In a tent full of flying saucerphiles, a startling announcement suddenly emanates from the doorway: "There's something in the sky!"
The reaction is instantaneous. Telling UFO buffs there's something in the sky is like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
The saucer believers stampede outside into the sunny desert, scanning the heavens for an alien craft. Some see it, some don't.
Finally, a beefy guy with a flowing beard zeroes in on the otherworldly object through a pair of high-powered binoculars: "It's a . . . it's a . . . it's a Mickey Mouse balloon."
Heads drop and hearts sink. Another false alarm at "The Ultimate UFO Seminar," held last weekend in this tiny southern Nevada town, site of a rash of weird aerial phenomena and even weirder stuff on the ground.
"Please don't make fun of us," pleads a 31-year-old Orange County woman at the start of the conference. "We're taking a serious, scientific approach to this."
Then, after begging anonymity, she confides that short, gray aliens regularly abduct her and once stole her ovum to breed a "hybrid child." She knows this because the space creatures showed her the half-human, half-alien youngster when it was 5 years old.
She also says that unmarked black helicopters sometimes follow her around Newport Beach.
Remarkably, as the two-day seminar progresses, her tale actually becomes hard to dismiss. It turns out to be one of the sanest stories told.
Other "UFOlogists" link aliens with Adolf Hitler, the JFK assassination and AIDS. They talk about mysterious cattle mutilations and secret tunnels connecting Nevada to San Diego and New York. And they insist that creatures from the Zeta Reticuli star system are conspiring with humans to form a one-world government.
Their proof is a combination of mainstream media accounts (a 1958 New York Times article about UFOs buzzing Washington, D.C.; a CNN segment on close encounters with American military personnel), eyewitness testimony and wild conjecture.
John Lear, airline pilot and disinherited son of the Learjet family, is the first speaker. Among his revelations (for that handful of folks who don't read International UFO Reporter or the Weekly World News): The military has been hiding alien spacecraft at the nearby Air Force training range since 1947, and President Eisenhower lied about going to the dentist in 1954.
Ike was actually off striking a deal at the first alien-Earthling summit: The extraterrestrials handed over a few saucers and we relinquished "grazing rights," allowing aliens the freedom to periodically abduct and experiment on humans and cattle.
When President Kennedy later threatened to expose the accord, he was, of course, assassinated. The gunman, according to Lear's analysis of the Zapruder film, was Kennedy's limousine driver.
After JFK, Presidents have been told only that, yes, the military is working with aliens in Nevada, "but that's all you need to know."
At the end of Lear's talk, the few skeptics in the crowd pick apart the tale. One scoffer, snickering that Lear "must have broken the sound barrier one too many times," acts out President Clinton's briefing:
"OK, Mr. President, we need to go over a few things. UFOs are real and the Air Force is working with space aliens and flying saucers in Nevada."
"That's it. Nothing you need to know about."
"Oh. OK." *
By midnight Friday, about half of the 200 people at the seminar have drifted next door to the Little A'Le'Inn. The tavern, a converted trailer, is big enough to hold the entire population of Rachel, which is nothing more than a speck on the map (well, some maps) between Las Vegas and Morey Flats, site of one of the biggest underground A-bomb tests in history.
The UFO business has been a boon to the Little A'Le'Inn, which assumed its current name in 1990 to cash in on the sightings along Highway 375. Alien bumper stickers, doormats, cigarette lighters, hats, T-shirts, earrings, paper-towel holders and other trinkets are all on sale. Menu items include Alien Burgers (not made from mutilated cattle) and a potion called the Beam Me Up, Scotty (Jim Beam, 7-Up and a splash of Scotch).
But proprietors Joe and Pat Travis seem to genuinely believe in interplanetary tourists. Several have even visited the tavern, they say: One looked human but was definitely from outer space because he sat near the inn's four slot machines for an entire day without eating, drinking or using the bathroom.
Other extraterrestrials, according to informed sources here, give away their true identity by consuming mass quantities of strawberry ice cream and green Jell-O.
When their alien bellies are full, they hop into saucers and streak through the sky. In recent years, thousands of spectators, including TV crews and newspaper reporters, have witnessed the baffling, glowing objects that seemingly zig and zag above Rachel.
Skeptics say the unearthly lights are easily explained: The sprawling Nellis Air Force Range is an air-combat training area and testing ground for secret aircraft, such as the stealth fighter, says Philip J. Klass, a contributing editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.
To the untrained eye, flares, missiles, experimental helicopters and jets all could be misinterpreted as flying saucers, he says.
The military, too, denies reports of alien beings or spacecraft at the range: "How would we keep that quiet?" asks Capt. George Sillia, a Pentagon spokesman.
One of the most surprising skeptics, however, turns out to be the conference's keynote speaker, the reclusive Bob Lazar. According to UFO lore, Lazar is a physicist who worked at the Nellis range in 1988, where he saw nine alien saucers in secret hangars and worked on duplicating their engine systems. He also was granted clearance to read documents about extraterrestrial activity in the United States and was allowed to watch one spacecraft fly.
In 1989, he went public with the story on a Las Vegas television news broadcast and indirectly launched the flying-saucer frenzy at Rachel. For his trouble, government thugs reportedly shot at him and erased all record of his stints at Cal Tech, MIT and Nellis.
Authorities also arrested him for aiding and abetting a prostitution ring, a charge that was later reduced to felony pandering--to which he admitted guilt.
Nevertheless, in some UFO circles, Lazar is practically Jesus in the flesh.
When his silver Corvette rumbles into the conference parking lot Saturday, saucer believers literally sprint to meet him. Cameras flash and tape recorders whir as he steps into the Little A'Le'Inn for a glass of white wine. And when he finishes addressing the crowd in the tent outside, seminar organizer Gary Schultz gushes:
"We should have 10 minutes of silence."
Yet, Lazar spends most of the afternoon debunking his disciples' theories. When someone asks about a UFO video shot from the space shuttle, Lazar insists that the "flying saucers" were dust particles blown across the camera lens by a rocket thruster.
And when another mentions alien abductions, underground tunnels and one-world government conspiracies, he dismisses the tales as "borderline insanity."
It might sound refreshingly scientific if Lazar weren't responsible for the wildest tale of all. In 1979, he says, a military Special Forces officer inadvertently violated intergalactic etiquette by carrying a gun into a classroom occupied by several aliens and 44 U.S. scientists.
When the aliens understandably killed the officer for his bad manners, other Special Forces personnel--watching the incident on a video monitor--stormed the classroom. Alas, they, too, were liquidated. And, for good measure, so were the 44 scientists.
Fortunately, the government didn't have to explain this tragedy to the public: It had wisely hired scientists who were orphans or had few family ties.
By the time Lazar leaves, a small revolt is brewing at the UFO seminar. The skeptic contingent--infiltrated, no doubt, by government disinformation specialists--decides it has had enough of conspiracies and Element 115, the supposed substance that allows flying saucers to defy both gravity and time.
"They've got this fuel that can bend time, yet 40 saucers have supposedly crashed here since 1947? This is the worst airline I've ever heard of," quips Robert Knight of Bel-Air.
When moderator Schultz denounces the nonbelievers as "pinhead scoffers," they stalk out of the tent and post flyers for a "Pinhead Scoffer's Alternative Conference" the next day.
"You can believe in UFOs without having to swallow the other nonsense," explains skeptic Glenn Campbell, who quit his computer programming job in Boston and moved to Rachel three months ago.
Knight, for instance, is fascinated by the psychology of the UFO phenomenon. He notes that claims of aliens mutilating cattle--removing the animals' sexual organs with "surgical precision"--are curiously similar to 1890s reports of cattle abductions by "hot-air balloons with searchlights and ladders." Likewise, ancient Egyptians blamed stolen livestock on "sky gods." The abduction phenomenon seems to be some sort of Jungian archetype, Knight says.
Then again, perhaps cow privates are a delicacy in the Zeta Reticuli star system--one that alien Wolfgang Pucks are willing to travel hundreds of light years to obtain. Unfortunately, these advanced chefs are too stupid to simply kidnap whole cattle and breed them back home.
Says Knight: "I have a problem with the alien connection here."
Other skeptics are more open to the concept of extraterrestrials, but favor a cautious, scientific approach. Yet, it seems even the most rational in this group can still come off a bit out of orbit.
Campbell, for instance, has written an entertaining "Viewer's Guide" (price: $15) to the area that is thorough and seemingly objective. But he has also spent the past three months constructing a giant, wooden saucer behind the Little A'Le'Inn. And on Saturday afternoon, he is running around in an alien costume.
Meanwhile, back in the tent, Schultz is ranting about yet another conspiracy. This one involves Waco, Tex., and the "atomized powder" he is certain the feds injected into the Branch Davidian compound to cause its explosion.
The government, Schultz says, should have left the group alone: "It's not against the law to be a kook."