In the middle of this life-threatening situation, Fred Sampras resorted to his training and dove through the bulkhead to search the emergency lockers to find the object, a long rectangular box with a thumbprint reader, with his name boldly outlined in black print. As he pressed his extended thumb forward the station lurched flinging him hard against the unyielding metal sidewall where he bounced before smashing to the floor. He stood to the hiss of escaping air while a squeal of stressed metal repeated itself with increasing tempo. He tried again with success and the lid of the coffin-sized box slid aside to reveal the inside of a sarcophagus. With a shrug, realizing there was no other choice, he backed in with the lid automatically closing with the hiss of a seal.
There was no heads-up display and he waited for an intolerable time in the dark. Insulated in the cushioned confines he didn’t hear the air hissing but he was aware of jerks that could only mean the station was breaking apart. This was confirmed when the gravity-producing spin flung him loose into weightlessness. Obviously, he was in a survival pod that he had been unaware existed. He didn’t know if a rescue signal was being transmitted to bring help before he hit the atmosphere or ran out of air. Sensorarily deprived he only knew he had time for reflection.
He had always been a space enthusiast and had read up on the rockets, the shuttle program, the moon missions, and the administration. He liked the unsubstantiated theories and was aware that NASA’s inception was only half civilian while the interesting half was advanced and top secret. He was aware that the shuttles carried clandestine cargo and astronauts. After earning an associate degree he enlisted in the Air Force and trained on the mundane Kawasaki C-2 cargo transporter. He flew a couple of top-secret missions relieving the monotony but, unsatisfied, applied for NASA. Selected, he climbed through the thinning rounds and was beginning to hope when he was cut with no cause given. Months later, after any hoopla had diminished, Full-Bird Air Force Colonel Bradford Lincoln was waiting for him in the debriefing bunker of the American 403rd Tactical Airlift Squadron in Miho Base. The usual non-comm contingent was absent; the Colonel was alone with him.
After the usual military salutes and salutations, Fred was told to take a seat and relax.
“I see you tried out for NASA,” Bradford led with.
Fred took the opportunity to unload his frustration with the process that had so nonchalantly cast him aside telling the colonel how he had excelled on this or that test, ending with a disgruntled sigh and crossed arms while the colonel’s smile grew wider.
“I see your top-secret clearance is still in effect. What I am going to tell you is never to be repeated. Do I have your word and attention?”
Freds’ eyes grew wide while he sat himself up straight in his chair.
“As I know you suspected, there is a secret space program,” the colonel began, “and we would like to offer you a position, as a pilot slash gofer, with it.”
Bradford took the time to enjoy the look of surprise and controlled glee moving onto Fred’s face.
“We launch often from Vandenberg with Delta IV heavies to our observation station in polar orbit so we can keep watch on Antarctica. The navy runs a base inside the volcano Erebus in concert with three alien races, the Chaitari, Greys, and the Nordics.”
The colonel waited a moment for Fred to absorb this information which a series of blinks indicated he was doing.
“The Chaitari are two-faced bastards who pretend to have our best interests in mind but really want us returned to primitives; it is suspected that they eat people. Also, we suspect they are criminals on the lam from their own enforcement,” said the colonel.
“Ugh!,” Fred said.
“The greys are helpful but they are limited biological robots controlled by we don’t know what possibly based within the moon. The Nordics are great, good-looking humans, but they spend a lot of time in cryosleep and aren’t always available.”
Without matrimonial ties, Fred eagerly agreed and flew to California that very night. He is training to fly spacecraft the next day. He found the spying space station cramped but livable. There were no weapons attached or in orbit, although armament could be lifted onto stations in short order. He fell into a routine, taking pictures when the weather permits and tracking saucers across the icy south. The attack was without warning and the assailant was unidentified.
A shudder worried his enclosure and it grew warm for a moment. Fred made peace with himself as well as he could. It seemed he would burn in the atmosphere before any rescue. What he didn’t know was that his pod was designed to skip on the edge of the sky until it slowed enough and aligned properly. On the final plunge, it got darn hot but then the parachute deployed jolting a confused Fred before he hit the ground. The top levered open dumping him into the dirt while the parachute dragged the box on down the hill.
He stood and looked into a beautiful sunset beyond the rise of foothills across the rolling landscape of blooming switchgrass under a blue sky with scattered cotton clouds. Now safe his emotions whipped up and down and then up. After all, he was preparing to meet his maker just minutes ago. Dressed in a thin blue jumpsuit without insignia or identifying stitching he headed downhill and was soon surrounded by oak and pine trees. As dark settled in he backed out of the trees and lay in the grass; it wasn’t cold but it wasn’t warm and he endured an uncomfortable night. Fortunately, the ants didn’t find him but the wild night sounds did keep him awake.
At first light, he creaked erect and headed south but a man stepped out of the trees, halting him. He is taller than Fred, stockier, and wears a long-sleeved work shirt, denim overalls, Timberland boots, and a Glock suspended in a loose waist holster.
“Good morning,” the man addressed him in Spanish.
“Good morning,” Fred replied.
“You have a heavy accent. Is it American?” the man said while using his arm to gesture for Fred to follow as he moved away.
“It’s true, I am American. My name is Fred Sampras. Who are you and where am I?”
“My name isn’t important. You’re going to see Danny. How is it you don’t know where you are?”
‘Who’s Danny? Head honcho around here? Governor?” Fred asks.
“Head honcho. Yeah. You’re fifty miles north of Caracas in Venezuela. How is it you don’t know that?”
“I was kidnapped, robbed, blindfolded, and dumped here. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. They got me in Sucre,” Fred lied.
“My comrades picked up your pod asshole. You better come clean with Danny!” the stranger emphasized.
Around the edge of the next copse were a dirt trail and a Toyota Lariat waiting idly with open windows. There was no one else about, he could have sat in the passenger seat, but Fred was motioned to move past the bull bar and take a seat in the open short bed. With no padding, it was an uncomfortable ride through the five miles of beautiful country.
They turned right onto a heavily traveled hard-packed gravel road. They passed three flatbed Isuzus loaded with bottled water and a refrigerated rig as they drove through three gates of parallel fencing. The middle section housed swine and cattle while the inner area held thousands of free-ranging chickens popping in and out of their covered laying nests. Attendants walked among the livestock feeding it, spreading out the manure, or collecting eggs. Twice he felt uncomfortable passing by what he suspected were camouflaged sniper posts.
He entered a small city. A dozen buildings in long rows of barracks and single entry minimal condominiums are visible. There are large portions of screening. Fred spied the soup kitchen with dozens of picnic tables and benches under a tin roof. Closer to the center are food processing and butchering pergolas. Dozens of trucks are parked neatly with some under maintenance next to a large woodpile powering an eclectic generator. Round gazebos were filled with hundreds of schooling children while dozens more played soccer on a large field. A practicing choir sang.
Pulling up in front of the first dorm a nondescript man exits and hurries over. Fred’s military eyes discern four, maybe more, armed men taking up guard positions. The tanned, brown-haired affable man of medium height is dressed similar to the driver and extends his hand in greeting as soon as Fred clamors off of the truck.
“Hi. I’m Danny Sanchez. Welcome to my home,” he smiles.
“Don’t lie to him,” warned the driver before driving off after a familiar greeting was exchanged.
“You must be hungry. Join me for breakfast?” Danny offers and leads the unresisting Fred to the soup kitchen where a server promptly brings them a fried egg, a ketchup splotch, a small slice of ham, and a sliver of fried cassava root. A hot cup of black coffee followed. A hungry Fred downed it in a few quick bites while Danny watched, eating slowly.
“That was delicious. You didn’t have to use plates; a paper plate would have been fine. Thank you! You seem to have plenty of food but I thought Venezuela was short of goods?” Fred said conversationally.
Danny’s face blanched but he recovered quickly. “Short of goods? We don’t have toilet paper, paper plates, or notebook paper in the school! In Caracas, the electricity went out for three months! That’s three months of no water. The stores can’t read your ration card. The inflation rate exceeded 200,000 percent; the new Bolívar Soberano currency is already worthless.”
“So why is there food here?” Fred asked politely giving his host a chance to crow.
Danny puffed up in preparation to deliver a proud tale that had been delivered many times before. “I was working as a cab driver on the north side of town ten years ago when things were better. I bought 20 acres out here in the sticks and prepared for hard times, installing a hand pump and a couple of chickens. I bought quite a bit of rice and pasta with big cans of liquid cheese. I got some canned meat when I could afford it. I slept in my car the next time the electricity went off, this time for ten days until a Wilexis gang member took my car at gunpoint. I walked home and have lived here since,” he said, spreading his hands to show his home.
“Where did all these people come from?” Fred asked with interest.
“The water was off everywhere! People were siphoning it from sewer lines. People began to show up asking, begging for water! I gave it to them. What was I going to do, protect my supply and shoot every trespasser?”
“That’s the general scenario. If you prepared you have the right to protect your stash,” said Fred.
“Well, you try that when you see good people, people with their wives and children, starving in front of you! As it turns out they were grateful. They hung around contributing what they could and if they didn’t have anything they worked. The hillsides were cleared by hand. Well, I had a chain saw but the stumps had to be dug and burned out. We have potatoes, yuka, beans, corn, wheat, hops, and poppies. In trees, we now have orchards of apple, mango, and avocados”
“Poppies being the cash crop?” Fred said with a knowing smile, trying to blend in, but was taken aback when Danny’s face darkened with disfavor.
“Medicine is even harder to get than toilet paper. We take in the sick here. The hospital will diagnose a terminal disease, and hound you for the rest of your life to pay a ludicrous bill, but nobody will treat it or provide medicine unless they are paid a lot. We can process the poppy all the way to morphine which we provide for those dying in pain.”
Chastened, he tried to regain his favor. “I suppose you lose a lot of people to the usual high blood pressure, diabetes and weight?”
A smile accompanied the gleam that came into Danny’s eyes. “Everyone here does something all day although they don’t have to rush. There is no lunch but dinner is filling. You would be surprised how these two things bring the weight and the blood pressure and the sugar under control.”
“So,” Danny continued, “who are you? No. Wait. We know who you are. Our short-wave guy got a report that a clandestine space station crashed into the atmosphere. Hell, pieces rained down in big fiery chunks all around the world; hard to keep that secret. We have your pod. As unlikely as that would be, it seems you survived an emergency landing, here.”
Hesitantly Fred replied, “so you are holding me for ransom?”
Danny smiled wryly. “I can see how you might think that, with the crime problem this country has, but no. Just give us a number we can call and report your location so someone can fetch you.”
Fred gave him the number and Danny passed it on to someone that left.
“So what happened to the oil money? This was a rich country. What happened?” Fred asked.
“Ahh, the oil. We still have it. It’s hard to get, hard to manage heavy shale oil. We need foreign investors to install and manage the equipment. Shell - Mobil invested heavily but as soon as the money was pouring in Chavez stole the equipment and deported the foreign experts. He replaced them with his friends, loyalists. These buddies managed to cash their large checks but the equipment broke down and couldn’t be fixed. The same with the infrastructure. Further, when the money was allocated it passed through a cadre of political supporters who siphoned off a piece. It is said that 96 percent of any allocation disappeared. Who had the will or the expertise to check the numbers? The barrios are full of ciminals. A majority of our population looks for people to victimize. This mindset elected Chavez, one of them, and now criminals are in office ”
“Why hasn’t your outfit been socialized, or vandalized?” Fred asked.
“There may be a spy planted with us; they know it won’t do them any good. We will have some minutes of notice. When the siren sounds Sally will take this cow, Jenny a pig, something for everyone, and off into the wild we go, on foot, to this or that hidden cache and well. It will be a loss for us but, hopefully, a limited one.”
“It’s a better plan than a gunfight with an army,” Fred agreed then continued. “But how about President Nicolas Maduro? I’ve read that he has lost patience with criminals. Over thirty are shot dead just in Caracas every day and that doesn’t count the dead ones that aren’t picked up by the city lorries. So is the president cleaning it up?”
“Not so you would notice. There is less oil pumped so less money to distribute among the citizens. It is speculated that soon the food dole won’t provide the minimum calories. Even the elite are feeling it with fewer crony jobs to pass out. They fall onto a rough reception among the 85 percent of the very poor population. Less money to fix the infrastructure and the country has lost trust with would-be foreign investors. It’s said that Maduro has a posse of killers that target crime bosses at his command.”
“Government killers aren’t very good for a wholesome government. What good is assassinating a gang leader? It isn’t like they have people skills or management ability. Well, I guess they do, but at a level that is easily replaceable. What do you predict for the future?”
“We have too many crooks. It’s very hard to turn them into something worthwhile. We are going to dissolve into chaos while China takes the oil. But you have the same problem! You can try to be smug but the US is only a few years behind us. They’re watching!”
“I guess that is a paranoid statement. They. The kingmakers? Aliens? Our countries have no worth any longer. We can’t manufacture, can’t muster an effective army, don’t play well with others. But we have oil. We have to be destroyed so others can get their hands on it!” enthused Danny.
Aside from animal sounds, the land was quiet until a racket clacked with increasing volume. The sound was loud but had a characteristic present in well-designed, well-maintained machinery. In a nearby open spot, a Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter set down. All of the gun and missile placements were empty of armament.
The two men rose.
“Looks like there was a beacon in your pod,” Danny said.
“Nice to meet you. Thanks for the heads up and thanks for breakfast.”
Fred offered his hand and Danny gripped it warmly.