A WAVE FROM A STRANGER"Oh shit!" the four young volunteers shouted in unison as they stepped off the rear ramp of the C130. They stopped shouting quickly enough when the wind hit them. Then the static lines jerked the chutes open and their world became quieter as they drifted down out of a clear blue sky. They had not been told where or what they were dropping into so they strained to look for anything they could identify on the ground."Oh shit!" shouted number 3."No," one of the others called back. "We've done that bit already.""It's Area 51. We've been dropped into area 51. I know it from the Internet," 3 shouted pointing at some buildings on the ground, which was now coming up fast.They hit the ground, rolled, got the wind out of their chutes, checked to see they hadn't broken any bones, checked again, bundled up and discarded the chutes, checked their equipment and changed their headgear. They carried no weapons except, as their instructor had constantly reminded them, that greatest of all weapons the human brain.They gathered around Number 1, for he carried the sealed orders marked in red: Open Once on the Ground."Listen up," said 1, holding up a sketch map that looked like it showed just a corner of something larger. "We have to find our way here and make a visual inspection of some materials .... ""A weather balloon perhaps," said Number 2 grinning at Number 3."We are to make a visual inspection, but no written notes. We have to remember all we see for the debriefing," said 1."Is that it? We draw our pay for playing silly games like this. By the way, just how do we get to walk about a secure area, a very secure area," said 4 looking around to see if any vehicles were racing towards them."It says here they're expecting us and we get these passes," said 1, distributing them. They hung them round their necks."So why use us for this," said 4. "They could just have sent Mickey Mouse and his pals.""OK Mickey let's go," said 1."Hey, no names remember the briefing," said 2."OK Number 2," the others shouted making lavatorial gestures.Number 1 switched to hand signals: quiet, move out, single file. He took the point himself and had them follow on in numerical order. It was hot, desert hot, and they had a couple of hours on foot ahead of them. What they had glimpsed and marked down as nearby from the air was much further away on the ground. They had one water-bottle each and these were nearly empty as they approached the outlying buildings. They'd seen no need to conserve water so close to what was after all, a friendly base.When they reached the nearest buildings they saw that there was no perimeter. They guessed they were already miles inside the main security. They passed a few personnel, some armed some not, some in uniforms they recognized and some they didn't. Everyone exchanged salutes correctly but not as smartly as they were used to. Number 3 said it was probably because this was very much a closed community and they'd have become used to each other. Number 2 saluted the CC TV cameras as well until Number 1 told him to stop.They'd soon passed most of the buildings on the sketch map and drew level with the last building prior to the mission target. Number 3 pointed inside and said, "Look it's a canteen. We could get a cold drink and fill our water-bottles. We may not get the chance again for a while."They looked at Number 1. He looked at them and at his watch and the sketch map. "OK but just 20 minutes," he said.* * *The debriefing was slow and careful. Four officers sat directly across from the four volunteers. Two large MPs stood at the door trying to look important though no one paid any attention to them. The Officer-in-Charge was in uniform but all indications of rank and ID were missing. They tried to work it out by looking for the marks on the cloth where these had been and guessed he must be important. Even though everything was being taped, a Master Sergeant took pen and paper notes. There was a rather obvious mirror-wall down one side of the room.The volunteers grew increasingly impatient as the details of their drop and walk in were recorded in unnecessary detail. When the debriefing finally got around to the events in the canteen they were straining forward in their chairs and had to be stopped from all shouting at once."OK let's hear it from Number 1," said the Officer-in-Charge."It wasn't a main canteen, more like a rest area," said Number 1."There were a couple of guys there but they were leaving as we arrived. They had a very close look at our passes. They said it would be OK to make ourselves a coffee, the stuff was all there, and fill our water-bottles. Then Number 3 went for a pee. He came back looking like he'd seen a ghost or something. He could hardly speak properly. He just kept pointing down this corridor and saying something about taking a wrong turning and we all had to go see it too."Everyone turned to look at Number 3 who moved around in his chair and looked like he was about to lose his power of speech all over again.Number 1 continued, "We followed him down the corridor, in fact it was several corridors and then we saw it.""Didn't you even stop to think about wandering about in closed areas of a secure facility, a very secure facility?" said the Officer-in-Charge."No sir," said Number 1, adding lamely that they had passes."So tell us exactly what it was you saw." said the Officer-in-Charge."Yes sir," said Number 1. "There was a window set into the wall of the corridor. Like the kind you get in a hospital, you know for an isolation ward. There were curtains but they were half open. So we could see in. It wasn't well lit but there was a bed, a small lamp and the light from the TV. But it was what was in the bed that was crazy. You won't believe us.""I'll be the judge of that," said the Officer-in-Charge. "Who was in the bed?""That's it, not a who, a what," said Number 1. "It was an alien, like something from Roswell but it was very old."To his credit, the Officer-in-Charge took this in his stride with no outward indications of surprise or disbelief. The Master Sergeant who was taking notes dropped his pen. The two large MPs exchanged glances that suggested they wanted to go outside for a good laugh. The other volunteers were quick to loudly and earnestly give their support to what Number 1 was saying."Right, as you were," said the Officer-in-Charge." Continue Number 1.""Well it was watching TV. Then it saw we were looking at it and turned its head towards us. We know it saw us because it gave us a little wave. It only had three fingers on its hand. It was a wave but it had one finger raised." Number 1 lifted his hand to demonstrate the rude gesture. Not wanting to do this in the direction of the Officer-in-Charge he gestured in the direction of his own reflection in the mirror instead.At this point one of the two large MPs appeared to be choking and they were both ordered outside."Then what?" said the Officer-in-Charge."There isn't much more," said Number 1. "That's when the security guys grabbed us and put us in detention until our own people came to collect us and brought us back here.""Right," said the Officer-in-Charge." We'll get you into separate rooms. I want you to write down everything you remember. I mean everything and I want a sketch of the alien and a list of everything in that room. I want everyone back in here at 14.00 hours sharp."The Officer-in Charge stood up so they all stood up. Salutes were exchanged crisply and the room soon emptied.* * *The folks behind the two-way mirror relaxed. They were joined by Number 3 who was really one of them."Weren't the young volunteers sweet?" said a lady in a white coat."My volunteers aren't sweet madam," said a man in a grey suit grinning at Number 3. "Anyway it's not about them."So they all compared notes on how the Officer-in-Charge had reacted and agreed there were no problems so far. Would he get the job at Area 51? Too soon to tell, he hadn't even thought of applying for it yet."Pity we have to tell them it was all just an exercise and a pity we couldn't use the real Area 51," said the lady in the white coat."Or the real alien," someone said.endA Wave from a Stranger was published as the Winner in the Writers Billboard Short Fiction Competition, December 2007.