May 7, 1969
Jenna Munro broke through to the azure tinted surface. Warm rays of sun bathed her shoulders as she tread. One arm cradled the smooth round object. The other arm, fatigued, pushed her body upward circling tiredly through the salty seawater. Her legs burned as they kicked. She was exhausted.
Emotion was a mixture of excitement and disbelief. Holding the object above water she began to sink slowly, but with a series of downward thrusts she was able to keep her head slightly above water.
It was an orb. Looking inside it, there was a sense of something. The temple , somewhere three hundred feet below her, hid among a cloud of swirling sand. Voices, and impressions. Images in her mind of things past. Visions of things to come. Like mercury the revelations slipped away almost as soon as they were perceived. Even if the desire existed, that she would want to relay those thoughts to another person, she could not have. The orb hummed. She listened. The depths beneath her groaned, hollow and yearning. The temple wanted back what she had taken. She would be afraid to return. That much she was sure.
Silently she floated, scuba gear weighing down her tired body. She would not speak to anyone of the things she had seen beneath the ocean--save the orb.
Depleted Jenna Munroe waited for her vessel to arrive.
June 5, 3037
The Neptune Relay swung silently around its gas giant namesake. Intended to strengthen and transmit signals from the Hades deep space probe, no one thought it would ever do anymore than that.
0308 hours Eastern Standard Time. The relay has received a signal. A flicker that was not supposed to be there. Silently the satellite fires its tiny jets and aims its main dish toward Earth, and steadily begins to transmit.
July 1, 2037
It had been two years, three months and thirteen days since Sarah had last seen the planet Earth as she ventured down the egress ramp and stepped on the surface of Pluto. It wasn't as though she missed her home planet, or even particularly wanted to go back. She was simply sick and tired of the processed air and the lighter-than-earth-gravity of the mining complex on Titan.
"This sucks," she said. It made her sick to the stomach.
She was looking forward to a little R & R. Being crammed in her mining suit for the better part of two years had made her more than irritable. The first thing she was going to do was take the damn thing off. It had an annoying habit of chaffing at her waist if it stayed on for more than ten hours at a time. Usually she had it on for fifteen.
Then she would book a cruise to some small island chain, Hawaii or Fiji, or maybe somewhere in the Atlantic like the Bahamas. Somewhere where she would have room to move, and breathe, and stretch, she'd order one of those blue drinks. She didn't care what kind, or how it tasted, as long as it was blue, and icy, and had an umbrella sticking from its top with a sweet, juicy cherry. She'd drink at least three of those until she had an unrecoverable buzz, then make her way to the water. She'd dive in and feel the liquid caress her and lift her body, massaging it as the waves tumbled and tossed her through the coursing tumult. It was her idea of heaven. She had it all figured out. Two months of downtime at the beach. Only then would she begin to unwind. It wouldn't be anytime soon that she'd return to outer space, that was for sure. She couldn't get home fast enough.
And now those bastards at the United Nations, were making sure she wouldn't.
She couldn't believe she was walking on the surface of Pluto. If not for the fact that she'd spent three years on the equally fantastic moon of Titan, her amazement would have translated into a look of awe instead of one of impatience. The area she walked upon was dark, save the circular disc of light, illuminating the ground and the thick beam emanating from her shoulder-mounted lamp. The light cut through the thin atmosphere, wisps of gas and dust swirling, obscuring the view from her fish bowl tinted visor. She wasn't sure, but as far as she knew, no one had been out this far. It was hard for her to accept, that of all the people, of all times in the history of the planet, she was one of the first. She was just a small part of a small crew, aboard a large ship.
The crew of her ship, the Lady Grey were only XT carbon miners. Three years ago she signed a contract with Delta Mining to survey and mine a site containing carbon on Titan. Over a two-year span, they'd mined 200 million kilos of carbon--a more than profitable amount, enough for her anyway. The company paid her $15 million for the two and a half-year assignment. Even so she was still one of the lowest paid members of the crew.
She had been eager to leave Titan. The damn place was cold. Colder than she'd ever thought cold could be. That is, until she'd walked on the surface of Pluto. The company ran her and the crew through simulations while on Earth, but they never seemed to capture the cold's intensity or longevity. It was something she meant to bring up when she returned. Whenever that would be.
The UN tracking relay in Neptune's orbit had picked up something. The Pentagon brass were hesitant to call it a signal, but really Sarah thought, what else could it be. The Lady Grey, hours into it's return journey to Earth, was reassigned by the mining company to proceed to Pluto. There would be monetary compensation for the crew, but no one really cared. They all just wanted to go home.
No one had been out this far. The last human-made object to pass by Pluto and its sister moon Charon since the Voyager mission was the Hades probe in `18. It had turned up nothing important, nothing exploitable anyway. The Earth, with its corporations and resource hungry countries, turned its back on the planet mainly because it was not profitable, and settled on its own problems--until now. Sarah knew it had to be something big, but what she couldn't imagine. She had been afraid to. And the fear she had now, dwarfed whatever she could have dreamt in her imagination.
Instantly she had entered the elite of humankind's explorers as she wandered the dim surface. It was a strange sensation indeed. "I'm the first human being to set foot on Pluto," she said, reaffirming the reality of the now. She wasn't some trained expeditionary operative. She was a surveyor, a near ordinary woman from San Francisco, who forgot to pay her electricity bill before she left for outer space. No one had ever been to Pluto. No missions unmanned or otherwise, not even the marauding pirates of the Outer Ring of the asteroid belt ventured this far. No one came simply because they thought there was nothing there.
She could hear her heavy-booted footsteps crunch in the fine powdered frost. The composition of the surface was surprising. All of the data accumulated to date had foretold the planet's atmosphere would be made primarily of Nitrogen and Methane. But Sarah's instrument's detected water--and there was an abundance of it. The thick layer of ice covered a rocky core made of iron, large amounts of carbon and nickel. She was afraid to report her findings back to Earth. When all of those stuffed-shirt scientists caught wind of her data the intensity of an already twenty-year war would probably escalate. Then, Titan would no longer be a place where she could run to hide from the chaos that is Man. It would merely be a way stop on the course to Earth's newest battleground.
There was plenty of gaseous nitrogen, too much she thought, conducting sound waves for her to hear outside of the tight fitting speakers that rested snugly against her ears. Her steps were more akin to bounds as she sojourned through the lighter-than-earth gravity. "Lady Grey, this is Sarah. Do you copy?" Silence followed by static, fading as a feeble voice filled the internal speaker.
"Lady Grey here," a male voice crackled back. It was Jerry Denton, communications officer onboard. Sarah liked the way he sounded. His voice was deep and filled with bass. She nearly melted every time he spoke to her. "So Damato landed the Westminster, huh? Good. I hoped he wasn't going to give us a reason to have to stay any longer than we'd like."
Behind her, Sarah heard the soft sounds of approaching steps crunching across the fine powder.
Michael Damato came lumbering around the backside of the shuttlecraft Westminster, the cylinder of light from his shoulder lamp guiding him through the darkness. His environ-suit looked cumbersome, as she imagined hers looked to Michael. The shuttlecraft was small, it's shiny metal hull barely glistening from the reflected lamp light. Every few seconds, deep red running lights flashed, giving their surroundings a surreal look. Sarah thought it looked like Hell.
Damato walked closer, one hand running across the lower hull of the craft, steadying himself in the haze. Skipping over the front hydraulic landing struts he bounded toward Sarah, then came to a sudden, frost-scraping stop. He stood in front of Sarah, then thumbed his nose at her.
"We're not home yet," Damato said to Denton. "Besides, when you hear this you're going to want to stay for a while."
"What's there to report?" Denton said, voice rumbling through the speaker.
"I think everyone is going to want to sit down for this," Sarah said. There was silence on the other side of the line. "You heard me. I want to know that everyone is strapped into their seats."
"Go ahead," another voice said harshly. It was Captain Jax with his usual impatient and agitated self. His attitude had nothing to do with their 3 billion-mile detour. He'd been that way from the first day of training at the UNASA base off the Nova Scotia coast. "What is it?"
"I don't know if anything I say will make sense," Sarah said while signaling Damato. Reaching behind him, he connected a small wire to a square pack on his arm, then pulled out from behind his back a small camera mounted on a turret. After adjusting the picture controls, he gave Sarah a thumbs up sign, then began scanning the camera back and forth across the landscape. "I'm just going to let you see it," Sarah said. "I'll allow you to make your own judgements."
"Whatever Sarah," the captain said impatiently. "Just hurry it up."
Damato punched a button on the camera control panel piping the picture into a stream of information transmitted upward toward the Lady Grey. Sarah could hear the faint hum of the whirring camera motor as it focused and turned its eye socket lens about.
"Compensating for darkness," Damato said. The picture appeared in a small square on the upper-left side of Sarah's visor. The eyepiece lightly whirred while adjusting the picture. Darkness faded, and color filled the flat gray-toned display, giving her the first clear view of the surface since she'd stepped outside. The captain's face appeared in the upper-right corner of her helmet's display. He floated above his command chair, stern looking, his scruffy face close to the screen.
The image resolution was nearly perfect but for a few grains of static slipping through the picture. The darkness, now digitally dispersed was nonexistent. The ground looked as it had felt through the hard metal soles of her environ-suit. Small crystals from the thin layer of snow-like frost scratched and popped beneath her feet, crunching as she swiveled around. Heavy pinkish mist lingered in the distance, hugging the face of what appeared to be two rock walls forming some sort of canyon. Somehow the nitrogen stayed in a visible vaporous state. Sarah didn't know the precise physical properties of the gas, but thought it was peculiar that so much of it was not frozen, instead existing in its gaseous form. And something about that canyon. Energy readings were faint, almost negligible, but she continued reading minuscule spikes on her readout. She ignored it, sure that it was merely a glitch from the cold.
"So this is it Cap," Sarah said smugly. "Standing by for you orders?"
"I can't believe he wants us to investigate," Damato said. They walked briskly across the plane toward the canyon, stepping through a large flat field of ice, with patches of rock showing through every few feet. Sarah placed down glowing, green sticks, periodically to mark their progress. Behind them lay a road of emerald lights that trailed away into the dark. "We're not trained for this," he said as Sarah cracked a plastic rod causing its chemicals to mix and begin to glow.
"Listen, I don't like this anymore than you but..."
She didn't bother to finish. She knew he would complain either way. With Damato, dissatisfaction wasn't a choice, it was a state. She always tried to be a little more than positive. Just a little. She never tried too hard. If she did then she wouldn't have gone out to deep space anyway.
Flipping open the silver coated wrist-comm, she adjusted the reception knob, the static fading as a clear channel funneled into her helmet. Carefully pulling a small wire from the device, she attached it to the side of her helmet.
"..you read ground?" she heard a voice say. "God bless Sarah! Would you come in?"
"I'm here Captain. Do you have to shout? I can hear you just fine."
"What took you so long?" he replied. "We ain't have all day now!"
Sarah and Michael looked at each other, and both rolled their eyes.
"The signal started breaking up as soon as we headed closer to that canyon," she said, contempt simmering between every word.
"Capn'" Damato said. "Are you sure you want us to continue. If we lose contact with the ship and something happens..."
"The UN detachment will send us back if we return with a half-assed report," the captain replied. "I want a thorough assessment. Don't mistake that for detailed though. You have three hours down there...tops. If the UN needs to investigate the damn planet then they can send their own blessed ships and troops. We're strictly here to check what's not here. A once over. In and out. Do you understand?"
"How could we not?" Michael said. Sarah checked quickly and saw that it was over their own private channel. She smiled back.
"Aye, Cap," she said. "Three hours." She clicked the switch off, leaving the wire attached to her helmet to continue boosting her reception in case they'd need it. The Captain could be a boar when he wanted to, which was most of the time. "Well now," she said. "He's almost in a good mood today."
"I hate to say it, but I know how he feels," Damato said. He walked holding the camera up recording indiscriminately, the landscape. "Even if this would turn out to be the most important find in the history of humankind, we've been mining Titan for two and a half years. The incredible seems rather moot after that."
Sarah didn't want to respond. She felt the same way. Even if the situation on Earth wasn't to her liking, she called it "home" for a reason. She turned away from Damato, and continued to walk through the viscous dark.
An hour and a half after landing on Pluto's surface, a sensation passed over her. It was strange, that moment when a person sees something that they just could not believe. Tensing her brow then relaxing it, gave her a physical sensation to ground her in reality.
Before she realized it, they had reached the entrance to the canyon.
"Oh my God," she said staring upward in awe. She didn't believe in God, but peering through the mist, she had new reason to evaluate her beliefs. Damato stood silently, his mouth gaping wide open. She could hear his breath picking up pace as though he were beginning to hyperventilate. He was as amazed as she. There was no way she was seeing what she saw.
"What is it?" Damato said, his voice trembling.
"It's beautiful," Sarah said. "It's beautiful."
Capt. Jax sat in his command chair. Strapped in tight to the warm, cracked-leather chair, his chest barely expanding as the restraining harness was too tight to ever be mistaken for comfortable. It didn't matter. He was so tense he could barely breath, his lungs shallowly inhaling the recirculated air of the Lady Grey. It was a mixture of staleness and heavy must. He'd been breathing it for the past couple of years. It always smelled like oil from the greasy gears and pistons that opened and closed the hydraulic doors, as well as oozing from the vents of the ventilation shaft. A drop of moisture landed in his hand. Sweat spilled down his face profusely. He wiped the exploded bead from his hand, then did the same to his face. I knew there was going to be trouble. There had to be.
The X-O sat relaxed at her station, her feet propped up along the long distance sensors as she played a hand held Joy-Boy game. She would look at the outboard sensors from time to time, looking as though she were waiting for a response from the ground. Jax knew better. Whenever she'd pick up that damned game, she'd be lost for at least an hour or two. He knew Sarah would do a good job. She wanted to get home as badly as he, although for different reasons. They'd spent long hours in the mess hall on Titan, talking about their lives on Earth. He with a family he loved. Her with a family she hadn't spoken to in years. Somehow though, they were the same at heart. No fuss, no mess, and as Sarah called it, "a low tolerance for B.S."
He couldn't describe the sensation in his stomach. Queasy? Nervous? He felt dizzy from stress. His stomach rumbled continuously as he waited in his chair. His heart thudded, then soft in his chest, making him feel nauseous. He just wanted to be on his way. If they hadn't come out here to Pluto, they'd have been just outside Mars' orbit by now. He cursed the security council and UNASA equally for the last week and a half of hell he'd gone through.
Suddenly, commotion stirred the bridge. Denton, sat squarely over the comm board, hollering into his headset.
"Come in you two." He turned to the Captain. Jax could see the look of distress grow on Denton's face. "Nothing, sir."
"Well get me something," Jax said. He sat back in his chair, and waited, impatient as ever.
Llewellyn, had been an X-O for the past thirteen years. She had started out as a maintenance worker on asteroid mining operations when she was sixteen, then worked her way up to Command by the time she was twenty one. She entered the corporation, mainly so she could be in outer space. She had no idea that, anything done, no matter how fantastic can seem routine, if done enough times. She barely was excited when she'd heard they would be turning around and heading for Pluto. Sure they were going to unexplored territory, but the trip there was just as scenic as it was from Earth to the Moon. Same stars, the sun was dimmer, the planets larger or smaller relative to their location. She'd done it all before. Twelve missions. Six to Mars, two to the Belt, and four to Titan.
It wasn't until her first mission to Titan however, that she discovered that she was little more than window dressing in terms of the perception of the crew. The command structure aboard the mining vessels tended to be lax, even the Lady Grey, with tight-ass Jax commanding. Every single person on the ship was a millionaire, at least one time, and the rest two or even three times over. No one felt a great need to follow the command of anyone, save for maintaining a safe working atmosphere in the hazardous environment of space. What amounted to being the Executive Officer aboard one of Delta's three deep mining teams was relegating the maintenance crew to keep up repairs, and give a few simple meaningless commands. She fancied herself the Vice President to the President of the American States. She was the second most powerful person on board, but relegated to the equivalent of solely attending funerals and ribbon cutting ceremonies.
She was attending a funeral now as she manned the outer sensor board. Pirate activity had been on an upswing for the past year. Raids had been reported from Earth to Titan. She considered the Lady Grey lucky. They hadn't been attacked once, and in light of their knew found status as explorers, the last thing she wanted to do was engage in a dogfight 80 million miles from home.
The board hadn't registered so much as a ping since they'd left Saturn Spacedock, except for the standard transmissions from the Neptune Relay, as they had approached Neptune weeks ago. She'd become accustomed to riding out her pain. Boredom was a state she'd learned to move past, through years of practice and unintentional honing. She fervently jammed on the control pad of her oldest son's 3DGamer Joy-Boy. She had confiscated it from him after her first return from Titan, discovering he'd been a terror; menacing his entire fourth grade class with a trick he called the flying spaghetti. It was gross. Llewellyn didn't even want to think about, nor did she ever ask, what it involved.
She'd been playing it for five years now, becoming a pro. It always carried her through those darkest dreary hours of nonstop nothing. Today she'd finally cracked the seventh level of the Adventure series Knights of Caliburn. She wanted to advance to the eighth level by the time they were in Earth space. The title of the eighth level was called, "The Face of God." She was game.
She didn't even notice it at first. The silence of space beyond her window was absolute. The flashing and beeping lights from her game console drowned out most sensation from the outside, although she did manage to take furtive glances downward at her display from time to time, to make sure everything was all right. Glancing downward this time did not confirm her beliefs that nothing could be or would be amiss.
It was a Class-7 energy disruption. The amorphous shape of the waves took up most of her screen. She sat motionless in shock, quietly, almost calmly, while Denton was trying to reestablish contact with Sarah and Damato. No one saw what was happening except for her. Next, her hands went limp, paralyzed, as she contemplated her next action. She glanced out her view port. Light washed over her face. It was lovely.
Lady Grey. He rested a firm hand on her shoulder and pulled her around, swiveling in her chair. She didn't notice the pain in her shoulder from his tight grip. "Oh my..." He didn't finish. He didn't have to. She saw the same thing as he. The light grew brighter--more intense--then there was nothing.
May 11, 1969
The news for Jenna was not good. Two more days, no extensions, no lingering behind. They were to be out of the country within forty-eight hours, unless otherwise instructed. No exceptions. The words hit her square in her heart. It sank as quickly as her body did, back into the chair beneath her. She melted into its fabric, and relaxed her head, the muscles in her neck loosening.
Academia hadn't prepared Jenna for a life any more exciting than turning over a few old bones and interviewing a few natives in the rain forests or wherever she happened to be. The most exciting it ever got was trying to evade some customs officials when she had some ancient Mayan artifact or didn't have the proper papers for exit or reentry. She even once had to evade a rebel faction in Guatemala while researching the ruins of Yaxchitlan.
But, none of that compared to the last six hours. She sat staring at the crystal orb in her hands. It glowed dully, reflecting the light from the soft light of outside her tent. It looked as though it were trying to burst out in a cacophony of light. "This is not real," she said to herself aloud. This can't be real.
She was shocked when the front flap to her tent flung open, gentle yet firm.
Palmer Reed did not look happy.
"They want to ask you some questions," he said. He looked tired, almost haggard. He hadn't shaven in days, probably from having to travel so far on such short notice. Even so, he still had the handsome sharpness that dared peek out from beneath the rough exterior. His hair, solid black, seemed to shine under the light of the lamp inside.
As he passed through the opening , Jenna noticed the weather had gotten worse outside. The sky, already in the thralls of dusk, was blackened from the thick cover of clouds rolling in from the North. The normally hot, humid, air felt lighter, drier. She would almost swear it was cold. A cold shiver moved down her palms, as if resonating from the orb. Bewildered, perhaps afraid, she set it down and turned her attention to Palmer.
He was already sitting on the bed, weary, muscles relaxing into the rickety chair at the far side of the tent. She hoped he didn't mind the clutter. Papers and odd knickknacks; a knife, a compass, littered the dirt floor and a chest at the foot of her cot. There were two things Jenna especially knew about Palmer. He had little energy for departmental matters and even smaller amounts of patience for Jenna's untidiness. He pulled a thin cigarette from a pack in his breast pocket. With his other hand he reached into his pant's pocket, but came up empty handed.
"Gotta light?" he said. The strain in his voice was infectious, almost enough to make her fall asleep. Jenna patted her pockets in a mock gesture then raised her hands, palms upward in the air while shrugging her shoulders.
"Nope. Smoking's bad for you anyway," she replied. She decided to restrain herself from getting too caustic. Normally she was in sarcastic mode most of the time, but right now it just didn't feel appropriate. "Just who is it that want's to talk to me?"
"The Council of Arts and Sciences at the University," Palmer said stretching his hands into the air. He moved his neck side to side, then let out a heavy sigh. "I guess you'll be happy to hear that they have at least considered your request."
"Considering I'm the best they've got here, they damn well better have."
She couldn't help herself. Those people at the university--people in general--annoyed her to no end with their bureaucracy, red tape, and posturing. Here she was, slinking through the forests in ungodly heat, ninety-nine percent humidity, and bus-size mosquitoes at every turn, and they are only "considering" her request.
"Listen Jenna. Save the attitude for later. Much later. It won't help you any if you confront them like that."
He was right. She knew it. But she couldn't help herself. Blame whatever she wanted--her upbringing, her intelligence--whatever the cause, it was just the way she was. Palmer looked at her intensely. So much so, she barely could return the gaze. She knew he was there as a friend, but so rarely did she ever have anyone but enemies. At least that was the way she viewed things.
"So," she said standing from her cot. She had placed the orb beneath a pile of yesterday's clothes carefully trying to conceal it from Palmer. He glanced over anyway, peering beyond her as she walked across the room. "Who is it that wants to speak to me? Dr. Marcus? Dr Gunderson?" She reached a small dresser and pulled open it's top drawer. Reaching in she pulled out a tall bottle of rum, deep amber shimmering in the half empty bottle. "Glasses are behind you," she said.
Palmer made a half-hearted turn, but found the glasses resting on a small dresser table behind him. He picked them up with one hand, then tossed them across the room as Jenna raised her hands to catch them.
"Dr. Marcus is in the field right now, I think at Lake Champlain. They found some Abenaki artifacts on the Winooski River. Dates back to the Stone Age, I've heard a few people saying."
Jenna wasn't surprised. "Like I told him, or at least tried to tell him in that seminar. You remember?"
"How could I forget?" he replied. "What was it you said to him? `100,000 years of a species' existence and apparently some of us are still stuck in the Neanderthal stage?' I don't think he liked that very much."
For the first time in years they laughed together. For a brief moment they saw each other as they had been a few years before. Jenna saw the young grad student from California. A carefree surfer turned anthropologist, giving up the warm sunny beaches of Malibu for the often cold mountainous range of Burlington, Vermont. He was everything back then. Adventurous, dangerous, smart. She took to him on the first day of that first seminar. He was the only one she actually felt had any sort of comparable intellect. He still wasn't as gifted, not mentally anyway, but he understood her outlook more than a few people ever could.
Through the flickering light, Palmer Reed saw the young student Jenna. Brash, sometimes abrasive, but missing the crucial component of absolute confidence. That would come later, through years of constantly proving her teacher's ideas were either outdated or just plain wrong. Back then, she was a simple girl from Hibbing, Minnesota. Mousy, with sometimes stringy hair and wearing overly large and baggy clothes. "A diamond in the rough" he liked to call her. From where he stood, she could have the entire world in the palm of her hand one day, but only if she really wanted it. She was hardened now. But that edge made her more dangerous. He was glad he could call her a friend.
She poured the rum, filling the glass tumblers two fingers high then handed one to Palmer. He took a sharp, tiny sip, then rested it on his lap. Jenna eyeballed the liquid from above, examining the rich color, then proceeded to toss back the entire glass. She wiped her lips roughly then poured another. Palmer looked at her, worried she was letting the stress get to her, but didn't dare mention it.
Anyway," he began. "Gunderson is on leave. Family emergency." He looked at Jenna cautiously now. He was anticipating her reaction. He knew what was coming next.
As he had said those words, her mind had begun to wrap around the circumstances of Palmer's being there, a piece of the puzzle she didn't even know was missing suddenly appearing. Dr. Marcus was normally the governing member, but being that he shied away from the office to stay in the field as much as possible, that left Gunderson to deal with the daily administrative decisions. But with Gunderson gone, that left only one other person that was even qualified to make any decisions. And that person was the one that Palmer had worked under for the last two years.
"McGrath." she said with finality.
"I'm sorry," he said, even as she dropped the tumbler to the ground. For a moment she stood there speechless. Palmer returned the silence, anxiously placing the glass to his lips, taking another light draught.
"When were you going to tell me?"
"I wasn't," he replied in a matter-of-fact way.
"That bastard," she said. Anger began to pour into her face, filling it with red, but turning her full lips into thin white lines. "You're not much better," she said.
"I said I'm sorry," he began. He stood from his chair and walked closer to her, but she pulled back from him. "Besides I'm not the one who..."
"Don't even say it. I don't want to think about it."
Jenna stood silent for a moment, then turned her back to Palmer. She felt like she was going to cry, and didn't want to let him see it, even the possibility of it.
It was a hushed procedure. She had made her accusations to the Dean of Students, among them harassment, both verbal and physical, unwanted advances, and ultimately dismissal from her assistantship post once she would not return his affections. Callously she thought, the Dean dismissed the charges as unsubstantiated and unsupportable. "No one else has ever accused this man of anything remotely as dishonorable as this," the dean had said. She confided in Palmer back then, and was forced to forge on, unwilling to give up her pursuit of education at the school of her choice. But one thing was certain. McGrath never so much as even thought about getting near her agin. The dean successfully quieted the rumors on campus and in the department. Everything seemingly returned to normal. Jenna never forgot though. She buried it, but never forgot.
"You know," Palmer said. "I'm not saying I don't believe you Jenna..."
"But...he's never given me reason to doubt his innocence. I mean. I do doubt it, because you wouldn't lie about something like that. But he's been a straight arrow from the day I began working under him till now. The perfect family man, the perfect father, the perfect boss. Believe me. I've kept a close eye on him and not once has he slipped up. If he did I would be sure to let him know, so that the truth would come out."
Jenna shook her head. "You keep a close eye on him huh? Well would you care to tell me what he's doing right now?" Palmer looked shocked. "Come on. What is he doing right now? Talking to his wife? Or bouncing his son on his knee? Or is he at some motel with some other pretty young grad student who is too scared to say no. Tell me Palmer. What's he doing...right now?"
A single tear slipped from her eye. Even as it did she cursed herself for letting Palmer see. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded bandana, bright red and neatly creased. Jenna stood looking at it, Palmer's hand outstretched offering it to her.
"It's unused," he smiled, then pretended to blow his nose with it. Jenna cracked a smile then reached out, taking the bandana and wiping her eyes with it. He didn't speak, instead letting his proximity speak for him. He knew that she knew that he cared. He didn't have to say it. She didn't want him to say it. Of that she was always afraid.
Palmer glanced curiously at the cot, the pile of clothes partially covering a shimmering shape beneath it. He walked back across the tent picking up the glass she had dropped, and poured two more helpings of rum into the tumblers and walked over to Jenna, offering her one. "So," he said cautiously. "Is that it?" He looked past her at the shiny object peaking from beneath her dirty pile.
"What?" she started. The haze of the alcohol began to blanket her senses. The chill she had felt was less sharp, and a cozy warmth began to fill her insides. "Oh that. Yeah," she said grabbing the orb. A thin breeze slid into the tent as she held it up to him. The wind caused the lamp flame at the shelter's opening to flicker, the light in the room seeming to dance and jump. She handed it to him and watched him examine it closely. Palmer pulled his glasses out, hidden beneath his cigarettes in his breast pocket, and began to rotate the orb as Jenna continued. "There's no data from before--besides the Bimini road--that suggests an intelligent species lived here until the arrival of the native population, a few thousand years ago, and then more recently the Westerners." She turned the orb over while he still held it. "Look at this thing. No scratches. Nothing. As if it were just made yesterday."
"Jenna," Palmer said. His voice carefully toned down to rein in any hint of offense. "What if it was just made today?"
She looked at him as if he had just betrayed her. Defensively she grabbed the orb from him and protectively cradled it under her arm. "No Palmer. If you saw what I saw, you wouldn't even be thinking that."
"So what is it you saw exactly?"
She didn't want to say. Her credibility had already been shaken with the mere suggestion of advanced cultures living on the island prior to the arrival of western colonizers. If she even uttered a word, it might destroy her career, or even her. She didn't dare. But then again. She could trust Palmer. Couldn't she?
"Nothing. I don't know what I saw. But what's important is that I found this." She could tell he wasn't buying it. He was a scientist like herself. He needed evidence, strong evidence, to support most of what he believed.
"Jenna, I know the project hasn't been going smoothly. I talked to some of the others and they tell me you've been putting in a monster work load for the past three months. Are you sure you're...I don't know. >From the stress, you weren't maybe seeing things that weren't really there?"
She had contemplated that for the past three days. The images she saw were surreal. Shimmering ghosts that moved slowly through the dark blue water. But the orb was real, however she had gotten it. She didn't want to give up so easily. She never had to mention the phantoms beneath the water again to anyone. She barely believed it herself. But if she could just find some hard evidence to back her findings....
"Did you bring any equipment? A spectral analyzer"
"Then here," she said slapping the orb down hard into the palm of his hand. She almost felt some sort of charge as she did. "Take this tonight. Run some tests. If I'm not mistaken it's quartz. So when you're done just tell me where in nature, or in Hell for that matter, you can find something so perfect."
He took the orb, looked at it once more, then looked at Jenna. "Okay, I'll do it. I guess it can't hurt. But in the meantime you do me a favor."
"Get some sleep. McGrath is coming in tomorrow morning. And he wants to talk to you, first thing. I believe at eight."
Jenna wasn't looking forward to it, but this was her last shot. She had to find out what this thing was. And to avoid any humiliation in front of McGrath she needed more. Why it made her fell the way it did she had no idea. She was just stubborn. "You've got a deal Reed."
He didn't respond. He simply turned and exited the tent, not angry, but pensive. Her fate would be decided tomorrow she thought. She lay down, fully clothed on her cot. The rough canvas scratched against her smooth, toned, legs as she closed her eyes, willing the sleep to come.
July 11, 2037
Truman Sanders' thoughts were so loud he could almost swear the others could hear him thinking over the intercom. Come on you bastards.
He settled back into his seat, tightened his grip on the flightstick, checked his HUD, then pulled back the throttle. The force of the rockets along the sides of the converted fighter violently rumbled, shaking his body as he nosed his craft toward the distant freighter. He could hear mechanical whirring from the twisting nozzles, tiny motors vibrating through the ship's hull and metal. He inhaled the humid air that cycled through his armor plated flight suit. His breaths were even and measured. The squadron flew at full throttle alongside him, the Orbiting Floating Platform disappearing beneath the bubble of Earth's horizon. One part of his thoughts he focused on his respiration, the other on the freighter 100 kilometers away. He wanted to be calm--not to make any mistakes. Remove the focus from yourself. He said it to every new pilot who joined his squadron. Space combat was nothing to take lightly. Warfare was different beyond Earth's atmosphere. The margin of error was smaller. No air meant no mistakes.
"I've got two escorts in front of the freighter," a voice said, slipping into the private zone in his mind. "Repeat, Lieutenant--I've got two."
"Roger that," Sanders said, bringing his full attention to the view screen. Poor bastards are gonna fry. He grinned insanely, his face distorted in the clear shell of the cockpit glass. Twelve sorties and counting. This was his thirteenth. Thirteen was always his lucky number.
A holographic image from the onboard computer spun before him--a crystal-blue hued fighter with a glowing green `two', beneath it. Tenshi- 9-11's. Brought out the heavy stuff. "Squadron," he said to the nineteen fighters that flew on either side of his Lockwood C-7 refit. "We've got two Tenshi."
He was sure they saw the same as he. A large ACF freighter. It was a round bloated looking vessel, lined with high-grade, nano-manufactured steel. Intelligence reports stated they'd have bio-weapons aboard. Beside the behemoth flew the Tenshi's--two metallic wasp-like ships, darting erratically, buzzing around the cumbersome looking freighter. The Tenshi were the first generation of pure space fighters from either side of the war. His Lockwood, built in 2006, was intended for use in atmosphere when built. Back then, space battles were the domain of science-fiction. It doesn't take a fool to tell who has the advantage, now.
The freighter loomed in the distance. It looked strange at first. There was no up or down, no left or right. He approached the ship to his perceived upside down. Little whistles and devices chirped and beeped. A soothing feminine voice came over his helmet's internal speaker.
"Multiple targets locked in," it announced.
Ain't you a babe.
"Good shooting people," he said as a last second motivator, assuming they needed any at all. The missile tone grew louder. An ingenious piece of equipment he marveled at every time he flew into combat. It gave the pilot an audible cue to the target's distance. Too many pilots had been lost during the first few battles in the notorious vacuum. It was difficult judging distances with nothing to reference them with. No landmarks, no mountains or trees. One moment a fighter was a mile away, the next it was in the ship's nose. A dangerous occurrence when whizzing about at two to three times sound's speed.
The ship came closer into view. A loud click sounded, telling him they were at maximum range. "Lieutenant, I..." a young voice stuttered over the comm. He recognized it as Ramirez. Her voice came through crisp over the digital com-link, not a bit of distortion that he could discern. He heard the other pilots heavily breathing. "Visual ident, in sector 13 sir," Ramirez started over the squadron's channel. "They've got backup."
Sanders saw them come into focus slowly. About seven more 9-11's.
"There's only nine more sir," she said. She sounded like a teenager through the speaker.
"I've got them Ramirez," Sanders said. The craft's instruments whirred with sound as they picked up the multiple targets. Not a chance in Hell. Bright flashes exploded from the enemy ships followed by the low tone of the Incoming Missile Siren. "Evasive," he shouted, banking his craft to his left. Eleven missiles appeared on the holo-display in two rows.
The squadron broke formation as the missiles roared in and sighted their targets. The low pitched tone switched to a mid-level alarm that rattled his ear drums. He glanced behind him quickly trying to spot the projectiles. One had sighted him. It was a shiny pill trailing flame and smoke. It slid in behind his X-T. He breathed steadily through his nostrils. The glass panel of his helmet began to fog over then cleared into nothing.
He cycled through the options in his mind and landed on the easiest for his current situation. Reaching down he lightly touched a button on his forward display. Instantaneously a small shower of small metal beads rained out from behind the ship. They pummeled the missile, exploding, slamming into it, and scathing it's sides. The projectile had made it halfway through the storm when it erupted. He looked at the bright spherical explosion, shining against pitch black open space. The ship rocked sharply as the explosion's shockwave passed over him. Then suddenly there was silence. He checked his HUD. The ship had traveled two kilometers away from the squadron. He turned it around then headed back toward the maelstrom. The computer voice sounded calmly again in his cockpit. "Squadron strength at 50 percent." The wasp shaped Tenshi's cut through the squad with deft and swift precision. It would have been impressive if it weren't his own people being killed. "Friendly ships remaining?" he asked.
"Squadron strength at 20 percent," it said.
Five? He reached for the open line for the squadron. "Retreat." He couldn't believe the words as the spilled from his mouth. Jensen, Ramirez, Carter, Wingfield. They were the only ones left. "Get out of their now!"
"Sir, there's too man...." Silence. Four left.
"Dammit," Sanders said. "Damn it all." He aimed his craft toward the remaining ships. They all seemed to be intact except for Jensen's who was trailing smoke and fire. It looked odd in space. The smoke dissipated almost immediately dispersing into the vacuum.
A Tenshi flew across his bow, and he pulled up hard just missing the ship. He chanced a glance backward and saw his fighters jetting off, heading back toward the orbiting platform, a tiny speck in the distance. The ships pursuing them had broken off. He breathed a sigh of relief, again trying to balance his respiration. He was still in the midst of the storm of fighters and explosions when the returning Tenshis engaged him. He aimed the nose of his craft toward his retreating squadron and engaged the secondary engines. He leapt from the battle almost instantly, the returning ships zooming past him in a blur.
"Multiple craft targeting vessel," the computer said through his helmet. The HUD showed five pursuing. The tone was almost deafening. The sounds seemed to overlap each other as the ships locked him in their sites. "Projectiles fired," the voice said, repeating in a monotonous annoying loop.
Sanders closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He thought a moment then realized there would be no escaping. Looking out the backside of his cockpit he could see the missiles coming into view. Reaching down to the left side of the cockpit he slid back the cover labeled "EJECT". He felt ashamed as his clenched hand landed down on the button.
Initially he felt a rush of air escaping the vessel. His armored flight suit loosened from lack of pressure. The seat back shot him into the cold of space just as the first missile exploded into his craft. The ship erupted into flame.
The flightsuit's sensors detected the change in pressure as it shrunk and sealed itself to compensate for the loss of air. The shockwave slammed into his body, threatening to rupture his suit. He tumbled and spun sickeningly as the Earth alternated with the star field in his vision. He gave up hope, when he saw the Tenshis flying nearby. Slowly his vision faded, crowded in by the blackness that was even deeper than space.
He awoke in a rush of terror. The dream had played itself out in the same fashion over the years. Tonight was no different. The feeling of reality slowly crept back in. His sheets were wet where his head had lain. The room was dark except for the yellowish hue emitting from the bathroom's sodium lamp. Beside him, on the mattress, was the indentation of his wife's body. He heard her in the bathroom. The water ran forcefully into the sink. The light clicked off. She walked back into the bedroom. She was carrying a glass of water that glinted from the city lights outside.
"Here," she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed beside him. "Drink this."
He grabbed for the glass and noticed he was trembling.
"Twenty five years and you still have the dreams," she said. He could see the concern in her face even under the gray of the shadows. "They've never been this bad though. Look," she said raising her leg onto the bed. "You were kicking so hard you gave me bruises." She placed a hand on his bald head. He could feel them gently gliding over the stubble. He was cold. She was warm. That was how it always was. "Maybe you should get some help."
"No," he said wiping the sweat from his face. "I'll be all right."
"What you need is to talk about it. Have you seen Father Daly lately?"
He huffed, rose from the bed. Muscles aching and bones popping he walked toward the window. "Not for a month." He turned around and faced her again. "Or three."
"I'm calling him first thing tomorrow morning," she said. She slid across the bed, rose, then walked toward him. She moved her smooth, dark arms around his waist. Her hair tickled his nose. He felt her breasts touching his lower chest. He melted into her. He began to supplant the nightmare with memories of her.
"You don't have to," he said. "I'll do it myself." His lips lightly touched hers. "Now go back to bed. I'm going to stay up for a while and do a little writing."
"All right," she said. The emptiness increased as she walked away from him. She climbed into the bed as Sanders walked to the corner of the room where his desk stood. "I'm still going to call tomorrow, to make sure though," she said. Sanders couldn't see her face to see if she were smiling or not. He imagined it happy.
"I'll do it hon," he said.
He clicked on his old model computer and waited as the screen crackled to life, his face bathed in the bluish light of the computer screen as he began to type. He could see his reflection in the screen. He looked tired, dark skin wrinkled and eyes sagging. He tried his breathing techniques to calm himself down. There was nothing in his head to write. He turned his chair and stared out at the city. Crowded. Filthy. Congested. Below him the city buzzed with life, bright white headlights streaking through the freeways of the city. Sanders never could get over it. 2 am and the city is still wide awake. The Bay was filled with the light from ships patrolling its waters for signs of outside attack. The buildings rose so high that he could not see the tops of them from where he sat.
Turning back to his computer, he called up the address file, and typed in the word DALY. The name popped up with the complete listing. "First thing tomorrow" he said aloud, then, sullen, he continued to look out on the wartorn city.
July 12, 2037
He was amazed at how much smaller the steps seemed. A twinge of guilt stabbed his heart, for not having come back sooner. Growing up in the throes of religion, guilt was a natural sensation, he was used to that. But this time it was a genuine feeling, not based on the consequences of sin, but on the inexcusable crime of forgetting the past.
Tired knees creaked and popped as he walked up the steps. His membership at the gym had run out six months ago, and since then he hadn't done so much as walk a few feet if he didn't have to. If he'd have been younger he'd have tackled the steps, two at a time, and been up to the top, not even winded. Now, he felt his heart race and he'd only made it to step number seven. The sin of slothfulness. It crept into his mind in reaction, before he'd reached the ninth.
At the top, he took a moment to rest. The flat plaza stretched slightly higher than the main street running below it. Cars raced by, whizzing to God knew where. For everyone's rush to get somewhere, Truman couldn't help but think they were rushing nowhere. He was like that once, running somewhere, to do something, for someone. Nameless faces to nameless places. Rolling the machine of Industry for Industry's sake. It made him sick to the stomach. It made him even sicker to know that he was a part of it.
The air was clearer today. He couldn't tell with his eyes--the sky had the same brownish red haze it always had. It lingered above the mighty mega towers of San Francisco's business district, rolling and looping with the wind as it blew around the nanotech wonder megaliths.
Looking closer at them he could see the damage from countless attacks by the ACC, the war rolled on. He felt the clearness in his lungs. He could breathe fully--near full anyway. It still reeked, was still smoggy, and smoked filled, but it was cleaner.
They sat huddled in pews praying to their gods. That's how he'd always thought of the parishioners as they clung to their beads and repeated their holy incantations until either their's or their loved one's souls were saved. The last time Truman had prayed, he had two good knees. He would never tell Father Daly, but he thought prayer was a waste of time. He believed in God, but somewhere in the last twenty one years of global war, he decided that God was going to let things happen whatever way they were, regardless of what Truman Sanders desired.
He slid silently back behind the last row of pews and made his way toward the confessionals. Withered old women and the reeking homeless were the recipients of the cathedral's soothing touch. Although he never found the need to pray, Truman realized the calmness and serenity one felt when entering a house of worship. Whether it was the actual presence of God, or merely the enormous vaulted ceiling, the cathedral seemed a guarded barrier against the agonies of outside. War, poverty, and worst of all, complacency. He didn't know why it was, just that it was. That was enough.
There was no one in or near the confessional. Truman reined in a smile. Figures he thought. Who needs to confess sins when there is evil to be done? Even the old women in their pews sat there almost too comfortable, looking as though they were above reproach, the blameless leading the rest of us into the light.
Looking around, he nervously made his way near the confessional. The rich red fabric felt lush in his hand as he pulled back the curtain. As he did, he hoped he would be struck by lightning.
"Forgive me father," Truman began. He felt like a small child again. A happy boy, the one before the wars, about to immerse himself in shame, his soul about to be made whole. "Father, uh. I have sinned."
There was silence for a moment. Truman tried to read the situation, but was too nervous, too immersed in the returning sensations of the past.
"Truman, you're late," he heard a voice say.
"Father Daly," Truman replied. "I guess it's safe to assume you didn't get my message."
"No," the priest said through the dark wood mesh. Truman could see the light shining through the tiny holes reflecting on the priest's pink skin, making a strange pattern. "But Truman, it's good to hear your voice."
Truman wasn't sure if he heard enthusiasm, or a well hid scolding.
"Hey, Truman," Daly's voice whispered thorough the barrier. "What say we get out of here and go to that coffee shop you like?"
Heat radiated from outside, but there was no sun. Truman and father Daly sat near the window of The Coffee Connection. He almost couldn't believe the place was still there after all these years. With the war going on twenty one years, and the general economic depression, this little coffee shop still thrived. Even in war, people needed something to keep them up and running.
Father Daly looked basically the same as Truman had remembered him. Years ago, when they had first met, the priest was already old, but had a little more hair. His appearance was acceptable, but obviously the old man's eye-site, or maybe it was just his mobility, was decreasing because there were little details of grooming that he'd missed. The platinum rim of hair hung lightly above his ears, stringy and looking almost unkempt. His glasses were at least one size too small, and the cuffs of his sleeves hovered somewhere around mid forearm. Along the way he had spoken to Truman squarely and seriously. Truman had to keep himself from laughing, lest the priest mistake his laughter as a genuine sign of disrespect. Instead it was only a slight one.
Father Daly flashed an ultra-wide grin to the waitress as she lay the steaming cup of coffee on the table. "Thank you," he said, then raised it to his mouth. He blew the layer of vapor from the liquid's surface then lowered the cup, Truman realizing the darn thing was probably too hot. "So Truman," he said gravelly. He sounded as though he saw through the facade Truman had held up since he'd walked into the cathedral. "Tell me what happened."
"Am I that obvious?"
"Son, a brain surgeon I'm not, although some say I practice surgery on men's souls." He blew over the top of the coffee again, then looked as though he decided it still was too hot.
"It's my dreams. They seem to have..." he said. He didn't want to finish the sentence. If he did, it would give the words power. And if they had power, the situation would become more real.
"Returned?" Father Daly finished.
"Yes father. You remember them? From time to time they come, sometimes like a soft whisper, sometimes like an pounding beat." Truman squeezed his temples expelling the tension from his head. Closing his eyes the strong scent of the freshly ground coffee beans seemed even more powerful. The light clinking of coffee cups being placed on their saucers, and the crisp sound of spoons tapping the cups' rims, scrapped across the dark canvas of his closed eyes. He exhaled, forcing every bit of air out that he could, then breathed in fully, opening his eyes. "They feel so real. I hate them. It feels as if I were living through that same day as vividly as when it happened. When I wake up, I'm afraid to go back to sleep. I'm afraid the dream will come again." Truman shifted in his seat , slumping his shoulders as the weight of the moment weighed on him. "And lately they've been more intense. More frequent."
Father Daly finally took a sip of his coffee, then wiped the corner of his mouth with a napkin with the stencil "THANK YOU FOR CONNECTING". He placed the cup down, then reached across the table and firmly grasped Truman's hand. "Does this have anything to do with Tyler?"
Truman looked up shocked at the mention of the name. It had been four years. The pain resurfaced and felt just as real as the day he'd first heard the news. "That may be a part of it. But no, it's something else. At least I think it is."
"I'm sorry if I opened any old wounds," Daly said. "I didn't realize...."
"That's okay Father," Truman said. "Have you heard about that vessel that disappeared out near Titan?"
"A little bit. The coverage from the News services hasn't seemed very thorough. Awful strange to me."
"I can trust you with something," Truman said leaning across the table closer to the Father and lowering his voice to a low growling whisper. "Can't I?"
"Of course son. This is confession after all," he replied with a wide grin. "This is between you, myself, and God."
Truman hesitated a bit, contemplating whether he should speak or not. The debate was settled quickly. "Well it wasn't at Titan. It was Pluto."
Father Daly sat back flabbergasted in his seat. Truman watched then as the old man, looking almost giddy, leaned forward, excited, in on a secret only top level military types knew about. At his point Truman didn't care. If talking about it could help him find out the source of his dreams, he would tell every sordid, filthy thing he'd ever done. "The satellite relay in Neptune's orbit picked up something. A signal? I don't know, but it was something. The UN Security Council "enticed" Delta Mining to order one of their ships to investigate. The miners had just finished their stint on Titan and were heading back for Moonbase-T, then Earth. It was supposed to be a relatively quick detour, just some reconnaissance, and situational extrapolations. But they never came back."
"Any communiques or messages from the scene?" Daly asked. He had that look of genuine concern that Truman remembered. No matter how little he knew about you or the situation, Father Daly had a way of making you feel he cared for every aspect of your pain.
"There was a message sent at approximately 0500 hours Eastern Standard Time, the Lady Grey sent its last message, detailing nothing out of the ordinary, then never checked in for it's next scheduled transmission with Delta Mining." Truman lowered his voice realizing he was talking a bit loud. Father Daly sat still, absorbing what Truman was saying. The waitress came by and asked if they needed anything else, they both declined then resumed.
"Pluto? But we haven't gone out that far yet. Have we?"
"No," Truman said. "But not because we couldn't. Because nothing there really interested us." He couldn't believe he was revealing classified information to a priest in a coffee shop. If the brass ever heard about it, Truman would have a much clearer reason for having his dreams.
"And now, they are sending a ship to investigate? A military one I assume."
"And with the war going on they need pilots, so they are sending you along."
"Me?" Truman said loudly. After a moment he was self-conscious, aware that his voice echoed across the room as the patrons grew quiet, some looking his way. "Me?" again, this time in a whisper. He laughed slightly, looking around to deflect the remaining stares aimed toward him. "No, I haven't been in space, let alone an airplane in, well, since the last time I was there I suppose. Twenty six years. Nor do I plan to return, ever."
"But you're involved in some sort of way. What is it? Tactical, communications?"
"Consultant," Truman said, his chest swelling with false pride. He could feel Father Daly's gaze, reaching past the facade to the core of the real Truman. "They offered to pay me a lot of money to go up. Enough so that I would never have to work again. But I don't think...I know I'm not willing to go up again. Not for this. I'm uncomfortable enough as it is giving advice on matters, and trying to get the new hyper drives operational. Besides, I couldn't live with knowing that a decision, a wrong one, could send a crew member to their death. I don't want to be responsible for that ever again. Leave it to someone else. Someone willing. Someone qualified."
Father Daly lifted the coffee cup to his face, then took a long draught. His chubby cheeks bulged as he took in the coffee, then swallowed it in successive gulps. Slowly, he lowered the cup and peered over its lid into the bottom. He swirled it around, again and again as Truman looked on. Daly then lowered the cup, and wiped his mouth with the crumpled napkin. "And you need me to tell you what's wrong?"
Truman did not answer.
"Janelle right?" Daly said. "She made you sign on didn't she?" This time Truman lowered his head. He was unable to look the Father in his eyes. "No, no son. That's a good thing. She knows you better than I ever could. What's more, she knows what's good for you. She knows exactly what it is you need."
"Your right about that I guess but there's something..."
"No son. What is it you've been doing for the last twenty-some-odd years? Shuffling papers? Filing?"
"Teaching. I was teaching at the Academy for ten years then moved over to the Hyper drive project."
"Teaching. That's right. Physics right? Relativity and that garbage."
"Hyperspace theory," Truman said suppressing a grin. Father Daly couldn't put stock in anything outside of a God who ruled from beyond the clouds. Even with all of the advancements in science and technology, Father Daly was frighteningly old-fashioned. Truman didn't want to bring it up, but if it weren't for nano-surgery to repair the human body on a precise cellular level, Father Daly would probably have been dead of old age ten or fifteen years ago. To Truman, Father Daly refused to move into the Diamond Age, where carbon was the basis of everything manufactured, and once useless properties as the moon had wars waged over them.
"Well son, whatever it was you were doing, Janelle didn't tell you to go for herself," Daly said. "She told you, for you. You know where your heart lies. I know it's not in the class room or looking over some man's shoulder as he draws up blueprints. I can still remember the day you joined the Military. That was the only time I saw you doing what it is that you do, for lack of a better phrase."
Truman nodded slightly, the boyhood feeling, the passion of flying crossed his memory, allowing him to feel the same emotion he had back then. He was light, free of spirit. Unafraid to act. Soaring, where he was meant to be.
The smashing of the window brought him back.
An old woman held on to her purse, yanking it backward as one boy pulled in the opposite direction. Truman was amazed she could muster enough strength, keeping the boy from taking it. She was thin, but looked as though she had been extremely fit at one point in her life, but had faded as the years passed on. Another boy moved in to attack with a knife drawn He moved in to attack, pushing her, hoping probably to break the woman's grip, but instead, with her still holding on, sent her crashing through the window. They were right outside the remainder of the Coffee Connection window, mere inches away from Truman. She turned toward him, a gritty look of determination across her face, as the boy pulled harder. It was then Truman noticed that he was doing what everyone else was doing, whether in the shop, or outside on the street. They were simply looking on.
The boy with the knife navigated past his friend and across the broken glass that covered the ground. He lowered his hand, ready to sink the knife into the woman's body, when Truman grabbed his arm, and stopped it's forward motion suddenly. The boy, yanked his arm lose and ran off before Truman realized it. The other boy holding the purse stood and stared. With one swift, crisp, kick the woman gave him a shot to the groin. The boy dropped on all fours, his hands plunging into the layer of jagged glass on the pavement. From where Truman stood, it looked as though the boy cared little for the pain in his hands at the moment.
What there was of a crowd quickly broke off as they saw the commotion had come to an end. An officer came running down the street, and gathered up the boy as some remaining onlookers filled him in on what had just happened.
"Well, that was exciting," Father Daly said. Truman turned and saw that he had gotten glass in his hair. He was brushing it out with the napkin, looking over the edge of the window and at the boy still in a ball in the street. "Penance."
Truman looked at the woman he had helped. She went through her purse, looking as though she were checking to make sure all of its contents were still there. "Mam," he said. "Are you all right?"
She looked around, calmed herself, then spoke steadily, "Yes...yes. Thank you."
Truman looked around the shop. The people were sitting down again. All of them talking, drinking, and conversing as though nothing had just happened. It disgusted him. "No problem mam," he said. He looked around again. He was almost ashamed to speak. He had barely moved himself.
"It makes me wonder what we're fighting for. The world is at war, and young punks take to robbing old women," Truman said to Father Daly. "I'm afraid there may be no hope for our future." Truman's hand was cut. A thick piece of glass stuck starkly out of the skin above the knuckle. The old woman reached into her purse and pulled out a white handkerchief. She folded it into a triangle, then yanked the piece of glass from his hand. He tried not to flinch, but couldn't help it. Carefully she wrapped the handkerchief around the bleeding wound. She held his hand firmly, hurting him as she did so. She looked upward into his eyes. He couldn't help but keep her gaze. Her eyes were crystal blue orbs. She pulled him closer, then released his hand.
"There may just be hope for us yet."
The doors of the elevator seemed to slam shut, as he leaned back and rested against the cold metal railing. His talk with Father Daly had helped a bit. He had walked the father back to the cathedral and promised to keep in touch. Truman couldn't honestly assess how truthful he was being when he agreed to, but his feeling was that the father would be able to tell either way.
It was only noon and already he'd had a full day. His stomach dropped as the elevator rocketed upward. There was such a thing as being too efficient. The elevator in his building was one of them. It hadn't bothered him so much when he was younger. But now, every little stitch was noticeable and almost unbearable, be it too cold, too hot, too fast or not slow enough. The years had caught up with him before he had time to realize. His back always hurt, even with advancements in nano surgery, there was just something, a certain quality about old age that couldn't be cured. Maybe it isn't the body that's weary. Maybe it's the mind.
The old woman's words weighed on him. The world was a piece of crap--one large garbage dump that we'd all been placed on to mess up a little bit more. It had scared him, that he stood there, still, watching the woman being attacked. He would have felt worse if no one else had moved. Even the police officers conveniently showed up after the altercation was over. When Truman left the scene, the pudgy officer of peace was taking a statement from the old woman, he closed his digi-pad, and was on his way. Someone else's misfortune was impacting his already miserable life no doubt. Truman was no different from anybody else. He didn't want that. With ongoing war, general economic depression, and family problems, the last thing he truly needed was to risk his life, for some stranger.
Looking outside the thick pane of glass into the crowded San Francisco cityscape, he wondered what technological advancements had brought anyone. There were more conveniences, more wealth being generated. But that only belonged in the hands of a very select few. Even worse, the human ace on a global scale had little regard for one another. They were all raw material. No longer unique individuals, but instead workers in a hive. There were few who believed in anything substantial anymore. Their technology had no basis in a tradition of morality. Everything was new, and they were all making everything up as they went along at a hare's pace. Unfortunately this was leading to conditions getting worse before they could ever get better.
Yet still, in his heart, he knew he could have done nothing else.
He didn't know why, really. It was just something that felt right. "Maybe there is hope for us yet," he said muffled, as the elevator came to the one hundred and fifty-seventh floor. He didn't know how to accept the old woman's words. They seemed to sink into him and rest somewhere in his thoughts. Not overpowering, but ever-present.
The car stopped quickly. Blood rushed to his head. He shook off the light-headed sensation as he braced himself firmly against the railing again. The doors hissed open, and he walked down the hallway toward his apartment. He let out a heavy sigh. Home. Even that word had little meaning to anyone. Few people in this world had a place that they truly felt safe.
Janelle sat on the edge of the seat on an thin bar stool. She hunched over the ledge of the counter, looking into the living room, ferociously jotting down notes as she conversed on the telephone. It was either Suzanne, who spoke a mile a minute, or Rebecca who took little time to let the other person speak. Janelle would always be a little trooper, into every nook of the conversation, then turn around and complain that her friends talked too much. He loved her anyway. He just hoped she didn't do the same thing to him.
She had aged much more graceful than he. He was a gruff, rugged forty-seven, the rigors of space training, and worry having taken its toll. She was a piece of work all together. Her skin a light shade of brown, her legs still firm and smooth. He loved it when she would wrap her arms around him. They were thin yet strong. He would always imagine that she would never let him go. Her face was still youthful. Unlike most of her friends, the only cosmetic nano-surgery she'd had was to remove a mole that had worried her doctor more than herself.
Often he would lay there beside her at night after one of his dreams, unable to fall asleep, wondering what it was that he'd done to deserve someone so beautiful. She told him he must have made a deal with the devil, and that someday he was going to have to pay.
He walked across the room to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. A wall of cold air rushed at him and bathed his face. He grabbed a bottle of juice and since she was occupied on the phone, drank it straight from the container in front of her. She shot him a look, but continued on in her same tone as if she weren't even upset. He smiled, courageously placed the container back inside, and walked over to his wife. She wouldn't acknowledge him as he stood there, so he walked around the counter and stood behind her, lightly pecking her with soft kisses on the neck. She liked it, he could tell. That was why she kept slapping at him, trying to shoo him away. Finally his strategy worked. She began to cut off whoever was on the phone, then shortly, she had hung up.
"No, you did not drink out of the container, then put it right back," she said. Attitude seeped from her when she spoke. He didn't say anything. He just looked into her eyes then closed in for a kiss.
It was deep, and their lips rolled over each other a few times before they came up for air.
"And if you think you can just come in here..."
He kissed her again.
"So how is Father Daly?" she said, leaning back against the counter. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand, and let out a relieved breath of air.
"He's fine, and said to say hello." Looking over his shoulder he spied the notes she had scribbled. "Who was that? You weren't using the vid function."
"It was just Rebecca," she said. Truman reached over and grabbed the paper, perusing it as she held him tighter.
"How is that old windbag?" he asked.
Janelle hit him in the chest, and pouted, poking out her lip. "Don't talk about her like that. She's my friend." Grinning, he gave her an apologetic look. "Sometimes Truman..."
Even though an argument was brewing, he felt them moving in closer. Her arms squeezed around him. She stopped pouting.
"So what's going on?"
"She wants me to go to some convention with her next week. They're trying to install some new computer system in the schools, and the Board of Education is demonstrating it. Although, if we're all here next week I'd be surprised."
"What do you mean by that?" he said.
"You mean you hadn't heard. It's been on all the News channels all day."
Truman turned from his wife and looked toward the television. "On," he said loudly. "Channel 52." The screen flashed in a quick white light, then slowly the screen digitized, the picture unfroze and began moving. The reporter was talking about something, a map of the European front of the War covered the screen, with a red caption, saying "Colin Hurnforsch: Live" in bold white letters. Small red stars covered various locations on the map. They could only mean more fighting. The sites were along the Euro-Russian border with the ACC. There was a blue line to the right of the screen denoting it, and a green one to the left denoting another division. In between was a white space filled with diagonal yellow lines. The United Nations had lost more territory. Not very good news.
Janelle walked beside him and shouted a 'lower volume' command to the televison.
"They've been talking about using that missile again. The Assimilator? The UN brought sanctions today against the ACC again. They've attributed the bombing of Parliament in London on the ACC or guerrillas affiliated with them. Marauders have been attacking some of the mining sites in the Belt again. And to make it all worse, the UN is blaming the disappearance of the Lady Grey on either them or the ACC."
"That's insane," Truman said. "The possibility is there, but in fact we have nothing to support that theory."
The News report began, a computer animated representation of the Assimilator, a smooth silver pill slipped through the dark simulation. It moved in toward the Earth then exploded in a cloud of fire, mushrooming toward the heavens.
"Science fiction," Truman said. Janelle looked at him puzzled. "I can't believe some of the things they try to feed people. And the sad part is that like sheep everyone believes it." He walked closer at the screen, images of mass destruction zooming across it. "Look at this. Volcanoes? Tidal waves? The truth is that neither the UN or the ACC has a full grasp on the destruction that thing could cause. They know what they think it can do, but no one is stupid enough to test it."
"That's why no one has ever used it?" Janelle said.
"Hon, the ACC can be fanatical, but they are by no means ignorant."
"Worried," he asked looking into her eyes.
"Not really. We've been in a state of war for the better part of the last twenty six years. What's an exploding planet going to do to make people feel any worse than they already do?" She reached down to the golden knob on the set and turned off the picture. "How's Father Daly?"
"Fine," Truman said. He was waiting for her to ask about his hand. She gave it passing glances but left the topic alone. Truman knew her too well. She didn't want to know what had happened. She already worried too much...especially after Tyler. "Who called?"
"Oh yeah," she started. "I sent a digi-mail to Sarah for you."
Truman was annoyed. Creases grew thicker upon his dark-skinned forehead. "Why'd you bother? I could have left last week, hell, last year and she wouldn't care."
"I bother because she's our daughter and I love her even if it has been two years since she's spoken to us. You love her too you stubborn windbag."
She was right. He'd never admit it though. "Okay, okay. So who called?" It was his signal, acknowledged through twenty five years of marriage. Topic for discussion later. Much later.
"The secretary at the base called. Needs you to okay some paper work." Janelle gracefully strode across the room and walked into the bedroom. Truman heard the closet door sliding open and the sound of clothes brushing past each other. "Captain Ramirez called too."
"The Captain?" he said. "I wonder what she wants."
"You I imagine," she said. Truman thought he heard humor in her tone, but wasn't sure. "Just kidding. Besides, she couldn't take you even if I let her."
Truman smiled as he sat next to the phone and activated the vid function. A listing of white numbers scrolled upward across the green-tinted screen. "Ramirez," he said as the number lit up and the phone began to auto-dial. He waited there for a moment. Three rings, then Ramirez answered the phone.
Ramirez here...Oh," she seemed startled. "Truman."
"Hi Ramirez. It's been a while. Everything smooth for your launch window?"
She seemed nervous. Antsy as she looked away, telling and unknown person to leave the room behind her. She turned back toward the screen then began again.
"Listen Truman. At first I called to coordinate some things between UNASA and the command crew--to see if everything was up and running from the ground."
"But," Truman said. He knew he wasn't going to like what he had to hear.
"But..." she hesitated. "I just got the manifest and crew list of the Lady Grey."
He could hear the paper rustling in her hand as she fumbled it around. "I don't know how to say it other than just to say it." She exhaled then began. "It seems that one Sarah Sanders, African American, twenty-three years old was onboard. Her address is in Los Angeles. I've checked on it, but wasn't sure until just before you called."
Truman sat motionless. Speechless.
"Truman," Ramirez said with a slight Spanish accent. "Your daughter was onboard that ship. She's one of the missing crew."
He could not believe his ears.
"I'm here Ramirez," Truman said. He looked toward his bedroom and heard Janelle still rummaging through the closet. He looked back at the screen. He didn't believing what he was about to say.
"In three days, when that ship leaves, I'm going to be on it." He felt his controlled breathing begin to slip slightly into an erratic pattern. "Pull strings. I'll pull some on my end. But I'm going to be on that ship."
"I thought you'd say that." she replied. "Will do. I'll call you later to let you know. Ramirez out."
The screen went blank. Truman, almost shivering, rested his head into his hands, elbows propping him up on the table. He heard footsteps coming from the bedroom. Janelle stood in the doorway holding up a dress. Truman looked at her. She looked back.
"What?" she said. "What happened?"
He stood from the wooden stool then walked over to his wife.
"You may want to sit down hon." He gently cradled her arms with his. "You're not going to believe this.
May 12, 1969
Jenna could not sleep. The wild sounds of the night permeated through her shelter seemingly in a direct line for her ears. She tossed and turned for three hours before she finally decided to forgo the formality of lying down. She decided to just get up and do something productive.
Even though she had been awake the entire time, her body still felt drained and listless. Her limbs were weak, her neck aching. She needed sleep, but it was stubborn in coming tonight. Stretching her arms above her head and pointing her toes straight away she tensed her muscles. Tiny spasms quivered throughout her body. Relaxation flooded inward, filling the void, but soon the tension crept back in, pushing her peace further away. She cursed Bimini. The University. She cursed Howard McGrath. She cursed herself.
Jenna contemplated reading, but after two pages and realizing she had absolutely no idea of what she'd read, she decided to go outside for a brisk walk, hoping to clear her mind. And perhaps expunge a few demons.
She pulled her Khaki pants on over her shorts. They were wrinkled, and smelled musty from having sat in her dirty clothes pile for at least three weeks. It hadn't been this cool outside since early April. They felt a bit loose, sagging and hanging on her upper hips loosely, even though she was wearing the shorts beneath them. She didn't really care about her appearance anyway. Besides, she thought. Who would be up at three AM to condemn my hygiene or fashion sense?
The waters crawled across the shore, the crashing sound of the waves in the distance betrayed the peace that stood directly before her. The still warm water slid gently around her feet as she stood staring out toward the sea. Somewhere out there in the darkness lay the Bimini Road. And somewhere beyond that, a temple that she may or may not have imagined beneath the sea.
She hadn't applied much intellectual thought to the possibility of there actually being a temple beyond her grasp. She thought that if she'd contemplated it enough it would make the possibility real, and if it were real it would undermine the basis of most everything she believed whether closely held personal rituals or rejected ideas. Somewhere along the way she'd forgotten that she was striving to find the Truth. It was as though all she fought to challenge paled to the act of challenging, itself. Ironic she thought. She'd spent her entire career trying to debunk the established beliefs of the scientific community. But, once confronted with something from the outside, she struggled herself to assimilate it. Her problem was she just couldn't.
The heavy, wet, sand covered her feet to her ankles. As the waves washed in she sunk slowly into the earth. Wiggling her toes, she felt the fine, gritty, texture of the grains around and between them. She'd never been to a beach before, seen the sand, until she'd attended the University of Vermont. North Beach on Lake Champlain had calmer surf, fresh water, and quieter surroundings. But after arriving in Bimini she realized that the shores of Lake Champlain had been a flat imitation of the one before her. This beach was somehow truer, real, and primal. A beautiful and violent spectacle stretching across the horizon. One strong tug from an errant wave could crumble and smash a human body, dragging it out to sea.
What could the entire ocean, if it so desired, do to an entire island?
Wild birds screeched beyond the dark wall of trees leading to the jungle within. Beyond the thicket was her tent, still lit and glowing alone within the dark. Beyond it was the general encampment. It sat atop a slightly sloping hill. Jenna saw the light shining in the guest cabin. Palmer must still be awake.
She walked through the thick foliage, branches and tall grass brushed against her pants. She held her sneakers in her hand, allowing the thick blades to tickle the tops of her feet. Once she reached the first line of trees, the grass faded away, leaving a relatively bare forest floor, with thin-trunked trees sprawled amid the thicker ones. The canopy cut off the sky from her view, but sometimes it would peek through. Not that she would have actually been able to see much of the heavens tonight. Fluffy, dark, billowing clouds hung heavy in the sky, bottomside covered in darkness, topside tinged by the moonlight.
She came through the trees.
The campsite was situated in a semi-circle, at the top of a short narrow path surrounded by vegetation. The entire sight was cast in muddied colors. The greens and browns from the flora seemed dull and inactive, waiting for the light to bring them life and color. The occupants of the tents were probably asleep. In a few days they would have to leave. Large wooden crates, some made of fresh wood, some dark and molded and obviously having arrived with the first team three years ago, rested beside and behind the tents in succession. Everyone but Jenna was prepared to leave. Even if she didn't want to stay for research all she had to return to was an empty apartment in the faculty housing complex and snowfall eight months out of the year. "What's the big hurry?" she said aloud. Embarrassed, she looked around to see if anyone was there to hear her. Somehow the sounds one makes in the dark seem louder than in the day. She detected no movement however and continued on toward the cabin.
The guest cabin was primarily used as a lab for experiments and for the occasional medical emergency. So far in the three years since they'd been there, there had only been two such emergencies. The first was a jelly fish sting on the arm of Enrique, one of the university assistants. The other was Jenna herself, who'd contracted some kind of stomach bug, and became severely dehydrated. They both recovered quickly from their injuries. Enrique was given an ointment for his wound, supposedly local, and Jenna was ordered to work less, and drink more water. She slowed down for only two days however, then was back to work.
The light from the cabin shown dimly through the window now. It had seemed much brighter from a distance, but Jenna thought Palmer might have lowered the lights while she'd been in the forest. The cracks between the individual slats running vertical around the cabin were illuminated, softly glowing, casting strips of light along the ground and across her face. There was a faint sound of movement inside. A wind rustling the leaves, or echoes from a distance. She couldn't decide which it was. She slid around the corner and walked up the short wooden steps. They creaked wearily as she stepped on them, the rough, damp, wood feeling strange beneath her bare feet. Inside Palmer sat zombie-like, erect at the end of a table. The spectral analyzer lay dormant, waiting for the next test. Palmer held the orb, cradled in his hands. He was silent and contemplative.
"Palmer," she said from behind him. He did not move. She walked closer and lay a hand heavily on his shoulder. He responded, slowly turning his head. It was strange for a moment that he did not seem startled, but Jenna soon forgot as he turned his attention toward her.
"Oh, hi, uh, Jen," he said, his voice warbling from disuse. He looked weary, less from lack of sleep and more from a failure to grasp at something mentally. She'd had that sensation many a night herself. Looking into the bathroom mirror she'd got a glimpse of the "weary wonder." Too many nights of Grad-level Chemistry had made her familiar with the look. It didn't suit her. Palmer either. He looked at her shaking his head, letting his body tell the story more than his words. "I just don't get it."
I knew you wouldn't.
"Even with the naked eye this thing threatens to demolish what we believe about archeology. And if that falls, geology, history, biology and God know's what else would follow before we knew...." He paused squeezing his brow between his thumb and middle finger, tensing and relaxing his face. He rubbed downward with the same hand, then let out a deep sigh. "I shouldn't be holding this thing in my hand right now. I can't be."
"Someone in my corner?" Jenna asked.
"I wouldn't go that far," he replied. "There's not enough here for me to venture and declare all that we believe about the history of this planet is false...that the world indeed isn't flat."
"But," Palmer sighed. "But I'm intrigued. I will say that." He stared deep into the orb. Reflections and events running across his mind. He dared not dream of the truth. The truth can sometimes destroy. "What are you doing up anyway? What time is it?"
"Three," she said bluntly. She knew his mannerisms. He always had to segue into a topic he felt was risque. Something tinged with danger. She wasn't going to wait for him to fumble around until he hit the mark. "It would only take us twenty minutes," she said. "I can pilot the boat out and have us back before the sun's up."
She struck the right tone. Palmer's face lit up.
"Okay," he said. "Let's do it."
She dropped three flares down into the depths as Palmer sat regulating his apparatus, assuring himself and Jenna that the dive would be safe and seamless. Jenna pulled the mask over her face. She was nervous. Not from fear, but from anticipation. She prayed they'd find something.
Palmer was a bit calmer, still not knowing quite what to expect. He looked at Jenna under the moonlight. He noticed her form looked slimmer, her silhouette sleeker. He'd heard she was working too hard. Now he could see it. She was pushing herself beyond reason. Taking herself to an edge Palmer couldn't guarantee he could bring her back from.
"Exorcizing my demons," she said.
"What?" Palmer asked. Until then, there had been no words spoken between the two.
"Earlier, you asked me what I was doing out at three AM," she replied. "I was exorcizing my demons."
Palmer placed the mask above his head. "I hope you do Jen," he said. He slid to the edge of the boat, attached the breathing apparatus to his mouth, and dropped backwards into the dark water.
Looking above him he could see Jenna's silhouette sinking above him. It swam eerily as the moon rippled on the surface of the water. Looking downward he could see the last of the flares still dropping to the ocean bottom. Further down were two small dots, pinpoints of light from the other sticks that had already reached the sand floor.
For Jenna's sake he hoped they would find something. She seemed so fragile now. He did not want to see her break.
It took them twenty minutes to reach the bottom. Once there, they left one flare burning and bubbling in the water, while they took the other two and began to follow the side of the massive Bimini Road. Jenna swam in front, a large flashlight making a path into the darkness. She lead the way like a guide, desperate to make sure her charges didn't have to suffer through a harsh night.
Palmer was fascinated by the great stone blocks that ran beside him. When it had been discovered late the preceding year, he'd seen pictures and descriptions of it, but none of them could compare to the sheer power the stones actually held.
He didn't know how anyone could begin to think this "road" was a natural formation. Nature was too random to produce something nonliving that followed some sort of symmetry. Like the orb he'd been studying for most of the night, the Bimini Road threatened to destroy the status quo of knowledge. And what the scientists did, who had everything to lose by admitting they did not hold the truth, was suppress the truth. Debunking was a science in it's own right.
Jenna swan, soldiering forward, while Palmer looked periodically at the wall rising above him as well as into the thick darkness mere feet away from him. She was near where she thought she'd seen the phantoms. Where she had taken the orb. But she wasn't sure. Palmer could tell. She would stop, look around, desperation striking because it was the only feature of her face that he could clearly see.
She stopped and turned. She jerked all the way around. Three hundred and sixty degrees. One hundred and eighty. She signaled to move on forward, then as Palmer began to follow she stopped suddenly. She stuck her thumb up and pointed it toward the surface. She had given up. It was the first time Palmer had seen that from her.
They rose, Jenna breaking the surface first. She took a deep inhale as she removed her mask. Clinging to the side of the boat she waited for Palmer to remove his gear. He'd have sworn she was in tears if her face hadn't already been wet. She spit out the acidic salt water and slicked her hair back as she spoke to Palmer. "I still have the demons I guess."
Palmer looked frankly at her hoping she could see his face in the darkness. "It's one thing to battle your demons Jenna." He paused. It was here that their friendship just might come to an end. "It's another matter to battle them and still look sane to the people around you."
Neither spoke another word, instead listening to the sound of water lapping against the side of the boat. The sun rose slowly in the distance, the sky a canvas of smeared oils--red, orange and yellow.
From across the sea they heard the roaring of machines. Over the horizon flew a swarm of helicopters moved toward the tiny island. A new day had arrived, and so too, soon would Dr. McGrath.
May 13, 1969
The storm rolled in slowly, the sky a deep dark grew as the temperature noticeably dropped. The warm air was supplanted by a cold one, biting and reaching to the core. Jenna shivered, then noticed that it had been one of the few times she had actually done so since she'd been on the island. She sat in the research boat with Palmer, Dr. Fritz, and McGrath. Three other assistants accompanied them, each fresh faced college students, eyes wide at the prospect of their first expedition. She hated to think so, but she was quite jaded. She sat alone in the front of the boat, holding her scuba gear. In a small pack strapped around one shoulder was the orb. She decided to bring it along this time. Beside them, flanking her boat on either side were sleek crafts, manned by U.S. Army soldiers and crew. McGrath had brought some friends along.
The voices and sounds she’d heard seemed to grow louder, yet she realized she heard nothing with her ears. There was something that was strange about this object. And if she could relocate the temple where she’d originally found it, she was convinced she could solve what it was that puzzled her.
The boats cut a white foamy path out to sea. The boats were filled with doctors and a few native islanders, an army documentary crew, and soldiers standing menacingly with long gleaming spear guns and automatic weapons. They sat along the sides of the boat, two checking on the camera and the others waiting to arrive at the dive site.
Jenna had fought with McGrath and the Army Colonel Mikintrick, arguing that the weapons would not be necessary on an underwater archeological dig. But she knew that there had to be something going on if the army had been called in. Besides, after being threatened with being left behind, she closed her mouth, quiet but simmering with anger over her project being taken over.
Soon they would be in the water, searching for the temple ruins. McGrath and
Mikintrick knew something and they weren’t saying.
"Great," Jenna thought, while looking at a fierce looking young soldier,
fiercely holding his spear gun. "Just great."
May 19, 2037
The anterior sensor array probed ahead of the Valkerie at over 100,000 kilometers. It scanned and picked up everything from small amounts of trace dust; to micro meteors, to the large planetoids that the swung heavily around the sun. The asteroids in the belt seemed to be engaged in some slow dance of giants moving independent of each other, but somehow apart of a greater phenomenon unobservable by human eyes. They had done tests and studies in the belt the past thirty years. Even with all of the advancements in technology, scientists still did not understand why the great belt of asteroids swirled around the sun as the planets did. Truman looked intently at the scattering of rock. They stretched out before him looking like tiny grains of sand in the distance. Looking closer he saw something, a distance sparkle of light moving quickly, then disappear. It was at least 600,000 kilometers away. He leaned closer to the forward port and tried to get a better look."Getting nostalgic old man?" Henrickson said floating behind Truman. He was younger than Truman by about ten years or so, maybe a little more, a mop of wild blond hair sitting atop his head. The interruption startled him, but Truman was able to pretend as if he were not frightened in the least. He was so wrapped into his thoughts he forgot there was anything outside of himself. Truman turned slowly and gave Henrickson a telling look. The younger pilot didn’t seem to catch on though. Either that, or he just didn’t care. "By my calculations, you’re about as old as that chunk of rock hanging over there," he said pointing out the view port. He was obviously amused with himself. Truman being a good sport didn’t let the words sink too deep to sting. "Look over there," he said, letting the Lt. Commander have a clear line of site beyond the thick nano-manufactured glass. Henrickson walked in closer squinting as his eyes grew closer to the cold port. He looked out into the blackness of space. He saw nothing, save the asteroids’ slow, steady dancing amongst each other. "Don't see anything," he said looking at Truman. He quietly thought the stress might have gotten to the older man. "You sleep last night?"
"What do you mean..." he began, then caught on before his sentence was through. "I saw something out there, I don't know what it was. I don't think it's anything, but I just wanted to make sure is all," he said defensively. Everyone seemed to be a little too patronizing to him since he had come onboard a week prior. "I'm not so sure I like this," he said.
Henrickson took the cue. "Listen sir," he said to Truman even though he technically outranked the older man. "I don't know if you know this but you've been a hero of mine. Ever since I was a boy, and you took that first squadron up into space." Henrickson was grinning. Sanders could see the boyishness through his visage as the young pilot visualized the squadron beaming though space.
Henrickson didn't continue, he let his face tell what he thought. "The rest of them don't know what I know about you. Save the captain they think you're just some over the hill specialist. A Zero, who's got no experience, but power enough to pull rank anytime he wants. I know better though. Even if you may not have the stuff now, I know you had it once. You were the first up here, fighting the good fight," he said. "You can't be all bad, can you?"
Truman had turned and looked out the port again, looking for more movement. The sensors that bristled along the ship were very sensitive, but any technology, he thought could be fooled. Humans had a way of outdoing their most technologically superior advancements. "Okay," he said.
The general alarm sounded. Truman took another glance at the asteroid field. HE hadn’t seen one face-to-face in years, but he knew it when he saw it--a Marauder Frigate--headed straight for the Valkerie. Trumans’ heart leaped. He could feel its pulse pounding within his throat. The two pilots headed for the bridge. Combat. The hairs on Truman’s neck stood briskly, as the possibility of battle grew closer.
The corridors wound seemingly endless through the ship. Truman was lost amongst the bundles of wires and conduits that traversed the vessel. Henrickson moved hand over hand ahead of Truman. He looked assured, placing his hands and feet consecutively in grips along the wall as he floated bridgeward.
Twenty five years of experience in space had freed the human mind from basic concepts in ship design. The outer hull was built with ascetics in mind, the rear section for propulsion and the forward sections for everything else, but the insides were a mix of zero-g theory and continuous studies on the effect of long term space habitation.
Everyone of the corridors were circular, long tubes that extended at length from one end of the ship to the other. Generally they broke of like capillaries from a main artery, but aboard the Valkerie, they remained whole and unbroken. Small side ports opened up at varying intervals along their sides to allow the crew to egress from one tube to the next. Periodically you could find a small poster stuck up on a tube's side, either of the latest Football hero or the newest swimsuit model. Truman saw both, as he and Henrickson made it to the Bridge artery.
The rear section of the ship was devoted to the propulsion units as well as some of the technical departments onboard. The main power drive, a nuclear reactor the size of a small building actually was the aft most piece to the ship, but the engines thrusters stretched around and behind the large device. In the event of an accident, the reactor could be safely ejected, or if there was not enough time, there would be minimal loss of life amongst the crew. In all of his years as a Starship consultant, he'd never heard of an accident although he knew there had been some close calls. There were just too many procedures and protocols to allow such a thing to happen. Besides that there were too many redundant systems to take over in the event the main one should fail. For all intents the Starships were infallible, iron buttresses that could only be devastated by something larger than themselves.He was a bit winded by the time they reached the bridge. Even here the environment was for maximum efficiency in a weightless environment. The room was a large circular shell. Various ship's operations and other stations spread across the room. At the center was the Captain's chair, suspended, or raised, depending from where stood, a large display set out before her. If necessary, she could command the entire ship from the one spot with a minimal crew detail. Yet another redundant system. Truman was much too relieved to have that one. He remembered his days as a Stellar Fighter pilot. The margin of error was almost nothing in space. There was little room for mistakes.
Closest to the Bridge atrium egress was the engineering stationCa large rectangular shaped projection from the back wall. Within the area sat Eric Allen Kobayashi a heavy-set Japanese-American nanotechnician, madly pounding away at the controls. He glanced back and forth from one panel to the next. Behind him floated Teresa Russell, taking readings from the master gauge and relaying them to Kobayashi. She looked boyish in her standard issue grey UNASA jumpsuit, hair pulled back tight in a ponytail and thin-rimmed glasses. The two formed a solid team, seamlessly working together. It was in complete contrast to the way they behaved toward each other, otherwise. Truman was surprised.
To the fore of engineering was the operations station, manned by Kristal Richardson, a dark-skinned RAF lieutenant from Edinburgh, Scotland. Tina Roberson, a very young ensign and assistant to Richardson sat behind her managing to compile ships reports from the outer hull section. Kristal sat comfortably rattling of stats in her peculiar Scottish roll. She was amazing to watch. She reminded Truman of his wife almost. Not so much physically although that was definitely there with their dark skin and their similar builds. What he saw was the quiet strength--the calmness, and the confidence. Perhaps in another time or another place he might have given it a shot."It was nice of you two to drop by," the Ramirez said. She glared at them both from her command chair. Truman couldn't detect the slightest bit of sarcasm in her voice. Henrickson didn't seem to mind though, visibly brushing it off with a wave in the air as he strapped himself into his chair. Truman wasn't so brash, giving his old friend a quick apologetic look. When she looked back he didn't see a friend. He only saw a captain. "Richardson," she said turning her attention to the more pressing matter. "Give me a report."
"It's a craft. Markings...there are none. Composite metals. Steel, nano reinforced..."
"Pirates." Truman said dully. He'd seen them before. In his dreams, and in his mind. He knew it when he had seen them as nothing but a small pinpoint of light amid the field of asteroids. He felt his heart jump. Breathe, he said inwardly. He hoped the rust hadn't piled on too thick.
Richardson continued, visibly shaken a bit by his accurate assessment. "Affirmative Captain. Serial beacon registering it as ACF. The patchwork hull designates it as a Marauder vessel.
The ship’s crew felt tense upon hearing the word. The Marauders were large freight carrying transports. Their thick hulls known to withstand all sorts of armament bombardments for sustained periods of time. The short of it was that they were built to be able to withstand the meteors and micrometeorites within the Belt. Apparently they had done an adequate job. No UNASA vessel smaller than the Valkerie had ever stood toe to toe with one of the vessels without at least half her crew perishing. No one aboard the Valkerie wanted the mission to end before it had even began.
W.G. Brickstone , a man about Truman’s age with white wisps of hair covering a balding head, sat in the weapons booth, a semi-circle department on the far side of the bridge. He sat at the front of the controls, his men behind him making systems checks as some nervously stole quick looks upward at the forward instrument panel. Brickstone sat ready, fingers tensed, white knuckles showing as his hands fidgeted along the controls."Recommendations? The Captain said.
United Nations Starship policy was to give the recommended course of action from each department head. Engineering first, then Operations, Weapons then Navigation. There was silence at first, then Kobayashi sounded in, apparently previously too engrossed in his engineering duties to give his opinion."Ship running at 99% efficiency. Near perfect but for a small malfunction in one of the loading bays," he said. "Negligible," the captain said.
Kristal took her turn, first clearing her throat. Truman knew what she was doing. Making sure everyone heard her loud and clear, because they weren't going to like what she had to say. "Two more ships at maximum range Captain. Too far to identify," she said. "Recommend diverting to course heading 37-9-577 around asteroid designated Vermillus sir."
The Captain nodded her head, matter-of-factly then turned toward Brickstone."Engage the enemy," was his reply. He sat poised ready to fight. Truman didn't like that. Something about this didn't feel right to him.
"I agree with Lt. Richardson, sir." Truman said. "Marauder-class vessels are slow and we could outrun it and the other longer range vessels before we got outside of the Belt."
The captain sunk into her chair for a moment. Then just as suddenly she gave her order."Proceed on course," she said. Nearly everyone on the bridge looked up towards the captain, unsure whether or not they should believe what they'd just heard. "Do NOT engage." she finished. The crew quickly went to work.
Truman's hands tensed when she gave the order. What was she thinking?"But Captain, you can't just..."Brickstone began. "This is a multibillion dollar vessel with security sensitive materials on board!" he found himself shouting. "I can and I just did Colonel. You forget yourself. Now keep your mouth closed before I forget you."
Besides the pinging of the ship’s sensors, the bridge was quiet. "You'd need something a little thicker than a knife to cut this tension," Henrickson whispered, leaning over to Truman. "What gives? No weapons guy would be so concerned about a ship's price tag.' Truman nodded, agreeing quietly. >I don't know what his angle is, but you won't catch me turning my back to him."
Truman agreed, but turned his attention toward the viewscreen. If there was a problem with Brickstone, it would have to wait for later. "Captain," he said. He clenched the throttle ready to make a move. His heart pounded. Sweat beaded on his forehead. "The craft is maintaining it's course. We're going to collide sir."
The captain sat motionless. Proximity sirens sounded above the bridge chatter and red alert claxons. Captain Ramirez grabbed a firm hold of the support bars at her sides. "Everyone hold on," she said calmly and determined.
The two ships lumbered toward each other. One sleek ship, the Valkerie, antennae bristling from it's side. The pirate ship, a large leviathan chugged steady and unyielding. It was no mystery who would win this battle."Speed up," the Captain said. The Valkerie moved closer. Behind it the intense glow from the sun made it look like a specter. A ghost poking it's way into the depths. The Marauder vessel approached steady. The sun shown off its front almost blinding the Valkerie bridge. The automatic sun-shielding adjusted to the brightness, long shadows cast by the crew grew shorter as the bridge lighting dimmed.
The ships grew closer. There was not one heart aboard the Valkerie that was beating it's normal rhythm. The proximity alert screeched to an almost deafening crescendo. Truman could hardly breathe.
The ships were one hundred meters apart. Seventy-five. Fifty. The crew held on. Twenty. Ten. Five. One.
The proximity meter remained there.
The two craft slid past each other, the hulking freighter looking as though it might tip upward and demolish the thinner craft. Another twelve seconds. Finally they separated. The two ships distances growing. Neither ship had been touched. The crew let out a sigh of relief."Stay on your toes people, Ramirez said. "We're not through this yet. Kobayashi, give me full power to the craft. Sanders, full throttle."
Truman couldn't move. Henrickson, almost looking concerned glanced at his helm mate. Seeing that he would not move, he pushed the throttle control all the way forward. The ship suddenly leaped, jerking ahead, as the crew felt the gravity forces pushing them backward into their seats. The distance between the ships increased. The large freighter was beginning to turn around, but the bulky crafts thruster column wasn't designed for quick maneuvering."Smart girl," Henrickson said to Truman under his breathe. "By the time they turn around we'll be halfway through the Belt."
Truman didn't hear him. He couldn't hear anything. He only saw blackness and a field of stars spinning before him. He could not hear the proximity alarm sound again as the two other craft came clearer into view. They were escort craft. Small ships one eighht the size of the Valkerie. They'd be fools to try," Kristal said. She summed up the thought s of the entire crew with her statement. Everyone grew a little less tense, but still remained on edge, the feeling of battle lingering as the adrenaline still coursed through their bodies. Slowly the crafts drifted on by and met up with the larger freighter. Suddenly they stopped while the Valkerie skated over the upper crest of the Belt."Assessment," the Captain said. She was taking the opportunity to test her crew. Their readiness meant their survival. Her familiarity with their abilities meant their survival as well. "Gutsy move Capn'," Henrickson said. "Calling their bluff like that."
"It wasn't her calling a bluff so much as it was her assessing the pirates' intentions," Tina said. She stood perkily behind Kristal. If anyone had looked at the Scottish woman they might have seen smile crack as she felt a tinge of pride swelling. "Correct," the captain said. "Confrontations between a pirate craft and a UN or non-aligned craft are on an average of thirty seconds maximum, because they struck without warning, and we either destroy their craft immediately or they destroy ours."
"And we had a warning," Henrickson said. "Very good Einstein," Kobayashi chuckled. "Enough," Ramirez said. "Richardson I want an analysis of the data and com logs from this encounter. Have Roberson take a look at the scan readings. I want a report in one hour."
Richardson snapped off a crisp salute then unfastened her harness as she floated toward a group of computers opposite her operations station."Sanders," she said. Her voice changed only a fraction in tone. "My briefing room. Now."
Truman looked as though he had been scolded.
I didn't want to reprimand you in front of the crew," she said floating above him as the hovered near the observation window. "You deserve better than that."
"But?" he said. There was always a "but" in times like this."But..." she paused. "I'm taking you off the active duty roster...until we arrive at Pluto. You froze up out there Truman. And to be honest I can't have you in a capacity where you're endangering my crew."
"Fine," Truman said. He was at a loss for words. "I'm also confining you to quarters until we reach Pluto," she said. Truman looked up shocked. "Medical leave, effective immediately. You're a good pilot. One of the best. But you've got to get a handle on your problem."
He had to withhold the anger from his face. If his skin weren't so dark, he knew hat the Captain would only be seeing the red in his face.
Aye," he said snapping a salute. He floated one hundred eighty degrees then left the briefing room. He made his way across the bridge. They all were silent. Their eyes seemed to pierce him as if probing his person.
When he was left alone in the main artery his thoughts began to move to the battle. What had happened? Why did he freeze? And most important what did the captain think she'd change by sending his to his quarters? Didn't she know that now there would be nothing between him and his dreams but the cold quiet of solitude? He shuddered at the thought as he made his way deep into the ship.
"Great," Truman said. "Just Great."
June 15, 2037
The Valkerie swung slowly around planet Pluto. The crew stood huddled around nearly every view port they could. The planet was small yet impressive, a pinkish haze upon the surface diffused by a thin yellow atmosphere. Pluto did not look as icy as Truman had thought it would. Instead it appeared rocky, alternating with smooth sheets-seas of ice. It was brighter than one would have thought as well. The sun was billions of miles away and yet it shone as brightly as Earth's moon on a clear summer night. It looked still, and ominous. If not for the fact that he was searching for his daughter, Truman would have preferred to avoid the planet all together, let alone the entire mission.
The coldness of space creeps along the curve of my back. It clings to my skin, drilling into my pores, grasping at my skeleton. I am not a man. I am something less. Fear consumes the hollow of my soul. I cannot weep for I do not feel. There is no fear. I am fear.
He could feel the ship rumble slightly. Small attenuating rockets fired, adjusting the large craft in order to maintain its orbit. The vibrations shivered though Truman's arm that was clenching tightly to a support strut next to his cabin's observation window. He had been in the small room for three weeks, four...he couldn't remember nor did he care. The dreams had come to him every night. That was all that occupied his mind. And now that he was at Pluto, he knew the real trouble was about to begin.
A light rapping of someone's knuckles against the metal door of his quarters shook him from his thoughts. He let go of the strut, pushed off lightly and floated toward the door. He reached for the small intercom on the inside left panel. Pushing a small red button in, he spoke through the meshed metal microphone. The low hum of the ship's engines sounded in the background. The fabric of his uniform brushed against his body feeling cold. The ship's lights were on night rounds. A low-level spectrum of luminescence emitted from the overhead lamps. A sound came in through the intercom to his quarters. It was familiar. He'd heard it during the dream. Another dream. Someone was at the door.
He paused for a moment in front of the door rearranging himself. In his sleepy daze he'd forgotten his shirt and reached over grabbing up from a small cabinet near the door. Quickly he threw it on, tucked it in incase it was the Captain or Brickstone, the only other officers who ranked higher than he was. A quick glance in the mirror and he saw that he was as ready as he thought he'd ever be. He noticed his eyes. They looked more tired than he imagined they could be. They were swollen and puffy, dark rings faintly showing around the wrinkled crevasses.
He even looked slimmer than usual. It wasn't that much of a surprise, but to see himself in this condition added to his weary visage. No wonder no one had any faith in him. He was a wreck.
"Come in," he said backing a bit away from the door. The red neon panel above the door turned green and slid open. It was Henrickson.
"Can I come in?" he said.
Truman could have been mistaken, but the look on Henrickson's face actually looked like one of concern. "Of course," Truman said after making a severely conspicuous pause. He'd been caught of guard. Henrickson grasped the inside corners of the door and pulled himself in. He casually floated inward, supporting himself against the wall, then the dresser, then finally Truman's bed panel. Leaning back against it, he folded his arms, and crossed his legs, leisurely standing as if he were a street-smart thug on some street corner.
"We need to talk to you," he said. Truman looked back at him puzzled.
Henrickson looked around, as if he were keeping some deep secret that no one should know. "After the confrontation with those Marauders, Kristal did a standard systems check of the ship."
"And she found something strange."
Henrickson pulled a small data recorder from behind a pouch in his belt. He handed it to Truman, then folded his arms again, waiting for his reaction. As Truman read the information, Henrickson slid an arm past him and closed the quarter's door. Now they were sealed inside, silent and alone.
"This can't be..." Truman said looking up in astonishment. "They would have informed me."
"Well apparently they didn't," he replied. Truman would have taken it as a wise crack if the situation hadn't been so serious. "Since when did the UNASA Expeditionary force begin transporting Assimilator missiles on Search missions?"
Hearing the name aloud grounded the situation even more into reality. Assimilator. It could mean the end of everything they knew. "Did you check with the Captain?" Truman asked.
"Wait," he said. "There's more." He reached over to the data recorder and punched a small flashing blue button. A comm log of the ship's last twenty-four hours scrolled by. Taylor stopped it when it reached the vicinity of the encounter a few hours before. "See here?" he said pointing to a highlighted line on the small screen. "This is the primary communiqué feed. One transmission by Kristal, here, and the other by Roberson here." He scrolled a highlighting bar down to show Truman which ones he meant. "Now look here," he said. "There's a secondary code hidden on the first pattern. Barely detectable..." Henrickson stood back, almost triumphant. "To be honest I don't know how Kristal could have spotted that one. She's pretty damn good."
Truman nodded. Then he turned toward Henrickson, realizing what this meant. "So," he said. "We have a saboteur on board."
"Nailed it, man." Henrickson said, flippant even in a crisis. "There's some serious something going down and we're caught in the middle of it."
"So why come to me?" Truman asked. He already sensed it, but wanted to hear Taylor say it.
"It could be anyone of us. But by process of elimination, I'd have to narrow it down to only those present on the bridge at the time. The transmission came from one of those two transmissions, sent from the operations station."
"Can't there be an override or dummy terminal somewhere else on the ship?"
"Sure," Henrickson said. "But taking into consideration this is a new vessel where security is a priority it would take some serious know-how and time to override something of that nature. Time is one thing they wouldn't have had. The override protocols would take at least three months to program." He then paused. "And that would be a minimum."
"That would leave only three other stations then," Truman said picking up Henrickson's thought. He knew where he was headed with it. "Engineering, navigation, and Communications itself, or..."
"The Captain's chair," Henrickson said looking Truman in the eye. He was treading on very thin ice by even suggesting it, let alone saying it. "That's not what I'm thinking, so don't worry," he followed quickly. "But I did have my suspicions about someone else."
Henrickson hesitated, not wanting to say it. But he could not hold himself to silence. It wasn't in his nature. "Well, it could have been Kobayashi, but I've known him too long. I'd know if there was something up with him. Kristal has the skill, but not the time to do it. She would have had to somehow make the transmission while somehow simultaneously making a dummy transmission. She's good, but not God."
"Continue," Truman said. He knew who was next in line for the firing squad.
"There's me, but I for one know I didn't do it," he smiled. Truman did not smile back. "That leaves the three other senior officer's onboard. You, Brickstone, and the Captain. You...well you were in no shape to do anything then," Henrickson said attempting to tread lightly over that subject.
"And the Captain wouldn't do anything like that. I'd vouch for her," Truman said before Henrickson could speak the words. "So that leaves Brickstone."
"Something's up with him anyway," Henrickson said. "I don't like the guy."
"What's Kristal got to say about it?"
"She's still going over the logs," he replied. "And she's trying to decode the encryption." Henrickson paused. "But I just wanted to let you know before we get back to the bridge. I don't think all of the players are on the same team."
Truman remained silent as Henrickson casually floated backwards and exited the room.
"See ya on the bridge," Henrickson said. He saluted. Truman snapped a salute back. The doors hissed closed. Truman remained alone again. The command crew meeting was in an hour. Suddenly he was dreading the event.
May 13, 1969 6:55 am
As she plunged backward off the edge of the research boat, Jenna would rather have forgotten every last second on the last twenty minutes of the trip to the area where she thought she had found the temple before.
They'd arrived an hour before making preparations to dive. Jenna avoided McGrath as much as she could. She checked the regulators on her breathing apparatus, then suddenly became engaged in a discussion with whatever person who was unlucky enough to be standing near her. But avoid him she could only do for so long. Finally he had cornered her at the far end of the boat. She had no escape other than jumping into the water. A bit drastic she had thought, but appropriate nonetheless. Dr. McGrath laid a hand on her shoulder. She physically felt the cold shiver's racing through her body as his stale tobacco smelling breath breezed across her face and ears.
"It's good to be working with you again," the doctor said. He face betrayed the sentiment. He looked cocky and arrogant. An evil smirk hidden beneath his lips.
"I'm sure you'll understand if I don't return the sentiment..." Jenna replied. She brushed his hand violently from her shoulder. "...Doctor."
The coward she thought. He couldn't even look her in the eye.
"I just want to make one thing clear" McGrath said. "Any findings we discover, we share and split fifty-fifty. Publication goes with my name first and you remember that the University and me as well as the department head are the ones who got you here."
Jenna began to chuckle.
"What's so funny," McGrath said.
"You," she replied. "A month ago...hell, a week ago you were ready to pull all funding from the dig. Now you want to take credit for all of my..." she paused looking around at the crew scattered on the boats. "All of our work. You've got a lot of nerve. I'll give you that." She picked up her heavy SCUBA gear and began to strap the heavy metal canister on her back. She was hoping he would gesture to help her. She was going to break his arm off right then and there. "Besides," she continued. "That cameraman standing behind you got everything you just said on film."
McGrath turned, shocked and immediately hollered at the young army cameraman. Jenna stood behind them both laughing. The doctor, panicking, shuffled backward launching into a question filled session that Jenna hoped would last until they submerged into the water. Lucky her. She got her wish.
The saltwater bubbles tickled her legs as they gingerly danced upward toward the surface. As she swam downward she could feel the pressure in her ears slowly increase. The sound of the under water ocean, water pushing against her ears was a peaceful change to the loud motorboats she head earlier above the surface. Fifteen other bodies swam with her in the water. Palmer, McGrath, and Mikitrick swam toward the front of the procession. The young cameraman was off to the side. The green-blue soft light illuminated the scene. At her side inside her ragged leather pouch sat the orb. She could imagine it's strange hum reaching through the bag, calling out to her. Calling for its return. Before she knew it, she had began to slightly veer off from the rest of the party.
The water was a rich glowing blue. Sunlight shimmered through the rippling surface. Off in the distance she could see the area where the Bimini Road lay. She could not actually see the large stone blocks, but she could see the light color sand swirling and moving along with the ocean's movements.
A terrible feeling grabbed her. A sinking feeling in the stomach. The orb seemed to be more present now, making itself known to her, reminding her that it was still there.
The vision she had seen-the dreams of men holding the orb filled her mind. The men in long white robes called back for her. "Return" she heard them say. They reached high with long wrinkled and gnarled fingers, stretching for the orb. It was the same gesture as she had seen the statue making in its eons long pose. Reaching for the orb. Grasping for it.
She checked the pouch again to make sure it was there. She could feel it's smooth surface across her fingers. It was slippery yet clung snuggly to the wet leather pouch. She took care to fasten the case again, stopping in the water and glancing around. Palmer swam ahead of her along with McGrath and one of the army soldier's she hadn't had the pleasure of meeting. A thug no doubt is what she thought. She was glad they were underwater so that she did not have to talk to him. Dr. McGrath too for that matter.
They swam along for twenty minutes, a slow procession outward into the sea. The ridge where the wall met a sudden drop off had led them to a hulking black abyss. Jenna didn't know why she could not have known it was there before. It was the orb she thought. It had to be. She swam toward Palmer and looked him in the eye. Downward she motioned. They had to go down.
Palmer's eyes widened. She was sure he was more than reluctant to go down into such an unknown dangerous situation, but Jenna know him well enough to know that the spirit of the adventure would push him forward.
He shrugged his shoulders. Jenna smiled. Palmer kicked his legs and bent his body downward. Jenna followed him. McGrath and the soldier soon were taking up the rear. Jenna struck a flare lighting the water in an eerie orange-blue hue. They headed downward.
The temple was as Jenna had remembered it. Sticking inconspicuously above the silt, an ancient stone monument looking as though it had not aged a day. The surface was surprisingly smooth and free of erosion. Jenna ran her hand across the surface, remembering the tactile sensations she had had a week before. Calmly she closed her eyes, validated by the finding in the presence of Palmer and especially McGrath. She didn't worry about who would take credit at the moment. For now at least she know that no matter what they found she would be considered "right." They swam around the corner of the temple that peeked above the sand. Jenna's memories returning steered them toward the small entrance of the temple. She turned to look at their faces before going in. All looks of wonderment combined with fear. She had felt the same way before. But she didn't care. She was going back in.
She wound her way through the lazy labyrinth inside. Taking care to make subtle movements so that she would not kick up too much silt making it difficult to find their way back. Even so, Palmer was swimming in the back of the group dropping flares at every fifty feet or so. He wasn't taking any chances. Smart boy, Jenna thought. Suddenly they entered the chamber.
Except for the missing orb in the hands of the statue in the center of the room, it looked exactly the same as when Jenna had left it. Fish swam through the room, lazily floating in the water, perhaps serving as the temple's eyes, or maybe they were minding their own business. Jenna didn't care as she pushed herself off the wall and swam toward the outstretch hands. A metallic rod looking like golden glass rested between the hands and reached high above into the chamber's ceiling. She doubted anyone else could hear it, but the humming was even louder. It resonated within her head, a singing, ringing, cacophony of melodious voices and the purest white noise. Floating upward she reached into her pouch for the orb.
Sliding her hand across the wall she felt something. Metal, a rusty clasp. She held it tightly, not believing it was true. No civilization here? she thought looking at McGrath. Not likely. The hole was small, but wide enough for what she intended to do. She slid her outstretched arm through the ring, then hooked it, holding her steady while the waves swirled and bubbled around her. She held the orb tightly reaching it toward the outstretch hands She lightly placed it in the statute. The humming ceased.
Through the murkiness she saw Palmer's silhouette. He swam fast toward her, kicking and holding the spear gun. When he stopped his eyes grew wide. Slowly, Jenna realized he was not looking at her, but behind her. She turned quickly expecting to see some predator. Instead she saw the altar brightly lit, a cascade of rainbow colors radiated in a subtle pattern. She turned to Palmer, trying to keep from hyperventilating.
She only needed to nod her head. He nodded back. Slowly they swam toward the statue. Jenna was shaken with fear. But assuredly she neared the orb and the statues hands examining the event closely.
Inside the room grew a bright white. Palmer touched her shoulder and when she turned toward them he pointed upward. She followed his gesture and looked toward the ceiling. It was covered in a strange crystal that had a distinct, metallic-gold color. Through the rod that fell from the ceiling a strange reddish glow seemed to travel down its length. The orb sparkled and glistened in the light. Large stone pillars ancient supports covered in sea vegetation were clearly seen in the light. A thick crust of coral made it appear beautiful. The sand, sediment from centuries at least, lightly floated, suspended in the water.
It was them that she noticed the water was colder than it should be. Much colder, as if a stream of cold flowed from somewhere within the room. Palmer noticed it too. He scanned the floor as if searching for something in particular, Jenna assumed an opening of some sort. They were small, in comparison to the large supporting pillars, stands, empty, but looking as though they once held something, showing of some ancient secret. At the end of the room was a large altar, a stone edifice rising up from beneath the silt. From the top of the room a bright beam poured down from an unknown source.
She felt the orb. It was pulsating, vibrating. Slowly she realized the pulses were in rhythm with the lights cascading around her. She knew it then. A hunch. Something she might have read in some hoaky fifties science fiction magazine. But she swam closer to the light. She reached into the pillar of light emanating above the orb
When Palmer saw what she was going to do, he almost panicked and swam frantically toward her. At the entrance to the back of the room, the tiny points of light grew brighter. Jenna placed her entire body directly into the beam of light. She was frightened, but fascinated. Acting rashly she knew-but didn't want to let this opportunity pass her by. She acted without thinking. She swam all the way into the light. There was an intense bright flash. Intense cold surrounded their bodies. The water seemed to be electrified, but Jenna knew it was something more than that. It was energy. She felt her mind slipping away from her body.
Beneath her, through the small opening in the back of the room, the rest of the army divers began to pour into the room. Mikitrick was in front. He swam assuredly toward her. His visage, stern. She could see the camera crew at the entrance, there faces in awe at what they saw. She sensed something. It seemed to taste their minds.
The light was an intense white. Then suddenly there was another bright flash. She could no longer see Palmer. He was a dull gray silhouette amidst a pure white backdrop. She couldn't keep her eyes open any longer from the luminas. The energy tingled her body. Then, almost as soon as it began, there was nothing.
Jenna Munro was no more.
June 15, 2037 0320hrs E.S.T.
"Energy signatures are coming from here and here," Richardson said pointing to the holographic globe circling above the conference table. It’s soft blue light reflected off the tired faces of the crew. Truman squeezed his eyes and attempted to hold in a yawn but wasn’t very successful. Like a contagion it passed on to Kobayashi who made a huge display, stretching his arms upwards, as well as Roberson who’s head nodded weightlessly periodically collapsing backwards as she uncontrollably lost consciousness then awoke again. Eventually she gave up the fight, folding her arms on the table and placing her head down. Truman felt a little sorry for her. First time in space. He remembered it all to well.
The holographic model of Pluto featured two flashing orange lights positioned to scale about two miles apart.
"The smaller seems to be coming from a large flat plain, akin to a lunar ‘sea’ of dust and rock, or whatever Pluto’s surface is composed of," Richardson said. "Here," she pointed, "…is a small valley of some sort. A much larger source of energy is emanating from there."
"So let me guess," Henrickson said breaking in. The Captain sat relaxed yet aware, strapped into her sit at the head of the table. Henrickson seemed to know just when he could and couldn’t push the envelope of protocol and regulations. Either that or he had a way of charming the pants from the offended when he had done so. The Captain barely acknowledged him, even though Richardson stopped, as if to give the Captain a chance to chime in and rein in the ship’s co-pilot. No such luck. "You’re landing us down near the big one right?"
"Not exactly," Richardson replied. "Tina," she said deferring to her young assistant. If they hadn’t had different last names, and the crew hadn’t known any better, they would have the thought the two women were sisters. Both of African decent, both thin-framed, and both strikingly beautiful. Besides their age difference of nine years the only other major difference was the way they spoke. Richardson, having been born and raised in Edinburgh spoke with the rich, roll of a Scottish lowlander while Roberson had the distinctive accent of a native of Queens, New York.
Tina Roberson in a sleepy haze, began to speak, clearing her throat of the phlegm of inactivity.
"The smaller energy source is probably one of the Lady Grey’s away shuttles. Our reading are indication a power fluctuation differential of two point eight nine percent,"
"Meaning?" Brickstone said impatiently. He played the role of "bitter man" too well. Truman decided to definitely keep an eye on him.
"Meaning, that the energy signature is in line with the standard emissions from a shuttle of that size…the larger signature is off the scale. Radiation, the Lady Grey, whatever it is it’s not safe to approach until we secure the outer area. The shuttle landing site is the most logical pace to begin, given our mission."
"Which is?" Kobayashi said.
"To find my daughter," Truman said.
This crew was silent.
The away team sat aboard the shuttlecraft Thor, strapped in to metal harnesses and reinforced nano-manufactured frames. The impact upon the surface was much lighter than Truman had anticipated. Where he was expecting large explosions from erupting methane and concussion blasts as the craft should have rocked, instead there was a slight, almost silent roar from the thrusters until the vessel lightly landed upon Pluto’s surface.
Standard procedure was to wait while the pilot made a round of post-landing checklists, securing the landing site, gauging the vessels structural integrity, and assessing the performance of the landing struts. Henrickson gave the okay after two minutes. The checklist should have been longer but he received more than enough help from Truman, who anxiously monitored the readings.
He stood with his armored UNASA geo-suit on. It was specially designed for "gravity situations" as termed by the engineers. The boots were rigid—solid metal, yet very light due to the nano-steel used in their design. The rest of the suit consisted of a series of tubes and conduits covered in a shiny outer covering to protect the suit and it’s wearer from the harshest elements. They regulated the wearer’s temperature from the hottest hot environments to the coldest cold. Somehow, Truman looking outside, thought that one suit wouldn’t be enough to keep his rear from freezing.
"I want everyone to be ready to deploy in ten minutes he said." His legs quivered slightly, adjusting themselves to the renewed feeling of gravity, albeit it a very slight one, beneath him. His act of command was a surface exercise. He felt no authority inside. There was no confidence, or belief in the rightness of his post. He only knew he wanted to find his daughter and he needed these people to help him. As long as they never questioned him, it meant that they could not see though the façade of bravado he had created. They would not be able to see the scared middle-aged man whose heart raced faster than he knew it should.
The group consisted of Truman, Henrickson, Kobayashi’s assistant Teresa Russell, Kobayashi, Richardson, and a crewman Anthony Sebastian. They meticulously suited up, checking each other’s suit making sure they were fully sealed. Then one last time they each checked there own garments. Richardson went through a microphone check with each person, making sure they were all patched into the Thor, which fed directly to the Valkerie’s communications station, which was being manned by Roberson. After ascertaining that everyone was indeed squared away, Richardson turned and gave Truman the thumbs up.
Truman took a low deep sigh. He held it in for seven seconds then exhaled, counting out to ten.
"Alright people," he said. "Let’s get moving."
Henrickson reached to the forward flight panel and punched a series of keys in a combination so fast that even if someone was trying to look they wouldn’t have seen a thing. The ambient sounds of the ship’s interior grew lower and lower. The pings, and chirps and whirring of the equipment began to disappear as the air leak silently from the cabin. It continued until the air pressure matched the estimated pressure outside. Henrickson reached down and shot the sequence off.
Kobayashi then released the front rear walkway. It descended from the belly of the craft slowly and lazily. Truman heard the slight suction as Pluto’s atmospheric gases raced into the cabin. He took one step forward, tentatively bouncing on the ramp in order to see whether it was stable or not. After judging that the ramp would not budge, he settled all of his weight onto the metal walkway. Slowly he began to edge forward. He took a few steps. A soft crunch of dusty ice sounded beneath his feet. Truman was walking of the surface of Pluto. He couldn’t believe it.
"Too creepy," Henrickson said. He was looking toward the silent still Westminster from the Lady Grey, it running lights still flashing bright red, alternating with a flash of white light.
Truman struck out in that direction already, not waiting or caring if anyone else was coming along.
"Well," Richardson said. She held a large boxy machine—long antennae extending from it. She looked at Kobayashi, who in turn shrugged his large shoulders. She stuck out after him, followed by the rest of the straggling team.
Richardson had been fiddling with the communications device since they had arrived. At first it was a slight crackle, growing to a garbled, disembodied, voice. Truman heard the Captain’s voice grow stronger as Richardson homed in on the Valkerie’s signal.
"Everything all right down there?" Ramirez said. Truman could hear the genuine concern in her voice, but he would never mistake that concern for weakness.
"Green light’s all around," Henrickson said, speaking before anyone could get out a serious answer.
"We’re approaching the Westminster, Captain," Richardson said before Henrickson could begin one of his famous, hour-long comedy routines. "We’re approximately 1 kilometer away."
"Do ya think you could have parked us a little closer Lance?" Kobayashi asked Henrickson.
"He couldna help it," Richardson answered for him. "We don’t know what we’re up against. Until the area is secured we canna take the…"
"Risk. I know, I know," Kobayashi finished.
"What are you complaining about Eric," Henrickson said to the nanotechnician. "Gravity being what it is, you could damn near jump to the shuttle in two or three leaps."
"Cut the chatter," Truman said. His nerves were frayed thin already. He didn’t need all of the talking to make it anymore worse.
"Truman’s right," Ramirez said, sounding over the comm. Her voice was clear yet tinny and metallic through the helmets systems. "If anything goes wrong down there I want to know for sure it’s a crisis and not Lance opening his mouth."
"Which in my book is a bigger crisis than anything this planet can throw at us," Kobayashi said.
"Don’t make me make you eat those words kid…"
"All right!" Truman shouted. "Knock it off!"
There was silence followed by yessirs.
The away team continued on toward the shuttle, everyone careful to make sure they did not cross Truman Sanders’ ire.
The shuttle looked cold, it’s hull devoid of any form of activity except for the still flashing running lights. There were no signs of any sorts of battles or skirmishes anywhere. Just like the Lady Grey, it was as if they had disapperad leaving no clues or whereabouts of where they had gone.
Except for the footprints.
"Where do they head?" Ramirez asked.
Richardson held another strange device, this time holding it in the air, then glancing down at her wrist comm. "It appears to be heading in the direction of the larger power source," she said.
"Well that makes sense," Ramirez replied. "But did it happen before or after the Lady Grey disappeared?"
"Only one way to find out," Henrickson said. He walked over to the shuttle and slid his hand beneath the underside of the shuttle. Seconds later the ramp lowered. Henrickson stood to the side allowing Truman to enter first.
Truman aimed his shoulder-lamp upward. There were no lights coming from inside.
"Curiouser," Henrickson said.
Truman seemed to ignore him. He cautiously grabbed one of the ramp struts and began to ascend into the shuttle’s airlock. "Richardson and Kobayashi come with me. The rest of you stay outside and keep a look out."
"Yeah," Henrickson said. "Well keep an eye open for the killer snow."
The air began to fill the room quickly. Slowly the ambient noise usually heard on a ship of that size began to return. The random clicking and whirring of a ship of that type was fairly commonplace. It’s almost decrepit condition, even before it had seen the face of Pluto would have but the fear of God into anyone not familiar with the resourcefulness of those chosen few who resided in space for long periods of time. The command and pilot panels were a mix and match of various systems. Some new, some old, and some not even permitted aboard United Nation’s affiliated ships.
Richardson immediately slid into the command chair, assessing the status of the ship.
"Fully operational," she said. "At least the navigation, life-support and communications are."
Kobayashi shouted from the back. "Propulsion is running too…well it will be with a few nano-repairs. Five to ten minutes tops. If we wanted to we could fly her up to the Valkerie."
"Good" Truman said. "Get on it."
Kobayashi made his way to the back of the craft, removed the nano-instrument panel and looked inside. He made a heavy sigh as he examined it. He pulled a short metal rod from his metallic canister that was attached to his suit’s arm. Deliberately he placed thee rod into the panel then proceeded to work.
"Can you access the logs or transmissions? Video feeds or sensor logs?" Truman asked Richardson.
"Sure she said," then proceeded to punch in a series of commands. "Bloody," she said pausing for a moment. "These systems are patched together pretty randomly it would seem. It’s a wonder this craft can work at all." She punched in a few more commands. A large two meter screen slid down in front of the forward display. Truman recognized it from his days as a pilot in the First Lunar War. They were primarily used as navigation through any sort of light that was unseeable by the human eye, as well as any place that was too bright to see in. Somehow they had rigged it to serve as their video display.
Green blue static crackled across the screen as Richardson attempted to access whatever information she could find. Truman sat anxiously in the pilot’s chair next to her.
As the screen came to life, his heart sank.
He hadn’t seen her face in four or five years…he had lost count after the first. After then, everyday seemed like an eternity to him. Janelle said that she was too much like her father. Too stubborn with not enough common sense to admit she was wrong. And in this case she wasn’t. Truman was.
She looked slightly older, her face seeming to have filled out a bit from the skinny, bespeckled teenager that had roamed the seventy-fifth floor of the HiTown apartments. She was even more beautiful now than her growing body had promised to be. Even through the grime and sweat, her fresh faced visage shone through.
"Can you increase the audio?"
"Compensating," she said.
Suddenly he could hear her voice. He forgot what it had sounded like. Too often he had heard it shouting and screaming at him. She was the Sarah Sanders that Truman remembered--sweet yet confident and strong.
She was sitting in the chair Richardson sat in now. Her arms stretched out over the control panel. There was an intense look of distress on her face. Truman’s heart went out to her.
"It’s been three days," she said. Wearily she supported herself body against the instrument panel. "Denton is still in the structure…"
The Valkerie away team looked at each other puzzled.
"Structure?" Richardson said.
The data file continued.
"We haven’t heard anything from the Lady Grey in three days. Our sensors can’t locate anything nearby. This doesn’t look good."
Truman moved closer to the screen, squinting as though he could better make out the details of his daughter’s face. A parental instinct that had not faded with time. Even with the years that they has spent apart, the time when he knew that if she even heard his name she would feel disgusted or hurt, he cared and wanted to protect her.
"I don’t have the heart to tell Denton either. Poor guy wanted to go home more than me," she continued. "From the looks of our systems, we have about a two months worth of breathable air. I’ll see about converting whatever resources there are into extending the time we might have left. Emergency rations are enough for a month. We can create water if we have to…"
The file began breaking up.
"This sucks," she finished. Finally the picture went black.
Silence in the shuttle. Richardson looked at Truman followed by Kobayashi. Richardson them moved toward the control panel again punching keys. A log of shuttle activity came onscreen.
"Let’s see," she said. "The last activity on ship was…"
"Two days ago?" Kobayashi finished.
"Let me see that," Truman said. He pushed past Richardson who nonchalantly leaned off to the side.
"In fact," Richardson said. "All of the logs indicate that they headed toward that crevasse here," she said pointing at a map of the surrounding area. "Which just so happens to be the area that we picked up the larger energy signature. I canna believe that is a coincidence. Do you?"
"Not at all." Truman said.
"So what now?"
"We go there," Truman said. "What else?"
Henrickson piloted the Westminster toward the narrow crevasse. Truman had ordered Russell to stay behind at the Thor to maintain contact with the ship in case they’d need it. He decided that taking the Westminster was warranted, as he didn’t want to risk losing their own shuttle in the event something went amiss. Kobayashi gave it a clean bill of health. Enough to travel a few kilometers anyway. Soon they had been off. The Craft scuttling narrowly above the Plutonian surface.
The craft rested at the foot of what looked like a passageway into a canyon. Large hills rose gradually from the surface then sharply climbed forming to large jagged peaks. The away team disembarked from the craft and began walking toward the crevasse. Crewman Sebastian took the point position, walking in front with a large weapon in hand. Brickstone had insisted the captain send in as many big guns as possible. Ramirez though had decided against it—figuring that any threat they would find here would not be of the variety that could be solved by fired guns all over the place. Truman was of the same mind. There was something else going on here. But what he couldn’t even begin to figure out. Single-mindedly he concentrated on finding his daughter. Somewhere within that fast approaching canyon she was…hopefully alive.
They had been walking for only ten or so minutes when they finally reached the entrance to the crevasse. Truman stopped the group to make a transmission with the captain.
"Ramirez here she said. "What’s the story Sanders?"
"We’re at the site," he said. "Nothing to report yet."
"Then proceed," she said. "And with caution."
"Aye," he said. Then Richardson shut off the comm-link.
"Well lets get moving," Truman said. They walked toward the darkness.
All hearts privately had stopped beating.
Before then stood the entrance--to a temple.
"Tell me I’m not dreaming this," Kobayashi said.
"Either that or you ate the fish last night," Henrickson replied. "I warned you about the fish."
"Sanders to Russell. Are you getting this?"
"Yes," she replied. She sat attentive at the helm of the Thor. She occupied a small screen in the corner of Truman’s visor. I see it and I’m recording it."
"Good. Keep me informed if there’s anything that goes wrong."
"Aye," she said, as her picture disappeared.
Truman and Sebastian entered first, wading slowly into the darkness. Kobayshi was next followed by Richardson followed, her bulky sensor device taking readings as the entered. Finally Henrickson entered in. The away team was inside—the Plutonian winds howling as they blew within.
Truman heard the sound. Sounds he knew he shouldn’t be hearing. But heard them he did.
The structure was built into the rock of the cliff. A low, yellow light glowed dully from within. The ground here was less the wavy icy surface and more gravelly, small earthen pebbled that crunched beneath their feet, slightly louder than the frost itself did. At first the cliffs were indistinguishable from the structure, but as they moved further in the shape began to take form. Large pillars lined the entranceway like some ancient Earth temple. They were colored a rich reddish brown, shifting color schemes characterizing the natural formations while a standard color was evident in the crafted materials.
"This has got to be thousands of years old at least," Kobayashi said. "But there’s little if no erosion."
He was right Truman thought. The rusty colored rock looked as though it had just been erected only a few days before. The winds that blew terrifically through the entranceway should easily have smoother down its surface if it was indeed as old as the design made it appear.
"Richardson," Truman said. "Take a sample and give it to Kobayashi."
"I’m already on it, she said." From a small pack in her suits left arm she pulled a long gleaming pointed bar. She attempted to plunge it into the rock. "S’harder than ah thought," she said. She reached back for one more try. Her arm came down forcefully. The tip of the rod barely impacted the surface. She didn’t move. "That should be enough," she said. Reaching over with her right hand she depressed a button on the end of the rod. After a short bit of whirring and clicking noises she removed the rod, and handed it to Kobayashi.
"Take a look at that Eric," Truman said to the nanoengineer. "Look at it’s composition and tell me what you see."
The large man did as he was told. He placed the rod into a similar compartment on his suit as Richardson had. After it sealed his shook his arm violently, then looked at the panel on his suit.
A display appeared. Large geometrical shapes spinning wildly about the screen. He looked puzzled for a moment then looked up toward Truman.
"Well it’s not one hundred percent for sure," he began.
"But I’ve seen this stuff to often to mistake it for anything else. The atoms have been arranged. The shapes are too organized to have occurred in a natural manner. It’s too efficient. Whoever built this thing…they used a nanotechnology similar to our own."
"Which means?" Henrickson said.
"I don’t know. Dammit I’m a nanoengineer, not a detective," he chuckled.
Truman wasn’t even about to let he, nor Henrickson degenerate the situation into some sophomoric episode as they usually did. "Enough," he said sharply. "Continue onward," she said. He wasn’t of a mind to be deterred at the moment. There was too much going on. First his daughter, the marauders in space, and now this.
They remained silent as they continued in.
Truman was the first to see it.
They had rounded a corner of the passageways that had began to form inside the structure. The low golden glow had been steadily growing brighter and brighter. Finally the red brown wall had given way to some other substance. Truman looked at it closely.
"It’s like gold," he said. "Look at this Kristal."
She came in closer, squinting as she ran her hand across the wall.
"It’s smooth…looks like gold," she said. "But it’s almost translucent. Too shiny."
She was right, Truman thought. It didn’t have that familiar deep rich yellow that seemed to burn coldly. It almost glistened and reflected the light emitted from the away teams’ shoulder lamps. The golden substance covered the entire wall and floor. It all seemed so familiar, like something he had seen or read somewhere in the years gone by.
"If it’s anything like the rock outside, it’s probably nano manufactured as well." Kobayashi said. He grabbed the rod from its compartment, emptied it’s contents on the floor, then trust it in the air toward the wall.
It clanked loudly against the surface.
"See," he said. "Not even a scratch. This stuff is probably gold all right. But it’s definitely something else too. A half-competent nanoengineer could combine too substances if they wanted. But gold that’s a toughie."
"Why’s that," Richardson asked.
"Gold is one of those metals that is not really like the rest. It doesn’t rust, and when it’s found, melting it easily purifies it. It’s very malleable. It will last a long time, but its molecular structure makes it hard to conform to any one man-made design. A nanoengineer could design a structure, but it wouldn’t do much good if the physical properties don’t allow it to take. There are only a few things this could be. I’m betting it’s combined with Carbon somehow."
"Carbon?" Henrickson asked.
"As in diamonds," Truman said.
"Exactly. Most of the materials that we use are manufactured from carbon. Its rigid structure makes it the perfect atom to use in making all the devices that have revolutionized the Earth in the last thirty-five years. Hence the media’s term, "the Diamond Age". But this…this is something else. It’s gold, with most of the properties of gold, but somehow carbon, the diamond, has been integrated making some kind of new substance. Between the two elements, gold’s resistance against oxidation and tarnishing, and carbon extremely hard, rigid properties, they, whoever "they" are, have created some kind of super metal. Stronger that even our nano-steel. Come to think of it I don’t know why I, or anybody else didn’t think of it sooner."
"The reason is that we’ve been fighting ever since the technique was perfected," Truman said. He was intrigued by the entire thing. "Imagine if nuclear power had been perfected in the early thirties or even the twenties. Instead of dropping bombs on the world it might have been used to solve the worlds problems in a more constructive way."
"I don’t mean to be rude to none of y’all," Henrickson spoke up using the thickest of his Texan accent in exaggeration. "Thanks for the history lesson and the philosophizen’, but what exactly does this mean to us?"
"Beats the hell outta me," crewman Sebastian said. He began to walk down the corridor a ways but stopped at the entrance to another long golden hallway.
"We’ll continue on but I want to make sure we document everything," Truman said. "Richardson, I want you to give a step by step log of what’s going on from right now until we get off of this snowball. Kobayashi, take as many samples as you can and relay them back to the Thor."
"Sir," crewman Sebastian said from down the hallway. He stood like a statue, his body halfway in the entrance. "You’d better com take a look at this."
Truman look around quickly then walked toward the crewman. As Truman neared the doorway, Sebastian stepped backward giving Truman room to move throught the door. Sanders’ heart raced. Somehow he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what he was going to see.
"I can’t tell how long, but I’d say they were dead," Sebastian said as Truman walked through the entrance. On the floor in a hallway lay an armored flight suit, occupied no doubt by an unfortunate individual. It lay on the ground face downward. Truman slowly walked toward it. He reached down, swallowing a lump in his throat as he did so. Gently he placed a hand on the back of the suit and grasped it by the shoulder. He turned it over…almost afraid to open his eyes. The body plopped lightly on its back, the armor suit clicking softly against the golden floor.
The stencil on the helmet spelled DENTON.
A deep sigh.
"Let’s continue on," he said. He tried to sound, emotionless and professional. But everyone knew, and was happy for him, that his daughter was not dead. At least they hoped she wasn’t.
Suddenly Sebastian grabbed Truman’s attention again. "Tracks, sir." He pointed to the frost-covered floor. "There are tracks."
"Get over here!" Richardson shouted. Even though Sanders could have heard the slightest whisper over the comm system, her tone conveyed the shock of what she had just found.
"Sarah?" Truman said. His voice was faint. He leaped to the end of the large golden room. "Sarah!"
Richardson immediately held him back.
"What are you…" he began.
"She's alive. Barely; think ya'd want to keep it that way."
He looked down at her face. It looked almost angelic through the gold glistening visor. She definitely had her mother's face, with a strong hint of Truman's nose. He kneeled down slowly and touched an armored hand gently across the therma-glass of her shielded visor.
"Sarah?" he said. She didn't--couldn't respond. She lay here unconscious. But the life readings that Richardson looked at were more than active.
"Ya see that Truman?" Richardson asked. "They're almost off the scale. Brainwaves are spiking, almost as though she were in R.E.M. sleep times ten."
"She's alive." Truman said aloud. "Richardson…radio the ship."
"Aye" she said, then began positioning to find the Valkerie.
They stood at the end of the large hallway that they had walked in for the past half an hour. It would have taken them about twenty minutes less to get there if they had known to find the room directly. The room was vast. Large pillars holding up the ceiling lined with the crystal-like gold.
There was one source of light coming from the room.
At the farside sat a structure. It looked like an altar of some sort--a table six feet long, lined with crystals. In the center of the table sat a sunken concave circle. The bottom half of a sphere. To the side of the table sat another tall stand, the top of which had an identical concave sphere as well. It was obvious something belonged inside of one of them. But that object was nowhere to be found.
That is until Richardson had found Sarah.
At the foot of her still, unconscious form lay a crystal orb. It seemed to emit it's own dim light in the darkly lit room. Truman could hear it hum. He moved closer to it, almost forgetting about his daughter.
"I can't raise the ship," Richardson said. "There's too much interference."
Well what do ya figure," Henrickson said. "We're about 300 feet deep within a mountain of solid rock and surrounded by some freaky substance I've never seen. That could be the problem…ya think?"
"Now's not the time Taylor," Richardson said.
"He's right though," Truman said. "We're going to have to raise the ship. And we need to get Sarah out of here too." He looked around at his away team. "Any volunteers?"
"Aren't you…" Richardson began to ask.
"No…there's something…" Truman stopped for a moment. Of course he should want to be with Sarah. To make sure she was okay. He'd traveled over a billion miles to find her. But there was something about the room, about her condition. It called out for him to stay. He looked toward the floor at the orb, laying there, humming through his being. "I want to find out what's going on."
"I'll go," Sebastian said. "I can take her by myself. With the decreased gravity, it'll be like carrying a bag of feathers."
"Fine then crewman," Truman said. "Carry on."
Truman walked over to his daughter once again, and looked into her face. Then slowly he moved past her and picked up the orb.
"Radio in after you've contacted the ship."
Sebastian lifted Sarah Sanders gently yet firm. He began to walk toward the opposite end of the room. Truman watched as they disappeared down the dark hallway.
No one spoke a word.
"So what is it?" Henrickson said to Truman. They stood at the foot of the altar. Truman held the orb in his hand. It vibrated…it radiated. He heard faint distant voices.
"Maybe we should wait," Richardson said.
"What?" Truman said.
"Ah said maybe we should wait. Ah know what you are thinking ta be doing, and odds are Truman that this is what has to do with the Lady Grey disappearing, and why your daughter is the way she is now."
"So what do you suggest?" Henrickson said. "We wait for the entire Seventh Fleet to arrive before we make a move?"
"No I do not," Richardson said. Obviously tired of Henrickson's always challenging, hot-dog views. "Ah think we canna risk our lives and the lives of the crew until we have more data."
"Data? We were sent here to explore. So let's explore. Besides," he said. "What's a crystal orb got ta do with the disappearance of a three hundred yard mining ship? Probably nothing."
Richardson was silent. Obviously peeved.
"This is real life…not some fairy tale. I say you put it in there Truman."
Sanders had not heard one word either of them had said.
The voices buzzed loudly in his head. What they said was unintelligible to him. But he knew what they were saying nevertheless. He felt their words. Saw visions of the future. Flavors of the past. He saw currents of time, diverging and merging at every moment of every second. He felt his arm moving forward. But it was not him. Was this how Sarah had felt? He reached the orb toward the concave crevice. His heart beat loudly. He could feel his chest heaving against the inside of his armored suit.
He placed the orb in the circle.
"See…" Henrickson said. "Nothing."
Truman moved his hand back slowly. His breathing returned to normal. His heart beat slower. It was as though he was in control again. The last few minutes were a dream. He moved backwards from the alter. He didn't know what he had just done. But a sense of dread began to wash over him.
"The ship…" he said. "We haven't heard from the ship." He looked at Richardson, and Henrickson. "We need to talk to the ship."
"Sanders?" Henrickson said. "Are you okay."
Even in the controlled climate of the armored suit Truman felt large beads of perspiration forming on his face.
"Just contact the ship," he said. He walked away from the group, akin to a daze. Contrary however; he was more focused than ever.
"Richardson to Sebastian" She radioed. "Come in Anthony." There was nothing but static.
They all felt the rumbling at the same moment.
"What was that?" Henrickson said.
"Come on," Truman said. "It's not too late."
Other than the intense urge to leave the mysterious temple, Truman had no idea what he was doing. And he surely did not expect to see what he was about to see.
The away team stood at the entrance to the Canyon, the low warm golden light spilling from inside and stretching out across the Plutonian surface. There was no sign of the shuttle. The Plutonian sky however, was another matter.
The Valkerie hung in the sky miles above the surface, but it was not alone. Two large Marauder freighters and hundreds of Tenshi fighters littered space. Tiny spherical lights, explosions, filled the sky.
Even stranger--in the middle of the sky, positioned near Pluto's moon Charon spun a spiral like object. It looked like a small galaxy, commpressed and sped up to dazzle the eyes of the humans who tread there now. It's light was so bright, it reflected blue light off the face of even the Away Team. Truman knew exactly what it was. The voices had told him. It was a hypergate.
A frantic voice broke through the static of the comm link.
"Get back to the ship!" they heard a panicking Tina Roberson. "They're attacking!"
Left foot, leap. Right foot leap.
Truman was able to clear at least ten feet after every two steps. The shuttle sat waiting across the frozen plain. Truman told Kobayashi to stand by in the Westminster while Sebastian made his way to evac the away team in the Thor. The Valkerie had more than enough firepower to deal with the Marauders, but between the hit-and-run strafing of the Tenshi and being forced to wait for the away team to return, there wasn't much they could do.
He looked up toward the sky. Ramirez was very capable and knew what she was doing. She could hold the ships off as long as she needed to. It was up to Sanders and his away team to get back to the ship as fast as possible.
There was the roar of powerful jets thrusting downward upon the Plutonian surface. The Thor hovered in front of them then landed gently. It's metal ramp opened up, and Sanders, Richardson, and Henrickson, scurried up into the hulking vessel.
"Kobayashi," Sanders said over the comm. "Can you get that thing to move?"
"Yeah," the nano-engineer replied over a static filled channel. "It'll be shaky but I can do it."
"Good, then follow us." Sanders said. "We're getting back to the Valkerie."
Jets fired again loudly, erupting upon the surface. Across the horizon he could see the Westminster taking off. He hoped Kobayashi was as at least half as good a pilot as he was an engineer. He was that good. Half would have been more than enough to get them home free.
The two bug like ships roared away from the small planet. Pluto's surface fell beneath them at an ever-increasing rate. The Valkerie grew closer. Tiny Tenshi whizzed by the UNASA starship.
How the hell am I going to pull this one off?
"Henrickson, what kind of weapons does this thing have?"
"Standard issue armaments." Henrickson replied. "Twin pulse-action front mounted guns, rear turret guns, twenty cluster bombs, and about three or four air to air missiles."
"And what about the Westminster?"
"Don't know," he said. "It's a mining ship. Those things are so piecemeal I wouldn't be surprised if they actually had the kitchen sink."
Truman thought for a moment.
"It's got extra armoring. Right."
"Good…." Truman reached over and switched on the comm to the Valkerie.
"Sanders to Valkerie"
Static followed by a still panicking Roberson. "Sanders? I can barely hear you. Communications have been malfunctioning for the last thirty or so minutes. What's going on?"
"We're heading back to the ship…"
"With all of those Tenshi?"
"Never mind that. Just tell the Captain to open the rear cargo doors in precisely…", he looked down at the clock on the control panel. "Ninety seconds."
Oh my God. Truman though. We don't have time for this. "I said, tell the Captain to open the rear cargo doors in eighty seconds."
Suddenly he lost the signal.
"Dammit" he shouted, slamming his fist on the arm of his chair. "No matter. Let's assume they heard us…we'll proceed with the plan."
"Which is?" Henrickson asked nervously.
"Kobayashi." Truman said in the comm. "Bring your ship in front of ours about five meters apart, and about three meters above us."
"Just do it!"
The Westminster slowly began to move out of its formation and floated in front of the Thor. Truman waited until it was in the precise position then spoke again.
"Now close your front blast shield." He paused. "And if you pray…do that too." He turned to Henrickson. "Launch the cluster bombs consecutively on my mark. After you've launched the last one, target it and wait for my signal."
Henrickson, obviously a veteran of quite a few battles didn't bother to question Sanders. He simply proceeded to carry out his task as efficiently as possible. He launched all of the cluster bombs. They zoomed out from the underbelly of the shuttlecraft narrowly missing the Westminster in front of them. He immediately targeted the last bomb. The others flew straight among the maelstrom of Tenshi.
Truman made sure they were still on course for the Valkerie. The cargo bay was still closed. Truman whispered a quick prayer himself.
"Fire." He said calmly.
Henrickson slammed his hand down on the panel. The front cannon pulsed hot metal projectiles at the last cluster bomb.
"Now move us up right behind the Westminster." Sanders said. Henrickson complied.
The first bomb erupted in a bright ball of fired. It ignited the second. The second ignited the third. In mere seconds a trail of exploding bombs made a fiery path toward the Valkerie. "Hold on." Truman said.
The two craft headed straight into the explodings. Fire surrounded them. The Tenshi did not fire.
They came out on the other side.
"Dammit!" Truman shouted. The cargo doors were still closed.
"Opening doors…" he heard over the comm. It was Ramirez.
The doors opened slowly. They had about ten seconds to open enough for them to make it through.
Nine, eight, seven…
The doors were opened halfway.
Six, five, four…
"We're not going to make it," Henrickson said.
They heard the sound of ripping and twisting metal. The Valkerie slammed into the back of the Westminster. There was smoke. A small fire burned at the foot of the now closed cargo door. They looked all around. They were all alive.
"See I told you we were going to make it." Henrickson smiled.
"How are we doing?" Sanders said as he floated onto the bridge.
"Glad you gentlemen could join us," Brickstone said.
Henrickson, Kobayashi, and Richardson took their stations.
"Sarah…is she?" Ramirez asked.
"Fine," Sanders said. "In sick bay." She's alive and her vitals are strong."
"Good. What did you find?"
The blast was so violent that Truman was thrown clear across the room.
When next he opened his eyes, there was only chaos.
Ramirez sat strapped in her captain's chair. A sharp piece of metal sticking from her skull. Her lifeless eyes stared wide open into nothingness. Captain Ramirez was dead.
There were several wounded lying about. Truman attempted to make his way to his post in the navigation chair. Looking across the room he saw his station was destroyed--two takes frantically trying to put out the fire. Henrickson was unconscious, Brickstone was no where to be seen. Who knew if the rest of the command crew was alive.
He looked toward the gate that spun slowly near Charon. It was perhaps their best chance to survive, he thought. If they could only escape and regroup to fight again. And besides, chances were that whatever that gate was, it had everything to do with the Lady Grey's disappearance.
He didn't have to think on it long. It was crazy, but it had to work. They had no choice. Besides he thought. The voices. The voices had led him to this. It was what he should do. He fired the ship's thrusters from the Captain's chair and aimed the ship head long into the gate.
The Valkerie came exploding through the other side of the gate, into space, dark, deep in its completeness.
The asteroid was 2 kilometers long, and the Valkerie was heading straight for it. Truman had woken only moments before, dazed yet cognizant enough to switch all flight controls to the Captain's chair and figure out what in the hell to do. Looking around he saw some members of the crew, floating unconscious, their limbs looking as though they hung from invisible string mounted on the starship's ceiling. Henrickson sat beside him, semi-conscious, his eyes nearly open yet looking far off into nothing. Truman couldn't, or rather didn't have enough time to make many more observations. The asteroid was coming up fast.
Quickly he looked down at his in-flight display, and began gleaning information from the moment by moment schematics flashing across the screen. He ship was travelling at a mere 1000 kilometers per second--slow by outer atmosphere standards, but fast enough. The asteroid was approximately 20,000 kilometers away. Truman sighed heavily. In moments they'd be tiny bits of pulverized flesh and metal.
"Can't we slow down," he heard a voice say. It was Tina. She pulled herself up into her chair, strapping her harness tighter as she spoke.
"No power, no engines," he said blandly. "Does that tell you everything you need to know for the moment." He looked at the power gauges again and cursed God. "We can't slow down because there's not much to slow us down in a vacuum. No gas, no air, no friction. If you have any ideas I'd appreciate hearing them."
Tina shrugged her shoulders.
"Thanks," he replied. Suddenly the computer's monotonous warning voice sounded over the comm.
TWO MINUTES UNTIL COLLISION.
"Dammit" Truman said. "Dammit!" He crossed his arms above the display and rested his head on the, frustrated, and without an inkling of what to do. Somewhere in the back of his mind he saw Janelle and Sarah.
He almost didn't hear the voice through the backdrop of the blaring alarm. Like a small mosquito buzzing in his ear as he next to the blaring engines of an stratofighter. But somehow he did hear it, and disbelievingly turned to see Kobayashi hovering behind him.
"What just happened?" the large man said to Truman. He was covered in blood. Truman didn't even bother to ask what had happened--by reading the look on Kobayashi's face, he already knew.
"Never mind that young man," he said to the nanoengineer. "He pointed out the forward display toward the asteroid looming in their sites. "We've got a more pressing matter at hand."
ONE MINUTE TO IMPACT
"Main power is out and we don't have much time to do anything about it," Truman continued. "Options."
"We could reroute secondary power but I can't tell you how long that would take. Or we could,"
"Air..." they all heard a groggy Henrickson say from his seat. It was then that Truman noticed a small trickle off blood running down the co-pilot's forehead. "If we blow one of the air locks the pressure would send us firing in the opposite direction. We use that maneuver all the time in the stratofighters--we cut or engines and then can evade an incoming missile."
"Not enough pressure," Kobayashi replied. "It would take a lot more than that to get us out of that things way."
"Just a thought," Henrickson said.
"But you're on to something," Kobayashi replied. "Oxygen and Hydrogen."
"I hear you kid," Truman exclaimed. "We don't have much time to talk about it. Just go do it."
Kobayashi, gave a hefty shove off Truman's flight panel hurling himself cross the room to Richardson's control station. She sat strapped in the chair floating a few inches above her seat, her arms hanging in the air. Kobayashi lightly squeezed past her and reaching for the control panel. He pounded the keys furiously.
THIRTY SECONDS TO IMPACT
"Oxygen released," he said frantically, then began pounding at the control keys again.
The asteroid took up the entire forward display now. Every one was silent. Truman, a line of salty sweat beading on his forehead and upper lip, kept his hands ready at the flight controls. "Status!" he said to Kobayashi. This was cutting things much to close.
"Hydrogen away!" Kobayashi responded triumphantly.
Truman's finger didn't even take a second to hesitate. Immediately it pressed down on the small square above the main flight controls. When he was done he sat back in his chair and waited. It was all he could do. "Missile away," he said either calmly. He looked suspiciously around the cabin, then seeing no one looking, he made a quick sign of the cross. He turned to see the few member on the bridge who were conscious gawking at the oncoming mountain in space. Flipping on the comm for the entire ship his voice echoed through the cold metal halls of the Westminster.
"I suggest everybody hold on to something."
The missile zoomed silently through the cold vacuum. It's internal clock counted down while preprogrammed destination homed it toward the icy cloud of gas released from the Westminster. It's bearing straight it flew straight in. Then suddenly, it detonated.
The cloud of gas erupted in a great ball of flame. Bright and fiery it's orange circular ball of gas began blowing outward. Silent explosion after silent explosion, the began to over take the Valkerie. Suddenly the explosions stopped. But the shock wave slammed into the ship with so much force it visibly contorted the ship for mere moments before it creaked back to it's original shape. The Valkerie, caught in the blast quickly began changing course, angling away from the asteroid. It seemed as though the craft would miss it.
But in one terrible moment, just as the fore of the craft had cleared it, the aft slammed into the floating rock. With more explosions to follow.
The bridge was engulfed in a cacophony of sirens, terrible shouts, and twisting metal. Truman looked at his display. They'd almost made it. A second or two earlier and they would have cleared the object, but they were too late. He shouted over toward the conn, Kobayashi stood there, trying to gauge the condition of the ship.
"Outer hull is compromised," he said.
Truman looked back at the young man. He felt his eardrums expanding slightly outward. The first sign of stellar travel. When that happened it was a sign to get ready to die. Or think real fast.
"There's nothing we can do Commander." The only way to access the environment controls now is for the mid section of the ship. And it's all blocked off." He looked up at his Commander and shook his head. "This looks like it's it sir,"
For a moment though Truman stopped moving and listened. At this point sounds should have been a lot more muffled as air pressure lowered into nothing. But instead they grew louder. Somebody, somewhere in the ships mid-section had gotten to the controls. They were going to be all right. At least for now.
The young engineer looked almost amazed as he did relieved. "What happened? We should be..."
Truman wasn't going to let him finish. Kobayashi said the word he'd start to believe it. "Somebody was doing their job."
Slowly Tina and Henrickson moved over toward the flight station. Tina looked frightened. Henrickson was weary. Everyone else on the bridge was either unconscious still or trying to make sense of the whirlwind of the last two and a half minute.
"So what do we do now" Tina said placing a small shaking hand on Truman's shoulder.
"Hell if I know," he replied. Then slowly, he turned his attention toward the forward display.
She was overwhelmed by the sweet, heavy smell of a floral scent. Roses. Honeysuckle. It seemed to hang over her, weighing down her thin weak body.
She had a body. The last thing she remembered was the sensation that there was nothing--the absence of substance. Her mind had been clearly there, but her body ceased to exist.
She couldn't see. She felt her eyes. They were wide open, but there was only blackness. Perhaps there was nothing there for her to perceive.
Sensations began to slowly creep into her body. Her back ached. There was something pressing hard and uncomfortably against it. She lay prostrate, her arms spread wide as though to balance her against the hard cold floor. Pebbles. That's what it is that she felt. They poked through the thin layer of clothing she wore. She began to remember. They were swimming; scuba diving of the coast of Bimini. There was something. A bright light. She didn't understand what had happened, but she could remember it all. Her body dissolving in the dark water inside the temple. There were others there too. Intense light. A tunnel of spiraling colors.
Then she came to rest here. Where? She didn't know. Prickly pins tingled through her feet and legs. How long had she lain there as the blood rushed back into her limbs? She could feel are arms again. She could feel her hands. In her hand she could feel it. The orb was still there.
Voices. Singing against the back of her skull. A chorus. Thousands calling out. What was it? She opened her eyes again. Only this time she could see. And this time she wished her eyes were closed.
The chimera hovered over her. Shimmering. She was afraid, but she didn't feel the fear. Even though her eyes had been in absolute and complete darkness, they did not have to adjust to the sudden presence of light. Strange, she thought. It did not light up the room, or wherever it was she lay. It simply…was.
It moved in closer. She wanted to speak, to cry out, to scream, to tell it to leave. But instead she simply lay there. It spoke to her. Not in a language she could understand, but in thoughts and impressions, and emotions. Closer still. It reached out toward her with what appeared to be a translucent arm. Down toward her forehead. She lay motionless and let it happen.
Again the room turned to black. Everything faded away. Her thoughts became slippery. All sensation was gone. Once again--Jenna Munro was no more.
"What is it?" Kobayashi said.
"For someone so brilliant you seem ta ask some o' the stupidest questions," Henrickson replied.
Kobayashi shot the cocky young pilot a glare sharp enough to kill.
"Enough of that," Truman said. He turned to Kobaysashi. "It's a planet."
A small green gem hung behind a ring of icy rocks in space. If not for the desperation and severity of the moment, Truman might have actually taken the time to appreciate its beauty. Here they were, obviously millions, perhaps trillions of miles away from Earth, looking upon the face of some unknown planet. If they even hesitated to feel the power of the picturesque scene, they knew they would die.
"Do you think you could give us enough power to get us there and land?" Truman said to Kobayashi.
"I...I don't know."
"It was an order. It wasn't really a question"
"I'll have it done."
"Now that's what I like to hear," Henrickson said, slapping Kobayashi hard on the back. "Saving my skin is a good thing."
"Yeah," Kobayashi replied. "Something I seem to be doing more and more lately."
"Just keep the tab running son. You'll get your payback I'm sure." Henrickson moved toward the forward display. "Get me walking alive and well down there and I'll make sure you get all you got coming."
"Truman," a voice said from one corner of the room. It was Richardson, a small, blood spotted bandage on her left cheek. "I need to talk to you…all of you."
The all hovered around what, a few hours ago, had been a spotless, and pristine Captain's Ready Room. They all tried to bury the emotion of being there, amid all of the momentos of the captain. Pictures, souvenirs, some of them hung weightless detached from their small magnetic harnesses. Just as with the planet swinging outside. They didn't have time to allow themselves the luxury of mourning.
"I ran a star-chart," Richardson began. Her Scottish accent rolling thick. She usually tried to annunciate so that her crewmates could understand her, but now she was too weary, concentrating on the mess they had found themselves in. "We're pretty far away from earth, as you can imagine"
"Where?" Truman asked.
"This planet is orbiting the star Sirius."
"Serious?" Henrickson said. No one took the time to bother a response.
"Anyhow," she continued, "Somehow that gate, pushed us out here. I won't pretend to even begin to understand the how of it all, but here we are."
"And what about the planet?" Brickstone asked. "General consensus is that we should land there? How do we know we can even survive there? What its temperature is? If there are any hostiles there?"
"Well to answer some of your questions," Richardson answered. "Most of our sensors are damaged pretty badly, but I can tell you that the thermographic scan shows that most of the planet is fairly warm, between twenty and fifty degrees centigrade. Plus or minus thirty in a few regions, but for the most part it looks pretty warm."
"And the atmosphere?" Brickstone
"From the greenish hue, and non-uniformity of the topography by looking at the thermal charts there's either a lot of vegetation or…" Richardson shrugged her shoulders.
"Great. Just great. If there's no breathable air down there then we might as well stay up here in space."
"No." they heard someone say. Sarah Sanders hung tightly to the door, dressed in a dark blue medical jumpsuit.
"Sarah, you shouldn't be up. You still look weak. Get back…" Truman said. But Sarah wouldn't let him finish.
"No. This…" she began, stopping to gain her strength. "All of this isn't…can't be a coincidence."
The entire room was silent. They listened attentively.
Except for Henrickson.
"I gotta hear this," he said, nudging Richardson in her side with his elbow.
Sarah drifted toward the circle of floating officers. Truman rose quickly and grabbed her, helping her come to a slow gentle stop.
"All of this. These last few weeks. The signal on Pluto, the Lady Grey disappearing, and now us, here, orbiting some planet that is orbiting some star. All of this can't have happened by chance."
"So what are you trying to say then?" Brickstone asked.
"I don't know what, really. But I do know…I feel, that we're supposed to go to that planet. And that when we arrive there we will be okay."
"Who let her out of sick bay again?" Henrickson said whispering in Richardson's ear. "Oh yeah. That's right. The doctor's dead."
"So we are supposed to needlessly risk our lives on the hunch of some half-delirious, recently unconscious carbon-miner?" Brickstone interjected.
"Yes," Truman said. "If that's the way you want to look at it. Yes."
"So lets get to work people. I want us to be planetside within twenty-four hours."
It felt like it had been a hundred years since the last time he had spoken to his daughter. One hundred years since the last time they had sat down and she had filled him in on her life, her goals, her dreams, and her loves. In actuality it had been five years. The last time he had seen her was three years prior. She lay strapped to the medical bed in sickbay. Her body betraying the dizzying events of the past few days that her mind had gone through. He moved closer to her looking at her face. Just like her mother. With the same pig-headed stubbornness to match.
"Hi dad," she said. She hadn't even opened her eyes.
"Sarah…" Truman said. "Hun, how are you feeling."
She finally rolled her head toward him and gracefully, if the term could be used for a movement so small, opened up her eyes. "Fine," she said. "Weak, but fine."
"So," Truman said pausing nervously. "What the hell happened to you down there." He stopped again, thinking about what he had just said. "Or rather, back there."
"I don't know really. We went into the temple and we, Harry and I, found that alter room. We tried to contact the ship but there was too much static. We walked toward the hallway to see if the signal would get any clearer, then eventually we made our way back outside. But the Lady Grey was nowhere to be seen."
"But how did you…how did we find you two the way we…found you." He looked down at her. She breathed a heavy sigh, and closed her eyelids tightly. "If you don't want to talk about it now…"
"No," she stopped him. "It's okay." She spoke to him as though she were replaying the images in her mind and simply told him what she saw. As though she were in a trance, a hypnotized patient recalling the events of some as yet unlocked past. "We sat in the shuttle for hours. Trying to find any sign of what had happened. I was the one who noticed the energy readings. They were coming from between Charon and Pluto. We were going to take the shuttle up. But…"
Truman laid an anxious hand upon her forehead.
"Something happened to Harry. He changed. He had been outside tuning the sensors. When he came back he was more aggressive. Angry. He wanted us to wait. We began to fight. He pushed me. I hit the control panel. The air began to escape. We both got our helmets on just before it was all gone. He started chasing me. I don't know why, but I ran toward the temple, the only place I felt that I could be safe. The alter room. I hid inside there. I shot at him and he retreated toward the corner. Then I saw…something. Something else."
"I don't know. But it touched me," she said while opening her eyes again. Truman could tell it ended here. Her face told him either that she could not remember what had happened next, or if she did remember, she wasn't going to tell him. "The next thing I can remember was you looking into my face. That's it."
"Hmm…" was all that Truman could muster.
"Mom," she said. "How's momma doing?"
"Fine. She must be worried sick by now I can imagine. First her only daughter disappears then her husband goes looking for her and he disappears as well. She's had better days I'm sure."
"Yeah," she said knowingly. "That she has. I don't want her to worry too much."
"She'll be okay. Your mother's pretty strong. Just like her daughter," he said smiling. "Besides. Don't worry. I'll get you home."
"I won't be holding my breath."
"And what's that supposed t mean?" Truman said in a still joking tone.
"I don't take you at heart with most of the promises you make is all."
Suddenly he turned serious.
"Now this is the real Sarah I know. The one who can't talk to her father for more than five minute before they both find themselves in an argument."
"No you're not," he said. "You just can't forgive me can you?"
"Well," she began. "You think I haven't spoken to you all this time because I've been busy. That I lived halfway across the solar system because I needed a little 'space'?"
"This is about your brother I know Sarah. But he wouldn't want you to be carrying on this way."
"How do you know. You didn't care about him when he was alive. Me too for that matter." She turned her head slowly. Her eyes looking into his. They semed to burn with the fire up genuine bitterness fueled by hatred. "You wouldn't know what he wanted. You didn't even know him. You don't know me."
He began to launch in a tirade. It was funny in a strange sense how easily they had fallen back into their usual roles. Neither time nor actions could seem to mend these wounds. How could they, he supposed, when all they had done was bottle up their feelings instead of working them out? Perhaps the stubbornness she displayed was just as much a trait of her father's as it was her mother's.
"I'm going to get back to the bridge." Truman said floating across the room. The doors to the medical bay hissed open. "If you need anything, let me know." He exited the room.
Sarah lay there, not realizing what she had really just said. All she knew was that she hurt. That she had hurt for the last six years, and seeing him again only awakened the anger within her.
"You know…" she heard a voice say from across the room. It was Henrickson. He held a bundle of bandages in his arms. One roll floated away as he nervously floated toward her. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop. Kristal needed some more bandages. Mine are coming off a little too."
"Henrickson's the name, by the way." He pivoted his body then pushed off the floor and headed for the door. They hissed open again. "Access hatch from the ceiling. That's how I got in by the way." He exited to the hallway. "It's not really my place to pry," he said turning quickly, overcoming the hesitation he obviously had been feeling. "Your father's a pretty good guy. He's got his problems like everybody else. But he's a good guy."
"If you only knew the half of it you wouldn't be saying that. Trust me."
"Maybe so." Henrickson said turning down the hallway again. "But he did give up everything on Earth, his wife included, to come find you didn't he?"
The doors hissed closed, leaving Sarah to herself. The thoughtful words seemed to reverberate within her mind.
"Alright, let's do this," Henrickson said. He sat at the main pilot's chair at the conn.
"Kobayashi" Truman said into the microphone of the headphone he wore. "Power her up."
"Aye sir," a disembodied electronic voice replied. Truman could hear the nervousness even after it had traveled through miles of wires of the Valkerie.
The ship had been on minimum power for the last twenty-four hours. Heat had been kept low; any non-essential ships systems were left on stand-by. Even the medical bay where Sarah and a few others lay incapacitated was left to barely enough power to face an emergency if there was one.
Slowly the ship seemed to creak, and pop, like some old athlete who thought he was still young enough to run without stretching first. Truman could hear the stress as inertia-filled metal twisted and stretched.
"Okay," he said in a low, hopefully inaudible breath. "This ought to be interesting"
The trajectory that Richardson has extrapolated took then just above the thin ring of ice and rock that circled the planet. Truman could see how lovely it really was. A green hue from the planet lit his face and cast the bridge in a soft emerald light. A thin black shadow from the ring traced a path across the surface. He couldn't believe he was seeing something so magnificent--so beautiful. And still what he could concentrate on the most was his life--and the fact that it could possibly be ending any moment.
Attenuating engines fired.
"I've plotted a landing site here" Richardson said pointing to a small red circle on the holo-globe representation of the planet. "Was reading an energy spike of some sort there."
"Then there is where we are going to go," Truman finished.
Henrickson piloted the ship slowly toward the planet. It's nose tilting slightly down. "I don't think I'm going to like this."
The Valkerie hit the planet's atmosphere with a sharp, sudden jolt. Her hull buckled as immediately it began to feel the strain of the pressure that were sure to only be beginning. Her nose pulled up slightly. The bottom side of the hull was beginning to glow a dull red. Re-entry was the event the crew was most sure that the ship could have withstood under normal circumstance. But these weren't normal circumstances. The hull had already been compromised, the nano-manufactured metals had already been strained well beyond whatever tests the scientists and engineers had designed it for. She began to burn white hot.
The Valkerie broke through the clouds. Truman couldn't make out the surface from the forward display. He, along with the rest of the crew shook violently in their seats. He just hoped that Sarah would be okay.
Smoke. It filled the bridge. The ground rushed below them at incredible speeds. Truman could hear the engines attempting to power down. But judging from the way things looked, they might not have had enough time to stop.
The ground rushed at them closer. Faster.
Trees. They skimmed the canopy of thick growth, snapping a path of foliage as they fell from the sky. Large wooden giants broke like toothpicks.
"Hold on everyone," Truman shouted at the top of his lungs. "Prepare for…"
THE SECOND AWAKENING
They stood over Jenna again. This time though they had bodies. She could see them--perceive them with her five senses. Yet she still could not move. It was from exhaustion and not any type of restraint she noticed, not feeling anything of the sort around her wrists or legs.
She heard their voices clearly. Ancient. Different. Garbled. Clear. She heard them all. And what was stranger, she understood them
"She is almost ready," one of them said. She looked toward him but couldn't make him out under the lighting of the room.
"Yes," another voice said. "It is almost time."
Yet another voice came from the back of the room.
"Very well. It begins."
Palmer was the second to awake.
The low, deep, weary, groan grated at Jenna's nerves. It wasn't Palmer per se that made her feel that way. She felt everything. The light breathing of the still unconscious Dr. McGrath. A heavy smell wafting from some unknown location. Flowers. The rustling of Palmer's clothes as he sat up from the flat stone bed similar to the one she had laid upon earlier. The rapidly beating heart of Mikitrick, the exhaled air whistling through the coarse hairs of his mustache.
The distant yet strong smell of blood.
"Where…," Palmer began, groggy throat quivering.
"Are you okay?" she said, moving from across the room. She wore her scuba outfit loosely hanging from her hips. The tank top shirt she wore was more than enough for her. The room was extremely hot. "You've looked better."
"I've felt better," he said. He stood, his legs visibly shaking. Jenna could see it, smell it, sense it. The blood rushed to his head, flushing his face red, and causing him look to steady his balance. He leaned backward, placing his hand back on the table, then planted himself back down. "How long have I been out?"
She laid a hand on his shoulder. "I don't know for sure. But it's been a least a day since I've been awake, that you…all of you have been unconscious."
"What about you?" he said rubbing his head. "You look okay. But…"
"I don't feel okay? I know. I feel…" she said backing away from him now. Palmer Reed, her closest friend for the past nine years. She couldn't bear to touch him. "I don't know if I've ever felt this way before. I know I haven't."
Palmer looked all around him, casing the room. It was still dark, but not nearly as dark as when Jenna had first awoken. There were oil-burning lamps hung from three locations of the ceiling, casting just enough light to make their way around the room.
The three others still lay on their tables. Arms to their sides, scuba outfits still hugging closely to their bodies. The room was circular, with four large semicircular supports rising from the floor to the ceiling.
"Where are we?" he asked.
Jenna took his hand and led him toward a small doorway that hid in the shadows. The walked down a black hallway, weaving and turning, Jenna navigating them through the darkness as though she could see. Finally Palmer caught a glimpse of light at the end. It grew brighter and brighter as they drew closer. Finally they reached the entrance.
The light was so bright even closing his eyes caused him great pain as they attempted to adjust. He shied backwards, his arm raised above him, shielding his eyes from the intensity of the distant sun.
The light began to fade. He could make out something now. Dark shapes against a white background. Colors appeared. Green. A blue sky. Gold.
He opened his eyes all the way.
Before him stretched a fantastic golden city. Pyramids, buildings, and domes of stone, and rock, capped with a rich deep yellow hue that radiated as the sun glinted from its surface.
"Atlantis," Jenna said. He held his hand tighter. "We are in Atlantis."
Palmer looked at her with the most stupefied, dumfounded expression she had ever seen.
"Don't worry," she said. "It's ridiculous. I don't even believe it myself."
A tangled mass of twisted metal and wires covered Truman. Salty, warm liquid filled his mouth. Blood. Tangy. He reached a free hand to wipe the dried bit spilling from the corner of his split lip. Sparking wires danced and popped, a small amount of smoke clinging to the floor.
Gravity. He hadn't felt a pull this strong since he'd last walked on Earth. For the first time in a near a month he didn't have to will away the queasiness of a weightless stomach. He kicked the broken Captain's chair away and stood slowly, his legs wobbling unaccustomed to the weight. It would probably be worse for him than for any others going through the same thing. He hadn't had the luxury of being able to exercise in the last few weeks, being confined to quarters. He was able to handle Pluto, but this was all together something different.
He was alive though. That was a good thing for starters. He only hoped the same was true for everyone else.
He attempted to speak, but his body spoke for him instead. "Ugh," he said while rubbing the small of his back. He cleared his throat. "Is…is everyone all right?"
Metal littered the floor. Even so, there seemed to be movement beneath it all. He moved as quickly as he could to lift the piece of metal from his crewmate, a dark, bloodied hand reaching through the cracks.
It was Richardson. Truman lifted a small beam from her arm. It had fallen on top of her wrist and forearm, twisting it in a way that was only possible in a broken limb. He heard her moaning though, and knew at least that she was alive. But for how long he had no idea.
The first beam came off easily. He thrusted it upward, crisply clanging to the side, bouncing violently against the deck. If anyone else was still unconscious, it was sure to wake him or her up. There were two other beams of metal that were a bit harder to raise, as they were twisted in a seemingly unsolvable knot. It did not rest directly on her though Truman discovered, and soon saw that she was actually set in a small alcove, protected from the weight of the scraps above her. Truman reached over grabbing the beam he had tossed aside, and wedged in into the heap. He used the back of her fallen chair as a fulcrum, and pulled down n the beam using it as a lever.
"Get out," he said to her, hoping she was aware enough to help save herself. Slowly he saw her pulling herself out from beneath the wreckage. She held her arm close to her chest as she dragged herself across the floor. Soon she was clear of the debris, and Truman let go, exhausted. The metal smashed down onto the floor and collapsed into itself. Both Truman and Richardson looked at the pile then at each other.
"Whew," Truman said huffing heavily. "That was heavy."
"Ah'm glad ah'm not on the bottom of that right now," Richardson said. "Thanks."
"Your arm is it?"
"Broken? 'Fraid it is. The pain is frightful,"
Truman looked around. Other crewmembers were getting up as well. Most of them looked fine--bloody and bruised, but well enough to function. Richardson on the other hand was another story.
So was Henrickson.
In all the excitement he almost didn't notice the young helmsman sitting slumped in his chair. A solider to the end, he had piloted the ship down to its current resting spot, wherever that may have been.
Truman walked over to check his pulse. He placed two fingers on the thick of his neck. His heart was still beating.
"What the hell are you doing?" Henrickson said to Truman. "If you don't mind, I'm not quite dead yet."
"I thought that you were…"
"I was praying. To the Lord God Almighty."
"Well it's good to know someone is looking out for us," Brickstone said. He was followed by some of the members of his security crew. They stood all around, with weapons drawn. "But sometimes I think it best that we look out for ourselves."
"Meaning?" Truman asked.
"We've got to secure the area. We are on an alien world with all sorts of unknown threats."
"Or nonexistent," Henrickson said. Brickstone shot him a cold look that was fit to kill.
"Ah don't mean ta be breaking up yer Yank pissing contest boys, Richardson said. "But do ya mind helping me? Mah arms broken ya know."
"Anyway, we need to make sure that our ship, and everything on it is secure."
He paused. Waiting for something…Truman didn't know.
Suddenly he realized what Brickstone was waiting for. His orders.
"Makes sense…carry on. I want you to keep me fully informed. Also I'll need someone to compile lists. Casualty reports and system functions."
"I've got a handle on that already sir," Kobayashi said from the entrance to the bridge. Sarah stood beside him. Even in the crisis, Truman could see her hatred toward him.
"It's not looking good. Sir." Kobayashi began. In fact, it's looking downright bad."
They sat in the Captains ready room, a large screen lit in a darkened room. The ship's cameras swiveled letting them spy the area of the immediate vicinity. As usual, Henrickson had to break the silence.
"It's a jungle out there."
Thick green vegetation seemed to be everywhere. A canopy of trees stretched outward into the distance. Outside, Brickstone and his men, along with Kobayashi, inspected the damage to the hull.
"Can she fly again?" Truman asked over the intercom. He wore a headset as he talked to Kobayashi.
"Well, the hull, is pretty much intact, except for a few breaches. That much is repairable."
"By the end of the day…" he began. "If that were the only thing we had to repair."
"There are two major hull breaches. One is in the weapons bay, and the other one is near the engine room. We could get her running again. But flying? The kinds of repairs we need to make aren't patchwork ones. She needs a major refitting. Otherwise she might not be able to take the stress. She'd tear up even before we reached orbit."
"Right," Henrickson said. "Giant engines dropping out of the sky. We haven't been here a day and we've already fixin ta litter the place."
"You can't fix it?" Truman said, more to himself than to Kobayashi.
Kobayashi still bothered an answer even though he sensed it wasn't necessary. "Dammit Truman, I'm an engineer, not a doctor," he said smiling.
"Well, we're not staying here," Truman said. "We don't have much of a choice."
"The Lady Grey," Sarah said. "What about the Lady Grey? She's still out there. We don't have to risk out lives needlessly…"
Truman cut her off. "Richardson?"
Richardson sat at the table, her arm bandaged and in a sling. A portable IV stim pack was attached to the belt of her flight suit. "I canna get any type of familiar readings. No SOS, no distress beacons, nothing. And mah guess is, is that with nothing out here save us, it would be pretty hard to stay hidden."
"But, Sarah began. "The Marauders. What about them?"
"Sarah, we barely slipped into that rift," Kobayashi said from outside. "I doubt the pirates could have traveled fast enough to slip in behind us. They wouldn't have had enough time."
"That's just it." Sarah said. "Time. That's what we're dealing with. And right now, we don't have enough of it."
"What is she talkin' about" Henrickson said.
They all noticed the look on her face. Her eyes seemed to have disappeared as though rolled back into her head, her face expressionless and blank.
Truman jumped up and reached for her. "Sarah, Sarah, are you alright?" He shook her, almost too violent. Slowly she seemed to come to. She collapsed back into his arms. He guided her toward the chair behind them. She mumbled something, then seemed to come out of her spell. "Are you all right?"
"The strain of it all." Richardson said. "She should probably still be in sick-bay."
"No…no," Sarah said. "I'm fine. I just…" She slid back into her chair again. "There's something going on. I can't explain it. Not with words. But we have to act. And there isn't much time."
"And just what is it that we are supposed to do?" Henrickson asked. "This is much too weird for me."
"Find the Lady Grey," she said. "it is here. I know it. But there's something else too. That I can't quite grasp. My mind is…"
"Enough," Truman said. "Sarah hon, you need to rest." Sarah merely nodded her head. For the first time in quite a while, she actually seemed to agree with him. There could be only one reason for that. She must have been exhausted.
"Richardson?" Truman said. "See what you can do. "Kobayashi, you've presented us with options. Now give us better ones."
Suddenly Brickstone interrupted.
"Sanders, come in."
"What is it Brickstone?"
"I've got some bad news." His face appeared on screen. The camera mounted behind him closed in. He pointed in toward a somewhat charred and severely damaged section of the hull. "That hull breach in the weapons bay. Well it seems it's a little more than that."
"One of the Assimilator missiles. It's gone."
"You realize this is much too much to even begin to believe don't you?" Palmer said to Jenna. "I mean, this is just ridiculous. Atlantis? Like the sunken continent Atlantis? Like Plato's Atlantis? No way. No way. No way. I'm dreaming. I'm going to wake up and I'll be in my tent…or even better I'll be in my room at home. And I'm watching TV. That's right. There's something on TV and it's spilling into my dream. It must be a documentary or something. That's it
Jenna stood there silently. Watching her closest friend and colleague ramble on.
"You know that's not attractive don't you?" she said. "Now get a hold of yourself Reed. It only gets worse."
"Ah hell." he said. If Jenna didn't know him any better, she thought he would cry.
She directed his sight again out toward the sprawling golden city beneath them. Beautiful spires rimmed with rainbow tinted stone, and large earthen pyramids spotted the distant horizon. Palmer looked closer, finally deciding to accept that what he was seeing was real. It was then that he noticed. There was no movement anywhere. Save perhaps the slight bending and swaying of the tropical looking trees, there was nothing. No people, no vehicles. No animals. Nothing.
The city was dead.
"They brought us here," Jenna said.
"Who?" Palmer asked. "Who brought us here?"
"Them," Jenna replied. She was pointing toward the end of the balcony on which they stood. There were two shapes--shimmering, bodies of translucent light. Palmer could feel it. They were sentient. His already struggling rationale made a series of mental gymnastics just to remain cognizant.
"And umm…," Palmer began to say. "How long have you known about this--these…people?"
"Only for the last few hours or so, since I first awoke. But they are the ones. The voices--the images I saw when I first grabbed the orb." She held it out to him. It seemed more alive that it ever had before. Even though it was motionless, he could swear it moved, or rippled, or something…he couldn't explain it.
"So what's the bad news?" Palmer asked. Jenna didn't know whether it was the look on her face, or just the absolute absurdness of the situation, but Palmer seemed to be catching on pretty fast.
"Well," she stated. "The Earth--not in our time, but an Earth that is to be. They are in danger."
"So why do they need us?"
"Because of this…" she said looking at the orb. "Whoever they are, they need this."
"And we've got it. Great." Palmer slapped his hand to his forehead and threw his head backward. "This is too much. This is just too much." He walked toward the doorway, then paced back toward Jenna. The lights still sat there, shimmering, but he chose to ignore them. It was just too much for him to handle. "And just how are we supposed to give it to these people? Where are they? Who are they? Hell…"." He said not realizing he was yelling. "When are they!"
"They are here…now. We just have to wait for them."
"Great…great." He took a deep breath. "Hey. I'm sorry Jenna. It's just…this is all so unbelievable."
"Believe me…" a voice said from across the balcony. Dr. McGrath and Colonel Mikitrick stood in the doorway. "You won't have to worry about it for very long."
McGrath stood holding a small sidearm aimed at Jenna. Palmer instinctively moved in front of her.
"What the hell?" Palmer said.
Jenna looked into the colonel's eyes. She could see the hollow darkness within.
He suddenly turned toward the creatures of light. "No…you!" he said.
He convulsed. From within his body arose another apparition of light. It hovered above his head. The McGrath collapsed.
Suddenly it sped toward the two other beings. They smashed into each other violently, then went careening over the edge, in a spectacle of sparking lights. Jenna ran to the edge and watched them falling until the light disappeared.
Mikitrick had stood there the entire time, dumbfounded, first then pulled out his gun, in awe of the eerie exorcism.
Jenna didn't have a chance to answer.
The rumbling had been there for the last few minutes. She just had been concentrating on the goings on in her immediate vicinity, moving the ominous noise to the background.
From out of the sky lowered a large vessel. It was hovering sideways a first, then slowly turned toward the ledge on which the archeologists stood. Jenna noticed that it was a patched up craft, the size of a large eighteen-wheel truck. Across it's side was stenciled the name, "Prometheus". She knew what it was when she saw it, although she had never seen it, or anything like it before.
"Jump" she said.
No one moved. She pushed Palmer to the edge of the balcony. "Jump!" His eyes conveyed his thought. He wasn't very trusting at the moment. "I'll explain later."
"Are you sure we'll get the chance?"
"Yes!" she said. "Now go." She ran across the balcony and picked up the suddenly unconscious colonel, throwing his arm over her shoulders. She stopped for a moment and turned to McGrath as she dragged the unconscious soldier." "You can stay if you want. In fact I'd prefer if you'd stay." She moved to the ledge. Palmer had already jumped. "This is your last chance."
She pushed a panel on the stone wall then leapt over the edge.
McGrath stood paralyzed. He couldn't bring himself to move as smoke funneled from beneath the belly of the ship. Two silver pills charged forth. They were missiles. He could feel their warmth as they drew nearer. The heat was intense. Finally he felt the fortitude to run. But it was too late. It was only seconds--but for him it seemed like hours. His flesh began to sear, his hair burning. The bright white flash followed by a concussive force. His body was pulverized in an instant. The pain intense. He could not scream. This is impossible he thought. And unlucky. His mind was the last thing to go. The world around him turning to Hell.
"What was that?" Truman said. "It sounded like, some kind of explosion." He activated the com-link to Brickstone and Henrickson, outside. Richardson in the meantime had jumped to the control panel at her damaged station and tried to read the sensors.
"There's nothing on here, but as broken as it is, I doubt we'll be using this effectively any time soon."
"Sanders," Brickstone said over the con. "Take a look at this."
Apparently, Brickstone was holding the camera on his own. The picture jumped and jittered as he walked closer to the scene he was filming. In the distance just beyond the ring of mountains that lined the valley in which they had landed, a plume of smoke arose. It was small, from where they stood, but still visible. They saw another mushrooming cloud of smoke, followed by a quick clap, then a distance slow rumbling.
"Henrickson," Truman said. "Is the Shuttle still flight worth?"
"Yeah," he replied. "He is."
"Get 'im ready." He said. "We're getting to the bottom of this." He stood from his old friend's former chair. "Kobayashi meet me in the shuttle bay. Richardson, you're in charge." He looked at her arm. "Can you make it? See if you can get this ship moving"
"What about me?" Sarah said. Despite the tumult of the last few hours, she appeared to be the most alive of the lot of them.
Truman almost went with his natural paternal instinct--to protect his child no matter what. But his intuitive inner voice told him otherwise. This was all crazy. Mysterious marauders, hypergates, pyramids on Pluto, and now strange planets…but to all of this madness there was a distinct and definite method. He wanted to find out what it was. Looking at his daughter he realized that she was the key.
Besides, he wanted to keep her as close to him as he could.
"Come on hon." he said. "You're coming too."
The Thor fired its rockets and rose slowly from the tilted Valkerie hanger bay. It's vertical ascension suddenly stopped as it hovered over the battered ship.
"She looks worse than we thought." Brickstone said. "Up close she looked flight worthy. From up here she looks like the Titanic on a good day."
Truman felt the same way. Looking at the battered ship. He felt responsible for it being in that condition. If only he had made a few more decisions, or perhaps a few less. Or different decisions all together.
"Richardson," he said over the comm. "Keep an open channel until we get back."
"Aye." she said.
Henrickson aimed the Thor toward the now almost dissipated smoke. Rockets fired and the shuttle began to creep slowly, then faster above the canopy of trees.
Truman looked at his daughter. She looked wide-eyed at the surrounding valley.
She turned and spoke to him as though she had been reading his thoughts. "It's as though I've been here…seen this all before."
"Not unless you're name is Flash Gordon you ain't" Henrickson said looking back at her.
"You just keep your eyes on the road," Kobayashi said. "I don't want to end up face to face with some alien tree because you can't ever take two minutes to shut your mouth." He turned to look at him this time. "And she'd be Dale Arden."
Truman sat concentrating on the instrument panel in front of him. Brickstone sat beside him looking at the dame display.
"It bothers me that we can't pick up anything on the scans," Brickstone said. "This all feels so…orchestrated. There's nothing but seeming jungle for kilometers on end, and yet only our sensors are distorted, not our communications."
Truman held his thoughts within. Only days before Brickstone had been under suspicion for being a saboteur. Truman wanted him along so that he could keep his eye on the man.
"So," Truman said. "Were you able to take a look at the security logs."
"Yeah Sanders," Brickstone said. He obviously did not like Truman still. He refused to acknowledge that Truman were the officer in command of the mission. And he did have a point. Truman had been a strategist for the last twenty years, and had last been in combat twenty five years ago. Brickstone had been in the thick of some of the worst fighting during both Lunar Wars. He knew how to handle himself in combat situations. But even though there may have been a threat that they needed to face, Truman was convinced that they should meet it with open minds, and not with their fingers on the trigger, ready to fire.
He was probably the only one. Most people in his world were bitter, angry and tense. Millions of people in his city lashed out at each other on a daily basis. No wonder there could not be peace. If families couldn't get along, how could nations? He looked at his daughter. Years it had been, and the only reason they were together now was because of a crisis. He swore to himself that when they got back, he wouldn't go a day without telling her he loved her. Whether she hated him or not, he was at least going to make the effort. That was what everyone on earth needed to do, he thought. Like Father Daly had once told him, "We all need to learn to forgive."
"Did you hear me?" Brickstone said.
"Uh, missed that." Truman said. He focused on the display again.
"Somehow it was slipped out right before our entry into this planet's atmosphere."
"Not good." Truman thought for a moment. Silent, but his mind a cacophony of thoughts. "That could only mean one of two things then. Either the missile just vanished, or somebody took it."
"The only ones who have been trying to get it since we left Earth--the marauders and the ACF.
"Can't see them, remember? Our sensors aren't working. They could have slipped in and out before we even knew it. The question is just when and where."
"Hmmm…well, it couldn't have been in the Belt. The pursued us all the way to Pluto, so if they got the one then, they probably would have headed back to Earth by now."
"So it was somewhere near Pluto. Notice anything onboard the ship when we were planetside?" Truman asked.
"Nothing until that gate opened up," Brickstone replied. "But they came in attacking at that point."
"So that means they got it then."
Truman turned and looked at the Colonel in the eyes. He wanted to see if there was something there. A glimmer of a lie, or a confession written on his visage.
"They stole the warhead then tried to destroy us afterward. It's their MO. Sure, they could have taken the damn thing and run, but the Marauders are akin to ancient day pirates or buccaneers. They thrive on terror and confrontation. Not skulking and secrecy."
"They are here." Sarah said.
"What?" Brickstone replied."
"They are here. I can feel them here. I can see them. The main ship has returned to Earth with the missile. But they've sent a ship after us to obtain the other if they could."
"What are they going to do then young lady," Brickstone asked.
"I don't know. I can't see everything. There is so much there I can only focus on a small amount for only a little bit at a time. But they are here." She pointed outside through the forward display. "There!"
Before them lay a large city. It looked old and uninhabited. Trees and greenery had overgrown its boundaries and crept in to take what once it was sure to have reigned over. Every image in Truman's head reminded him of a lost city--ancient and untouched by human hands for centuries…possibly eons.
Untouched but for the Marauder frigate that rocketed above the city's streets.
"Henrickson," Truman said. "Get us down there. Now."
Debris rained down from above her head all around them. The ship had fired on the balcony, destroying McGrath, and whatever had been unfortunate enough to be there at the time.
Amid they chaos they fell gently through a column of soft pink light. She did not know how she knew to activate the field, or even what it was. Instinctually she had pressed the panel and an anti-gravity shaft had appeared. Truman Mikitrick were already at the bottom. Debris from the explosion that had gotten caught in the field lightly danced above her head, juxtaposed to the destruction above her. Closer to the ground she came.
She still had the orb. She had been aware enough to keep it with her at all times. Lightly she touched down, little pebbles of rock and marble lightly raining on her head. She stepped out of the light, and was immediately reacquainted with gravity.
"Come on!" Palmer shouted from within a building across the street. He waved her over as the young soldier stood nearby, still recording everything that he saw. Jenna heaved the man over her shoulders and began to run, but stumbled.
Palmer charged out across the vine-covered street, ducking his head as though that could save him from another assault. He grabbed the colonel's arm and tossed it over his shoulder. The two of them dragging the man across the street.
The ship whizzed above them, screaming as the wind and heat blew by. The craft rocketed away from them, then began to turn around. It headed toward them again, although this time the same doors that were open when it fired the missiles were open again.
"This sucks," Palmer said.
The ship grew closer. Jenna stood. Unafraid. She knew something. Closer. She could see the cloud of dust from the street pick up trailing behind it. Closer. They stood in the middle of the road. Vines covered almost everything. The ship was a half mile away now. Suddenly a rush of wind.
A loud explosion sounded above their heads. Palmer tried to look up but was blinded by the intense light. A pill shaped missile flew above them…but it came from behind them.
Jenna looked. Stenciled across the side of the small ship was the name "Thor." The missile headed directly for the other ship. The Prometheus inched upward to avoid impact. It was too late. An explosion rocked the ship, knocking it off kilter. Thick black smoke poured from its side. It inched backward then slowly turned away.
The ship named Thor hovered in the air for a moment. Then after the Prometheus was visibly gone t began to descend vertically fifty feet away. Dirt and small bits of vegetation kicked up everywhere, Jenna squinting so that she could see. The craft landed. Small landing struts tensed downward as the weight of the ship was fully rested upon them.
With a burst of steam a doorway dropped down from the belly of the ship. She heard footsteps. Four sets to be exact. She could discern them all. One male, slightly older and weary, not in the body but in the mind. Another male equally as old, bitter and jaded from years of war. A younger male young and cocky, but talented none the less. The last male was heavier, gentle yet walked crisply down the ramp. And the last was…a female. She knew this one. This was who, of everyone else she has seen, she had seen the clearest.
The younger male stepped to her first. His shock of curly blond hair and somewhat innocent face betrayed the confidence he held within him.
"Take me to your leader," he said.
"Do you always have to crack jokes?" the larger man said. Jenna noticed he must have been from half Japanese decent, hapa as they had called it when she had studied in Hawaii. The other one spoke with a Texan accent. If there had been any doubt where they were from before, there was none now.
"I think I should be asking the same of you," she replied
The older more weary man walked toward her. "I'm Truman. Truman Sanders. Commander in the United Nations Air and Space Administration."
He placed his hand outward. She took it and shook back.
"Jenna Munro," she said. "Very pleased to meet you."
"And that's all we know so far," Truman said to Jenna. He had just finished telling her the story of there coming to be there. "It's not much, but it's everything we know so far. What about yourselves?"
"We were diving. Looking for a temple I had discovered previously off the shore of Bimini. When we had returned to find it, somehow we ended up here."
"Sounds even more far fetched than our coming to be here," Kobayashi said.
"Anything unusual…given the circumstances, more unusual than an average unusual day?"
"Well," Jenna began. "When I first discovered the temple, there were things. Like ghosts. I recognized them as priests or something religious. They wore long white robes and were adorned with gold and jewelry. They moved hastily, as though they were in a hurry to finish whatever they were doing before something or someone arrived."
"But you got in the way before they finished." Sarah said knowingly.
"Right Jenna" said. "I was swimming in a large vaulted chamber. A statute rested in the middle of the room. In it's hands shone a crystal orb. It was beautiful. I reached out and took it. The ghosts or whatever they were looked up, some shocked but a few were sullen. Then they slowly faded away and the room went black. I started to panic a bit, not knowing which way was up. But I was able to keep my wits about me long enough to backtrack outside the temple. Above the surface there was a storm. I was tossed and turned in the waters as I tried to find my small boat. But I couldn't. All I knew was I had the orb though. I remember breaking though the waters, holding it tightly in my hand…the next thing I know I was laying on the shore."
"She called me first," Palmer continued. "I flew down there to check things out. We made a dive in the general area she had said she saw the temple but we couldn't find anything. Next thing we know, the Colonel and his boys arrive and not only did we find the temple, but we found ourselves here."
"Do you mind if I hold it?" Kobayashi said to Jenna. He was looking down toward the small side pack she wore strapped over her shoulder. She pulled out the orb and handed it to him. "Hmmm…" he said looking at it closely. "There seems to be some kind of writing or something in the center."
"How can you see it?" Truman asked.
"I'm a nanotechnician. I get paid to look at very small things."
"No comment," Henrickson said.
"I noticed it too, plus this," Jenna said placing a finger on the orb, attempting to guide Kobayashi's eyes toward what she had seen earlier. "See those? Three pyramids, two on the bottom, one on the top."
"Yeah, you're right. I'd like to run it through our computers and see what else I can find."
"If that's okay?" Truman offered to Jenna.
She hesitated for a moment. "Of course."
Kobayashi walked back to the Thor holding the crystal ball up to the sunlight. He looked like some mad professor to Truman.
There it was. The key to all of this. And they were still as clueless as when they had begun. Kobayashi disappeared up the walkway into the shuttle.
"Sanders to Richardson."
"Go ahead Sanders," Richardson replied.
"Kobayashi is going to be transmitting some linguistics information back to the ship. Are you up for any translations?"
"It's a long story. But the short of it is, that we have some guests…or partners I should say rather. We'll be heading back toward the ship, but could you get working on it ASAP?"
"Sure, no problem." Richardson said. "But there's something I have to tell ya first."
"What is it?"
"Sensors are working again. And we have guests as well."
"Captain Jax here. Captain of the Lady Grey."
She looked at the orb, which was mounted on a three pronged metal stand. It seemed to generate it's own light as well as reflecting the light of the room. Kobayashi stood over it, looking intently as he no doubt wondered why he was even there in the first place. Truman, Henrickson, and Brickstone stood to the back of the room. Jenna stood right alongside Kobayashi who also stood by Richardson. The first thought that Truman thought was boy is this room crowded.
"It looks like some sort of glyph. Egyptian maybe?" Richardson said. "It's hard ta tell because it's shaped in a three dimensional space. It seems ta change at whatever angle it's held at."
"Does it have to be Egyptian though? Look at this shape," Jenna said while spinning the orb slowly on its stand. "These look more like early Meso-American. Very early I'd imagine."
"Well whatever it is. It says somethin'. Just what ah don't know." Richardson replied. She placed her digi-pad next to the crystal. It made a series of whirrs and clicks then she looked closely at the read out. "Hmmm." She spread her arms out and motioned everyone back. "Kobayashi, can you hit the switch on the hologram scanner."
"Yeah," he said as he moved toward a small black panel on the wall. He slid open the case and operated the controls.
A light blue light emitted from a small laser at the top of the wall. The thin cylinder ran across the orb thousands of times in a matter of seconds, all the while Richardson reading the data on her digi-pad.
When the laser stopped, she walked slightly forward.
"Well Truman. If we're going to get any sort of translation, the computer's database is probably going to take hours. I've studied all sorts of languages and it's like nothing I've ever seen before."
"Well keep us informed," he aid as they left the room.
Truman turned to Henrickson.
"I want you to take the shuttle back up and patrol the area. Those marauders may still be near by, and it won't be that hard td find us. Also keep a very close eye open for the Lady Grey."
They all heard Sarah scream at the same moment.
She had walked over to the orb, enticed by its glowing luminescence. She had reached out to grab it. Her body seemed to glow. Light dully emanating from beneath her skin. Everyone but Truman took a step backwards away from her. He tried to near her, but as he did, her felt dizzy and weak. Looking around almost everyone else seemed to react the same way.
Suddenly the light faded. She raised her had to her forehead, then fainted to the floor. Truman caught her before she hit the floor.
They were all surprised when she spoke.
"I can see it now," she said "I can see everything."
"See what?" Truman said holding his daughter.
"The past…the present…the future. They aren't even where we think they should be. But nonetheless I can see them all."
Her eyes were opened wide, large dark pupils dilated and seemingly in awe.
The explosion rocked the ship knocking them all to the ground.
Truman and Jenna were the first to stand up. Him running across the room to look at the view screen. He switched it on.
It was the marauder ship, hovering outside the battered Valkerie, thin streaks of weapon's fire raining down from above.
Who ever was piloting the ship didn't see the Lady Grey coming. She fired a salvo of missiles at the marauders, just as the Valkerie began to rise.
"She going to launch the missiles" Sarah said.
"Follow them." Truman said.
The three ships roared into pace above the horizon.
A smudgy blue rift was still open just beyond the rings of the planet. The pirate vessel was headed straight for it. The Lady Grey was right behind her. The Valkerie was in the rear.
The marauder vessel accelerated toward the rift. The Lady Grey and the Valkerie fired, but the smaller vessel was much to fast for the both of them. She moved closer to the rift.
Sarah touched the orb again.
The ships disappeared into the rift.
When they came out of the other side, they were near the Earth.
And the marauder had fired the Assimilator missile.
Sarah held the orb tighter.
That's when Truman noticed, that time seemed to be standing still.
"This was their plan all along," she said to him. "What you call the Atlanteans have allowed this to happen simply so that we could help save the earth."
"But I don't understand?' he said. He looked around. Everyone around him was frozen in place as well.
"You will in time," she said. Her body glowed even brighter, then became completely luminescent.
She moved in closer to her father.
"Thank you" she said touching a glowing hand to his face.
The room went bright, and she disappeared.
Truman woke up beside his wife. He jumped up as he had done for nearly every night for the last twenty-five years. Except this time he felt differently. There was no longer a feeling of dread, but instead one of hope.
The last few days, weeks, months were cloudy to him. The UNASA command wouldn't speak to the crew on any information they had. In truth the last thing he could clearly remember was speaking to his daughter…somewhere above the green jewel of the earth.
The doorbell rang. He walked across the room and donned his robe.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"Someone to say thank you." A elderly female voice said through the intercom.
Without fear he opened the door. Since he had been back it seemed as though the world had been more at ease than it ever had been. There had even been talk that the war would be over soon.
He opened the door. There stood the women he had helped at the coffee shop. It seemed like it had been centuries ago. In fact it had only been months. It was then that he noticed something.
Her eyes. Crystal and blue. He knew those eyes.
"Hello Truman. I didn't want to tell you until I knew you were ready."
He stood there speechless. Janelle came walking to the door and wrapped her arms around her husband. Her eyes squinted wearily as she weakly spoke.
"Truman who is it…" she said.
"A friend," he replied.
The elderly woman spoke again. "She says hello Truman. I don't know how. I don't know why. But we are linked. And she wants you to know that she loves you."
A tear rolled down his face. "Where. Where is she?"
"No where. Everywhere. She's here," she said pointing to his heart. "and she wanted me to let you have this."
The woman pulled out the same worn leather purse that Truman had helped her get back all those months ago. From it she pulled out a crystal orb.
"Thank you" he said.
"I'm a recent graduate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a Master's degree in English Literature/Creative Writing. I'm currently working on a sci-fi novel and screenplay, after writing a historical novel completed in July of 1997. I have the synopsis for the world's greatest green lantern story and am just waiting for my chance to make right the mess that has become Green Lantern. I live in San Francisco, am 25, and I need a car."
You can contact the writer at: email@example.com.
Aphelion Letter Column A place for your opinions.
Return to the Aphelion main page.