Frank turned the optics for a clearer view and was careful not to breathe. It was cold out, and a minute ago he fogged up the lens. Jupiter was so vivid he could almost touch it. The big red spot now in focus, he scanned the surface, marveling in the contrast of colors. Blue, white, orange, yellow, and of course, the ruddy magnificence of that huge storm. What a great night for stargazing. The porch light went on and the door opened.
"Frank," Jenny said, "it's freezing out. Come inside."
"In a minute." Why couldn't she let him be? He loved looking at the cosmos, the infinite wonder of it, regardless of a little frostbite. "I want to check out Saturn first."
"For heaven's sake, you'll catch pneumonia."
Ignoring her, he swung the telescope around to locate Saturn. The door slammed shut. Good. Always pestering him when he was busy.
Saturn's rings although tiny, even with his high-powered scope, were breathtaking. He'd have to buy a camera to capture this next time. Jenny probably would have a fit, like she did when be bought the telescope. It was a much better one than what he had, more power, even had a fancy counterweight you set to follow the stars across the sky. Talk about state of the art. He should have bought the camera attachment when he got it, but she was already in a snit, so he put it off.
A bright flash caught his attention. Probably another meteor. November was the month for those, June too, but not mid-February. It seemed peculiar. Six in one hour. He looked up, the long reddish streak disappeared behind Barley Hill the same way the other five had. Dac Bender's farm was over that way. He'd call him tomorrow and ask if he'd seen them, maybe even go check his field to see if he could find a meteorite. Now, wouldn't that be a prize?
"Aw, what is it now?"
"Retirement does not mean you retire from the world. We need to go over these bills."
Oops. That was right. He'd promised to balance the checkbook and see what they had left for savings. Better get his rump inside.
"I'll be right in."
The door slammed again. Guess she had a right to be irritated with him. Last month he completely forgot to pay the phone and electric. Had to do some fast-talking when the shut off notices came. It was his own damn fault, too. Couldn't blame it on her, she wasn't the one responsible for writing checks. Now she was watching the mailbox like a hawk. As soon as the bills came in, she made sure they were paid.
He put the eyepiece in his pocket and covered the lens. The canvas casing secured, he hurried into the house. She had a cup of coffee waiting for him, and the checkbook.
It was after eleven when he was through, but there was still time to put in at the telescope. Weather conditions like this you didn't waste in Oregon. Nine nights out of ten were cloudy. He went to the closet for his jacket.
"Are you going out again? At this hour?"
The tone of her voice was clear she disapproved.
"Jenny, the weather is perfect for stargazing. I'll just be a few minutes, promise."
An angry scowl creased her forehead then softened is resignation. Her expression made him smile. Still beautiful after fifty-one years of marriage, she never failed to touch his heart. All he could do was shrug.
"Then take your heavy coat and a scarf this time."
She reached in and withdrew the red woolen monster she made for him last fall. He wore it to please her, but it itched like the dickens. As she wrapped it around his neck, she shook her head.
"I suppose you could have worse hobbies, like playing with trains or Civil War figures like that kook Dac Bender."
Dac was a screwball, true. Tried to get him interested in reenacting battles with hand painted figures on that huge table he made. He passed. Playing with toy soldiers seemed a childish retreat, and reliving a war where so many good men perished was depressing. His interests lay in loftier pursuits. The heavens, Man's place in the Universe. The wonder of what was out there held his fascination.
"Dac may be an eccentric, but he's a brilliant man. Did you know he used to be a college professor? Since he retired to farming, I guess his idea of the Golden Years is a bit different than ours." He planted a light kiss on her cheek and went outside.
Before he could uncover the scope, a whining noise overhead made him look up. Another meteor, this time much lower, zipped by headed for Bender's farm. The noise it made was eerily recognizable, like the sound rockets made. With many frightful experiences during World War Two, he was all too familiar with the sound heavy rounds made when incoming.
The object zoomed by and barely made the crest of Barley Hill. A bright flash, then a thundering boom carried through the still night air. Tentative, a flickering glow grew in the direction of Bender's farm.
"What the hell?"
As the radiance increased, he scratched his head and tried to make sense of it. Vague leaping flickers of light danced over the edge of the hill. Whatever it was must have started a fire. He dashed to the door and stuck his head in.
"Jenny, I think Bender's farm is on fire!"
"I'm driving over, gotta see if I can help."
"Hang on, I'm coming, too."
He snatched the keys off the hook by the door as she got into her coat. Hustling outside, he kept recalling that strange whistling sound, remembering. Never having been around a meteor when it came down, he didn't know if they made any noise, but suspected they might. This was strange, though, since there had been so many going the same place in such a short time. It was crazy to think someone was shooting at Dac Bender with missiles.
The only other home close to Bender was Collie Mill's place. If he was up, unlikely at this hour, he'd probably want to help. He opened the car door for Jenny then bustled around and hopped in.
"I'm going by Collie's, see if he wants to come help."
"Good, just hurry."
Jenny was scared of fire. Her folks home burnt down when she was a kid and she never quite got over it. Even made him clear a wide area around the house just in case there ever was a forest fire.
He reached over and patted her hand. "Don't worry. We'll put it out."
A worry wrinkle pinched her brow and she squeezed his hand.
He pulled into Collie's drive and was happily surprised to see his lights on. Once parked, he hurried to the door and knocked loud. Collie was a bit hard of hearing, Nora too, but she was probably sound asleep. Moments later, Collie appeared at the door in his pajamas.
"Hi, Frank. What brings you out at this time of night? I was just fixin' to call it a day."
"Bender's farm is on fire."
"Holy Mother! Well, let's not waste any time jawing. I'll be right behind you in my truck."
With Collie a minute behind, he raced the mile to Dac's, poor Jenny wringing her hands all the way. The glow in the sky increased, looking more serious the closer they got. Cresting the hill, the extent of the fire was frightening. Dac's barn was on fire, and the old tool shed and chicken coop roofs were smoking. A third of his hay stockpile was ablaze, threatening to spew sparks over his home. Thank God, it was a fair distance away or it would already be in flames.
"Oh dear," Jenny said. "I shouldn't have said he was a kook, now I feel bad."
"Honey, you didn't cause this, and you didn't wish ill on him either. You just stated the facts. Whether he is or not has nothing to do with the fire."
Dac ran from one blaze to the other with his garden hose. The door of the chicken coop was open and hens were scattered and squawking all over the yard. His big Holstein and two draft horses were right up against the fence as far away as they could get. At least he wouldn't lose his livestock. The barn and hay were another story.
Frank jumped out and ran up to him, Jenny close behind. Dac was muttering and cursing as he played the water over a losing battle. The barn would be a total loss.
"Dac, what happened?"
"I'll get that sumbitch, swear to Christ I will."
He kept muttering, totally oblivious to him being there. "Dac!"
Startled, Dac spun around and soaked Frank's shoes with the hose. Frank stumbled back. "Hey, watch what you're doing."
"Uh, sorry, Frank."
"Put the water on the damn fire, it sure needs it more than I do."
Without a word, he turned to spray the worst of the blaze. There was a shovel in the tool shed. Mindful of the sparks, Frank dashed over, opened the door, and snatched the spade from the wall peg.
"I'll get a bucket." Jenny trotted over to the house and went inside.
"Stay outa there!" Dac hollered.
Jenny obviously hadn't heard and a light came on in the kitchen. What was Dac's problem? She was only trying to help. He scowled at the fool, then started throwing shovelsful of earth on the hay pile. Moments later, he heard her return to the porch.
He turned to see what she wanted. Bucket in hand, she looked confused. Before he could ask what was wrong, Collie arrived. Still clad in his nightclothes, he retrieved a burlap sack from the bed of the truck, soaked it in the bucket, then ran over to a small fire in the bushes by the house. Flailing the sack, he quickly put it out then attacked the hay. Some headway had been made, and it looked like they would be able to at least save the house.
The worried sound of her voice made him stop shoveling. "What is it, Jenny?"
"I don't know, you come tell me."
Dac looked over his shoulder at him, an expression of embarrassment on his face.
"Stay here, Frank. I need your help right now. We can go inside and talk later."
Two hours later, the barn a smoldering pile of fallen timbers and three quarters of the hay destroyed, Dac shut off the water. Frank looked at his watch, it was well past two a.m. and he was beat.
Collie, the main man for the bucket brigade, tossed the last bucketful on the smoking remains of the hay. Sitting on the porch, Jenny ran a tissue over her smudged cheeks and groaned. Fire-fighting was not for people in their seventies, but out in the sticks, what other choice was there? Frank gazed up at the early morning sky. The stars twinkled and flashed their unfathomable permanence. The world turned and life went on regardless of an incident like this.
Dac walked up and shook his hand. "I want to thank you, Frank, and you two as well. I'd have lost the whole place if you hadn't shown when you did."
"You'd have done the same for us," Frank said. "I'm just glad I was out with my telescope, I saw the meteors as they were coming in. They were meteors, weren't they?"
Dac shook his head. "Let's go inside."
Collie raised a grubby hand. "I'm beat, so I'll pass. Sides, Nora will be worried sick by now and probably will have kittens when she sees the state I'm in."
True, his pajamas were ripped and smudged with soot. She wouldn't say much, though. Nora was nearly as fine a woman as Jenny. She appreciated their rustic surroundings, and the necessity of getting dirty at times. More likely, she'd praise him for his heroic efforts to save their neighbor.
"Sure," Dac said and shook his hand. "Thanks again, Collie."
As Collie started up his truck, Frank followed Dac and Jenny into the house. His home was very neat for a single fellow. Having never married, he seemed to have taken to keeping himself comfortable, maybe even proud of it. The place was definitely a male abode. The overall effect was of a rustic hunting lodge with gun racks, deer heads, and that blamed Civil War table, which took up half the living room. Against the far wall sat one of those newfangled computer setups on an oak desk. Something Jack had always wanted to get into, but he wasn't going to stress Jenny out over the cost, especially since buying the telescope.
On coming further into the house, what caught his attention next was perplexing. Jenny stood where the kitchen and living room intersected, one hand on her chin, the other on her hip. She looked as puzzled as he felt. A mannequin with a full Union Army dress uniform, saber and hat included, stood posed, facing the battle reenactment table. The sword was upraised next to what appeared to be an authentic cannon. The thing was huge, complete with limber and caisson, and took up a good portion of the rest of the room. It seemed an eccentric excess, bordering on lunacy, for such items to be displayed. Frank looked at Dac, wondering what it meant, and questioning whether Dac was showing signs of Alzheimer's.
"I know what you're thinking," Dac began, "and I ain't gone crazy, if that's what you're thinking. I'll make some coffee and tell you about it."
The coffee was strong, but Frank was glad for that, it helped chase some of the fatigue away. After some moments of silence, Dac finally spoke, his voice apologetic with a hint of anger in it.
"Those weren't no damn meteors, those were rockets."
Jenny looked surprised and sat up straight in her chair.
"Well, who in tarnation was shooting them?" Frank asked. "You act like you know."
"I do." Dac sighed and crossed his arms. "His name's Rudolph LaFayette the Third. Met the jerk on an Internet site for Civil War Reenactments. He fancies himself as an expert on the Confederacy, seems on of his ancestors was a general or something."
"Reenactments are one thing, but those were real, live rounds hitting your farm," Frank said.
Dac lifted his hand. "I know, I know. Let me finish. We got all caught up in the battles, the one before last was Gettysburg, and of course, because I was the Union, I won. Celebrated by buying that canon and uniform. Got it at a good price, too, from Ebay. Well, anyway, LaFayette, as the loser, got to choose the next battle. Of course, he chose Chicamauga. The Confederacy won that one. Only thing was, I did my homework and figured out a way for the Union to win it. I was General George Thomas, and him General Leonidis Polk. Thomas stood his ground and didn't let Rosencrans retreat."
Jenny yawned. She didn't like this sort of thing, and was quickly losing interest. Although not up on his history and finding the narrative dry, Frank was intrigued. How in the heck did Dac get so wrapped up in this? And how did that lead to someone bombing his farm?
Dac continued. "Well, seems LaFayette didn't take kindly to my whipping him. Sort of took it as an offense. Anyway, I don't know how he found out where I lived, but the next thing I know, I get this." He pointed to the computer screen.
A huge message blazed across the monitor. "Win this round, and we'll call it even!"
"That's when the missiles started whizzing in. Where he got them, I'll never know, but I'm certain it was LaFayette shooting them at me. And as soon as the fire started, the rounds stopped."
Jenny seemed more interested now, although very tired. He should get her home, but this was really getting interesting. Frank asked the obvious. "Have you checked if you got another message?"
Dac's jaw dropped and he rubbed his hand over his hair. After shoving his chair back, he dashed over to the computer. The keys clicked away and another message flashed across the screen. "YOU LOSE! HA! HA! HA!" He could see that Dac was mad. Knowing the kind of man he was, he wouldn't accept the defeat so easily.
"That's criminal," Jenny said. "You should have him arrested."
"Well, how am I supposed to do that? I don't know anything about the guy except for his name."
"He found you, didn't he?" Frank said. "If you know enough to be fighting battles over the Internet, finding information on this guy should be a cinch."
"Go get yourselves some more coffee, I might be a while." Dac took the desk chair and started clicking away.
"You two boys can play all you like, but this old woman is tired," Jenny said. "If you find out who he is, I hope you have him arrested. For now, I'll drive myself home. Call me when you want me to get you."
The message was clear, she wanted him to leave, too. As bad as he felt for not doing what she implied, he couldn't tear himself away from Dac's mystery. He walked her out and opened the car door. Before she got in, he kissed her cheek. A look of tired resignation creased her face.
"You boys and your toys." She shook her head, then kissed him back.
Dac was cursing when he got inside.
"I've done five people searches, a reverse email search, even tried a Yahoo, Geocities and AOL member search. Nothing!"
Whatever those names meant, Dac seemed frustrated by his lack of progress. His cheek quivered with anger. This LaFayette guy had cost him tens of thousands of dollars, besides the possibility of being killed. Certainly there was more he could do to find out about the guy. Frank had heard about the anonymity of the Internet, perhaps this guy wasn't who he said he was.
"You sure that's his name?"
Dac slapped the desk with his palm. "Hell, no. He could have made it up."
"How about sending him a note, maybe challenge him to meet you face to face?"
The determined set of his jaw spoke worlds. The keyboard clicked rapidly.
"How's this sound?" Dac asked, then proceeded to read the message. "Lafayette, or whoever the heck you fancy yourself to be, you are a coward. Not only are you hiding away like a weasel somewhere in your little hole, but you aren't man enough to meet me face to face. I challenge you to show up right here, right now, so we can have it out as a matter of honor. A duel, if you like. Personally, I don't think you have the guts."
"That's a bit strong, don't you think?"
"Hell no! The rat could have killed me, or you if his aim was bad."
A "You've got Mail!" message bleated from the machine. "Man, that was fast," Dac said, and read the message. "Bender, you're inability to accept defeat is heartening, although your childish attempt to disparage is a disappointment. Round two shall commence."
"What the hell?" The email sounded awfully arrogant and cold, almost a textbook speech. "He didn't mention meeting you, what's up with that?"
Dac scratched his head. "I sure hope he doesn't start another barrage. He didn't even give me the chance to choose a battle. Wonder what he's up too?"
Fingers flying, Dac typed a reply and Frank read over his shoulder.
"You have no honor. The proof is in your lack of addressing the true nature of a confrontation. Our battles had been good-natured reenactments, however, YOU are the one who cannot accept defeat, and resorted to real-life retaliation. Then, you cower behind your computer and try to blow me off the map because I am SUPERIOR to you. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, COWARD!"
"Whew! That aught a frost him." Frank patted Dac's shoulder. The strange feeling that more was going on made him edgy. What did Dac really know about this guy, anyway? "What's all that stuff after his name?"
"That's his email address. Couldn't find what ISP it came from or I'd have searched there, too."
"Well, don't you think that's a bit odd?" RLFIII@DFDPT.org/gov.htm looked like gobbledygook to him. "What's ISP?"
"Look, email goes out by an Internet Service Provider, they are usually the root address for the email. I looked up DFDPT, but there's no such ISP listed."
"Oh, I see." That was a clear as mud. He looked at the address and thought for a moment. "Well, is that an abbreviation? It could mean Defense Department."
Dac's face blanched. His fingers flew over the keyboard and the screen changed to a list of government agencies. There was a DFDPT.gov listed, but when he clicked on the name, a warning box asking for a password appeared. Dac rubbed his chin then typed RLFIII. The letters came up as little stars in the box. The display beeped, and then a whole list of options for the Department of Defense came up, some labeled top secret.
"This is impossible!"
He looked flustered, and although fascinated, Frank was getting concerned. This was government business, and anyone connected with Defense could make a lot of trouble for Dac. But, the government wouldn't throw rockets at a civilian, especially one that thought he was just playing war games. "What does this mean?"
"Someone in the Department of Defense is goofing off at work and is a sore loser. Now ain't that a scary thought?"
"What can we do about it?"
The "You've got Mail!" interrupted with another message. Dac clicked on the mailbox. It was from RLFIII. The subject read, "Prepare for battle".
"Oh, great," Dac mumbled.
Before he could open it, a whining noise grew outside and a thundering crash shook the windows.
"Holy Hell!" Frank dove under the desk, expecting the walls to collapse.
Dac held his ground and read the message out loud as another whining round exploded nearby. "Neener neener neener, I'm a whole lot meaner."
"What the... that sounds like someone having a nervous breakdown!"
"No, it sounds like a kid, and one without the aptitude to address an adult dispute." Dac said.
That sounded very much like a professor assessing a mediocre thesis. Frank could hear the keys clicking and clattering away while the rounds kept exploding outdoors. It would be insanity to go out there, so all he could do was wait it out. Just after Dac stopped typing, the power went out as a missile hit close to the house. Frank heard breaking glass and a crash from the back. Eerie silence followed and he clambered out of his makeshift bomb shelter.
"It sounds like one hit the house."
"Yeah, we better go check."
Dawn was just breaking and the early morning light revealed the carnage of the bombing. Huge craters littered the field beyond, the cow was dead, and the rest of the livestock scattered. As he rounded the back of the house, the destruction was not as serious as he expected. The power pole had been snapped off mid-way, and the top half toppled against the bedroom roof. There was some damage to the house and roof, but nothing a couple days of work wouldn't fix.
"The little bastard," Dac said and threw a shingle at the ruined pole.
"You know who LaFayette is?"
"No, not yet, but I will soon. Want to know what I wrote, why the attack stopped?"
"I told him I knew who he was and I was going to tell his mother if he didn't stop right now."
"That was playing it off the cuff, what if you were wrong."
"Looks like I wasn't. What I figure is, some kid hacked into the Department of Defense and found a way to manipulate the missile system out at Grady Airforce Base. That's only five miles as the crow flies. He definitely is a bright kid, knew a hell of a lot about the Civil War and strategy, but a sore loser. He had some power to strike back at his fingertips and took advantage. Only trouble is, I may be an old fart, but I'm computer savvy. I turned him in just before the power went down."
"Sounds like a reasonable hypothesis. I sure hope they can catch the bugger."
"There's a good chance since top secret sites have immediate trace capabilities. They'll catch him now that I've alerted them to his presence."
"Good." That was something of a relief, although unnerving. The government's capabilities were astounding, yet appalling. How could they let someone get a hold of, and use their missiles? Guess that wasn't any more surprising than Dac buying a Civil War canon off the Internet. He scratched his head. "You have to admit, Dac, a cannon in your living room seems a bit obsessive. Doesn't it?"
"Yeah. Now that this has happened, I'll move it out into the yard."
Frank laughed. Dac was a character, but not crazy. "Just promise me you won't be firing it."
The sound of a helicopter approaching from the west cut short the conversation. It was a military copter, probably from Grady. The wind generated by its blades as it settled onto the meadow fanned a whirlwind of ashes into the air. Frank sneezed and put a smoky smelling handkerchief over his nose and mouth. A tall man in uniform jumped out and made a cutting motion at his throat. The engine whined to a stop, the pilot giving a thumbs-up. The officer marched up and offered his hand to Dac.
"Colonel Woodruff, in charge of Security at Grady Air Force Base," he said as they shook. "You must be Mr. Bender. We received your message, and will have the perpetrator in custody shortly. Seems he is a bright, sixteen-year-old with too much time on his hands. Has already been in trouble for hacking into his school's system. Changed some grades, but changed them back after he was caught. His actions are considered a threat to National Security, and as an adult status offense, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Dac crossed his arms. For some moments he just stared at the Colonel and shook his head. Frank was angry about the arrogance of the guy, too. Putting all the blame on some kid shouldn't excuse him from his responsibility.
"You should have kept a tighter rein on your hardware. There's going to be a lawsuit out of this for sure, and some major news exposure. CNN will definitely do a Prime Time story on how your security has more holes in it than Swiss cheese."
The Colonel seemed taken aback, all the starch gone from him. Perhaps he expected some dumb farmer, someone he could buffalo. Dac was not one to push around, and was intelligent enough to hold his own with the Colonel, or anyone else.
"Surely you can't hold the Airforce responsible for what happened here?"
"I do. I've already figured this out, and no amount of sidestepping is going to hide the facts. Where was the security? You allowed a kid access to your system. Whether he hacked in or not isn't relevant. After the first attack last night, you should have been aware of the use of your munitions, stopped it, then done a thorough investigation right away. Obviously, nothing was done. And to allow it to happen a second time is unconscionable. My farm is nearly in ruins because you did nothing. Now that makes you responsible, whether or not the perpetrator is in custody.
There was almost a mocking quality to Dac's words. But, he was right. After the first round, they should have put a stop to it. It was unbelievable that nearly two-dozen missiles had been fired.
"I was the one who alerted you to the misuse of your weaponry. You didn't even know!"
The Colonel tried to puff himself up again.
"We were aware and were investigating."
"That's bull! Look around you. Does this show any sign that you were looking into it? I suspect that because this occurred in the early morning hours, you people were asleep."
Eyes averted, the Colonel didn't answer.
"So, why are you here?"
"To assure you that the military will assist you in restoring your property, and that the situation is under control."
"Damn right, you will."
"Now about this CNN thing "
Frank let the two hash out their differences and headed toward Collie's to use his phone. Bone tired, he needed a shower and some rest. Who said retirement was boring? Tonight he'd see if Jenny wanted to learn about the stars. He wanted to share that with her now. Let her see the fascination there, besides spending some quality time with his wife under the stars. That was far safer than playing on the Internet. He was no longer interested in buying a computer, either. At least his pastime was a harmless one. It was unlikely that aliens would attack him for peeping into their worlds, but you never knew.
© 2000 Sharen Nehoda
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