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The Altreian Enigma CH 1-5 Draft July 7, 2016

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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As a treat for my fans, here are the first five chapters of The Altreian Enigma. Enjoy.

THE ALTREIAN ENIGMA (DRAFT)

Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation

Richard Phillips
Text copyright © 2016 Richard Phillips

All rights reserved.

Prologue

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 last shift. 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 massive 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.

Chapter 1

Jack Gregory opened his eyes, exiting the dream that wasn’t a dream. He didn’t dream anymore. Not like ordinary people. Instead, these strange lucid visions 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 flight from Peru to the couple’s secret facility in 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. He didn’t want to inflict his sleepless nights on his wife.

In this vision, he once again stood in the altar cavern beneath the Bolivian Kalasasaya Temple. And the space looked exactly the same as the last time Jack stood inside it, except that he now 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 pull the trigger.

Years before, as he bled out in a Calcutta clinic, Jack had accepted the alien mind into his brain for one more chance at life. Jack had no doubt about why that banished Altreian being, known as Khal Teth, was amping up the threatening nature of these visions.

Humanity’s lifeline was growing short, and there was only one way to prevent the coming catastrophe.

Unfortunately, that would require Jack giving up everything he loved. As he pulled Janet’s body more tightly against his own, he gritted his teeth. Even though she and his friends would doubtless think he’d lost his mind, Jack 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 had stepped up behind her, clad only in his jeans, and taken her in his arms, she 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 his words, 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.”

“Bullshit!”

The hurt in Jack’s eyes tried to rob Janet 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 profound sense of dread having doused her anger. A decade ago, when the NSA director, Admiral Jonathan Riles, sent her to Germany to convince the ex-CIA assassin known as “The Ripper” to join her black-ops team, she learned that there was something strange about Jack. That first mission had taken them through Europe and into the heart of Kazakhstan. But in Bolivia, in the cavern beneath the Kalasasaya Temple, she became 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 convinced her that he shared his mind with an alien being who called himself Khal Teth. Back then, she helped Jack block out the 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.

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 compound, Mark Smythe watched as an army of robots worked on expansion. He glanced over at Heather, who stood beside him on the platform overlooking the central manufacturing hub.

At twenty-seven, his wife was more beautiful than ever, radiating 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.

To think how far they’d come from the little Los Alamos, New Mexico, bedroom community of White Rock, where they’d grown up next door to each other and been best friends long before they were lovers. Their life had been low-key, comfortable, blown sky high when they had stumbled onto the crashed Altreian starship and put on the alien headsets. Not only had the devices linked their minds to the starship’s computer, revealing the intragalactic warfare between the Altreians and the Kasari Collective, but the three headbands had altered Mark, Heather, and Jennifer in different ways. A year and a half later, Jack and Janet’s baby, Robby, accidently slipped the fourth of the Altreian headsets over his temples and underwent a similar transformation.

As Mark looked at his wife, he knew that he wouldn’t have chosen a different path, despite the horrors they had been through.

He redirected his gaze across the thirty-thousand-square-foot room that they had hollowed out of the bedrock a mile beneath New Zealand’s Tasman District. What was happening inside the facility had never before been achieved on Earth.

They had created this broad variety of robots from Heather’s designs. They weren’t artificially intelligent but 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 automatons had learned to build and operate everything within the compound, including the manufacture of new robots.

Since Mark and Heather had returned to their New Zealand compound, accompanied by Jack, Janet, and Robby, the pace of construction had reached an exponential tipping point. The automated systems now only needed 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, the room would house sixteen large-scale additive-manufacturing machines, also known as 3-D printers, capable of producing the next generation of devices and components needed for the fight that they both knew was coming. Among her latest innovations, Heather had designed a series of micro-bots that weren’t quite self-organizing nano-materials but perhaps the next best thing.

Swarms of these mite-sized bots could be directed to create or modify electrical channels down to the circuit-board level. The micro-bots could cut through insulation or interconnect to create new conductive paths, adding an enormously useful capability to Heather’s growing robotic-manufacturing toolkit.

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 the load. 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 experienced only moments before. She hung up and turned to him, raising her voice to be heard above the clamor of 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. That didn’t surprise him, but he was taken aback when she broke into a run toward the elevator.

Mark, making use of his augmented speed, 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. The space was industrial sized, 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 the car accelerated upward. Despite the speed at which the electromagnetic drive propelled the elevator, 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, that force 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. A crazy thought.

The muscles in Mark’s arms and back tensed. He pulled forth the perfect memory of how he felt in deep meditation, letting it wash away the tension. But the technique failed to cleanse his mind.

***

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 asked 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 an enormous Altreian research vessel 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,” Jack replied.

“What’s it been doing all this time? Hanging out?”

Jack’s eyes narrowed, a clear indication 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,” Jack said, “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. Jack clearly had her complete attention.

“Tell me.”

Again Janet saw the rigidity in Jack’s body as she watched the muscles move beneath his skin.

“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.”

“If that’s true,” said Mark, “why didn’t it summon the planet killer when Dr. Stephenson’s gate opened a wormhole and the Kasari came through?”

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Jack. “Maybe because you nuked it.”

“We didn’t find any reference to a planet killer in the Second Ship’s database,” Heather said.

“No, but you found planets that had once hosted intelligent life that are now lifeless,” said Jack. “It’s possible that the ship is still denying you and Mark access to parts of its database.”

“That’s . . . possible,” said Heather.

“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 if he was lying to me.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“I am.”

Janet leaned back in her chair, feeling her temples throb.

“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 squeeze, the subtle gesture brought moisture to her eyes that she blinked away.

Dear God, don’t you dare take him away from me.

Chapter 2

Wearing a dark-gray Italian suit, Alexandr Prokorov walked through the broad tunnel, ignoring the incessant dripping 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 the subterranean environment showed in her tight body language. She jerked involuntarily at the sound of each drip, twitching 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 project back on schedule.

Eight years ago, the building 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, enormous 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 computing allowed for extensive miniaturization and optimization techniques that reduced the overall size of the project.

Prokorov continued his advance toward the inverted, 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 Chinese man exuded an energy that made him seem larger than those gathered around him, and his pointed gestures indicated 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. “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. He would check into his hunch 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 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But that was a long time ago.”

As clearly neither scientist wanted to offer up more than 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 grimmer. “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 and started to say something, but 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 Prokorov 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 yards high. And along the multiple levels of scaffolding, scores of workers moved.

Dr. Guo didn’t wait for Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick to catch up with him, proceeding directly to a metal doorway that led into the matter disrupter’s interior. He opened the door 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. Workers were forced to crawl in order to traverse some of the tunnels.

The design had a distinctly alien feel. In these depths, far below the rolling countryside, the construction progressed on an extremely aggressive schedule without all the overly restrictive safety protocols normally 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 the 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 Dr. Fitzpatrick with a clank that sounded like a jail door closing. Prokorov noted the white knuckles on her hand that grasped on to 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 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.

An eerie world of cryonic equipment kept the electrical conduits at a temperature cold enough to maintain superconductivity, thus allowing for the transport of tremendous power from the matter disrupter to the wormhole gateway and its stasis field generator. And since the matter disrupter could transform energy into any type of particle, in this case directly into electron-positron pairs, its efficiency was almost 100 percent.

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 burnt-out scrap. What remained was being piled onto a hand trolley by a dozen technicians who worked to clear debris and repair the damage. From the scowls Prokorov saw on their faces, 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 yards 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 the simplest terms possible 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 particles 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 gateway design Dr. Stephenson built in Meyrin, Switzerland. What we are building here is a very different beast, one that incorporates a number of measures intended to prevent any type of external hacking attacks. Chief among these is the requirement that all control programs be physically implemented via circuitry instead of software. And each of those preprogrammed operational modes must be manually switched on and off.

“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-antimatter 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 top-notch 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.

“No.”

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, he savored the image.

Chapter 3

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 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, Robby could lose him forever.

As horrible as that was, the thought of what such a loss would do to his mom was even worse. She didn’t speak a word when Jack sat him 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. The boy shared his own mind with an alien artificial intelligence named Eos, an entity who had been his imaginary friend since he was a baby. Over the years, Eos had developed a relationship with Robby that transcended just an AI presence in his head. She initially referred to herself as the Other, but as he had grown older, Robby didn’t like that. So he had renamed her Eos, after the Greek goddess of the dawn. Together, they represented the dawning of a new age. Because of that relationship, it was no stretch of the imagination to believe this part of his dad’s story. But Robby wouldn’t allow himself to believe the rest.

Thus, Robby now sat in one of the four command-center chairs in a room modeled after the bridge of the Altreian starship that the Smythes had discovered.

On either side of him sat Mark and Heather while Jack and Janet stood watch. Robby still felt odd over beginning 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 the 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, 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 made available to his augmented mind. He remembered initially wondering why these four headsets had been left on the Altreian starship when its crew members were sucked into space after the Rho Ship’s weapon punched a hole through the hull. In fact, the Altreian crew members had been able to use their psychic abilities to link their minds to the starship’s computer and only needed to wear the headsets in order to extend the range of their mental connection whenever they left the vessel.

Eos flowed into the Altreian computer system, resuming her original function as the AI that controlled the starship’s computer, pulling Robby’s mind along with her.

Although Mark and Heather could also connect to the neural net, only Eos had complete access to the database she had been created to manipulate.

Robby felt Mark’s and Heather’s minds within 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 felt as if he were transported onto a magical holodeck, where all he had to do was think about something and it would appear before him, amazingly detailed in every way—the texture, the smell, the sound his feet made on the surface across which they moved. If he had centered his thoughts on the Quechua village where he’d spent the first few years of his life, the Second Ship would pluck it from his perfect memory and make the stilted huts real.

But right now 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 sat in a bubble as Neptune’s azure-blue orb swept by below him and to his right. He swung beneath Saturn, gasping at the vivid detail of its rings. Even that sight could not compare to the beautiful jewel that grew larger as he swept toward it. Earth.

But, beautiful as the imagery was, Eos was after something else. The scene faded, only to be replaced by fresh imagery of the interior of an 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 her words 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 transition into subspace before emerging beneath the Earth’s surface in the Andes. Its reemergence had parted the subsurface rock, triggering a minor earthquake and cracking the ground to reveal a set of caverns and passages. Believing it a sign from their gods, the Incas had built the Kalasasaya Temple atop that sacred spot.

From the information that Eos directed into Robby’s mind, he understood that sending such a research craft to newly discovered worlds bearing sentient life-forms was a standard practice for the Altreians. 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, although of two distinctively different races. The AQ37Z had four small gray-skinned crew members and a tall captain with red-and-black-mottled skin and pointed ears that lay tight against his skull. The red glint in his black eyes gave the illusion that they burned with an inner fire. There was also something odd about his neck. What was that? Gill slits?

“Yes,” Eos responded, although Robby hadn’t formed his thoughts into a direct question to her. “The Altreian elite are all of the Dhaldric race that evolved to function in either air or water. They also have psionic abilities that are much stronger than that of the smaller Khyre race that makes up the bulk of the working and military classes.

“When a Khyre is assigned to a starship crew, they are given a crewman’s headset. When they first put it on, it connects their minds to the starship’s computer, which then alters the brain so that he or she can make that mental connection without having to wear the device. But if they leave the ship and wish to stay connected, they have to put on the headsets in order to extend their mental range.”

A sudden realization dawned on Robby. “So that’s what the headsets did to Mark, Heather, Jen, and me.”

“Yes, although it appears that they also had some unanticipated effects on your human brains.”

“How long has the ship been here?”

“Research outpost AQ37Z established its presence on Earth in your calendar year 1141 AD.”

Another thought bothered Robby. “Are they immortal?”

“No. Compared to humans, both races live very long lives, but they can die.”

Once again the imagery shifted and Robby found himself observing another part of the ship, this area 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 the pods from a different angle.

The 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 Robby 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.”

Robby considered this. “Why do they call the suspended-animation chambers chrysalis cylinders?”

“They have more than one function. Not only do they act as suspended-animation chambers; if the correct synchronization codes are entered, they can link the minds of people inside separate chambers using subspace communications even more powerful than the Altreian headsets and with far greater range. The minds of those that are thus connected meld together, sharing memories as well as actual thoughts. A chrysalis cylinder can also work as an extreme punishment device, stripping the memories of one placed inside and expelling the mind from the body, trapping it in an alternate-dimensional void.”

“Wow! I think I want one.”

“No,” said Eos, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

Robby had to admit to himself that Eos was probably right. He shifted his thoughts back to the original topic.

“How did the Second Ship end up fighting the Kasari Rho Ship?”

The vision of the bigger Altreian research vessel dissolved into the familiar imagery of the Second Ship battling the Kasari world ship as they hurtled toward Earth. When the Kasari vortex weapon punched a hole through the Second Ship, four small Altreian bodies were sucked out into the void of space as the vessel 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 crew members were roused from suspended animation. All but the captain boarded the scout craft the Smythes named the Second Ship. Engaging its subspace drive from within the cargo bay, the craft 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 had put on the Altreian headset and entered the Second Ship’s computer in hopes of disproving his dad’s conviction that a dangerous alien craft 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 contextual knowledge.

One of the visuals showed a member of the Altreian crew presenting the artifact to an ornately robed native. The staff was silver, its six-foot length covered with intricately carved runes. A glittering golden orb was mounted atop the artifact, a complex clockwork mechanism with filigree rings more complicated than any Rubik’s Sphere. When twisted, the orb’s internal mechanisms produced new symbols around its exterior. If a precise sequence was entered, the staff could be mounted atop its golden altar, allowing a knowledgeable user to open a portal into the research vessel that lay beneath the altar. Having developed the technology to solve that riddle was a prerequisite for opening the portal.

Unknown to Manco Cápac, 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 sophisticated set of sensors that communicated with AQ37Z through a subspace link.

Robby paused to consider this. Nothing in the data he had reviewed indicated that AQ37Z or its crew had 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 who 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.

The overlord, Valen Roth, and other members of his High Council, a meritocracy consisting of the most powerful psionics from the Dhaldric race, ruled the Altreian Empire from their home world of Quol. Of the thirteen members of the council, Khal Teth was the most gifted. Able to dominate the minds of all save the collective strength of the other dozen, he seethed at the idea that Valen Roth, a lesser mind, ruled as overlord.

Khal Teth had tried to assassinate Valen Roth, but that effort, along with the rest of his coup attempt, had failed. The High Council had sentenced Khal Teth to the harshest of punishments for his crime. 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 experiencing anything he watched.

A vision of that fate formed in Robby’s head. To be trapped in a coma-like state for eternity sent a shudder through his body, thoughts ravaged by the unending helplessness that would accompany such imprisonment. Then again, the attempted assassination of any society’s leader typically brought harsh punishment. Like any criminal, Khal Teth had chosen his own fate.

There was no information on how Khal Teth had managed to escape that prison by establishing a link with a human mind, and Jack hadn’t explained the connection either. But that didn’t really matter. Robby now knew that Khal Teth was evil and had no doubt that the Altreian was attempting to manipulate Jack for his own purposes. Not the conclusive proof Robby was looking for, but 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 going through with his plan.

For both Robby and Janet’s sake, it had to be.

Chapter 4

The characteristic sizzle and detonation of the Kasari disrupter weapons brought a growl from Jennifer’s throat. She knew that this heavy-artillery barrage was preparation for the assault to follow shortly. 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 barrage stopped. When this happened, the shields would be lowered at other spots so that the Koranthians could continue to pound the enemy advance.

Ironically, Dr. Donald Stephenson had spent all those years at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division working to reverse engineer the alien technologies of the same Kasari starship that had carried Jennifer and Raul here to Scion. His work had made possible this alliance of convenience with General Dgarra and his Koranthian warriors. Now, thanks to Raul’s cyborg connection to the Rho Ship’s neural net, Dgarra’s forces 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. Dgarra. One of the disadvantages of her empathic ability. When she experienced the feelings of another individual too often, those emotions tended to latch on to 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 caverns. At seven feet tall, the 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 his aura radiate from him and into the warriors around him. Such confidence 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.

She felt her jaws clench at the thought of the Kasari Collective, an empire intent on assimilating other species, making them a part of its hive-mind, as it spread like a virus throughout the galaxy. Although they found many races willing to join the collective, the Koranthians would never yield their fiercely ingrained independence. That left the Kasari and their Eadric allies no choice but to exterminate this warrior race.

A sudden change caused Jennifer to look away from Dgarra. 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 defense 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 surrounding warriors. 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 lunged 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. She drew upon tremendous effort and focus to direct her augmented senses into the minds of those around her, but in the midst of battle, she managed. 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 it into a distant part of her mind.

Jennifer kicked out, launching another Eadric soldier into the female as she once again squeezed the trigger. The laser cut a smoking hole through two winged soldiers but missed Jennifer by six inches. She 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 easily 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, one of the four-armed Kasari shock troops aimed its disrupter weapon down toward them. A suicidal goal. 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. The change shocked her so badly that she almost lost her mental link. She felt as if a dozen minds had suddenly merged with hers . . . and then hundreds . . . and then thousands. And as all that mental power focused on 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 shadow.

***

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 big room spun so rapidly that she squeezed them shut again while a wave of nausea tried to empty her stomach.

Jennifer forced herself to concentrate. With her mental augmentations, she should have been able to clear her head of the migraine, or whatever this was. But though she managed to reduce the throbbing intensity, she failed to rid herself of the pain, a sensation akin to something being 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, her mind would have broken 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 a pallet, 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 with Koranthian blood that was such a dark red that it looked almost black. 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 sidestepped 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 injuries 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 mile 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 severely wounded on litters, leaving the 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 unique mental abilities to pick up. But what worried her more was the profound sense of depression that accompanied their weariness. 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 receiver-transmitter 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 that to Raul. His relief flooded her mind.

“Christ. Where the hell have you been?”

“I got knocked out and medevaced 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 grow more somber.

“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 brilliant flashes from the ongoing battle laced the sky.

“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.”

VJ, the artificial intelligence that Raul had modeled on Jennifer’s personality, interrupted. “I don’t recommend that.”

“And I don’t give a damn,” Jennifer said, feeling her headache reassert itself. Raul wavered, and Jennifer reached deeper into his mind, 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 battlefront, she trotted up the ramp and stepped aboard.

Ever since General Dgarra had violated the wishes of his uncle, Emperor Goltat, and made Jennifer a ward of his house and his aide-de-camp, she had fought to prove herself worthy of his trust. Not only had she seen her efforts change the way he looked at her, but she’d also felt the general’s growing affection for her despite his efforts to maintain a strict military bearing.

She shared that feeling.

Taking a deep breath, Jennifer settled back into her seat. She would return to General Dgarra’s side. Whatever happened next, that was where she belonged.

Chapter 5

General Magtal strode through his headquarters adjacent to the emperor’s palace complex in the subterranean Koranthian city of ArvaiKheer, his seven-foot-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. Such news 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, he 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 ordered, 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 had scurried to his side. Right now he needed to think.

Dgarra’s human female had proved far more resourceful than Magtal would have thought, considering she had summoned her human companion to land the captured Kasari world ship within one of Dgarra’s hangars. Where exactly, Magtal didn’t know. Only through his spies inside Dgarra’s headquarters had the general learned of the landing and 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.

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. Magtal was ready to release the dagger that would disgrace his rival and remove him from the line of ascension once and for all.

General Magtal would then be but a single step from the throne, a step that he would take in due time.

***

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, then shift back into subspace before they have a chance to respond.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

For the thousandth time, Raul noted that he could have already accomplished what he was ordering VJ to do, but he had come to value the opposing feedback she provided. Either that or he was a closet masochist. He was glad that he had never given her a visual appearance to go along with Jennifer’s voice. Having her smirk or scowl at him would be way more than he wanted to put up with.

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 spot, 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, the element of surprise was crucial 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. Nothing serious, but he added the issue 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 bullshit.

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, then pop back into subspace. Nothing to it, a mantra he repeated with each count. Hopefully he would come to believe it.

***

The Rho Ship materialized ten thousand and four feet above the Eadric artillery battalions. 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. “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. Not 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 could do that. Fear sharpened his mind’s connection with the neural net, and he issued the command to activate the vessel’s stasis shield mere nanoseconds before the Rho Ship’s exterior lit up brighter than the sun as a combination of disrupter blasts and laser beams played across the hull.

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, 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.

“Negative.”

“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.

“Oh shit!”

Wrapped in the command deck’s stasis field, Raul braced for impact, praying that the ship’s shielding would hold. As he studied the cascading status displays that blossomed in his mind, he gulped in a deep breath. He hoped it wouldn’t be his last.

***

Kasari Group Commander Shalegha stood as tall as any of the Koranthians, her four powerful arms as familiar with battle as her mind was with strategy and tactics. But the subterranean warrior race had earned her respect. Much as she would have liked to assimilate them into the Kasari Collective, their brains had an odd structure that prevented the cortical nanobots within the Kasari nanite serum from linking their brains to the hive-mind, the first such intelligent species that the Kasari had ever encountered. Unfortunately, they would have to be exterminated.

Suddenly Shalegha was alerted to the tactical display that her nanobot cortical array delivered to her visual cortex. She took particular note of one signal concerning a subspace transition within the caverns controlled by the Koranthian general, Dgarra.

Although the Kasari did not have 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. When that hole refilled, a distinctive electromagnetic signature propagated outward. The reverse happened when an object emerged from subspace into normal-space, also creating a 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 had also somehow managed to enhance it with subspace capabilities. That could only mean that they were getting help from the Altreians, thus making the capture or destruction of that world ship one of Shalegha’s top priorities.

She ran her upper right hand through her short-cropped orange hair and 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 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 just might be precisely what she had been hoping for.

***

General Dgarra felt the shock waves 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 launched an attack on the distant enemy artillery. The action was foolhardy but still could provide the window of opportunity that Dgarra’s beleaguered warriors so desperately needed.

As he watched, the Eadric antiaircraft batteries opened fire, bathing the ship in brilliant explosions. Dgarra didn’t understand. Why hadn’t Raul shifted the vessel 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. The Eadric believed that the Rho Ship had cloaked itself and remained in the area.

A burst of bright light sizzled against an invisible shield, a lucky strike that attracted a heavy concentration of fire. 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 fire 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 experienced before 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 fresh Koranthian warriors pour from their caverns to sweep the exhausted Eadric assault troopers from their positions. Dgarra ordered his artillery to shift their firing farther behind the enemy lines 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, 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. Time and again she had proven herself worthy of his trust, worthy of the risks he’d taken for her. Not only had she saved his life, but she had also delivered on her promises to instruct Dgarra’s engineers in alien technologies.

But trust was the least of what he had come to feel for her.

Even now, the general did not fully understand his emotions. He just knew that he felt better in her presence, and whenever Jennifer was apart from him, an emptiness ate away at his soul.

Despite his best efforts to hide these feelings, he could see in her eyes that she knew.

And maybe he was imagining things, but she seemed to return his fondness.

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 and was utterly incongruous with his upbringing. 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 on Jennifer’s face whenever she doubted her words.

“And if that is not the case?”

Her eyes narrowed and locked with his. And in that look, he detected a deep, contagious dread.

“Then Raul’s gamble may not have paid off.”

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