The Country of Lost Borders
A man with binoculars. That is how itbegan: with a man standing by the side of the road, ona crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winternight.
Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found thebinoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and hewould be clumsy in his fur parka and heavy gloves. Hisbreath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would havefogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipethem frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.
He could not have known the futility of this action.Binoculars were worthless to see into that town anduncover its secrets. He would have been astonished tolearn that the men who finally succeeded used instrumentsa million times more powerful than binoculars.
There is something sad, foolish, and human in theimage of Shawn leaning against a boulder, proppinghis arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes.Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at leastfeel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It wouldbe one of the last familiar sensations before his death.
We can imagine, and try to reconstruct, what happenedfrom that point on.
Lieutenant Shawn swept over the town slowly andmethodically. He could see it was not large, just a half-dozenwooden buildings, set out along a single mainstreet. It was very quiet: no lights, no activity, no soundcarried by the gentle wind.
He shifted his attention from the town to the surroundinghills. They were low, dusty, and blunted, withscrubby vegetation and an occasional withered yuccatree crusted in snow. Beyond the hills were more hills,and then the flat expanse of the Mojave Desert, tracklessand vast. The Indians called it the Country of LostBorders.
Lieutenant Shawn found himself shivering in thewind. It was February, the coldest month, and it wasafter ten. He walked back up the road toward the FordEconovan, with the large rotating antenna on top. Themotor was idling softly; it was the only sound he couldhear. He opened the rear doors and climbed into theback, shutting the doors behind him.
He was enveloped in deep-red light: a night light, sothat he would not be blinded when he stepped outside.In the red light the banks of instruments and electronicequipment glowed greenly.
Private Lewis Crane, the electronics technician, wasthere, also wearing a parka. He was hunched over amap, making calculations with occasional reference tothe instruments before him.
Shawn asked Crane if he were certain they had arrivedat the place, and Crane confirmed that they had.Both men were tired: they had driven all day from Vandenbergin search of the latest Scoop satellite. Neither knew much about the Scoops, except that they were aseries of secret capsules intended to analyze the upperatmosphere and then return. Shawn and Crane had thejob of finding the capsules once they had landed.
In order to facilitate recovery, the satellites were fittedwith electronic beepers that began to transmit signalswhen they came down to an altitude of five miles.
That was why the van had so much radio-directionalequipment. In essence, it was performing its own triangulation.In Army parlance it was known as single-unittriangulation, and it was highly effective, thoughslow. The procedure was simple enough: the vanstopped and fixed its position, recording the strengthand direction of the radio beam from the satellite.Once this was done, it would be driven in the mostlikely direction of the satellite for a distance of twentymiles. Then it would stop and take new coordinates. Inthis way, a series of triangulation points could bemapped, and the van could proceed to the satellite by azigzag path, stopping every twenty miles to correct anyerror. The method was slower than using two vans, butit was safer - the Army felt that two vans in an areamight arouse suspicion.
For six hours, the van had been closing on the Scoopsatellite. Now they were almost there.
Crane tapped the map with a pencil in a nervous wayand announced the name of the town at the foot of thehill: Piedmont, Arizona. Population forty-eight; bothmen laughed over that, though they were both inwardlyconcerned. The Vandenberg ESA, or EstimatedSite of Arrival, had been twelve miles north of Piedmont.Vandenberg computed this site on the basis ofradar observations and 1410 computer trajectory projections. The estimates were not usually wrong bymore than a few hundred yards.
Yet there was no denying the radio-directionalequipment, which located the satellite beeper directlyin the center of town. Shawn suggested that someonefrom the town might have seen it coming down - itwould be glowing with the heat - and might have retrievedit, bringing it into Piedmont.
This was reasonable, except that a native of Piedmontwho happened upon an American satellite freshfrom space would have told someone - reporters, police,NASA, the Army, someone.
But they had heard nothing.
Shawn climbed back down from the van, with Cranescrambling after him, shivering as the cold air struckhim. Together, the two men looked out over the town.
It was peaceful, but completely dark. Shawn noticedthat the gas station and the motel both had their lightsdoused. Yet they represented the only gas station andmotel for miles.
And then Shawn noticed the birds.
In the light of the full moon he could see them, bigbirds, gliding in slow circles over the buildings, passinglike black shadows across the face of the moon. Hewondered why he hadn't noticed them before, andasked Crane what he made of them.
Crane said he didn't make anything of them. As ajoke, he added, "Maybe they're buzzards."