The Watch Center smelled of Thai food and pizza as Larson glanced at the wall clock: 0130 hours. The muted TV screens carried beer commercials and talking heads, stock footage of bearded men waving AK-47s and Stealth fighters floating through cloudless skies.
Opposite, a solitary monitor held the frozen image of a road, half smothered in sand, beamed either from a satellite or pilotless drone. Nothing had moved on the road since a pair of goats wandered into the frame three days earlier.
“Has anyone seen the London cable?” the Coordinator called to the room. No one answered.
Larson’s telephone lit up. “Interagency Watch Center. Crisis Task Force.”
The silence of long-distance breathing, but he knew it was her.
“Is that you, Mr. Larson? This is Darlene Hickman. Is there any news?”
They ran through the pro-forma verification procedures. No news, of course. The last entry was three months old: an unreliable report of a sighting of her husband at a detention camp near the border.
He scrolled through the data: Walter Hickman, Bechtel engineer, specialist in industrial heating and air conditioning. Picked up in the Old City, and except for a few early letters, disappeared.
“There’s no additional information,” Larson said. “I’m sorry. We’re continuing to work for the unconditional release of all Americans in detention.” The State Department preferred to avoid the term hostages.
He had stuck to this script since she first called four months earlier. At one point, however, Larson had summarized a magazine article about Stealth technology, suggesting, without being explicit, that secret operations could well be underway.
Larson found it difficult to pinpoint the moment when he begun embellishing. Perhaps the night Darlene Hickman’s infant daughter had an ear infection — and accompanied her mother’s anxious questioning with a thin background wail.
“It’s important to remember how all the pieces fit together,” he had said. “Stealth aircraft overhead, Special Forces on alert. Soon we will pull them all to safety.”
But that had been a month ago.
“Nothing’s changed?” she said tonight, her voice beginning to fray.
“There have been some developments,” he began.
A cry arose in the background. “Oh, the baby. I have to go.”
Larson checked the array of clocks: five hours to GMT, plus eight to the embassy — their day was over, his yet to come. Here in this windowless, glaring room, it was hard to imagine time as a march of sunlight and darkness. Instead, it registered as the twitch of digital clocks. Whatever the difference in hours, the seconds never varied.
The Coordinator appeared at his shoulder and dropped a stack of cables on his desk. “Time and patience is all we have right now,” he said. He gave Larson a minimalist shrug. “Strategic patience.”
At this hour, Larson’s calls tended to be the sleepless regulars. Veteran in Reno who wanted to know why the hell the Marines weren’t landing. Woman in Tuscaloosa who insisted her brother had disappeared off a freighter in the harbor, although the Department had no record of him. Mother in Dallas whose son had been detained at the university.
The phone chirped. “Watch Center.”
“This is Darlene again. The baby is sleeping. I just can’t.”
The fluorescent lights seemed to pulse and glare more than usual. “Actually, I’m glad you called, Mrs. Hickman.”
He lowered his voice. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I now can say more about your husband, and the others. But you must promise to keep everything I’m telling you in absolute confidence.”
Larson closed his eyes.
“In 1947 a spacecraft of unknown origins crashed in a field near Roswell, New Mexico. Inside were two aliens. One died shortly after impact, but the other survived. Since that time, the alien and its technology have been the most highly classified program the United States has ever undertaken.”
Mrs. Hickman remained silent.
“Obviously, I don’t have all the details, but it’s clear that this alien civilization has provided us with technological breakthroughs almost beyond imagining. I’ve even heard speculation that our pilotless drones aren’t pilotless, but carry the offspring of the alien itself.
Whatever the truth, I know that we are fast approaching the day when these aircraft will drop out of the sky with Delta Force soldiers wearing body armor that makes them as silent and invisible as their aircraft. They will appear out of the night, rip open their Velcro uniforms and neutralize your husband’s captors with laser-guided weapons. It will be swift and silent.”
He exhaled. “And everyone will be saved.”
Larson listened. “Mrs. Hickman, are you there?”
“I don’t believe you.” It was a simple statement of fact, with neither tears nor accusation in her voice.
“What part don’t you believe?”
“The Velcro,” she said.
“What about the Velcro?”
“Velcro is loud, you know, when you pull it apart. It makes a loud ripping sound. How could you possibly surprise anyone with Velcro?”
Larson twisted in his chair. “Mrs. Hickman, this is silent Velcro. If we can deploy alien aircraft, we can make Velcro that is virtually silent. Our surprise will be complete.”
“Velcro that doesn’t make a sound?”
“None at all.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said. “But when?”
“Very soon. In the meanwhile, remember that your husband is being watched over at this very moment by distant electronic eyes — and by the eyes of those from a time and place far, far away.”
“Thank you,” she said finally. “I think I’ll try and sleep now.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Hickman.”
He hung up the phone. For a moment, Larson imagined that the room, glassed-in and glowing, was orbiting above a darkened globe — powerful, invisible, and traveling at unimaginable speeds.
He looked over at the at the bank of clocks, the seconds flicking off to an unfathomable countdown.
Howard Cincotta is a State Department editor who writes short features about American life and culture for international audiences. Since he himself is often bewildered by life and culture in the United States, he finds this work rather challenging. His play “Mad Robin” recently had a staged reading at First Stage in Fairfax, Virginia.