Preview of THE KASARI NEXUS – Book One of The Rho Agenda Assimilation September 11, 2015Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
THE KASARI NEXUS
Book One of The Rho Agenda Assimilation
Copyright © 2015
“My God!” Raul gasped. “You’ve killed us both!”
Jennifer Smythe turned her back on the legless apparition who had once been a handsome young man. As she adjusted the alien headband over her temples, its translucent length shifted colors, almost disappearing into her short, spiked blond hair. Feeling the Altreian headband pour its power into her mind, a barely audible whisper slipped from her lips.
Inside the Bandolier Cave, a dozen miles southwest of Los Alamos, New Mexico, a coffee mug slipped from Dr. Hanz Jorgen’s fingers and shattered on the stone floor, spewing its hot wetness up his pants leg. As a brilliant white glow replaced the alien starship’s normal, soft magenta, he didn’t even notice.
Hanz didn’t know how he knew, but he did. Something powerful had just grabbed control of the Altreian starship’s computer, drawing every cycle of its immense processing power. He could practically hear the alien circuits groan under the terrible demand being placed upon the system. Staring at the starship, he wondered what could tax it so intensely. Then, as a shudder traversed his body, Hanz decided he didn’t really want to know.
They were as good as dead. Raul felt the awful knowledge rip at his brain. No living thing could survive the awful G-forces of reentry from an unanchored wormhole transit. But somehow this Altreian-altered mutant had tricked him into activating the Kasari world ship’s wormhole engines. An unstoppable sequence had been initiated that would soon complete the gravitational wave packet meant to fold space-time and thrust the world ship through it. And when the Rho Ship emerged on the far side, its two quasi-human passengers would be little more than organic splatter in the ship’s forward compartment.
Thrusting aside the panic that had immobilized him, Raul called upon his connection to the Rho Ship’s neural net and initiated a desperate query, one final attempt to stop what was happening. The nano-crystals embedded in his human brain delivered the perfect connection that wedded his mind to the Rho Ship. Unfortunately, the answer that formed in his consciousness left him shaking. Not good!
Once again he felt Jennifer’s thoughts touch his, a caress that left him with a sense of calm determination accompanied by a vision. How the hell was she doing that? But before he could attempt to eject her from his head, the vision resolved into a plan. Not a great plan, but one that might have the barest theoretical chance of saving their lives.
Raul focused the Rho Ship’s neural net on the proposed workaround, trying to ignore his mental countdown. Only a few seconds remained until the gravitational wave packet stabilized, but on the timescale at which the starship’s neural net operated, that would be enough. It had to be.
His mind one with the massive neural net, Raul felt the solution lock in, marveling at its simplicity. In all the millennia that the Kasari Collective had been sending out these robotic world ships to find new civilizations and instruct them on how to build a wormhole gateway, the aliens had never managed to solve the central problem. They could send the ships across the galaxy in an instant, but because the far end wasn’t anchored at a gateway, they couldn’t send living passengers.
So instead of performing one space-time fold between here and there, the solution Jennifer had proposed involved breaking the entire trip into a series of much smaller folds, sort of like a Chinese fan. If everything went right, the series of space-time coordinates would produce a jitter in the gravity distortion drive, breaking the entire trip into a series of minor wormhole steps that should be individually survivable.
Wrapping himself in the ship’s internal stasis field, Raul glanced at Jennifer, tempted to leave her to be thrown about. But the terror at the idea of being the lone survivor of a trip to a random point in the galaxy ended the thought before it fully formed. With a flick of his mind, the stasis field tightly cradled her body, locking it in place.
Then the universe came apart around them.
Standing inside the Kasari starship that rested within the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division, Jennifer felt its wormhole engines ramp to full power. In seconds, a gravitational wave packet would thrust this ship through the resulting wormhole to an unknown destination, hopefully somewhere in this galaxy. Raul had used the Rho Ship to interfere with Jennifer’s, Mark’s, and Heather’s efforts to destroy the Stephenson Gateway, thus forcing her to take drastic action.
The sudden vision of what the wormhole would do to the surrounding high-bay and the scientists who were on duty left her sick to her stomach and almost made her lose focus. But if she was to have any chance of surviving this, she couldn’t allow her concentration to lapse.
The connection through her headset to the Altreian starship that rested inside the Bandolier cavern, a dozen miles southwest of the Rho laboratory, had provided her with the solution she’d mentally transferred to Raul. But that didn’t mean it would work.
When the force-field draped her body, it startled her so badly that she almost succumbed to a panic attack at her inability to move even a finger. But then she understood. Raul had caused the Rho Ship to generate the field that immobilized both their bodies and suspended them inside this compartment. Not a bad idea considering what she feared was about to happen. And then it did.
The first of many thousands of mini-steps was instantaneous. It was a sudden unintelligible shift in perspective as the cells in her body tried to tear themselves apart. Pain exploded in her mind and she lost sight in her left eye. Only the extensive neural augmentation she’d received when she’d first tried on the headset allowed her to restrict the blood flow to the ruptured vessels.
Then it happened again. And again. And again. The transitions happened so quickly that she barely retained consciousness and then wished that she hadn’t. She experienced an endless battering that left her blinded and gasping as overstressed bones cracked and splintered within her body. Jennifer felt a scream crawl to her lips and bubble out in a bloody froth which spread along the invisible force-field encasing her.
Despite the best efforts of her augmented mind and musculature, she was dying. A part of her begged for death to release her from the agony, but Jennifer refused to let death take her without a fight, although she knew this was a fight she wasn’t going to win.
Despite the amazing regenerative powers his nanite infused blood granted him, Raul felt as if he were being hammered into pieces. Although each individual wormhole transit was instantaneous, the unanchored step into a new piece of space-time generated G forces that the human body couldn’t handle. And the pauses between those steps unleashed an unending sea of agony. But as he glanced across at the bloody mess that was Jennifer Smythe, he had a hard time feeling sorry for himself. She was still alive but, given that she lacked the nanites that worked to repair his wounds, he really didn’t know how.
When the series of transitions came to an abrupt end, Raul endured several seconds of dread that the wormhole transits would begin anew. The knowledge that he had made it, that his nanites would be able to fully heal his injuries, sent a wave of relief that brought bloody tears to his eyes. Another look at Jennifer Smythe’s suspended body swept that warm feeling away in a fresh wave of terror.
Manipulating the stasis field, Raul lowered her body gently to the alien compartment’s gray floor, where her blood pooled around her. The neural net told him many things, all bad. Jennifer wasn’t breathing and her heart had stopped beating. Worse, she had taken so much damage that chest compressions were out of the question. But she still had brain function.
Suspended by the stasis field, Raul floated to her side, gasping from the pain even this gentle movement caused. Forcing himself to concentrate, Raul visualized a thin tube tapping a large vein in his left arm and connecting to a similar vein on Jennifer’s. The stasis field complied, funneling his nanite infused blood into her body.
He could tell immediately that it wasn’t going to be enough to save her. The damage was so widespread that by the time the nanites spread throughout her form, she would be dead. And then Raul would be alone, trapped on this lonely robot ship in the vastness of uncharted space with no idea of how to get home, even if the earth still existed.
A new idea formed in his mind, one that just might kill him, but his desperation left him no choice. Raul changed his visualization and hundreds of the virtual transfusion tubes sprouted from his body to Jennifer’s, delivering his blood to all parts of her body simultaneously. And as it did, Raul felt himself weaken. Missing legs, he just didn’t have the blood capacity of a normal person.
As he felt his vision narrow and his consciousness fade, Raul terminated the flow and let himself settle to the alien floor beside her. His fingers touched her right wrist and he held his breath. Nothing.
Then he felt it, the faintest of pulses beneath the bruised skin of her forearm. Raul took her hand gently in his, felt the broken bones of her fingers shift beneath her skin, and withdrew his hand in horror.
Raul caught himself as a new horror filled his mind. God had nothing to do with any of this. The light of religious belief he’d always held to so tightly had finally been snuffed out, and along with it, any relief that prayer might have brought.
Weak from blood loss, Raul rested his head on the cool gray floor, closed his eyes, and wept.
Lying on her back, Jennifer blinked her eyes as her red limned vision swam back into the light. Everywhere she looked, things were a very blurry red, no doubt a consequence of the ruptured blood vessels in her eyes. Christ. It was a miracle that she could see at all. She rode a tidal wave of pain but, for the first time, its intensity seemed to lessen. Perhaps her nerves had merely passed their pain saturation threshold. But no. The fact that her sight had returned meant that she was getting better.
She raised her hands to gently rub her face and then froze. What the hell? She’d felt the bones in her hands and arms break under the stresses produced by the wormhole transitions. But now, as she held up her hands, she could see that they were whole and functional. Despite the fact that they still hurt like hell, they were healing. And apparently, so was the rest of her body.
A sudden panic seized her. There was only one thing she knew of that could produce this type of healing. The Rho Project nanites. And there was only one way they could have gotten into her system.
Lying on her back, she tried to raise her head, but a fresh wave of agony made her suck in a breath and threw her into a paroxysm of coughing. It took all of her augmented neural control to avoid a bout of the dry heaves.
Jennifer longed to scream, but couldn’t have managed it even if she’d dared try. Only a weak gasp escaped her lips.
Raul! What had that crazy son-of-a-bitch done to her? Why couldn’t he have just let her die?
Jennifer saw Raul’s legless form float through the air toward her, raising a question in her mind. If the Rho starship was in the void of empty space, why wasn’t she also floating instead of lying on the floor?
He came to a stop an arm’s length above the spot where she lay, his artificial right eye extending on a short, metallic stalk from its socket and moving independently of his human eye. The top and back of Raul’s skull had been replaced by a translucent material through which his brain was vaguely visible.
This being the first time she’d had the opportunity to study him, Jennifer found his cyborg appearance so fascinating that it momentarily distracted her from her pain. As consciousness gradually slipped from her grasp, a new idea assaulted her. Was that what he had in mind for her? But even as she mulled it, the horror of that thought failed to keep her awake.
Floating above the jumble of gray alien conduits that filled almost half of the Rho Ship’s forward compartment, Raul approached the large empty space where Jennifer Smythe lay, his body propelled by his control of the stasis field. Technically, the field was controlled by the Rho Ship’s neural net, but his mind was so thoroughly integrated into the net that it was a distinction without a difference.
After having awakened briefly three hours ago, Jennifer had slipped back into unconsciousness. Considering the extent of the injuries that her blood transfused nanites were working to repair, it was probably for the best.
Other than his terror of being alone, he wasn’t sure why he cared. It all went back to his junior year at Los Alamos High School, when the madness had begun.
Raul had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the reason his father, Dr. Ernesto Rodriguez, had secretly injected his son with Rho Project nanites even though the serum had only undergone animal testing. The treatment had worked, but his dad hadn’t revealed what he’d done, letting Raul believe that his supernatural healing powers were a miracle, a gift straight from God Almighty.
He had gone back to school and fallen in love with Jennifer’s best friend, Heather McFarland. And despite his dislike of her brother Mark, Raul had thought Jennifer quite nice.
He paused to study her, not only in the human-visible spectrum, but in the ultraviolet and infrared too. There was little doubt that she would recover. Raul just wished he could say the same thing for the Rho Ship.
On the positive side, the gravity distortion engines were still functioning, as evidenced by the one-G that held Jennifer and the various supplies down. Of course, Raul could have achieved the same effect with his ability to manipulate the stasis field generator. But why bother when the vessel’s gravity distortion drives determined the direction and magnitude of its acceleration vector. Inside, a different gravitational manipulation gave you a consistent floor-ceiling reference and allowed you to stand and move about irrespective of what was happening to the ship as a whole, although even that bit of gravitational wizardry couldn’t provide enough inertial damping for a survivable wormhole transition.
The distortion drives were operational…fabulous. Unfortunately, all sensor systems were offline, so they were flying blind. And from his examination of the data provided by his neural net, that was the least of their problems.
Decades ago, the Rho Ship had battled its Altreian counterpart in the skies over the American southwest, with both ships ultimately crashing to Earth. But as badly as the Rho Ship’s control systems had been damaged in the fight, it was Dr. Donald Stephenson who had almost destroyed it. The scientist had abused its gravity distortion engines to generate an anomaly inside the Large Hadron Collider, an extinction threat that had forced world governments to build the Stephenson Gateway to transport the nascent black hole into deep space.
Raul had spent a year gradually restoring the systems that enabled the robot ship to repair itself, although he’d made those repairs while it rested safely inside Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division, not lost somewhere in the void of space.
The thought of Dr. Stephenson brought a low growl from Raul’s throat. The head of the Rho Project had surgically altered Raul, removing his legs and replacing his right eye, all in an attempt to build a cyborg interface to the Rho Ship’s neural net. The procedure had worked, but at the cost of Raul’s humanity, transforming him from a vital nineteen-year-old man into a neo-Frankenstein monster. The horror he’d seen in Jennifer’s eyes when she’d looked at him brought that truth thundering home.
Raul shook off the self-pity accompanying his thoughts of Dr. Stephenson. After all, Stephenson had merely been a tool of the Kasari Collective, the alien empire that had built this robotic world ship and sent it to Earth, packed with technologies designed to seduce humanity into building the wormhole gate. Almost every horrible thing that had happened to Raul—the loss of his family and sacrifice of his form—could be traced directly back to the Kasari.
As he watched, Jennifer stirred and groaned. She opened her eyes and met his gaze with a new clarity.
“Is there any water?” she rasped.
Her question made Raul realize just how thirsty he was. Hungry too. The nanites worked hard to fix anything that was wrong with your body, but they also heightened hunger and thirst.
“Lie still. I’ll bring some.”
Jennifer ignored his advice and struggled to her knees, her head drooping from the effort. Raul floated to the stack of supplies Dr. Stephenson had stashed in the compartment more than a year ago, shocked at how few of the cases of Meals Ready to Eat and five-gallon water bottles remained. But then Raul hadn’t planned on leaving Earth so suddenly.
Thank you, Jennifer Smythe!
He filled a plastic glass, drank greedily, refilled it, and returned to Jennifer, who was now seated with her back against the stasis field generator. When she took the glass from his outstretched hand, she sniffed it warily and then took a small sip.
Raul felt the heat rise to his cheeks. “What? You think I poisoned it?”
Jennifer glared back at him. “Crossed my mind.”
“I just saved your ass!”
She started to respond, shrugged instead and took a deep drink, pausing to see if the water was going to stay down. It did and she finished the remainder. When her gaze again met Raul’s, he realized her eyes were brown, just as he remembered from high school. But back then her hair had been brown too.
“What about them?” she asked.
“When you stepped into the ship they were blue.”
“Ever hear of colored contact lenses?”
The muscles in Raul’s jaw tightened. “What’s with the attitude? If anyone’s got a right to be pissed, it’s me.”
Jennifer struggled to her feet, standing so that she faced him. “Really?”
“You damn near killed us both!”
“Bullshit!” Jennifer jabbed a finger at him. “You caused this.”
For a second, Raul was tempted to fling her across the room with the stasis field. But she was partially right, though Dr. Stephenson was the chief cause of the disasters that had led to this. He and the Kasari Collective.
Years ago, shortly after the first test of the atomic bomb, humanity had attracted the attention of the two biggest players in the galaxy, the Kasari Collective and the Altreians. They had each sent a starship to Earth with very different agendas.
The Kasari were engaged in the most aggressive expansion of its recorded history, assimilating the populations of world after world, leaving the Altreians scrambling to stop that advance. Both alien empires had extremely advanced but vastly different technologies.
The Kasari had mastered the manipulation of gravity and thus could create wormholes through which they could send unmanned starships. No living being could survive the G-Forces involved with exiting a wormhole that was not anchored at both ends by a gateway. The Kasari sent these world ships to populated planets that had acquired sufficient technology to be of interest. Those world ships landed and offered the local population technologies that could extend lifetimes and solve clean energy problems, along with a host of other scientific breakthroughs. Once they had sampled those goodies, few civilizations could resist the final enticement…to build a wormhole-gate that would form a doorway to connect the populace with their alien benefactors.
The genius of the Kasari scheme was that it allowed them to assimilate whole populations into the collective without the massive cost of huge wars. The military principle of economy of force was thus applied on a massive scale. There were, of course, clashes with parts of the population, but these usually could be put down by providing advisors and equipment to the pro-Kasari elements of the targeted world. And that efficiency allowed the Kasari to expand on multiple worlds simultaneously without having to gather a large force to conquer one world at a time. Willing recruits were far more valuable to the collective than those recruited by force.
As for the Altreians, they employed a technology that allowed them to shift their starships into subspace, where faster-than-light travel was possible. More importantly, the process allowed them to send starships with living crews to distant worlds. The feat was impressive, but the Altreians had no chance of scaling to the extent that the Kasari Collective could manage through their approach. So the Altreians tried to detect when a Kasari world ship was sent forth so that they could launch a starship of their own, hopefully intercepting the enemy vessel before it could reach its target population.
In the late 1940s, the Kasari craft in which Raul and Jennifer Smythe now found themselves had been intercepted on its way to Earth by an Altreian starship. The two ships had shot each other down over the American Southwest. Only the Kasari vessel had been found. The U.S. Government had spirited it away to Los Alamos National Laboratory where a top secret effort known as The Rho Project was tasked with reverse engineering the damaged ship’s technology.
Over the decades that followed, the project’s legendary lead scientist, Dr. Donald R. Stephenson had been wildly successful. Unfortunately, along with the ship and its technologies, he’d resurrected its Kasari agenda.
Jennifer’s voice pulled Raul from his reverie.
“The Earth! Did it survive? Is it still out there?”
Raul felt his gut clench as he looked into her terrified eyes.
“I don’t know.”
Jennifer struggled against her rising panic. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
Five feet away, Raul shook his head.
“The ship’s sensors are offline. I have no idea where in the universe we are and, until we get them working, we can’t figure it out.” Raul’s human eye locked with hers as a sad look settled on his face. “Even if we get them working, we’re almost certainly too far away to check on Earth.”
The realization stunned her. The Rho Ship’s gravitational distortion engines had created a wormhole and thrust them through. In all likelihood this ship was now many light years away from Earth. Even if they could see Earth, the light they would be seeing had been travelling across space for all those years that it took to get here. They would be looking back into Earth’s past and glean nothing about the planet’s present.
A new idea gave her sudden hope. She was still wearing the Altreian headband. It communicated with the crashed Altreian starship in the Bandolier Cave through subspace, and the speed of waves through subspace was far greater than the speed of light.
So why wasn’t she feeling the familiar connection to the Bandolier Ship?
It had been three years since she, her twin brother Mark, and Heather McFarland had first stumbled upon that crashed ship in the steep canyon country near Los Alamos, New Mexico. They’d discovered the alien headbands on the damaged craft and foolishly tried them on. She could still feel the pain of that first experience. Each of them had been left altered, with their neural connections and physiological abilities enhanced in different ways, even after they removed the headbands. Once a headset had attuned to an individual mind, it would never link to another for as long as that person lived.
The trio had been rewired with eidetic memories, enhanced senses, fine control of their neuro-musculature, and some ability to communicate telepathically with each other. But even though the iridescent headsets had looked identical, they were each programmed for one of four different crew positions on the Altreian craft.
Mark had been altered for the security officer role, his muscle coordination and strength augmented beyond any of the others along with his ability to learn languages and mimic voices. Heather had chosen the commander’s headset, gifting her with savant mathematical abilities that included instantaneous calculation of the odds of upcoming events.
Jennifer had chosen the communications officer headset, gifting her with strong empathic and telepathic abilities.
The fourth headset was designated for the crew’s political officer, the one designated to keep an eye on the rest of the crew and make sure they were complying with the will of the Altreian High Council. Jennifer didn’t know its full capabilities and didn’t really care to. Truth be known, that headset scared the hell out of her. The amazing enhancements imparted by the other headsets had ensnared the three of them in the Altreian agenda, destroying their once comfortable lives.
But whenever they put the headbands on, no matter where they were, they could interact directly with the Altreian starship’s computer, and that was an awesome experience.
Now she wasn’t feeling that connection. Perhaps the Altreian headset’s subspace communications capability was range limited. Right now, Jennifer really, really hoped that was it.
For the last hour, Jennifer had felt herself getting stronger as the amazing nano-machines healed her body. Despite her knowledge that her mentors, Jack Gregory and Janet Price, had been the recipients of Dr. Stephenson’s nanite infusions, she couldn’t shake her revulsion at the thought of thousands of tiny machines derived from Kasari technology crawling around in her blood stream.
After consuming two MREs and a quart of water, she’d let Raul bring her up to speed on their situation.
The Rho Ship’s matter disrupter, the device that transformed any kind of matter to energy, was fully functional. Having studied the theory behind the disrupter that Dr. Stephenson had built at the Large Hadron Collider site in Switzerland, she understood how it worked.
She and Raul had power, working gravitational distortion engines, food, water, and a portable camp toilet. So much for the good news.
“None of the onboard sensors are working?” Jennifer asked.
“We’re flying completely blind out here.”
“And life support is failing, too?”
“No, there’s nothing wrong with the life support system.” said Raul. “It’s just not running.”
Normally, Jennifer would have used her computer skills to help identify and fix these problems, but since Raul was the only interface to the Rho Ship’s neural net, she was stuck asking frustrating questions. His answers weren’t improving her mood.
“This ship’s only designed to carry living passengers for sub-light journeys. Since nobody can survive an unanchored wormhole transit, the life support systems automatically shut down whenever the wormhole drives engage. They don’t come on again until the ship takes on new passengers.”
“But it has passengers.”
“And if its sensors were operating, the ship would probably detect that.”
Jennifer felt her teeth grind and forced her jaw to relax. “Seems like a pretty important problem. What the hell are you doing to fix it?”
Raul scowled at her. “That’s just it. I can’t fix it.”
“You’re not even trying!”
“Bullshit. The sensor systems are located in the aft, along with the gravity distortion engines and the weapons systems. Normally I would use the stasis field or the nano-material controls to make repairs throughout the ship. But without the worm-fiber sensors I can’t see a damn thing back there.”
“Then float your ass back there and fix it!”
Jennifer watched as Raul floated toward her, invading her personal space. “I can only connect with the neural net in the forward compartment. Without that, I won’t be able to control the stasis field or the nano-materials. I’d just be crawling around on the floor, even more worthless than you.”
Jennifer took a deep breath and pulled forward the perfect memory of how she felt during deep meditation, feeling her alpha waves smooth out as she centered. This bickering was only using up more of their precious oxygen, getting them nowhere closer to a solution. If they were going to survive, she needed Raul’s help. And whether he recognized it or not, he needed hers. It was time for her to step up and take control.
“What if I could be your eyes?”
Raul looked surprised at her sudden change in tone and she subtly reached into his mind, amplifying the warm feeling but not so much that he would notice her influence.
“You want me to let you back inside my head?”
Jennifer almost smiled at Raul’s naiveté, thinking that he could block her if she chose to force her way in. Yet that approach wasn’t likely to lead to a cooperative working environment for the longer term, assuming they survived long enough for that to be a possibility.
“Unless you can think of a better plan.”
Raul hesitated, his robotic eye elongating to scan the wall behind him, reminding her of a sea snake wriggling out of a coral hole. Jennifer imagined that the move enhanced his interaction with the massive computation systems behind the wall.
After several seconds, he shrugged. “I guess it’s worth a try.”
“Are you sure the rest of the ship has air?” she asked.
“Unless there was a hull breach, it should still have the air that was trapped inside when the outer hatch closed.”
“So you’re just going to open the door and hope for the best?”
“I’ll seal the entrance with the stasis field before opening the door.”
Jennifer followed Raul’s human eye, looking toward a spot on the rear wall of the compartment where she could just make out the vague outline of a door.
With all that had happened, she’d barely taken notice of the alien equipment that crowded the back half of this forward compartment. There was nothing beautiful about the ship. Everything was gray, shaped for efficiency and utility, not aesthetics, functionality trumping beauty at every twist and turn. The Kasari had made no attempt to group equipment in any way that made its functionality apparent, instead positioning everything so that the translucent tubes and bundles of conduits that connected the various apparatuses optimized efficiency. Very narrow walkways led through, around, and over an assortment of machines and instruments, all built to be operated by the Rho Ship’s neural net and manipulated by the nimble fingers of the stasis field.
Floating over the equipment, Raul beat her to the closed door, its outlines barely visible in the cool, gray light. “You ready?” he asked.
“As ready as I’m going to be.”
Behind Raul, the nano-particles that made up the door melted away into the surrounding walls. Although she knew the opening was draped by the invisible cloak of the stasis field, Jennifer still found herself holding her breath. Then she heard a slight hiss as Raul opened a tiny hole in the field. It wasn’t a significant air leak, just a slight variance in the relative air pressures between the rest of the ship and the sealed-off forward compartment.
Jennifer stepped forward until her outstretched fingers touched the repulsive barrier, located the tiny hole, and sniffed. Air was definitely entering the forward cabin instead of leaving it and, as judged by her enhanced senses, it smelled just fine. Two positive signs. During the time the air replenishment system had been offline, the CO2 levels in the forward compartment had been rising as oxygen levels decreased. Allowing outside air to mix in would buy them a considerable amount of additional time to try to make repairs before the atmosphere became toxic.
“You can drop the stasis field,” she said. “The air’s good.”
Raul complied and Jennifer felt a gentle breeze as the air pressure equalized.
“I guess it’s time to try your mind trick again,” Raul said.
Jennifer noticed a tightness in his face and knew he was recalling the mental force she’d brought to bear when she’d forced her way into his head a few hours earlier. That psionic talent to enter another person’s mind to share thoughts and feelings was another of her Altreian alterations, perhaps the most powerful of them all. Her power had simpler beginnings, starting as an empathic ability to feel and alter the feelings of others. Then had come the occasional flashes of mental communication between Mark, Heather, and herself while they weren’t wearing the Altreian headsets.
Still, it had taken the psychopathic Columbian assassin known as El Chupacabra to show her just how little of her abilities she was using. She hadn’t gained full control of her power until she, Mark, and Heather had been imprisoned in the secret NSA super-max facility known as the Ice House.
The thought of her twin brother and best friend brought a sudden tightness to her throat, but she pushed the feeling aside. Now was not the time for grief.
Although Raul didn’t like submitting to this experiment, he would have to remain in the forward compartment, seeing into other parts of the ship through her eyes as he manipulated the stasis field and nano-materials to fix the damaged systems.
Jennifer inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, and centered. For better or worse, the time had come to test her limits.
Raul felt Jennifer step across the boundary to his mind like a cool breeze. Although he knew it was just her manipulation of his feelings, it still felt wonderful.
“I need you to show me the ship’s layout.”
Raul watched her in fascination. Her thoughts sounded exactly as if she’d spoken to him but her lips hadn’t moved.
He tried thinking a response. “Can’t you access the neural net through me?”
“You still have free will. I can delve into your thoughts and emotions, but can’t make you do something you don’t want to.”
A sudden coldness brought gooseflesh alive on his arms. “How deep can you dig into my head?”
Again, Raul felt a sense of warm reassurance as she answered. “Until you learn to put up some mental blocks, I can go as deep as I want.”
The horror returned, only to ramp down to mild concern as Jennifer continued. “You’ll know exactly what I’m accessing in your mind whenever I do it. But I promise not to poke around too deeply inside your head, at least until we get this ship fixed. Then, if you play nice, I’ll teach you how to set up those blocks.”
Despite the reassuring feelings, Raul didn’t trust her, although right now that didn’t matter.
Accessing the neural net, he pulled up a detailed 3-D diagram of the ship and felt Jennifer’s mind absorb it. Interesting. Through their mental linkage he could actually sense what she was feeling as he focused on it. Right now he sensed amusement at his amateurish exploration of that linkage. Shit. She was laughing at him.
Raul rotated the diagram around the X-axis and then around the Y and finally around the Z, observing it from multiple angles. The cigar-shaped ship was designed with a single deck, divided into thirds. The forward compartment housed the vessel’s neural net, along with control interfaces to the engines, sensors, weapons, and maintenance/environmental systems. The middle third of the ship was a honeycomb of compartments, most of which were nano-particle adaptable living quarters, automatically configured for whatever species occupied them. A narrow hallway circled this hexagonal collection of inner rooms. The external hatch and ramp were located in the exact center of the ship on the starboard side.
Raul thought of the rear third as the engineering bay, home to the gravitational distortion engines and guts of the other systems controlled from the forward command bay. The rest of the ship’s systems, as well as the connections between them and the controlling neural net residing below the main deck, were accessible via narrow crawlways. If the interior gravity system failed, all the passages would become float-ways.
“Okay,” she thought, “that’s enough to get me started.”
Raul watched as Jennifer turned and walked out the door into the warren of middle compartments. As she disappeared around the corner, a wave of dizziness assaulted him. A disorienting vision filled his head. He found himself seeing through her eyes, amazed at the clarity of it. She paused before a closed doorway that had no apparent means of being opened.
“Well?” Her irritation was readily apparent in the thought. “Are you going to make me wait all day?”
Catching her meaning, Raul visualized the operating instructions, watching as she traced the intricate command on a panel and entered one of the passenger compartments. Then she paused. A single platform-bed stood in the center of the room, with facilities arrayed along the port wall that appeared to be configured for humanoid use, something Raul’s neural net immediately confirmed. Not surprising since the ship’s last detected occupants were human.
Jennifer stepped back out into the hallway and continued along the starboard side, past the compartment that housed the exterior hatch and the instrumentation that the Rho Project scientists had used to study this ship. With each step closer to the engineering bay that held the key to their survival, Raul felt his tension rise. They were about to find answers to some very weighty questions.
He just hoped those answers weren’t all bad.
Jennifer remembered her excitement when she, Mark, and Heather had first climbed aboard the crashed Altreian starship they had come to call the Second Ship or, subsequently, the Bandolier Ship, its smooth flowing lines and abundant colors so wondrous they had taken her breath away. But this ugly monstrosity filled her with a cold dread, as if it were a ghost ship that had been drained of all life and beauty. Without viewports to let her see the stars, the inner honeycomb structure left her with the feeling that, at any moment, a nano-particle wall would dissolve to unleash one of the Kasari horrors they had battled for control of the Stephenson Gate. Her skin crawled.
When she rounded another of the outer hallway’s hexagonal turns, Raul’s voice spoke in her mind.
“Stop. This is the place.”
Again she traced the symbols and the wall on her left melted away, revealing a room filled with hulking machinery that towered from floor to ceiling, all dimly illuminated with the same shadowless gray light as the rest of the ship. Lovely.
Just inside the engineering bay, Jennifer stopped to listen. The room pulsed with a deep thrumming sound, a slow heartbeat that made it feel alive. She stood in the dull light, breathing hard and dripping sweat despite the chill that clawed its way into her bones.
Only one thing required her attention but she found herself having difficulty focusing. The strain of maintaining her mental link with Raul was starting to tell on her. The ceiling was fifteen feet above her head and as she looked around and through the strangely shaped machinery, draped with thick, translucent conduits, she felt as if she stood in the narrow confines of a lava tube. A wave of claustrophobia assailed her, but she shoved it aside with an angry thought. Christ! What the hell is wrong with me?
“Take the passage on the right,” said Raul’s mental voice.
Jennifer slipped between bulbous columns of machinery and Raul’s thoughts tagged them with their shipboard functions. The huge matter disrupter occupied the centermost portion of the room, containing a belly chamber that could open to ingest external items. The conduits that draped its exterior ran to the gravitational distortion engines or disappeared into the floor or walls, carrying power to the ship’s other systems.
When a portion of the floor panel dissolved away two steps in front of her, Jennifer halted.
Raul’s next thought confirmed her fears. “The sensor system’s primary power coupler is below deck. You’ll need to go down there.”
A tight crawlspace. Wonderful!
The thought that Raul might be playing games, guiding her forward along the most difficult route possible, occurred to her, but a deeper glimpse into his mind dispelled that notion. This was the only way to get to the likely cause of their sensor problems.
Swallowing hard, Jennifer climbed down into the tight space, knelt, and then slithered forward, crawling around, between, and over the tightly packed conduits and hard edged equipment. Although the light down here was much dimmer than it was above deck, it was more than sufficient for her neurally augmented vision. As she looked around for the easiest spots to squeeze through, she almost wished she couldn’t see what was coming or what lay behind. If she hadn’t seen the large gorilla spider pursue Heather in the Atlas Cavern electrical cage, contorting its body through tight places, she would have had trouble believing that large species could traverse this part of the ship.
Then again, robot ships should be able to repair themselves. And this one probably would have if she hadn’t forced its engines beyond their design limits.
Raul’s mental voice pulled her out of her thoughts. “There it is, on top of the crawlspace six feet ahead.”
“I see it.”
“Get me a better view.”
Jennifer crawled to the indicated spot, lay down, and rolled onto her back. The nature of the machinery that surrounded her had changed. Directly above her a rectangular gray access panel shifted as the nano-material flowed aside to reveal the workings within.
She felt Raul’s query to the neural net return an answer in the form of a three-dimensional wireframe diagram that seemed to float before her eyes. The image expanded, twisting to exactly match the orientation of the equipment she was looking at, then moved so that the wireframe draped the equipment, changing colors so that red indicated the problem areas. Unfortunately, she now found herself looking at a lot of red. Several of the lines that should have matched the arrangement of equipment weren’t even close, pieces having been torn from their moorings or snapped off completely.
“Shit!” The panic in Raul’s thoughts hammered her.
“How long?” Jennifer asked.
“How long will it take to fix it?”
The neural net performed the required calculations and the answer formed in Raul’s mind.
Jennifer froze. “Sixty-three hours?”
“That’s the estimate,” Raul said.
“And how long until the CO2 levels gets toxic?”
“No problem there. This ship holds a little over 108,000 cubic feet of air, which should keep us alive for at least a hundred days.”
A wave of despair engulfed Jennifer. There was no chance she could lie here and work for six straight hours, much less sixty. Even if she could force her mind to maintain the link, her physical demands would require periodic breaks. With that factored in, this repair job would take a minimum of four days. Lying on her back for that long in this claustrophobic space wasn’t something she looked forward to.
If only Heather were here, her savant mind might be able to arrive at a better solution. But Heather wasn’t here, so Jennifer would have to come up with some ideas of her own, even though her mind was already tiring from the effort of maintaining her mental link with Raul.
Okay, Jen, she told herself, just relax and breathe.
Her mother had always reminded her of how you eat an elephant…one bite at a time. Jennifer repressed the memory before it could deepen her depression. Over the next four days she was in for a hell of a lot of chewing.
The breakthrough came on the eighth hour of day three. As Raul felt Jennifer’s mind near the point where she could no longer maintain their mental link, the first of the sensor systems came back on line, this one an electro-optical array on the Rho Ship’s outer hull. The sensors delivered video imagery across the wavelength spectrum, from deep IR all the way into far ultra-violet.
With the delivery of that imagery into his mind, he could feel Jennifer sigh in delight at the shared view of the beautiful, star-filled space that surrounded them. Raul felt it too, that feeling described by inmates upon their release when they stepped out through the prison gates and inhaled that first breath of freedom. Marvelous.
“Where are we?” Jennifer asked, awe lacing her voice.
Raul manipulated the view, searching for a known point of reference. They were in the Milky Way, but where exactly, he couldn’t tell. Definitely not in one of the outer spiral arms and he had no idea in which of those distant arms the Earth resided.
It was odd. He would have thought that the Rho Ship’s data banks would contain detailed star maps of the galaxy, but they didn’t, at least not in any of the areas Raul could access. That thought worried him. Was it possible that he was still being denied access to key portions of those data banks, even with his enhanced connection to the neural net?
Of course it was also possible that the Kasari intentionally omitted uploading their robotic world ships with information that could be used should the ship be captured by an advanced species such as the Altreians.
“Somewhere in the middle of the Milky Way,” Raul responded. “Beyond that, no idea.”
He felt her probe his mind to see if he was lying. It pissed him off, but before he could respond he felt her mental connection die. Crap! She had hung up on him.
* * *
The shock of what she’d seen in Raul’s mind hit her in the head like a sledgehammer, instantly severing her mental link. That brief glimpse of the relative positions of known stars within the galaxy had brought her mind to an inescapable conclusion, the certainty of it curling her into a fetal ball.
She shuddered. Whispered sobs of denial escaped her lips. “No…no…no…”
Travel through a wormhole was supposed to be instantaneous. But she’d thrown the gravitational distortion engines out of their normal mode of operation and that had produced a time dilation. During what had only been a couple of horrible minutes for her, several years had passed back on Earth.
As badly as she missed Mark, Heather, and her parents, the consequences of that time dilation tore at her spirit, robbing her of one more connection to her former life.
Jennifer and Mark Smythe were no longer twins.
United States Senator Freddy Hagerman leaned back in a soft leather swivel-chair, his artificial left leg propped up on a footstool as he watched the crime of the century unfold on the television centered on his mahogany-paneled wall. He rolled his lucky marble in the fingers of his right hand. The marble had been in the box of Admiral Riles’s notes that Mrs. Riles had given Freddy, the notes that had nailed down his second Pulitzer. He could damn sure use some of that luck now.
The very reason he’d quit investigative reporting and gone into politics was to try to stop the lunacy for which the president was about to officially sign up the country. Had it only been seven years since Dr. Stephenson had tried to flush the world down the toilet by welcoming an alien species through his wormhole gate? Seven years of wars had since ravaged large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia along with South and Central America. Old conflicts were fanned into flames by the Rho Project’s release of “beneficial” alien technologies that promised to improve and extend the lives of everyone. What a sad joke!
But that wasn’t what was about to destroy all that Jack Gregory, Heather McFarland, and the Smythe twins had managed to save. No. Revisionist history would accomplish that.
Freddy watched the revisionist-in-chief, President Ted Benton, sit his stately, patrician ass down at the circular treaty-signing table, his perfectly coiffed gray hair unusually long for a president. He was accompanied by a host of international dignitaries representing the New Soviet Union, the East Asian Peoples Alliance, the European Union, and the United States. Broad smiles all around, especially for the cameras. The sight of those false smiles got under Freddy’s skin.
The fact that this agreement was being signed in the Peace Palace, the home of The International Court of Justice, commonly called the World Court, didn’t improve Freddy’s attitude toward it.
As impotent and corrupt as the old United Nations had been, Freddy almost missed it. A new alliance between three of the world’s four superpowers—the New Soviet Union, the Southeast Asia People’s Alliance, and the European Union—had replaced the UN with an entity meant to usher in what had once been referred to as a new world order. Many believed that the EU had been pressured into joining the alliance after the New Soviet Union had reabsorbed the Baltic States and threatened greater European expansion.
Headquartered in the Hague and known as the United Federation of Nation States, or UFNS, this was no assemblage of every half-ass country on the planet. The group was a true federation with authority over its member nations. Disputes were arbitrated by the International Court of Justice, whose dictates were enforced by the Federation Security Service.
On this side of the Atlantic, more than two years after the United States Congress granted statehood to nine of the ten Canadian provinces, Freddy was still getting used to the idea of fifty-nine states. Only Quebec had refused to petition for statehood, electing instead to become its own sovereign country.
The desire to join together for common defense and the fact that we shared a common language and border had greased the path to union. But fear had been the driving factor. That and the economic advantages associated with paying for only one military. The same common defense argument had now driven the majority of Americans to conclude that membership in the UFNS was the next desirable step.
The multi-continent religious wars had been the primary impetus for this bonding. Freddy included sectarians among the warring parties, some of whom sought conquest, while others fought to save their way of life. World War IV had been deemed too politically incorrect to be the name of this ongoing collection of conflicts, but, in Freddy’s mind, that was exactly what it had become.
Almost a year into his second term in office, President Benton finally had what he had long desired, a two-thirds majority in the 118 member United States Senate that had pledged to ratify the treaty he was about to sign. And once the US ratified it, the UFNS would have all four superpowers on board. Other nation states might petition to join the UFNS, but good luck with that. The big boys’ club didn’t need strap hangers.
In a few minutes, at midnight Central European Time, the symbolic start of a new day, the President would sign the UFNS treaty. Then at noon tomorrow, on the seventh anniversary of the nuclear explosion that had put an end to Dr. Stephenson and his wormhole gateway, President Benton would journey to the site of the new Stephenson Center for Inter-Species Reconciliation in order to participate in its ribbon cutting ceremony.
Freddy snorted in disgust. Benton was on a roll during this European trip: ceding US federal authority to the UFNS as the new day began and honoring that crazy bastard Stephenson at mid-day.
The camera zoomed in on the man engaged in smiling conversation with President Benton, an elegantly dressed, bald Russian looking trim and fit for his sixty-one years, his shark’s eyes glittering in the flash of the cameras. Nanites did that for you. Alexandr Prokorov, ex-KGB operative, ex-head of the FSB, was now the UFNS Minister of Federation Security, or, as Freddy thought of it, KGB 2.0. The sight of that man seated at the right hand of the president of the United States felt like a bad omen.
Freddy continued to watch as the president signed the treaty but he switched the television off before the dignitaries could parade before the microphone to welcome the United States as a full member of the UFNS. There was, after all, a limit to what he could stomach.
With a glance at his watch, an old-school Swiss mechanical timepiece, he sighed and stood. It was getting late and he would just have time to get home to his two-story Watergate East apartment, eat dinner, and get ready for tonight’s fundraising gala in his honor. Lord knew that if he wanted to be able to continue heightening public awareness of the dangerous direction the world government was taking, he would need every dime he could collect. And the event would give him a chance to see some old friends.
The walk from his senate office to his car took five minutes. His new artificial leg was much more comfortable and responsive than his previous leg, and if he would have allowed his doctor to inject him with the latest version of nanites rolled out from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division, he wouldn’t be experiencing any discomfort from the old wound. But discomfort and pain were important parts of the human condition and Freddy damn sure didn’t want to live for another five hundred years. He was scared to think about what would happen during the next five.
When he stepped out of the elevator into the topmost level of the Hart Senate Office Building’s underground parking garage, his car and two bodyguards were waiting for him. These driverless vehicles still amazed him, and not in a positive way. No matter how much they improved public safety and traffic flow, to be denied control of one’s own driving felt like one more freedom lost.
In cities like D.C., there was no reason to even own a car. Whenever you needed to go somewhere, the nearest available driverless vehicle of the type you wanted simply came to you, dropped you off at your desired destination, and then marked its network status as AVAILABLE. The US Senate had its own private fleet of armored cars that would even notify you if you left something inside when you got out. These vehicles looked no different than typical luxury models from an assortment of manufacturers. It made sense from a security perspective…the government didn’t want the cars screaming U.S. SENATE VEHICLE. The armored bodies were barely heavier than stock models thanks to carbon-fiber bonded titanium and bulletproof glass.
Freddy climbed into the back seat while his two bodyguards slid into the front. Since the car had no steering wheel or pedals, all his people had to focus on was their guarding duties. Freddy just had to tell the car his desired destination, kick back, and enjoy the ride. Weren’t robo-chauffeurs grand? He doubted all the ex-drivers thought so. Then again, they weren’t the only ones who had lost their jobs to this brave new world of super-technology.
There were still a few military pilots left, but only until the older military equipment could be phased out or converted. Pilotless planes, trains, ships, and automobiles. Every day it seemed that new categories of jobs were wiped out. One day pilots were gone, the next, cabbies.
And that wasn’t even counting the economic devastation from the reverse-engineered alien technologies that continued to be derived from Dr. Stephenson’s work on the Rho Project. Why would you need a doctor when you could inject nano-machines that read your DNA and kept you fixed up?
Between that and the advances in robotics and automation, the number of unemployed had skyrocketed, but so had productivity. In order to avoid revolt, all of the first-world countries, including the United States, had been forced to adopt new laws guaranteeing a “fair” distribution of the proceeds of that productivity to the population. It had worked, after a fashion, if you called countries filled with idle and bored people success.
The third world was a complete goddamn mess.
Freddy shook his head to clear it of the depressing thoughts. He’d known for a long time now that he was on the wrong side of a losing fight. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t go down swinging.
When he stepped out of the car, flanked by his security detail, the chill of the November night’s breeze made him wish he’d worn a heavier jacket. But the sky was clear and, despite the bright glow of the city lights, he could see Jupiter and a few stars. Nice night for a party.
Yes. It was about time to get all tuxed up.
Heather’s slender fingers slid along the back of Mark’s neck, her delicate touch sending shivers of pleasure down his spine. His own hand responded, fingertips barely touching the naked hollow of her back, lingering there, nerves so alert that it seemed each contact produced tiny sparks from her skin to his. He felt her ear touch his, the scent of her bare throat filling his nostrils.
She moved against his six-foot-three inch body in perfect rhythm, the feel of her breasts against his chest robbing him of any lingering self-control. Heather’s skin shone with sweat in the dim light and her breath came in small pants of exertion, barely audible above Mark’s heart. Her right leg encircled him and her body swayed. As Mark’s body writhed within her limbs, Heather’s back arched until only his right arm kept her from falling. Then, in a thunderous, climactic crescendo, the tango ended.
As Mark lifted Heather back to her feet, the applause from the crowd that filled the Marriot Marquis Ballroom was accompanied by exclamations that, in a less cultured crowd, would have qualified as catcalls. With his arm still encircling Heather’s waist, they both smiled and gave a slight bow of acknowledgement before Mark signaled the orchestra to continue with the music.
Ignoring the people who moved out onto the dance floor, Mark straightened his tuxedo and then took an extra moment to appreciate his wife, stunning in her black evening gown, split down the right leg from hip to ankle. He took Heather’s outstretched hand and walked with her to the spot where Senator Freddy Hagerman waited, the crowd parting before them as if they were royalty. And, in a way, they were.
When the senator smiled and stepped forward, Heather hugged him warmly, planting a kiss on his cheek before stepping back to let the two men shake hands. Despite his artificial leg, Freddy looked good in his black tux, his dark rimmed glasses and trimmed beard adding a certain gravitas to his appearance. Quite a change from his old investigative reporting days.
Mark gripped Freddy’s hand and smiled. “Good to see you, my friend.”
“Speaking of looking good, I thought you two were going to set the ballroom on fire. Half the crowd left to get a room. Steamed up my glasses, that’s for damn sure.”
Heather laughed and Mark found his eyes drawn to her again. At twenty-six, she looked sexy as hell, projecting an aura of confidence and power. Then again, she was the CEO and co-founder of the world’s fastest growing technology company.
“Thank you for hosting this fundraiser,” Freddy continued. “If the president was in town, he’d be green with envy.”
The mention of President Benton darkened Mark’s mood. “I don’t think any of us are on his Facebook friends list.”
“Did you watch his little ceremony in the Netherlands?”
Heather’s eyes narrowed slightly. “As much as we could stomach. But let’s not talk about him. Tonight’s all about helping you and your Humanity First movement.”
She took Freddy’s arm and led him toward a nearby group of people. “Let me introduce you to some deep-pocket donors.”
As Mark turned to follow Heather and Freddy, he saw an elegantly dressed Jack Gregory moving leisurely through the crowd, Janet Price on his arm. Damn they were good. Any casual observer would be hard pressed to recognize that they headed up Mark’s and Heather’s security detail. While others scanned the crowd, Jack and Janet’s effortless mingling allowed them to make an individual, up-close assessment of hundreds of guests.
It had been three years since Mark and Heather had lured Jack out of South America and talked him into taking over as the head of security for their Austin based Combinatorics Technology Corporation, also known as CTC. Yet the seven figure annual salary hadn’t closed the deal. The clincher had been their offer to help Jack and Janet with their young son, Robby, and his unusual developmental needs, something for which Mark and Heather were uniquely qualified.
Thinking about security, Mark amplified his senses to the point where he could listen in on conversations anywhere in the room. His perception of the room itself had changed. The thick, wavy, gold and black lines that threaded their way through the maroon and tan carpeting took on a garish quality, whereas only moments before the decor seemed elegant. The fourteen-foot-high ceiling, with its grid of dark brown rectangles framing hundreds of can-lights, was so expansive that Mark felt like he was inside a monstrous ice-cream sandwich, waiting for a giant to take a bite out.
He shook off the worried thought, painted on his pleasant party face, and walked to the spot where Heather stood in animated conversation with Freddy and two titans of industry. Mark was confident that if any danger arose, Jack would detect it. In the meantime the tech giant would focus on radiating positive energy.
After all, if they were going to help Freddy build a movement that had any hope of stopping President Benton’s agenda, they had money to raise…and lots of it.