I’ve always hated it when my superiors ask me questions to which they already know the answers. It never ends well.

“Fifteen, sir.”

“Fifteen. Could you please explain to me why, in fifteen salvages, we never collected one other sample of this material?”

“I suppose we just never noticed it before, sir.”

“Never noticed it. The biggest breakthrough in the history of alien technical exploitation, and nobody noticed it. You should be grateful that Kowalski, unlike you and everyone else on your team, kept his eyes open.”

Kowalski remained braced, expressionless and silent, but I could tell by the twinkle in his eye he was enjoying this. Served me right for making fun of his paper clip collection.

“With all due respect, General,” I replied, “I don’t understand how a little scrap of cloth could be so important.”

“Let me spell it out for you, Colonel. Invisibility. That fabric holds the secret to making every piece of equipment in our arsenal completely transparent to all forms of radiant energy. Light, infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves, the works. Connect the cloth to an oscillating electric current at the proper voltage and frequency, and it becomes invisible, along with anything in contact with it. Imagine the possibilities. Invisible tanks, invisible airplanes, invisible ships, even invisible soldiers! We could act with complete impunity whenever and wherever we chose.”

Right, I thought. The last time somebody told me we could act with complete impunity, I nearly got my rear end shot off.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” I protested, “wouldn’t that kind of capability be awfully destabilizing? Once our enemies figure out that we have this, some of them might feel the need to launch preemptive strikes to prevent us wiping them out. We’d be risking global war.”

“Balderdash. I’m recommending to the President that he authorize extraordinary funding to put this material into full-scale production immediately. We’re not the only country that’s picked up the pieces after a UFO crash, and I don’t want to think about what might happen if someone else fields this technology before we do.”

Of course, we all have to think about that now. A side benefit of the invisibility effect is that you can see anybody else who happens to be using it.

It turns out the aliens landed more ships than they crashed.

A lot more.


Fred Warren lives in the merry old land of Kansas with his lovely wife, three above-average kids, and two eccentric dogs. He recently retired from the Air Force and now has a fun but somewhat less exciting job flying computer-simulated airplanes for the Army. Fred’s stories have also appeared in Postcards From, A Fly in Amber, Sand: A Journal of Strange Tales, Residential Aliens and Sorcerous Signals.

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