Altreian Enigma Draft Preview – CH1-11 January 7, 2016Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
The Altreian Enigma
Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation
By Richard Phillips
Copyright © 2015 by Richard Phillips
As the bitter winter wind howls through the night, attempting to prevent me from entering the cavern housing the Altar of the Gods, its chill pulls my breath forth in smoky puffs that I barely notice. I crawl through the opening, light a torch that I take from its wall sconce, and allow my feet to carry me through the passage that leads to the Altar. There my footsteps halt.
The beautiful golden orb that graces the end of the Incan Sun Staff captures my gaze. Its intricately carved rings and complex arrangement of gears and shafts that form its inner workings hold me in a spell that I am unable to break. With my gaze locked to the symbols that cry out to be rearranged, a slow boiling fear floods my soul. Even as I stand alone, frozen in terror, in thrall to this wonder of wonders that rests atop the altar, I feel my hands move toward the orb of their own volition.
If the touch of the staff sends a strange current through my body, the feel of the golden metal beneath my fingertips shifts my perspective and causes the cavern to shrink around me until I can see myself. It is as if I have become the cavern and everything within it. The thing in my head screams in a way that I have only heard in my dreams and my body shakes like the boughs of the trees out in that howling wind. Yet my hands continue to stroke the orb.
Now they twist it, first the bottom ring, aligning the symbols with new counterparts on the silver staff, before skipping up several rings to repeat the process. And as my hands turn ring after ring in a seemingly random order, the intricate engravings grab the torchlight so that its flames crawl across the golden surface and into the orb’s interior.
Shaking uncontrollably, my hands nevertheless turn the next to last ring until all the symbols feel wrongfully right, so much of the torchlight now absorbed by the orb that the cavern grows dark around me.
My right hand now wraps the last of the circular rings in a death grip, as my left hand clutches the silver staff; the muscles in my hands and arms bulge and slither beneath my skin as they war with each other for control. Cold, more deadly than ice, slides through my veins and into my chest, cramping my lungs on its way to my heart. Then with a final convulsion, my fingers twitch, imparting to the topmost ring one final shift and, as the golden orb pulses with power, a doorway slides open at my feet.
It summons me forward, down the metallic ramp that leads into a large chamber illuminated with a soft, magenta glow. As I step into the room, the knowledge that this place was not built by the hands of men is absolute. And at its center, five translucent pedestals rise from the floor as if extruded from the end of a glassblower’s pipe, molded into the form of chairs.
The recognition of this place floods into me from the being who shares my mind. I stand inside a huge alien research craft, sent here centuries ago with a dual purpose: to conduct a scientific mission to observe and record humanity’s advancement and, should humans adopt the banned wormhole technologies of the Kasari Collective, to summon a planet killer to cleanse the Earth of all life before it can be completely assimilated.
Jack Gregory opened his eyes, exiting the dream that wasn’t a dream. He didn’t dream anymore. Not like normal people. Instead these strange lucid dreams now dominated his sleep.
This latest one had recurred nightly since Jack, Janet, and their eight-year-old son Robby had accompanied Mark and Heather Smythe on their desperate flight from Peru to the secret Smythe facility in the remote mountains of New Zealand. Jack rolled onto his left side, placing his right arm over Janet’s naked body. She sighed softly and snuggled into him without waking. That was good. It was bad enough that his dreams were robbing him of sleep without inflicting that on his wife.
In this dream he had once again stood in the altar cavern beneath the Bolivian Kalasasaya Temple. And it had looked exactly as it had the last time Jack stood inside it, except for the fact that he stood alone in the torch-lit chamber instead of locked in a death match with the neo-Nazi albino, Dolf Gruenberg. Jack should have felt comforted by the memory of the explosion that had collapsed the cavern, burying the Incan Sun Staff and the altar atop which it had been mounted. But he knew that no amount of crashing rock could destroy the Altreian artifact or the monstrous craft that rested beneath it. And being buried beneath tons of rock wouldn’t prevent the thing from accomplishing its ultimate purpose should humanity’s actions trigger it.
Jack had no doubt about why Khal Teth, the banished Altreian mind that had attached itself to his, was amping up the threatening nature of these dreams. Humanity’s lifeline was growing short and there was only one way to prevent the coming catastrophe.
Unfortunately, that would require giving up everything he loved. As he pulled Janet’s body more tightly against his own, Jack gritted his teeth. Even though she and his friends would doubtless think he’d lost his mind, he could no longer delay the inevitable.
It was time to honor the bargain he’d made.
Having just donned her black yoga outfit, Janet Price stared into Jack’s brown eyes, too stunned by the words that had just spilled from his lips to fully process them. When he’d stepped up behind her, clad only in his jeans, and taken her in his arms, she’d thought he was trying to seduce her away from her morning workout. But the sadness in his eyes told her something very different. That look, combined with what he’d just told her, froze her heart inside her chest.
“You’re not leaving me behind,” she said, her voice having dropped so low she didn’t recognize it. “I won’t let you.”
“Where I have to go, you can’t follow.”
The hurt in Jack’s eyes tried to rob her of her sudden fury but failed. He sat down on the edge of the bathtub.
“I had the dream again, but this time it was worse.”
Janet found herself sitting beside him without realizing that she’d moved, a deep sense of dread having doused her anger. A decade ago, when the NSA director, Admiral Jonathan Riles, had sent her to Germany to convince the ex-CIA assassin known as “The Ripper” to join her black-ops team, she’d learned that there was something strange about Jack. That first mission had taken them through Europe and into the heart of Kazakhstan. But it was in Bolivia, in the cavern beneath the Kalasasaya temple where she’d become convinced that Jack had lost his mind.
Three months later, during a raid that stopped the Chinese assassin, Qiang Chu, from releasing a rogue artificial intelligence on the world, Jack had convinced her that he shared his mind with an alien being who called himself Khal Teth. Back then, she’d helped Jack block out that disturbing influence that threatened his sanity.
But six months ago, in her desperation to rescue their eight-year-old son Robby, Janet had begged Jack to unleash that alien presence once more, knowing the risks that posed for him.
Janet swallowed hard and said what she didn’t want to. “Go on.”
In the excruciating half hour that followed, as she listened to what Jack had to tell her, Janet’s dread found its source.
* * *
Deep inside the abandoned New Zealand gold mine that he and Heather had transformed into their secret complex, Mark Smythe watched as an army of robots worked to expand it. He glanced over at Heather who stood beside him on the platform that overlooked the central manufacturing hub.
At twenty-seven, his wife was more beautiful than ever. She radiated power in a way that he found incredibly sexy. If anyone could save the world from the Kasari invaders that would soon come through the gateway that the United Federation of Nation States was building, it was his beautiful savant.
Mark redirected his gaze across the thirty-thousand square foot room that had been hollowed out of the bedrock a mile beneath New Zealand’s Tasman District. What was happening inside this facility had never before been achieved anywhere on Earth.
The broad variety of robots had been created from Heather’s designs. They weren’t artificially intelligent, but they could be remotely controlled through virtual reality headsets. And whatever task the operator performed using the robot’s body, the robot learned. Not just that robot either. The knowledge was uploaded to the supercomputer network where it could then be downloaded to other robots. During the last several years the robots had learned to build and operate everything within this complex, including manufacturing new robots.
Since Mark and Heather had returned to their New Zealand complex, accompanied by Jack, Janet, and Robby, the pace of construction had reached an exponential tipping point. The only things that the automated systems now needed were new tasks to perform, something that Heather excelled at doling out. And as she did so, the designs produced by her augmented savant mind grew more and more advanced.
Once finished, this room would house sixteen large-scale additive manufacturing machines, also known as 3D printers, capable of manufacturing the next generation of machines and components that would be needed for the fight that they both knew was coming. While the rapidly increasing power demands would have placed a strain on the original pair of cold-fusion reactors, the redundant array of matter-disrupter-synthesizers or MDSs barely noticed. Considering the pace at which Heather’s plans were coming to fruition, that was a good thing.
The warble of Heather’s quantum entangled phone brought Mark’s mind back to the present. Seeing her smile fade, Mark felt concern replace the satisfaction he’d felt only moments before. She hung up and turned to him, raising her voice to be heard above the clamor of the ongoing construction.
“Janet wants us topside right away. Something’s going on with Jack. From her tone, it’s not good.”
For a moment Heather’s eyes turned milky-white, as they often did when one of her savant visions consumed her. It didn’t surprise him, but when she broke into a run toward the elevator, that did.
Mark sprinted after her, reaching her side just as she pressed the call button. The elevator door whisked open and they stepped inside the waiting car. It was industrial size, capable of carrying any of the equipment that was brought to or from this level, big enough to make him feel small.
Heather punched the button for the top level, the doors whisked closed, and it accelerated upward. Despite the speed at which the electromagnetic drive propelled the elevator upward, the trip to the surface took almost five minutes, Mark’s ears popping several times along the way.
Whatever had happened, he had no doubt that it involved that otherworldly weirdness that draped Jack “The Ripper” Gregory like an aura. A decade ago, it had ruled their lives for two and a half years. And now, as the Earth spiraled toward its destruction, that part of Jack had once again been summoned.
It was a crazy thought, one that tensed the muscles in Mark’s arms and back. Mark pulled forth the perfect memory of how he felt in deep meditation, letting it wash away that tension. But it failed to cleanse his mind of this conviction.
* * *
Janet heard the door open and turned from Jack to see Mark and Heather enter the small conference room. As Heather took her seat at the table, she spoke the question that Janet had been expecting.
“What’s going on?”
Janet turned to Jack, struggling to keep her expression from showing the emotions that churned beneath the surface. “Tell them.”
Jack’s chiseled face showed no hint of what Janet knew he was feeling, but a chill had crept into his voice.
“Last night I had another of my lucid dreams.”
“The Incan Sun Staff,” said Heather.
“This was different. I know what it does.”
“You’ve already convinced us that the Sun Staff is important,” Mark said. “It’s why we’ve funded the Kalasasaya dig to retrieve it.”
Janet watched as Jack shifted his gaze from Mark to Heather.
“It opens a portal into a huge Altreian research vessel that is buried beneath the Kalasasaya Temple.”
“You think another Altreian starship crashed in Bolivia?” Mark asked.
“The vessel that lies beneath the Kalasasaya temple arrived centuries ago, but it didn’t crash.”
“What’s it been doing all this time? Hanging out?”
From the way Jack’s eyes narrowed, it was clear that he didn’t like the tone of Mark’s question. But Janet couldn’t blame Mark. She didn’t want to believe it either.
“I don’t know. But I do know what it’s going to do if I don’t stop it.”
Heather leaned forward to rest her elbows on the conference table. Janet hadn’t seen her eyes turn white, but it was clear that Jack had her complete attention.
Again Janet saw the rigidity in Jack’s body as she watched the muscles move beneath his skin. Having heard what he was about to say, she felt it too.
“If the wormhole gateway that the UFNS is building goes active and the Kasari come through, the buried Altreian vessel will summon an Altreian planet killer to destroy all life on Earth before the Kasari can bring through enough military might to prevent that.”
“We didn’t find any reference to that in the Second Ship’s database?”
“No, but you found evidence of planets that had once hosted intelligent life that are now lifeless. It’s possible that the ship is still denying you and Mark access to parts of its database.”
“Maybe, but it’s not likely.”
“Jack,” said Janet, no longer able to restrain herself, “Khal Teth’s trying to manipulate you through your dreams, showing you what he wants you to see in order to get you to fulfill your bargain.”
Jack shook his head. “I would sense it if he was lying to me.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
Janet leaned back in her chair, feeling her temples throb with frustration.
“Wouldn’t Eos have told Robby if the Altreians had sent another starship to Earth?” Mark asked.
The mention of the Altreian AI that had fled from the Second Ship’s computer into Robby’s mind didn’t improve Janet’s mood.
“Eos shares Robby’s mind,” Heather said, “but it no longer has access to the Altreian starship’s database.”
“Unless Robby puts on his Altreian headset and performs a specific query,” said Mark.
Heather brightened at the suggestion. “That could work.”
A sudden glimmer of hope caused Janet to lean forward. “And if Eos doesn’t find anything to confirm your dream, that would mean –”
“Nothing,” Jack said, “except that the information about the Altreian research vessel isn’t stored in the Second Ship’s database.”
Janet placed her hand atop his and squeezed hard.
“Before we start down this path, I want you to explain to our son exactly what Khal Teth wants from you,” Janet said, swallowing hard, “and why he’ll never see his dad again if you go through with it.”
Jack’s brown eyes met hers and for a moment she thought she saw the familiar red glint within his pupils. And as he gently returned her hand squeeze, that subtle gesture brought moisture to her eyes that she blinked away.
Dear God. Don’t you dare take him away from me.
Wearing a dark gray Italian suit, Alexandr Prokorov walked through the broad tunnel, ignoring the incessant drip, drip, drip of condensation from the concrete ceiling, just as he ignored the smell of mildew and the chill in this dank corridor. Beside him strode Dr. Lana Fitzpatrick, the U.S. undersecretary for science and energy. This being her first trip to the construction site of the wormhole gate that the United Federation of Nation States had dubbed the Friendship Gate, her deep discomfort at this subterranean environment showed in her tight body language. She jerked involuntarily at the sound of each drip, twitched at the echo of their footsteps as they walked along this passage.
Ahead, the tunnel suddenly widened into a yawning space that would have dwarfed the Large Hadron Collider’s Atlas Cavern. Prokorov heard Lana gasp at the sight. He had to admit that it still sent a shiver of excitement up his spine each time he entered the chamber. Inside, thousands of workers, scientists, and engineers scurried about, as their supervisors pressed them to get the construction project back on schedule.
Eight years ago, the construction of the Stephenson Gateway had broken all records for such complex construction. But Dr. Stephenson had suffered from a series of constraints that this project didn’t have. First of all, the size of the Atlas Cavern, large as it was, didn’t allow for the matter disrupter to be placed adjacent to the wormhole gate that it powered. That meant that extensive superconductive cabling had to be routed inside from an external power source, slowing down the construction.
But this wasn’t the only advantage that the current construction project had over the original Stephenson Gateway project. Technological advances in materials and in computing allowed for extensive miniaturization and optimization techniques that reduced the overall size of the project.
Prokorov continued his advance toward the great upside-down horseshoe-shaped gate within which the wormhole would be created. The program’s top scientist, Dr. John Guo stood within its arch. At five-foot four inches tall, the dark-haired East Asian man exuded an energy that made him seem larger than those gathered around him and his pointed gestures made clear that he was far from satisfied with their efforts.
As Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick approached, Dr. Guo dismissed those with whom he had been remonstrating and turned to meet the new arrivals.
“Aaah, Minister Prokorov,” he said, his English free of any identifiable accent. Doing his best to adopt an expression that indicated he was pleased to see the minister of Federation Security, Dr. Guo continued. “I was informed of your arrival. How was your journey from The Hague?”
“Uneventful,” Prokorov said, before turning toward his companion. “This is Dr. Lana Fitzpatrick, the U.S. undersecretary of science and energy.”
Dr. Guo raised an eyebrow as he shifted his gaze toward the blond American scientist. Something in his fleeting expression gave Prokorov the sense that these two had more than a passing familiarity. It was something he would check into at a later date.
“It’s good to see you again, John,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, extending her hand.
Dr. Guo took it and returned the smile, although his face held none of the warmth hers offered. “Always a pleasure.”
“I wasn’t aware the two of you knew each other,” Prokorov said.
Dr. Fitzpatrick’s blue eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “We worked together for a time at Laurence Livermore National Laboratory. But that was a long time ago.”
Since it was clear that neither of these scientists was prone to offering up more than these fleeting glimpses into their past relationship, Prokorov shifted topics to the one he was interested in.
“So, walk me through the progress your team has made in recovering from this latest incident.”
Dr. Guo’s already dour expression turned darker.
“I already sent you my update.”
“I read it. That’s why I’ve come in person … to ensure that you have a true sense of urgency.”
The scientist opened his mouth, started to say something then, looking directly into Prokorov’s eyes, seemed to think better of it.
“Fine. You can see for yourself.”
Dr. Guo turned and walked toward the towering piece of machinery that Prokovorov recognized as the matter disrupter. It looked somewhat like a gigantic generator that had been stood on its end and wrapped with a lattice of steel scaffolding, seventy meters high. And along the multiple levels of scaffolding, dozens of workers moved.
Dr. Guo didn’t pause to wait for Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick to catch up with him, proceeding directly to a metal doorway that led into the thing’s interior. He opened the doorway and stepped through. Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick followed him across the threshold.
The walkway that extended along the outer wall was just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Oddly shaped tubes and instruments clung to the sides of curved columns that rose up into the dimly lit upper reaches. More passages branched off into the middle of the clustered equipment and within some of those, workers were forced to crawl in order to traverse them.
It was a design that had a distinctly alien feel to it. In these depths, far below the rolling countryside, the construction progressed on an extremely aggressive schedule, without all the overly restrictive safety protocols that would normally be required of such a project. But this latest accident had brought that progress to a screeching halt.
For another three minutes, Dr. Guo led them through a maze of increasingly cramped walkways, before entering an elevator cage and turning to face his guests, his arms spread in mock welcome. Prokorov stepped in beside the chief scientist, but Dr. Fitzpatrick stopped outside the metal cage, her head tilted back to stare at the cabling that guided the elevator into those heights.
When she looked down, Prokorov saw that the color had drained from her face.
“Is something wrong?” Dr. Guo asked.
Dr. Fitzpatrick cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I have a thing about heights.”
“Get in or stay behind,” Prokorov said.
She swallowed hard, straightened, and stepped inside. The cage door closed behind her with a clank that sounded like a jail door closing and Prokorov noted the white knuckles on the hand that grasped onto one of the vertical bars that made up the cage’s walls.
Dr. Guo pressed a button and the cage surged upward with an acceleration that made Prokorov’s stomach lurch. Beside him, Dr. Fitzpatrick’s gasp showed that she now regretted her decision to accompany them.
The journey didn’t take long. When the cage rattled to a stop, Prokorov guessed that they had risen roughly ten floors, a guess that a downward glance through the steel grating confirmed. Ignoring the wobbling American scientist, he followed Dr. Guo along one of the interconnecting walkways, their shoes clanking on the steel grating and echoing through the conduits that draped the machinery.
It was an earie world of cryonic equipment that kept the electrical conduits at a temperature cold enough to maintain superconductivity. That made it possible to transport the tremendous power from this matter disrupter to the wormhole gateway and its twin stasis field generators.
Dr. Guo came to an abrupt halt at a point where the passage gave way to a room sized open space. The monitors, computers, and controls that had recently lined this room’s interior had been reduced to burned out scrap. What remained was being piled onto a hand trolley by a dozen technicians who worked to clear the debris and repair the damage. From the scowls Prokorov saw on their faces, it was clear that his surprise inspection wasn’t particularly welcome.
Prokorov felt his jaw tighten. “What is this?”
“This,” said Dr. Guo, “is what you were too impatient to let me brief you on from the relative safety of the main chamber. Two days ago, the matter disrupter suffered a minor instability ten meters on the other side of that shielding. Since then my people have been working around the clock to fix the problem.”
“You mean there was a radioactive leak?” Dr. Fitzpatrick gasped, unconsciously pushing back a strand of her blond hair.
“No, but the matter disrupter proved to be far more efficient than we were prepared for. This damage was caused by a massive electrical power surge.” Dr. Guo turned his gaze back on Prokorov. “It’s exactly why I warned you against the dangerous pace at which you’ve been pushing us.”
Prokorov ignored the jab. “Describe to me in layman’s terms the precise nature of the problem and how you intend to fix it.”
“The matter disrupter relies on a wave-packet model of matter. All matter is composed of a harmonic chord of frequencies that combine together to form a stable packet … you can think of it as a three-dimensional standing wave that compresses the underlying fabric of our universe into a tight little vibrating bundle. Some of these wave-packets are not completely harmonic and try to dispel the destabilizing frequencies, giving them off as radiation as the packet attempts to achieve a harmonious chord.
“The matter disrupter takes advantage of this by adding a destabilizing set of frequencies to the matter at which it is targeted. The ultimate disruption would be to supply a set of frequencies that completely cancels out the particle’s wave packet … an anti-packet. But we don’t have to supply a complete anti-packet. The proper subset of destabilizing frequencies will make the particle tear itself apart.”
Dr. Guo paused to meet Prokorov’s gaze.
“You’re familiar with the design Dr. Stephenson built in Meyrin, Switzerland. What we are building here is a very different beast, one that incorporates a number of theoretical improvements. Normally I would have created a much smaller experimental prototype so that we could work out the design problems that were bound to happen. Since I wasn’t allowed to do that, we are now encountering those problems at full scale.”
Prokorov gritted his teeth. If he had anyone else with this man’s knowledge of the project, he would have replaced Dr. Guo long ago.
“Don’t give me excuses. Just stick to the facts.”
“The facts are what you see before you. The disrupting wave packet was too perfect and triggered a matter, anti-matter reaction that produced the excess energy that killed seven of my top people and did the damage you see before you. Even working around the clock it will take us six weeks to complete the repairs.”
“I want this repair work completed within three weeks.”
“What you want is irrelevant. The repairs will be completed as soon as possible and not before.”
“Suppose I send some of our top scientists and engineers to help?”
Dr. Guo shrugged. “My people are already familiar with this project. Newcomers would need to be trained on our equipment and that would just slow us down.”
Prokorov turned to look at Dr. Fitzpatrick. “Your thoughts?”
She paused to consider. “I can put together a topnotch group from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and give them a week or so to study the design, construction, and operation of this reactor. Then, when they get here, they won’t be coming in cold.”
Seeing that Dr. Guo was about to object, Prokorov held up a hand. “Good. Dr. Guo, see that Dr. Fitzpatrick gets all of the pertinent materials. Any questions?”
Prokorov watched as the chief scientist’s gaze swung from Dr. Fitzpatrick back to him, the man’s expression changing from anger to a neutral stare. Clearly he hadn’t expected to be undercut by her and he didn’t like it.
Prokorov paused, his determination tightening his facial muscles.
“Dr. Guo, do not disappoint me again. Second contact will not be kept waiting.”
For the first time he saw fear in the scientist’s eyes. As Prokorov turned to walk away, it was an image he savored.
Robby knew one thing for sure. This had just ruined what should have been a snowy and fun-filled August day in New Zealand. His dad had just sprung something on him that threatened to destroy what little remained of his childhood. After the events that had brought him to this secret New Zealand complex where the Smythes were preparing for the end of the world, all he really had left of it was his relationship with his mom and dad. Now, if he couldn’t prove his dad wrong about the Incan Sun Staff and the alien vessel that Jack thought lay beneath it, Robby could lose him forever.
As horrible as that was, the thought of what it would do to his mom was even worse. She hadn’t spoken a word as Jack had sat Robby down at the kitchen table and spilled his story, but Robby had seen the dread in her eyes.
The revelation that Jack believed there was an alien presence in his head hadn’t shocked Robby. Since Robby shared his own mind with an alien artificial intelligence named Eos, it was no stretch of the imagination to believe that part of his dad’s story. But it was the only thing his dad had told him that Robby would allow himself to believe.
It was the reason Robby now sat in one of the four command center chairs in a room modeled after the command deck on the Altreian starship that the Smythes had discovered. It was far from the first time he had sat in this chair of alien design … it was just the most important.
On either side of him sat Mark and Heather while Jack and Janet stood watch. It still felt odd to Robby that he had begun to think of his mom and dad as Jack and Janet. But since their escape from Peru, they had finally accepted him as a full-fledged member of this team that was fighting to save Earth from a renewed Kasari invasion. As such, he felt it only right that he refer to them as he would any other team member, even if it drove Janet crazy.
Robby retrieved the U-shaped alien headband from a compartment in his couch’s right armrest, paused to stare down at the iridescent three-quarter loop with the small beads at each end, inhaled deeply, and then slid the headband into place. As the twin beads settled over his temples, he heard Eos whisper in his mind.
“Are you ready for this?”
“I’m ready,” Robby responded.
“No matter what I might discover?”
Robby felt himself swallow but pulled forth the required answer. “No matter what.”
The familiar mental connection with the Second Ship’s computer washed over him, along with the strange thrill at the incredible knowledge it made available to his augmented mind.
Eos flowed into the Altreian computer system, resuming her original function as the AI that controlled this starship’s computer, pulling Robby’s mind along with her. Mark and Heather could also access the computer through their own headsets but despite the extent to which their minds and abilities had been altered when they’d first put on the headsets all those years ago, only Eos had complete access to the database she had been created to control.
Robby felt Mark and Heather’s minds connect to the Second Ship’s computer, but then he shifted his attention back to Eos and let the AI sweep him away into the seemingly infinite trove of data.
Ignoring all that was irrelevant to his current search, Robby found himself drawn into a vision that acquired such reality that it took his breath away. He was aboard an Altreian research vessel that had just emerged from subspace within a solar system he recognized. The viewpoint left him feeling as if he were a ghost in the starship, observing the five alien occupants from the perspective of the ship itself … more precisely from the onboard sensors available to its computer.
He knew that this was recorded footage of this ship’s arrival in Earth’s solar system, but it wasn’t what Eos was searching for. The scene faded, only to be replaced by fresh imagery of the interior of the Altreian vessel. Its immensity surprised Robby. This certainly wasn’t the Second Ship. Sensing the question that rose in his mind, Eos responded.
“This is the Altreian research vessel AQ37Z. The ship you call the Second Ship was carried to Earth inside this ship’s cargo bay.”
Robby validated the information by his own view of the information stored in the database he and Eos were accessing. The knowledge that the Second Ship was merely a scout craft that was used by the AQ37Z’s crew to gather data stunned him.
As he watched, the imagery changed again. Shortly after coming into Earth orbit, research vessel AQ37Z had performed a brief subspace transition before emerging beneath the Earth’s surface in the Andes. Its reemergence had parted the subsurface rock, triggering a minor earthquake. From the information that Eos directed into Robby’s mind, it was clear that this was standard operating procedure when the Altreians discovered a world with sentient life. Establish a hidden research outpost to monitor the intelligent species without interfering with its natural development.
Robby studied the imagery of the five Altreian crew members. They were humanoid in appearance, with two arms and two legs, their skin mottled brown and red and with pointed ears that lay tight against their skulls. The red glint in their black eyes gave the illusion that they burned with an inner fire. There was also something odd about their necks. What was that? Gill slits?
“Yes,” Eos responded although Robby hadn’t formed his thoughts into a direct question to the AI. “The Altreians evolved to function in either air or water, although their atmospheric composition has a much higher concentration of oxygen than that of Earth.”
“How long have they been here?”
“Research outpost AQ37Z established its presence on Earth in your calendar year 1137 AD.”
Another thought bothered Robby. “Are they immortal?”
“No. Compared to humans they live very long lives, primarily due to their advanced medical technology, but they can and do die.”
Once again the imagery shifted and Robby found himself observing another part of the ship, this one a much smaller chamber containing five cylindrical pods mounted horizontally on waist high pedestals. He adjusted his perspective, surprised that he was able to do so just by wanting to see them from a different angle.
These cylinders were formed of a metal that shifted colors, mostly greens and blues. Displays on the exterior showed the bodies resting within. Five cylinders holding five bodies. Eos’s answer came to him as he prepared to ask the question.
“This is the same crew you observed in the earlier recording. They spent the vast majority of their time on Earth in suspended animation inside these chrysalis cylinders, only waking every hundred years or so to analyze the data that was collected during the interim. The research vessel could also trigger an awakening in the event it observed something deemed of critical importance.”
“How did the Second Ship end up fighting the Kasari Rho Ship?”
The vision of the larger Altreian research vessel dissolved into a familiar vision of the Second Ship battling the Kasari world ship as they hurtled towards Earth. When the Kasari vortex weapon punched a hole through the Second Ship, four Altreian bodies were sucked out into the void of space as the ship crashed to Earth. And as it did, Eos’s voice narrated.
“Having detected the wormhole that brought the Kasari world ship into this solar system, a wakeup signal was activated and AQ37Z’s five crewmembers were roused from suspended animation. Four of them boarded the scout craft the Smythe’s named the Second Ship. Engaging its subspace drive from within the cargo bay, it emerged into normal-space to intercept the Kasari starship just beyond Saturn. The subsequent combat resulted in both ships shooting each other down over New Mexico in the year 1948. The U.S. government located the crashed Kasari ship almost immediately and spawned the top secret Rho Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in an attempt to reverse-engineer its alien technology.”
As Robby’s mind studied the supporting imagery and data, his heart sank. He’d put on the Altreian headset and entered the Second Ship’s computer in hopes of disproving his dad’s conviction that an alien craft that threatened Earth’s survival was buried beneath the Kalasasaya Temple. Instead, everything Eos had shown him so far corroborated parts of that story.
Despite his growing sense of dread, Robby focused on the artifact his dad had called the Incan Sun Staff, instructing Eos to dig deeper into the Altreian research vessel’s purpose. Again the data flow intensified, flooding Robby’s brain with rapid fire imagery and the contextual knowledge that went with it.
However, apart from some visuals of a member of the Altreian crew presenting the artifact to an ornately robed native, there was a surprising dearth of information about the Sun Staff or its purpose. It provided a means of signaling the research vessel to open a portal that would allow external access, but the natives were evidently given no specific instructions on how to activate that function of the complex device. Apparently, developing the technology to solve that riddle was one of the prerequisites for opening the portal.
Unknown to Manco Capac, the Incan emperor to whom it had been gifted, the intricately etched silver staff and the complex clockwork mechanism that formed its golden orb crownpiece contained a complex set of sensors that communicated with AG37Z through a subspace link.
Robby paused to consider. There had been nothing in any of the data to indicate that AG37Z or its crew had any ominous intentions toward humanity.
The fact that they had launched the Second Ship to intercept and shoot down the Kasari Rho Ship was a good sign, wasn’t it? When Eos was unable to provide an answer to that question, Robby found himself at an impasse. Apparently the information he was searching for hadn’t been uploaded into the Second Ship’s database.
Robby took a different tack, shifting his focus to Khal Teth, the name his dad had called the Altreian entity that shared his mind. Immediately a storm of historical information filled his consciousness, including a visual image of the convicted Altreian criminal. Criminal! That tag and the extensive data file that accompanied it filled Robby’s mind with renewed hope.
Khal Teth had been a high ranking member of the Altreian High Council, a group of the most powerful psionic beings in the known universe. Among them, Khal Teth was established as the most gifted of all, able to dominate the minds of all save the collective strength of the other dozen members of the High Council.
Khal Teth had committed the ultimate crime, a violation of something known as the One Law. Not only had he attacked another member of the High Council, he had attempted to assassinate Valen Roth, the Altreian high overlord. For his crime, Khal Teth was sentenced to the harshest of punishments. His body was placed in suspended animation inside a chrysalis cylinder, his mind wiped of its memories and banished to wander through alternate dimensions for eternity, capable of observation but incapable of feeling or experiencing anything he watched.
A mental shudder ran through Robby’s mind at the image of the eternal boredom and helplessness that would accompany such an imprisonment.
There was no explanation of how Khal Teth had managed to escape that prison by establishing a link with a human mind and Jack hadn’t explained it. But that didn’t really matter. Robby now knew that Khal Teth was evil. There was no doubt that he was attempting to manipulate Jack for his own purposes. It wasn’t the conclusive proof Robby had been looking for but it was close enough.
As Robby and Eos terminated the alien headset’s connection to the Second Ship’s computer, Robby braced himself for his next task, confronting Jack with the truth about Khal Teth. Surely that would be enough to stop Jack from doing what Khal Teth wanted.
For both Robby and Janet’s sake, it had to be.
General Magtal strode through his headquarters adjacent to the emperor’s palace complex in the subterranean Koranthian city of ArvaiKheer, his seven foot three inch frame quivering with a barely contained rage that worked its way up his dark-skinned face into the crown bones that topped his skull.
Word from the northern front was good … heroic in fact. It was exactly what had set his teeth on knife’s edge. General Dgarra and his pet human female continued to hold out against far superior enemy forces that included elite Kasari assault troops. This despite the ongoing denial of reinforcements to Dgarra’s beleaguered command. How much longer Magtal could continue to convince the emperor that the attacks against the northern front were merely a feint to convince him to divert troops there, Magtal didn’t know. In truth, the Kasari, with their advanced worm-fiber viewing technology, knew precisely where the weakly defended points in the Koranthian defensive network were, in Dgarra’s sector.
But apparently Magtal could not count on that enemy to take advantage of that weakness to rid him of his most hated rival.
He reached his command center, hearing the announcement “Commanding general!” as he strode through the triton steel doors.
“As you were,” he commanded, sending his warriors back to their duties.
Seating himself in the swivel-chair that gave him an elevated view of the situational awareness displays that tiled the room’s walls, Magtal waved away the aide who scurried to his side. Right now he needed to think.
Dgarra’s human female had proved far more resourceful than he would have thought, summoning her human companion to land the captured Kasari world ship within one of Dgarra’s hangers. Where exactly, Magtal didn’t know. It was only through his spies inside Dgarra’s headquarters that he had learned of it and of the alien technologies Dgarra’s engineers were working to implement. They were getting help with those engineering efforts, of that there could be no doubt. And Dgarra had refused to share the results of his research, claiming that the work was purely in the experimental and test phases and that he would share the results should they prove stable and beneficial.
It was just like the warrior to take every advantage for himself, using his kinship with Emperor Goltat to secure that edge.
Magtal felt his lips curl to reveal his teeth, a look that sent the lieutenant who saw it scurrying to the far side of the room. Dgarra had forced his hand. It was time to release the dagger that would disgrace Dgarra and remove him from the line of ascension once and for all.
It would place General Magtal but a single step from the throne, a step that he would take in due time.
The characteristic sizzle and detonation of the Kasari disrupter weapons brought a growl from Jennifer’s throat, knowing that this heavy artillery barrage was preparation for the assault that would shortly follow. Despite the shielding provided by the new stasis field generators that had been emplaced at key points along the forward line of General Dgarra’s warriors, the protection it provided was far from perfect. The biggest problem was that whenever the stasis shields were engaged the Koranthian warriors were prevented from firing upon the enemy, allowing the winged Eadric soldiers to advance ever closer to Dgarra’s fortifications. And using their wings, the Eadric could advance through the crags and cliffs very rapidly indeed, zipping from one covered battle position to another, taking advantage of the lulls in Koranthian fire.
Thus, at selected locations along Dgarra’s lines, the shields would drop to allow the Koranthians to fire their weapons, only to be raised again when the firing stopped. When this happened, the shields would be lowered at other spots so that the Koranthians could continue to pound the enemy advance.
Thanks to the technical expertise Raul’s connection to the Rho Ship’s neural net had provided, Dgarra’s forces now had disrupter weapons of their own. That was great for combat at a distance, but when the combatants inevitably merged, the disrupters were worse than useless, far too destructive to be used in the vicinity of one’s own forces.
That was fine with Jennifer. As much as she hated the killing that came with warfare, she preferred to look into her enemy’s eyes or, in the case of the Kasari gorilla spiders, to smell the stink of their bodies as she sent them from this existence into the next. If someone had to die, they deserved to see who was killing them instead of being ripped apart or roasted alive by a distant and faceless enemy.
She knew this feeling was irrational. Death was death, no matter how it happened. But she also knew from whom she’d picked up this philosophy. From Dgarra. It was one of the disadvantages of her empathic ability. When she experienced the feelings of another individual too often, those emotions tended to latch onto her like an acquired taste. And as Dgarra’s aide-de-camp, she spent the vast majority of her time either in his presence or performing duties as his personal messenger.
Jennifer glanced to her right at the Koranthian general as he looked out through the narrow canyon that led to the nearest of the Koranthian caverns. At seven-feet tall, the dark-skinned leader wasn’t particularly big by the standards of his people. But he radiated the charismatic self-confidence and fierce will that had made him a battlefield legend. She could feel it radiate from him and into the warriors around him. It was the reason he had chosen to be at this spot right now. This would be the place on this battlefield where victory or defeat would soon be decided.
On the far side of the stasis field, thousands of Eadric swept into the gap that lay just beyond, as withering fire from their artillery targeted the places in the Koranthian line that had a clear line of sight to the main assault. That covering fire blasted great gouts of rock from the surrounding mountains and generated rock slides that forced other stasis fields to be raised. During those moments when the volume of Koranthian fire decreased, the Eadric surged forward.
Dgarra issued the command that dropped the protective stasis field in front of him and Jennifer felt a wave of battle lust spread through the warriors around him. To her front the Koranthians opened up with short range lasers, then switched to their dual edged war-blades as they met the Eadric charge. Jennifer charged forward at Dgarra’s side, her own war-blade whistling through the cold air as she ducked beneath an Eadric soldier’s blaster. Her blade took the arm that held that pistol and then the screaming head above it, sending forth a fountain of nanite-infested Eadric blood.
The screams of rage and pain, the clash of metal, and the roar of battle drowned out the wind that howled through the outcroppings, trying to sweep her from the ledge upon which she fought. It took tremendous effort and focus to direct her augmented senses into the minds of those around her, but in the midst of battle, she managed it. Her mind touched the nearest Eadric fighters, divining their intentions as she moved to counter their attempts to target her. Despite the covering laser fire that blasted Eadric flyers from the sky, more were getting through than were being killed.
Jennifer felt an Eadric female aim a pistol toward her and lunged to the side, taking a laser burn high up on her left shoulder. The white-hot pain lanced through her brain, momentarily darkening her vision before she could shunt the pain into a distant part of her mind.
She kicked out, launching another Eadric soldier into the female as the Eadric once again squeezed the trigger. The laser cut a smoking hole through two winged soldiers but missed Jennifer by six inches. Jennifer leaped forward, her descending blade splitting the female soldier’s skull down the middle.
To her left and right, Koranthian warriors fell, including Bracken, one of Dgarra’s elite guard. Aware of his presence, the Eadric focused their attack on Dgarra, while all around the general, his warriors rallied to him. He chopped down the enemies who got within striking distance of his war-blade.
As Jennifer fought her way toward him, a distant thought caught her attention. Her gaze shifted up the cliff to her left. From a perch atop a narrow ledge fifty feet above her, one of the four-armed Kasari shock troops aimed its disrupter weapon down toward them. It was suicidal. The blast would kill all who battled on this ledge, but it would also collapse the outcropping upon which the Kasari stood.
Knowing that drawing and firing her own blaster would have the same disastrous effect, Jennifer thrust her mind into that of the Kasari. The alien’s surprise introduced a moment of hesitation, and in that moment, Jennifer transferred an urgent need to drop the weapon. She felt his grip loosen, but then he caught himself, his will strengthening to match hers. Far below, Jennifer felt her body stumble, pitching out toward the chasm, only to be jerked backward by Dgarra’s strong hands.
The Kasari’s grip on his disrupter tightened and Jennifer focused all of her will into the brain that controlled this four-armed body, barely managing to prevent the trigger squeeze that would end them all. A wave of vertigo assailed Jennifer as the four-armed alien teetered on the brink, his corded muscles fighting themselves in an effort to aim and fire his weapon.
Jennifer felt the Kasari shift his attention but failed to understand its significance until it was too late to stop it. The shift shocked her so badly that she almost lost her mental link. It was as if a dozen minds suddenly merged with hers … and then hundreds … and then thousands. And as all of that mental power turned its attention toward her, she stopped trying to understand what was happening and sent a single mental command to the nerves in the Kasari soldier’s legs.
As her consciousness fled the mind storm that she had unwittingly unleashed, the ledge spun away from her. With a burst of focused will, she broke the Kasari’s mental connection with the others and pulled him alongside her into the dark.
Distant voices speaking in low, urgent tones welcomed Jennifer back to consciousness, accompanied by a skull cracking headache that pulled a moan from her lips. She struggled to open her eyes but they felt like they’d been glued shut. When they did open, the large room spun so rapidly that she squeezed them shut again, although not before a wave of nausea tried to empty her stomach.
Jennifer forced herself to concentrate. With her mental augmentations, she damn sure should be able to clear her head of the migraine or whatever the hell this was. But even though she did manage to reduce the throbbing intensity, she failed to rid herself of the pain. It felt like something had ripped open inside her brain.
She remembered her mind connecting with that of the Kasari. Not with an individual mind. Her action had drawn the attention of many minds, more than enough to overwhelm her. She had no doubt that if that mental connection had lasted another couple of seconds, it would have broken her mind completely. She should be thankful to have awakened with this hangover from hell. Right now though, she was having a difficult time acquiring the appropriate level of gratitude.
With a fresh burst of willpower, Jennifer sat up and swung her legs off the side of the pallet on which she had lain, somehow managing to avoid puking her guts out as she struggled to her knees, one hand on the stone wall for support.
“Lie back down or get out of our way.”
The deep voice pulled her head up. To her left, doctors and nurses worked to stabilize wounded warriors, their gray gloves and gowns stained dark brown with Koranthian blood. On the bed to her left, the whine of a bone saw was followed by the thump of an amputated leg landing in a large bucket, having been dropped by the doctor who had just spoken to her.
A little over a year ago, the sight of this much carnage would have left her weak and shaking. Now it just pulled her to her feet. Instead of pissing her off, the doctor’s harsh words spurred her into motion. She rose to her feet, where she wavered unsteadily for several seconds before making her way through the mayhem toward the exit.
As she side-stepped the medical staff and their equipment, she scanned the room, anxious to see if she recognized any of the wounded, but the severe nature of some of the wounds had left several patients unrecognizable.
When she stepped out of the field hospital, she found herself standing inside a cavern she knew well, one that lay along the primary railway line, less than a kilometer south of General Dgarra’s headquarters. As she watched, six maglev ambulance cars rounded the bend and came to a stop at the elevated platform. The doors opened to disgorge a line of medics carrying the most badly wounded on litters, leaving those of their patients who were still ambulatory to limp down the ramp to the triage area.
Exhaustion wafted from these seven foot warriors in waves that didn’t require her special mental abilities to pick up. But what worried her more was the deep sense of depression that accompanied it. These battle hardened Koranthians, male and female alike, were unfamiliar with losing. But the unending succession of assaults by the Eadric and their Kasari allies had siphoned doubt into their souls … doubts about their own abilities and, more importantly, doubts that even their legendary commander could win this fight.
As Jennifer looked at them, her will solidified, driving the headache from her consciousness. She pulled her subspace communications headset from a cargo pocket in her black uniform trousers, letting the beads at either end of the partial loop settle over her temples. Her mind made the connection with the Rho Ship’s neural net and through it to Raul. His relief flooded her mind.
“Christ. You scared the crap out of me. Where have you been?”
“I got knocked out and med-evaced to the First Medical Detachment’s field hospital.”’
“How bad are you hurt?”
“I’m fine. What’s our current situation?
She felt his mood darken.
“Not great. Dgarra’s lines are still holding but he ordered me to take the Rho Ship off planet. Right now I’m on the back side of Scion’s nearest moon. The ship is cloaked and I’m monitoring the battle through the worm-fiber viewers.”
Jennifer accessed the video feeds, letting the imagery fill her mind. Night had fallen over the northern Koranthian Mountains but battle lightning laced the darkness.
“Can’t you use the Rho Ship’s weapons to support Dgarra?”
“Yes, but the Kasari will detect it and intercept me with their fast battle cruisers. I might be able to make one pass before I have to shift into subspace and get the hell out of there. After that, they’ll have weapons ready to blast me out of the sky if I try it again.”
“Any relief you can give Dgarra’s troops may make the difference.”
The voice of the VJ simulation Raul had created of Jennifer interrupted. “I don’t recommend that.”
“And I don’t give a damn,” Jennifer said, feeling her headache reassert itself. Raul’s mind wavered and Jennifer reached deeper into it, tweaking his confidence just enough to ensure that he made the right decision. It felt wrong to manipulate someone who had saved her life multiple times, but right now she didn’t have time to argue this out.
“Okay. I’ll give it a try.”
“Thank you,” she said, relief accompanying her thought message. “Good luck.”
Jennifer removed the headset and returned it to its pocket. Seeing that the ambulance train was preparing to depart for its trip back to the battle front, she trotted up the ramp and stepped aboard.
It was time to return to General Dgarra’s side. Whatever happened next, that was where she belonged.
Raul leaned forward in the invisible command couch that was a precise manifestation of his control over the forward compartment’s stasis field generator. His right hand massaged the sudden tightness in his neck.
“You shouldn’t let her manipulate you like that.” VJ’s voice carried more than a hint of petulance. “This is stupid and you know it.”
“She didn’t talk me into anything I wasn’t already considering.”
“That doesn’t make it any less stupid.”
“Just make the course calculations. I want to pop out of subspace ten thousand feet above the Eadric artillery positions, fire the ship’s disrupter weapons at that artillery, and then shift back into subspace before they have a chance to respond.”
For the thousandth time, Raul noted that he could have already accomplished what he was ordering VJ to do, but he’d come to value the opposing feedback she provided. Either that or he was a closet masochist.
VJ delivered the subspace course calculations that would bring them out of subspace at the desired location. Unfortunately, since they would not have a chance to establish a normal-space momentum vector optimized for that new location, he would be forced into a tight maneuver immediately upon exiting subspace. And that maneuver would have to be completed before he activated the firing sequence from the ship’s disrupter weapons. That would increase his time over target and since the ship’s stasis shield would have to stay down while he fired, he would have to count on surprise for this attack to work.
The transition into subspace was accompanied by a subtle vibration that Raul didn’t like. A quick diagnostic revealed a minor anomaly in the functioning of the subspace field generator. It was nothing serious but he added it to his growing to-do list.
“Ten seconds until normal-space reentry,” VJ said.
Raul wrapped himself tightly in the stasis field that would protect him should the worst happen, feeling droplets of sweat pop out on his forehead as he did so. Christ, he wasn’t cut out for this space-warrior crap.
Then, as VJ’s countdown approached zero, he mentally rehearsed the weapons run. Pop into normal-space, bank hard, fire the Rho Ship’s disrupter beams, and then pop back into subspace. Nothing to it. It was a mantra he repeated with each count. Hopefully he would come to believe it.
* * *
Kasari Group Commander Shalegha came alert to the tactical display that her nanobot cortical array delivered to her visual cortex. She took particular note of one alert concerning a subspace transition within the caverns controlled by the Koranthian general, Dgarra.
Although the Kasari did not have the Altreian subspace technology, they could detect whenever Altreian ships transitioned in and out of subspace, if that happened in close proximity to active Kasari sensors. Whenever an object transitioned into subspace, it left a brief hole in normal-space, and when it refilled itself it emitted a distinctive signature and when an object emerged from subspace into normal-space, it displaced normal-space, emitting another detectable signal.
The Eadric air defense sensors clustered along the northern Koranthian front had noted several subspace anomalies just before the deadly Koranthian winter had made further assaults impossible. The odd thing was that they hadn’t detected any similar disturbances during the intervening months. That combined with the encrypted message Shalegha had recently received from her source within the Koranthian High Command gave extra importance to this new signal.
It meant that the humans had not only managed to capture a Kasari world-ship, but they had somehow managed to enhance it with subspace capabilities. That could only mean that they were getting help from the Altreians. It also made the capture or destruction of that world-ship one of Shalegha’s top priorities.
She issued a mental command that placed all air defense systems along the northern Koranthian front on high alert, as well as those that surrounded her headquarters here in the Eadric capital city of Orthei. As much as Shalegha trusted her connection to the hive mind and the enhanced permissions that she enjoyed on that network, she trusted her battle-honed instincts more.
Something big was about to happen and it might just be the game changer that she’d been hoping for.
* * *
The Rho Ship materialized ten thousand and four feet above the Eadric artillery battalions and Raul initiated the targeting sequence while VJ maneuvered the Rho Ship for the firing pass.
“Enemy targeting sensors are attempting to acquire us.”
Raul tensed but maintained his focus on the task at hand. “Stay on target.”
He felt the Rho Ship’s targeting solution lock in and fired a pattern of disrupter blasts, his efforts rewarded by a half-dozen secondary explosions that sent fireballs boiling into the sky. It wasn’t a perfect run but it would have to do.
“Get us out of here.”
“Subspace transition initiated,” VJ said.
There it was again, a jitter as the subspace field generator activated, this one much more pronounced than the last time. The neural net gave Raul the bad news. The subspace transition had failed.
“Enemy targeting sensors have acquired a lock on us.”
Despite the fact that she was a simulation, Raul heard the tension in her voice. Apparently the imminent threat of being blown out of the sky did that. Fear sharpened his mind’s connection with the neural net and he issued the command to activate the ship’s stasis shield mere nano-seconds before the Rho Ship’s exterior lit up brighter than the sun, as a combination of disrupter blasts and laser beams played across it.
The relief that flooded Raul’s mind that he was still alive was short lived. The stasis shield was holding, but the stress the attacks were placing on its generator were already approaching the red line. He worked to compensate, felt VJ activate the Rho Ship’s cloaking mechanism, and then performed a hard banking maneuver that carried them out of the line of fire.
As expected, the Eadric air defense systems began firing a spread pattern, hoping to get a lucky hit on the target that had just disappeared from their sensor screens.
“Can you get us into subspace?” Raul asked.
“Then find us a safe spot on the ground.”
“Working on it,” said VJ.
A laser beam sizzled into their shielding with such intensity that Raul could feel the stasis field generator overheat.
“Shit. Get us on the ground.”
The fact that VJ didn’t respond told him more than he wanted to know about the number of ship’s systems that were failing. The neural net transmitted the ship’s status directly into his pain receptors, a sensation that was getting less pleasant by the moment.
VJ entered the new course command, sending the Rho Ship plummeting from the sky into a deep canyon far behind the Eadric lines. The maneuver didn’t startle Raul, but the destination coordinates did.
Wrapped in the command deck’s stasis field, Raul braced for impact, praying that the ship’s shielding would hold through impact. As he studied the cascading status displays that blossomed in his mind, he gulped in a deep breath. He just hoped it wouldn’t be his last.
General Dgarra felt the shockwaves from the fireballs that rolled above the battlefield as the cigar-shaped Rho Ship flashed across the sky, creating a sudden, eerie pause in the Eadric assault. Apparently Raul had taken it upon himself to launch an attack on the distant enemy artillery. It was a foolhardy action, but one that just might provide the window of opportunity that Dgarra’s beleaguered warriors so desperately needed.
As he watched, the Eadric anti-aircraft batteries opened fire, bathing the ship in brilliant explosions. Dgarra didn’t understand it. Why hadn’t Raul shifted it back into subspace by now? Surely the starship’s shielding couldn’t withstand such a battering for much longer. His conviction that something was seriously wrong grew stronger with each passing moment.
When the Rho Ship disappeared, Dgarra breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long. The batteries of lasers and disrupter weapons adjusted their firing into a spread pattern designed to seek out and destroy a hidden target. It meant that the Eadric believed that the Rho Ship had cloaked itself but remained in the area.
A burst of bright light sizzled against an invisible shield, a lucky strike that attracted a heavy concentration of fire to that area. But as the firing continued, there were no signs of another direct hit, giving Dgarra hope that Raul had finally escaped into subspace. He shifted his attention back to the battle at hand, issuing the command that dropped the stasis shields that protected all of the Koranthian disrupter and laser batteries, directing his artillery to concentrate their fires on the gathered Eadric brigades that threatened to breach his lines.
As he had hoped, the answering artillery fire was greatly diminished from what his forces had been experiencing prior to the Rho Ship’s attack. Now, robbed of the bulk of their artillery support, the Eadric assault faltered. With a word, Dgarra committed his combat reserve, a burst of pride swelling his breast as he watched the fresh Koranthian warriors pour from their caverns to sweep the exhausted Eadric assault troopers from their positions. Dgarra ordered his artillery to shift their fires farther behind the enemy lines in order to avoid killing his own warriors.
He felt someone step up beside him and turned to see Smythe standing there, her black and purple uniform crusted with the dried blood that had also plastered her short-cropped brown hair to her skull. Despite her appearance, Smythe’s eyes were alert as she peered at the battlefield displays projected on the command center’s far wall. Her return was a small thing, but at the end of this long day, it was one more thing to be thankful for.
“When you fell during the battle,” he said, “I feared that I had lost you.”
Smythe turned toward him, a slow smile spreading across her human features. “I take it that Raul’s attack succeeded.”
“You ordered that action without consulting me.”
Smythe’s shoulders lifted slightly in one of her odd human expressions. “I can’t order Raul to do anything. I merely requested the air support and he agreed.”
“It could cost us the Rho Ship.”
“If the Kasari and their allies were to overrun your position, the ship wouldn’t matter. Since I wasn’t able to communicate with you, it seemed a worthwhile risk.”
General Dgarra stared down at this impressive human female. In certain ways she reminded him of his younger self: idealistic, aggressive, and utterly fearless. He had never met a potential mate with this combination of attributes. The fact that he now found himself attracted to this strange alien female went far beyond odd. It was utterly incongruous. The very idea of weakening the Koranthian bloodline, assuming that interbreeding was even possible with a human female, amounted to high treason. In every instance where a Koranthian had mated with another race, the sentence had been the same: death by cleansing fire.
Purging these thoughts from his mind, Dgarra turned his attention back to the Rho Ship.
“What is Raul’s status?” he asked.
“Give me a moment.”
Smythe removed the iridescent headband from her cargo pocket and placed it on her head. After several moments of concentration, she frowned and returned it to her pocket.
“I’m not getting a connection.”
“What would cause that?”
“If he made a wormhole jump, it might have taken him out of this headset’s range.”
Dgarra had come to recognize the look she got whenever she doubted what she was saying.
“And if that is not the case?”
Her eyes narrowed and locked with his. And in that look, he detected a deep dread that spread to him.
“Then Raul’s gamble may not have paid off.”
A wintry blast howled down from the high Andes, the wind-driven sleet stinging Jack Gregory’s face as he strode through the Tiahuanaco Ruins toward the skeletal remains of the Kalasasaya Temple. Janet, Mark, and Jim “Tall Bear” Pino strode into the teeth of the storm alongside him. It was still day, but the clouds had grown so dark that an early twilight had taken hold.
Jack shifted his eyes to the big Navajo man who wielded such powerful influence in the Native People’s Alliance, watching the wind whip Tall Bear’s long black hair straight out behind him. Months ago, Tall Bear had used his influence to gain approval for the dig to recover the Incan Sun Staff and it had been his urgent message that had brought Jack here from New Zealand, accompanied by Janet and Mark. None of this would have been feasible without Robby and Eos having blocked all efforts by international intelligence agencies to locate the Smythes and their allies or to penetrate their network of shell corporations.
Two days ago, the archeological team had broken through the rubble in the collapsed cavern beneath the temple and had uncovered the Sun Staff, placing the site on lockdown pending Jack’s arrival.
A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold worked its way up Jack’s spine as he approached the hole in the Kalasasaya Temple’s stone wall. Pulling a flashlight from his utility vest, Jack switched it on and stepped through the cantilevered doorway in the rough stone wall. As it turned out, he didn’t need it. Except for the widely-spaced drop lighting that had been fastened to ancient wall sconces, the cave that stretched out before him appeared almost exactly as he remembered it. The noise from the gasoline powered generator echoed through the passage, carrying with it a deep sense of violation of this place where Manco Capac, the first Incan Emperor, had been handed the Sun Staff.
Jack switched the flashlight off and returned it to its pocket as Janet, Tall Bear, and Mark joined him inside the tunnel.
“And now, if you’ll follow me,” said Tall Bear with a broad grin, “I have something wonderful to show you.”
Jack followed his NPA host, feeling a tightness in his chest that he knew Janet was also feeling. Within two dozen feet, the tunnel narrowed as they passed through the section where the collapsed ceiling had been cleared and braced. It soon widened again and they passed by side tunnels on the left and right before rounding a bend to enter the main excavation.
Jack stepped through the opening into the Altar Chamber and halted in surprise. The archeological team had done amazing work, completely clearing the rubble from the right side of the cavern, uncovering the intricately inlaid, three-tiered golden dais atop which the Incan Sun Staff stood erect.
The altar rose from the floor to a height of six feet, its intricately carved and inlaid surface channeled and amplified the ambient light. But it was the Sun Staff itself that put a lump in Jack’s throat and pulled a gasp of recognition from Janet’s lips. The length of the silver staff had been densely etched with complex symbols, terminating in a golden orb composed of delicate rings connected to a clockwork interior.
Mark stepped forward to join the other observers who had stopped at the base of the altar, kneeling to examine the intricate engravings on the first of its three levels.
“Is this solid gold?”
“Yes,” Tall Bear said, “but its properties have been modified in a way that is far beyond our technology. Neither it nor the Sun Staff were damaged by the ceiling collapse. During the excavation, one of the workers accidently clipped the edge of this dais with a diamond drill. It didn’t even leave a scratch.”
Jack’s eyes remained locked on the Sun Staff that had filled his dreams. Janet’s hand slid into his, squeezing hard. But when he glanced at her, she didn’t meet his gaze. Instead she kept her eyes focused on the Sun Staff, as though, by force of will alone, she could reduce the hated thing to slag. For a time, the group stood there in silence, until Mark spoke up.
“Tall Bear and I are going to step outside to give the two of you some private time with the artifact.”
The big Navajo extended his hand to Jack, who released Janet’s to grip it, only to find himself swept into a bear hug. It was a scene that repeated itself with Jack and Mark. Then, without any further words spoken, the two men walked out of the cavern, leaving Jack and Janet alone before the altar.
* * *
Janet watched the exchange of hugs between old friends, unable to keep the tears from her eyes. It didn’t matter. Her whole body felt like it was shutting down, as if someone had plunged an icepick between her shoulder-blades.
If there had been one consistent theme in her life, it was the belief that if she didn’t like her circumstances, she could take action to change them. She’d tried everything she could think of to convince Jack that Khal Teth couldn’t be trusted, that the Altreian criminal was playing him. She’d even enlisted Robby, Eos, and Heather to help her. But Jack had never trusted Khal Teth’s motivations. He just considered them irrelevant to what needed to be done in order to save humanity.
Janet had failed to shake that conviction, a fact that had left her in this state of helplessness, unable to stop Jack from going to the one place where she could not accompany him.
He turned to her and it was as if she were seeing him for the first time instead of the last. At their first meeting, Jack had opened the door to his German apartment and put a gun to her head. Now, he’d just done it again.
She wanted to hit him. She wanted to hold him and never let go. The warring impulses left her immobilized, frozen in place.
Jack didn’t wrap his arms around her, didn’t try to pull her close. He simply took her hands in his and held them, as tears flooded his brown eyes and cut trails down his rugged face. The laugh lines that she’d always loved had suddenly become crow’s feet, deepened by the shroud of sorrow that hung between them.
“I love you.” His lips formed the words but no sound escaped his mouth.
Janet sucked in a shuddering breath, placed her arms around his neck, and buried her face in his shoulder, feeling his powerful arms crush her body to his. She turned her face so that her lips brushed his right ear.
“You damn sure better find your way back to me.”
Then she pulled away, turned, and strode rapidly out of the chamber, without a single glance back in his direction.
Jack stood alone in the Altar Chamber, watching as his soulmate walked out of his life forever. But she hadn’t left him … he’d done that to her.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, gritted his teeth, and turned to face the Altar of the Gods, unleashing the rider within. Shrugging off the lethargy born of depression, he climbed the three steps that carried him to the Sun Staff. A dozen years ago, Klaus Barbie’s bastard son had almost completed arranging the golden orb’s rings into the code that would open the portal. With very little of the pattern left to enter, Jack reached out with both hands to cup the orb, twisting one ring after another. One final twist of the topmost ring sent a surge of energy through the base and into the orb.
It started as a low vibration that rose to a high pitched hum. A dim glow leaked from within the crown piece, growing in intensity until Jack was forced to squint as he looked at it. Beneath him the altar shifted, the top tier sliding toward the nearest wall, carrying Jack along with it and revealing a four foot wide ramp behind him that led down into darkness.
Jack released the orb and turned to examine the opening as a gravelly voice filled his mind.
“Be ready. We have awakened the one who was sleeping.”
“If this was the Sun Staff’s purpose, won’t the Altreian be prepared for me?”
“He expects one or more humans, whose minds he can easily dominate. My presence will come as an unpleasant surprise.”
Jack forced the tension from his body, lifted the Sun Staff from its slot atop the altar, and walked down the ramp, letting it light his way. Several paces down, he heard the altar slide closed behind him, cutting his last link to the world he had known. There was no stone in this passage. The walls and ceiling were of the same strange metal as the ramp, something he recognized from Mark’s and Heather’s descriptions of the interior of the Second Ship.
He considered drawing his HK from its shoulder holster but resisted the urge. He doubted that the waiting Altreian would respond favorably to an obvious threat. Up ahead, the passage leveled out then stopped at a bare wall. Behind him an unseen door whisked closed, sealing him in a room the size of a jail cell and elevating his heart rate. Then the light from the Sun Staff’s golden crown piece winked out, leaving him in a magenta-colored semi-darkness. What the hell?
It wasn’t until the other door whisked open that he understood. This was the Altreian equivalent of an airlock. A dozen feet in front of him, an Altreian, very similar in appearance to Khal Teth, stood waiting for him as if Jack were a distant relative who’d been expected to drop by for a visit.
Then the thing was in his mind, delving for any secrets that might be buried there, and seeking to take control of his body. But Jack had endured years of fighting for control of his own mind against a former member of the Altreian High Council, and if Khal Teth hadn’t been able to break him, this underling damn sure couldn’t take him.
Jack felt Khal Teth’s mind join the fray, saw the Altreian crew member’s dark eyes grow wide, and cracked a mirthless smile.
“Not today, bitch,” Jack said as he stepped through the doorway. “Not today.”
* * *
For the first time in millennia, Khal Teth felt the touch of another Altreian mind. It was the one thing he had been counting on. Isolated from his own body, he did not have the psionic strength to reach out and dominate another of his own race. But Broljen, the research vessel commander, had linked his mind to Jack’s in order to take control of this long anticipated visitor. And by so doing he had opened a mental door that allowed Khal Teth in.
It had surprised Broljen when Jack was able to resist his initial attempt to take control of the human’s mind, but when Khal Teth latched onto that link it galvanized the Altreian commander. This new connection surprised him, but he had not risen to his position without dominating others in such contests. He didn’t realize that he was out of his depths in this match against one of history’s most powerful psionics.
Unfortunately, the contest wasn’t going as Khal Teth expected. What was wrong with him? He should have been able to sweep this underling away with ease, but instead he found himself in a back and forth struggle and, with every passing second, his opponent gained confidence.
A new thought occurred to him. He lacked sufficient connection to a physical body to provide substance to his mind attack. Without it he was a mere ghost of his former self. There was only one thing he could do about that, but it would require Jack’s assistance.
Khal Teth shifted his focus, eschewing the attack in favor of erecting a block around Jack’s mind, a defensive maneuver that would only encourage his opponent. Nevertheless, it would buy time for him to establish a tighter connection to his human host.
“Jack, I need you to let me take complete control of your body.”
Jack’s mental response radiated in waves of anger.
“I have to establish a stronger link in order to dominate this Altreian’s mind.”
“How about I just shoot him in the head while you keep him busy.”
His rising frustration at this negotiation almost caused Khal Teth to lose focus, something that would end them both.
“If this vessel detects that its last crewmember is dead, it will send the request for the planet killer. Right now, I need your help.”
There was a moment of hesitation before Khal Teth felt Jack’s mind relax into a quasi-meditative calm. He reacted immediately, taking advantage of that opening before Jack could reconsider. The intensity of the physical nature of the experience far surpassed any of his previous connections to this host. Jack’s body felt both powerful and heavy at the same time. Khal Teth flexed his fingers and then clenched them into fists so tight that he felt his knuckles pop as Broljen tried to take that away from him.
Khal Teth’s eyes narrowed as a sneer formed on his lips. This brain was human, but all sentient species had the inherent structure for telepathy. But like humans’ ability to wiggle their ears, few knew how to do it. Khal Teth suffered from no such limitation.
Activating that region of Jack’s brain, Khal Teth gripped the smoky tendrils of Broljen’s thoughts, forcibly extracting them from Jack’s head. They squirmed to free themselves, but with each passing second, Khal Teth’s mental grip grew stronger. As his mind fully connected with Broljen’s, Khal Teth allowed the commander a glimpse of his true identity.
A low moan escaped Broljen’s lips as a full body tremor shook him. The Altreian’s dark eyes bulged, his gill-slits fluttering along both sides of his neck. He staggered back two steps before Khal Teth’s will brought him to a complete stop. Then, having locked the commander in place, Khal Teth delved deeply into his mind, extracting the control codes he would soon be needing.
Then Khal Teth walked over to the nearest of the five command couches and lay the Sun Staff atop it, before turning to follow the commander out of this chamber. At long last, his banishment was almost at its end.
* * *
Jack observed the mental battle, allowing himself to feel what Khal Teth was doing without involving himself in the act, having entered a meditative state very similar to his lucid dreams. More than that, he studied how Khal Teth was using the power locked within Jack’s own brain to achieve mastery over the other Altreian. Through that link, he could actually feel the commander’s terror as Khal Teth enslaved both mind and body.
At the end, Khal Teth extracted the information he needed from Broljen’s mind and then followed him past the five translucent alien couches, pausing just long enough to lay the Sun Staff across the nearest, before entering a much smaller room that was also bathed in the ambient magenta glow.
The Altreian commander walked directly to the leftmost of five horizontally-mounted metal cylinders, each of which shifted through a variety of soft colors. There was no doubt in Jack’s mind what he was seeing. These were the chrysalis cylinders the crew used to place themselves in suspended animation. Khal Teth’s body lay inside a similar chrysalis cylinder on Altreia, one that had been programmed to block his mind’s return.
Broljen paused beside the cylinder, his fingers tracing a complex pattern on its control pad. With a soft whine, the top half of the cylinder opened to reveal a translucent material that molded itself to the commander as he climbed inside and lay back. Jack got a close look at the Altreian’s face. Completely devoid of emotion, it was as if Jack was watching an android go through its commanded motions. But from deep inside that mind, he could hear the screams that never made it to Broljen’s lips. Then the cover closed, the cylinder activated, and the Altreian’s silent screams faded away.
The meaning of what had just happened was clear. Khal Teth had forced the vessel’s commander to place himself into a semi-permanent period of suspended animation, ensuring that the research vessel would continue to have a living crew member. Although the apparent joy that Khal Teth had taken in enslaving his fellow Altreian was troubling, the act itself had been a necessary prequel to what they must do next.
Maintaining his dreamlike view of what his own body was doing, Jack watched as Khal Teth used his hands to enter another code into the second chrysalis cylinder, opening its lid, and then settling inside. Then with a shift of perspective that startled him, Jack found himself back in control of his body.
“Your turn.” Khal Teth’s mental voice echoed in his head.
Jack reached for the inner control pad, his right hand pausing just above it. Taking one last earthly breath, he pulled forth the memory of himself laughing with Janet and Robby on a much happier day. It wasn’t an old memory, but it sure as hell felt like it.
Jack touched the control and the world dissolved around him.
* * *
Janet stood alone outside the ruins of the Kalasasaya Temple, staring across the wind-swept high plains, as the gathering storm sucked the last light out of the day. Scattered between waist-high desert grasses stood a precisely carved stone gateway, the skeletal remnant of a once great civilization. She wondered if she stood on the doorstep of a future when such ruins would be all that was left to mark humankind’s brief existence on this Earth.
Would such a fate really be worse than being assimilated by the Kasari Collective? All she knew was that her best friend and lover refused to lie down and accept either fate. Yet here she stood, helplessly buffeted by the coming storm, with no clear vision of how to do her part.
Damn it all.
When Mark walked up beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder, she made no move to acknowledge his presence. But his arrival made her aware of how cold she was. Without a scarf or hooded jacket to protect them, her ears felt like they’d been spiked with a thousand poisoned needles. She savored the pain, letting it pull her focus back to the present.
“Jack’s been inside for almost an hour,” Mark said. “I think we should go check on him.”
Janet turned her face toward him. His muscular, six-foot-three-inch frame was barely recognizable as the high school junior she and Jack had first met in Los Alamos. Had it really been a decade ago? It seemed but a blink of the eye.
“You know that he won’t be coming back out of that place.”
Mark sighed loud enough to be heard above the gusting wind. “Wouldn’t you like to see for yourself?”
She would and she wouldn’t. But, inhaling a fresh lungful of the ice-cold air, she nodded.
“Only with you and Tall Bear. Leave the archeologist outside.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Returning her gaze to the desolate landscape, Janet dismissed him.
“I’ll meet you at the tunnel entrance.”
As he left her side, the wind died and the sleet transitioned to snow, big fluffy flakes that stuck to her hair and eye-lashes, the sudden quiet so loud that it startled her. It was pure superstition, but somehow she felt it was a sign, signaling that a rare force of nature had just departed the planet, taking with him the energy that had powered this storm.
Janet hitched her leather jacket higher around her neck, turned, and walked back toward the tunnel entrance. There was no use delaying the confirmation of her loss. She would share this final farewell with two friends who also loved Jack. If only Robby, Heather, and Yachay were here, the memorial would be complete.
When she reached the tunnel, she found Mark and Tall Bear waiting, their eyes filled with concern as they watched her pass them by and step inside. Setting her jaw, Janet strode back toward the Altar Cavern, her shadow shifting around her as she passed by each bright LED light, the roar of the generator gradually fading behind her.
At the entrance to the cavern, she halted, took a deep breath, and stepped inside, her hand subconsciously drifting to the butt of her holstered Glock. But there was nothing to shoot. The Altar of the Gods stood empty. With Mark and Tall Bear on either side, she climbed up the three tiers, coming to a stop atop the gleaming golden dais. Janet slowly turned in a circle, surveying the cavern, before sinking to her knees.
Both Jack and the Sun Staff were gone.