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Beta Reader Signup for The Altreian Enigma April 6, 2016

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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This is the last chance to sign up to be a Beta Reader for The Altreian Enigma. If you want to participate I need the following:

  1. Add my email ( richard.phillips@secondship.net ) to your Amazon account’s Approved Document Senders List
  2. Email me ( richard.phillips@secondship.net ) with your Kindle’s email address ( something@kindle.com )
  3. I also ask that you only share the beta copy with your immediate family. This is only a rough draft.
All the best,
Richard

Kasari Map of Planet Scion April 6, 2016

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Here is the Kasari Tactical Map of Planet Scion from The Kasari Nexus.

Phillips-The-Kasari-Nexus-IN-DP-FINAL

The Kasari Nexus Release April 4, 2016

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I am happy to let you know that the release of The Kasari Nexus is tomorrow, 4/5/2016.

Kasari Nexus Audible Book Available March 29, 2016

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The Kasari Nexus Audible Book is now available for purchase and download. Enjoy. Richard Phillips

20 Copy Giveaway of The Kasari Nexus March 8, 2016

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20 Copy Give Away promotion for the Kasari Nexus on Goodreads through 4/5/2015

Alpha Readers Club March 4, 2016

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Second Ship Book club

Dr. Melissa Ko and Friends

Hi to all my fans out there. I wanted to share a great photo from a few of my Alpha Readers Club out in the SF Bay Area, particular kudos to those in the photo including Dr. Melissa Ko and Brian Wiener.

I also want to send a shout out to the not pictured Dr. Daniel McLaughlin, Victoria Lubawin, Bryan Nahrwold and many others who continue to brave the wilds of my Alpha Reader project.

My Alpha Readers are those brave souls who have signed up to get the serialized rough draft of my latest novels and provide feedback on same as the rough draft is written. They, along with my Betas who provide feedback on the completed rough draft, are the glue that makes thing come together in a much more professional and cohesive fashion.

Many thanks to you all.

Best,

Richard

Recommended Rho Agenda Reading Order February 28, 2016

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For those who are just starting the Rho Agenda Books, here is my recommended, chronological reading order:

  1. Once Dead
  2. Dead Wrong
  3. Dead Shift
  4. The Second Ship
  5. Immune
  6. Wormhole
  7. The Kasari Nexus (Release Date 5 April 2016)

 

Free Review Copy of The Kasari Nexus Available February 10, 2016

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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I’m excited to share that The Kasari Nexus is available for people to download advance copies from NetGalley through 4/5. Below is a link and the NetGalley widget that will automatically approve you to get a review copy of your own, once you’ve signed up for NetGalley.

Kasari Nexus, The

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NetGalley is a secure digital platform that allows us to share digital review copies with NetGalley’s community of over 175,000 professional readers — reviewers, bloggers, media professionals, booksellers, librarians, and educators. It has grown steadily in size and influence, as many reviewers have migrated from paperback to digital ARCs. NetGalley is one tool we use to increase our digital outreach to important reviewers and tastemakers and drive customers to leave reviews for a book on your Amazon detail page on its on-sale date.

Please leave a review on Amazon.com and Goodreads once you’ve finished reading, but please make sure to include the disclaimer “I received a free, advance copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review” to the end of your text.

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NetGalley accounts are free for anyone to create. The reviewer must have and be logged in to a NetGalley account to request and download titles from the site. If are new to NetGalley, you can visit NetGalley Reading How-To page for more information.

Altreian Enigma Draft Preview – CH1-11 January 7, 2016

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The Altreian Enigma

Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation

(ROUGH DRAFT)

By Richard Phillips

Copyright © 2015 by Richard Phillips

Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 2

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.”

“Bullshit!”

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.

“Tell me.”

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.”

“I am.”

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.

Chapter 3

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.

“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, it was an image he savored.

Chapter 4

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.

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 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.

Chapter 6

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.

Chapter 7

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.

Chapter 8

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.”

“Aye Cap’n.”

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.

“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 crap!”

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.

Chapter 9

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.”

Chapter 10

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.

Chapter 11

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.

“Like hell.”

“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.

“Ah shit.”

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.

 

The Kasari Nexus Full Cover December 14, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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The full book cover of my latest novel has now been finalized.

Phillips-TheKasariNexus-FullCover

The Kasari Nexus Cover November 21, 2015

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Here is the final cover for my latest Rho Agenda Novel.

The Kasari Nexus Final Cover

Chapter One of The Altreian Enigma: Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation October 20, 2015

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Here is the draft of the first chapter of Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation.

The Altreian Enigma

Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation

(ROUGH DRAFT)

By

Richard Phillips

Copyright © 2015 by Richard Phillips

Chapter 1

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 mystic 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 steps that lead into a smaller 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, a translucent pedestal rises from the floor as if extracted from the floor at the end of a glassblower’s pipe, molded into the form of a lone chair.

The recognition of this place floods into me from the being who shares my mind. I stand inside a small alien craft, sent here millennia ago with but a single purpose…to monitor humanity’s advancement and, should humans ever come to pose a threat to its makers, to cleanse the Earth of all life.

Jack Gregory opened his eyes. He didn’t dream anymore. Not like normal people. Instead he wandered through these strange lucid dreams that now dominated his sleep.

This 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 craft that rested beneath it. And being buried beneath tons of rock wouldn’t prevent the thing from accomplishing its purpose should humanity’s actions trigger it.

Jack had no doubt about why Khal Teth, the banished Altreian mind that had attached itself to Jack’s, 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.

No matter how much he hated this, it was time to honor the bargain he’d made.

Signed Rho Agenda Series Books September 24, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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For those of you who have requested signed books, I have a low cost solution. Instead of me buying the books, signing them and shrink wrapping them and then sending them to you (with more expensive shipping costs), I will send you a free set of signed bookplates (decorative stickers) that you can then stick inside the covers of the books you purchase directly from Amazon. I will be happy to make them out to whoever you like and mail them to you free of any charge (including internationally).  All I need is for you to send me an email at richard.phillips@secondship.net with your mailing address and the name of the person you would like them made out to.

This is my way of saying thank you to my fans who enable me to do what I now do for a living … write.

Best,
Richard

I’m In Austin for Advanced Screening of Casual Encounters 9-12-15 September 12, 2015

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Hi all. I’m in Austin (9-12-15) for the 7:15 pm showing tonight of the advanced screening of Casual Encounters, my son-in-law’s and daughter’s movie that will be released at the start of the year. Austin native Brooklyn Decker stars along with David Arquette and Taran Killam from Saturday Night Live.

This is a small venue at the iPic theater at The Domain but some seats are still available. If you would like to attend, I recommend you book online at iPic Theater.

I will be happy to sign any books for fans who attend the showing (although you’ll have to bring your copy).

Best,
Richard

Preview of THE KASARI NEXUS – Book One of The Rho Agenda Assimilation September 11, 2015

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THE KASARI NEXUS

Book One of The Rho Agenda Assimilation

(DRAFT)

By

Richard Phillips

Copyright © 2015

Chapter 1

“My God!” Raul gasped.  “You’ve killed us both!”

Jennifer Smythe turned her back on the legless apparition who had once been a handsome young man. As she adjusted the alien headband over her temples, its translucent length shifted colors, almost disappearing into her short, spiked blond hair.  Feeling the Altreian headband pour its power into her mind, a barely audible whisper slipped from her lips.

“I know.”

***

Inside the Bandolier Cave, a dozen miles southwest of Los Alamos, New Mexico, a coffee mug slipped from Dr. Hanz Jorgen’s fingers and shattered on the stone floor, spewing its hot wetness up his pants leg.  As a brilliant white glow replaced the alien starship’s normal, soft magenta, he didn’t even notice.

Hanz didn’t know how he knew, but he did.  Something powerful had just grabbed control of the Altreian starship’s computer, drawing every cycle of its immense processing power.  He could practically hear the alien circuits groan under the terrible demand being placed upon the system.  Staring at the starship, he wondered what could tax it so intensely.  Then, as a shudder traversed his body, Hanz decided he didn’t really want to know.

***

They were as good as dead.  Raul felt the awful knowledge rip at his brain.  No living thing could survive the awful G-forces of reentry from an unanchored wormhole transit.  But somehow this Altreian-altered mutant had tricked him into activating the Kasari world ship’s wormhole engines.  An unstoppable sequence had been initiated that would soon complete the gravitational wave packet meant to fold space-time and thrust the world ship through it.  And when the Rho Ship emerged on the far side, its two quasi-human passengers would be little more than organic splatter in the ship’s forward compartment.

Thrusting aside the panic that had immobilized him, Raul called upon his connection to the Rho Ship’s neural net and initiated a desperate query, one final attempt to stop what was happening. The nano-crystals embedded in his human brain delivered the perfect connection that wedded his mind to the Rho Ship.  Unfortunately, the answer that formed in his consciousness left him shaking.  Not good!

Once again he felt Jennifer’s thoughts touch his, a caress that left him with a sense of calm determination accompanied by a vision.  How the hell was she doing that? But before he could attempt to eject her from his head, the vision resolved into a plan.  Not a great plan, but one that might have the barest theoretical chance of saving their lives.

Raul focused the Rho Ship’s neural net on the proposed workaround, trying to ignore his mental countdown.  Only a few seconds remained until the gravitational wave packet stabilized, but on the timescale at which the starship’s neural net operated, that would be enough. It had to be.

His mind one with the massive neural net, Raul felt the solution lock in, marveling at its simplicity.  In all the millennia that the Kasari Collective had been sending out these robotic world ships to find new civilizations and instruct them on how to build a wormhole gateway, the aliens had never managed to solve the central problem.  They could send the ships across the galaxy in an instant, but because the far end wasn’t anchored at a gateway, they couldn’t send living passengers.

So instead of performing one space-time fold between here and there, the solution Jennifer had proposed involved breaking the entire trip into a series of much smaller folds, sort of like a Chinese fan.  If everything went right, the series of space-time coordinates would produce a jitter in the gravity distortion drive, breaking the entire trip into a series of minor wormhole steps that should be individually survivable.

Wrapping himself in the ship’s internal stasis field, Raul glanced at Jennifer, tempted to leave her to be thrown about.  But the terror at the idea of being the lone survivor of a trip to a random point in the galaxy ended the thought before it fully formed.  With a flick of his mind, the stasis field tightly cradled her body, locking it in place.

Then the universe came apart around them.

***

Standing inside the Kasari starship that rested within the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division, Jennifer felt its wormhole engines ramp to full power.  In seconds, a gravitational wave packet would thrust this ship through the resulting wormhole to an unknown destination, hopefully somewhere in this galaxy.  Raul had used the Rho Ship to interfere with Jennifer’s, Mark’s, and Heather’s efforts to destroy the Stephenson Gateway, thus forcing her to take drastic action.

The sudden vision of what the wormhole would do to the surrounding high-bay and the scientists who were on duty left her sick to her stomach and almost made her lose focus.  But if she was to have any chance of surviving this, she couldn’t allow her concentration to lapse.

The connection through her headset to the Altreian starship that rested inside the Bandolier cavern, a dozen miles southwest of the Rho laboratory, had provided her with the solution she’d mentally transferred to Raul. But that didn’t mean it would work.

When the force-field draped her body, it startled her so badly that she almost succumbed to a panic attack at her inability to move even a finger.  But then she understood.  Raul had caused the Rho Ship to generate the field that immobilized both their bodies and suspended them inside this compartment.  Not a bad idea considering what she feared was about to happen.  And then it did.

The first of many thousands of mini-steps was instantaneous. It was a sudden unintelligible shift in perspective as the cells in her body tried to tear themselves apart. Pain exploded in her mind and she lost sight in her left eye. Only the extensive neural augmentation she’d received when she’d first tried on the headset allowed her to restrict the blood flow to the ruptured vessels.

Then it happened again. And again. And again. The transitions happened so quickly that she barely retained consciousness and then wished that she hadn’t. She experienced an endless battering that left her blinded and gasping as overstressed bones cracked and splintered within her body. Jennifer felt a scream crawl to her lips and bubble out in a bloody froth which spread along the invisible force-field encasing her.

Despite the best efforts of her augmented mind and musculature, she was dying. A part of her begged for death to release her from the agony, but Jennifer refused to let death take her without a fight, although she knew this was a fight she wasn’t going to win.

***

Despite the amazing regenerative powers his nanite infused blood granted him, Raul felt as if he were being hammered into pieces.  Although each individual wormhole transit was instantaneous, the unanchored step into a new piece of space-time generated G forces that the human body couldn’t handle. And the pauses between those steps unleashed an unending sea of agony.  But as he glanced across at the bloody mess that was Jennifer Smythe, he had a hard time feeling sorry for himself.  She was still alive but, given that she lacked the nanites that worked to repair his wounds, he really didn’t know how.

When the series of transitions came to an abrupt end, Raul endured several seconds of dread that the wormhole transits would begin anew.  The knowledge that he had made it, that his nanites would be able to fully heal his injuries, sent a wave of relief that brought bloody tears to his eyes.  Another look at Jennifer Smythe’s suspended body swept that warm feeling away in a fresh wave of terror.

Manipulating the stasis field, Raul lowered her body gently to the alien compartment’s gray floor, where her blood pooled around her.  The neural net told him many things, all bad.  Jennifer wasn’t breathing and her heart had stopped beating.  Worse, she had taken so much damage that chest compressions were out of the question.  But she still had brain function.

Suspended by the stasis field, Raul floated to her side, gasping from the pain even this gentle movement caused.  Forcing himself to concentrate, Raul visualized a thin tube tapping a large vein in his left arm and connecting to a similar vein on Jennifer’s.  The stasis field complied, funneling his nanite infused blood into her body.

He could tell immediately that it wasn’t going to be enough to save her.  The damage was so widespread that by the time the nanites spread throughout her form, she would be dead.  And then Raul would be alone, trapped on this lonely robot ship in the vastness of uncharted space with no idea of how to get home, even if the earth still existed.

A new idea formed in his mind, one that just might kill him, but his desperation left him no choice.  Raul changed his visualization and hundreds of the virtual transfusion tubes sprouted from his body to Jennifer’s, delivering his blood to all parts of her body simultaneously.  And as it did, Raul felt himself weaken.  Missing legs, he just didn’t have the blood capacity of a normal person.

As he felt his vision narrow and his consciousness fade, Raul terminated the flow and let himself settle to the alien floor beside her.  His fingers touched her right wrist and he held his breath. Nothing.

Damn it!

Then he felt it, the faintest of pulses beneath the bruised skin of her forearm.  Raul took her hand gently in his, felt the broken bones of her fingers shift beneath her skin, and withdrew his hand in horror.

Dear God!

Raul caught himself as a new horror filled his mind. God had nothing to do with any of this. The light of religious belief he’d always held to so tightly had finally been snuffed out, and along with it, any relief that prayer might have brought.

Weak from blood loss, Raul rested his head on the cool gray floor, closed his eyes, and wept.

***

Lying on her back, Jennifer blinked her eyes as her red limned vision swam back into the light.  Everywhere she looked, things were a very blurry red, no doubt a consequence of the ruptured blood vessels in her eyes. Christ. It was a miracle that she could see at all.  She rode a tidal wave of pain but, for the first time, its intensity seemed to lessen.  Perhaps her nerves had merely passed their pain saturation threshold.  But no.  The fact that her sight had returned meant that she was getting better.

She raised her hands to gently rub her face and then froze.  What the hell? She’d felt the bones in her hands and arms break under the stresses produced by the wormhole transitions.  But now, as she held up her hands, she could see that they were whole and functional.  Despite the fact that they still hurt like hell, they were healing.  And apparently, so was the rest of her body.

A sudden panic seized her.  There was only one thing she knew of that could produce this type of healing.  The Rho Project nanites.  And there was only one way they could have gotten into her system.

Lying on her back, she tried to raise her head, but a fresh wave of agony made her suck in a breath and threw her into a paroxysm of coughing. It took all of her augmented neural control to avoid a bout of the dry heaves.

Jennifer longed to scream, but couldn’t have managed it even if she’d dared try. Only a weak gasp escaped her lips.

Raul! What had that crazy son-of-a-bitch done to her?  Why couldn’t he have just let her die?

Jennifer saw Raul’s legless form float through the air toward her, raising a question in her mind. If the Rho starship was in the void of empty space, why wasn’t she also floating instead of lying on the floor?

He came to a stop an arm’s length above the spot where she lay, his artificial right eye extending on a short, metallic stalk from its socket and moving independently of his human eye. The top and back of Raul’s skull had been replaced by a translucent material through which his brain was vaguely visible.

This being the first time she’d had the opportunity to study him, Jennifer found his cyborg appearance so fascinating that it momentarily distracted her from her pain.  As consciousness gradually slipped from her grasp, a new idea assaulted her.  Was that what he had in mind for her? But even as she mulled it, the horror of that thought failed to keep her awake.

***

Floating above the jumble of gray alien conduits that filled almost half of the Rho Ship’s forward compartment, Raul approached the large empty space where Jennifer Smythe lay, his body propelled by his control of the stasis field.  Technically, the field was controlled by the Rho Ship’s neural net, but his mind was so thoroughly integrated into the net that it was a distinction without a difference.

After having awakened briefly three hours ago, Jennifer had slipped back into unconsciousness.  Considering the extent of the injuries that her blood transfused nanites were working to repair, it was probably for the best.

Other than his terror of being alone, he wasn’t sure why he cared. It all went back to his junior year at Los Alamos High School, when the madness had begun.

Raul had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the reason his father, Dr. Ernesto Rodriguez, had secretly injected his son with Rho Project nanites even though the serum had only undergone animal testing. The treatment had worked, but his dad hadn’t revealed what he’d done, letting Raul believe that his supernatural healing powers were a miracle, a gift straight from God Almighty.

He had gone back to school and fallen in love with Jennifer’s best friend, Heather McFarland. And despite his dislike of her brother Mark, Raul had thought Jennifer quite nice.

He paused to study her, not only in the human-visible spectrum, but in the ultraviolet and infrared too.  There was little doubt that she would recover.  Raul just wished he could say the same thing for the Rho Ship.

On the positive side, the gravity distortion engines were still functioning, as evidenced by the one-G that held Jennifer and the various supplies down.  Of course, Raul could have achieved the same effect with his ability to manipulate the stasis field generator.  But why bother when the vessel’s gravity distortion drives determined the direction and magnitude of its acceleration vector.  Inside, a different gravitational manipulation gave you a consistent floor-ceiling reference and allowed you to stand and move about irrespective of what was happening to the ship as a whole, although even that bit of gravitational wizardry couldn’t provide enough inertial damping for a survivable wormhole transition.

The distortion drives were operational…fabulous. Unfortunately, all sensor systems were offline, so they were flying blind. And from his examination of the data provided by his neural net, that was the least of their problems.

Decades ago, the Rho Ship had battled its Altreian counterpart in the skies over the American southwest, with both ships ultimately crashing to Earth.  But as badly as the Rho Ship’s control systems had been damaged in the fight, it was Dr. Donald Stephenson who had almost destroyed it. The scientist had abused its gravity distortion engines to generate an anomaly inside the Large Hadron Collider, an extinction threat that had forced world governments to build the Stephenson Gateway to transport the nascent black hole into deep space.

Raul had spent a year gradually restoring the systems that enabled the robot ship to repair itself, although he’d made those repairs while it rested safely inside Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division, not lost somewhere in the void of space.

The thought of Dr. Stephenson brought a low growl from Raul’s throat. The head of the Rho Project had surgically altered Raul, removing his legs and replacing his right eye, all in an attempt to build a cyborg interface to the Rho Ship’s neural net. The procedure had worked, but at the cost of Raul’s humanity, transforming him from a vital nineteen-year-old man into a neo-Frankenstein monster. The horror he’d seen in Jennifer’s eyes when she’d looked at him brought that truth thundering home.

Raul shook off the self-pity accompanying his thoughts of Dr. Stephenson.  After all, Stephenson had merely been a tool of the Kasari Collective, the alien empire that had built this robotic world ship and sent it to Earth, packed with technologies designed to seduce humanity into building the wormhole gate.  Almost every horrible thing that had happened to Raul—the loss of his family and sacrifice of his form—could be traced directly back to the Kasari.

As he watched, Jennifer stirred and groaned.  She opened her eyes and met his gaze with a new clarity.

“Is there any water?” she rasped.

Her question made Raul realize just how thirsty he was.  Hungry too.  The nanites worked hard to fix anything that was wrong with your body, but they also heightened hunger and thirst.

“Lie still.  I’ll bring some.”

Jennifer ignored his advice and struggled to her knees, her head drooping from the effort.  Raul floated to the stack of supplies Dr. Stephenson had stashed in the compartment more than a year ago, shocked at how few of the cases of Meals Ready to Eat and five-gallon water bottles remained.  But then Raul hadn’t planned on leaving Earth so suddenly.

Thank you, Jennifer Smythe!

He filled a plastic glass, drank greedily, refilled it, and returned to Jennifer, who was now seated with her back against the stasis field generator.  When she took the glass from his outstretched hand, she sniffed it warily and then took a small sip.

Raul felt the heat rise to his cheeks. “What?  You think I poisoned it?”

Jennifer glared back at him.  “Crossed my mind.”

“I just saved your ass!”

She started to respond, shrugged instead and took a deep drink, pausing to see if the water was going to stay down.  It did and she finished the remainder.  When her gaze again met Raul’s, he realized her eyes were brown, just as he remembered from high school. But back then her hair had been brown too.

“Your eyes.”

“What about them?” she asked.

“When you stepped into the ship they were blue.”

“Ever hear of colored contact lenses?”

The muscles in Raul’s jaw tightened.  “What’s with the attitude? If anyone’s got a right to be pissed, it’s me.”

Jennifer struggled to her feet, standing so that she faced him. “Really?”

“You damn near killed us both!”

“Bullshit!” Jennifer jabbed a finger at him. “You caused this.”

For a second, Raul was tempted to fling her across the room with the stasis field.  But she was partially right, though Dr. Stephenson was the chief cause of the disasters that had led to this. He and the Kasari Collective.

Years ago, shortly after the first test of the atomic bomb, humanity had attracted the attention of the two biggest players in the galaxy, the Kasari Collective and the Altreians. They had each sent a starship to Earth with very different agendas.

The Kasari were engaged in the most aggressive expansion of its recorded history, assimilating the populations of world after world, leaving the Altreians scrambling to stop that advance. Both alien empires had extremely advanced but vastly different technologies.

The Kasari had mastered the manipulation of gravity and thus could create wormholes through which they could send unmanned starships. No living being could survive the G-Forces involved with exiting a wormhole that was not anchored at both ends by a gateway. The Kasari sent these world ships to populated planets that had acquired sufficient technology to be of interest. Those world ships landed and offered the local population technologies that could extend lifetimes and solve clean energy problems, along with a host of other scientific breakthroughs.  Once they had sampled those goodies, few civilizations could resist the final enticement…to build a wormhole-gate that would form a doorway to connect the populace with their alien benefactors.

The genius of the Kasari scheme was that it allowed them to assimilate whole populations into the collective without the massive cost of huge wars. The military principle of economy of force was thus applied on a massive scale. There were, of course, clashes with parts of the population, but these usually could be put down by providing advisors and equipment to the pro-Kasari elements of the targeted world. And that efficiency allowed the Kasari to expand on multiple worlds simultaneously without having to gather a large force to conquer one world at a time. Willing recruits were far more valuable to the collective than those recruited by force.

As for the Altreians, they employed a technology that allowed them to shift their starships into subspace, where faster-than-light travel was possible. More importantly, the process allowed them to send starships with living crews to distant worlds. The feat was impressive, but the Altreians had no chance of scaling to the extent that the Kasari Collective could manage through their approach. So the Altreians tried to detect when a Kasari world ship was sent forth so that they could launch a starship of their own, hopefully intercepting the enemy vessel before it could reach its target population.

In the late 1940s, the Kasari craft in which Raul and Jennifer Smythe now found themselves had been intercepted on its way to Earth by an Altreian starship. The two ships had shot each other down over the American Southwest. Only the Kasari vessel had been found. The U.S. Government had spirited it away to Los Alamos National Laboratory where a top secret effort known as The Rho Project was tasked with reverse engineering the damaged ship’s technology.

Over the decades that followed, the project’s legendary lead scientist, Dr. Donald R. Stephenson had been wildly successful. Unfortunately, along with the ship and its technologies, he’d resurrected its Kasari agenda.

Jennifer’s voice pulled Raul from his reverie.

“The Earth!  Did it survive? Is it still out there?”

Raul felt his gut clench as he looked into her terrified eyes.

“I don’t know.”

***

Jennifer struggled against her rising panic. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

Five feet away, Raul shook his head.

“The ship’s sensors are offline.  I have no idea where in the universe we are and, until we get them working, we can’t figure it out.” Raul’s human eye locked with hers as a sad look settled on his face. “Even if we get them working, we’re almost certainly too far away to check on Earth.”

The realization stunned her.  The Rho Ship’s gravitational distortion engines had created a wormhole and thrust them through.  In all likelihood this ship was now many light years away from Earth.  Even if they could see Earth, the light they would be seeing had been travelling across space for all those years that it took to get here.  They would be looking back into Earth’s past and glean nothing about the planet’s present.

A new idea gave her sudden hope.  She was still wearing the Altreian headband.  It communicated with the crashed Altreian starship in the Bandolier Cave through subspace, and the speed of waves through subspace was far greater than the speed of light.

So why wasn’t she feeling the familiar connection to the Bandolier Ship?

It had been three years since she, her twin brother Mark, and Heather McFarland had first stumbled upon that crashed ship in the steep canyon country near Los Alamos, New Mexico. They’d discovered the alien headbands on the damaged craft and foolishly tried them on. She could still feel the pain of that first experience.  Each of them had been left altered, with their neural connections and physiological abilities enhanced in different ways, even after they removed the headbands.  Once a headset had attuned to an individual mind, it would never link to another for as long as that person lived.

The trio had been rewired with eidetic memories, enhanced senses, fine control of their neuro-musculature, and some ability to communicate telepathically with each other. But even though the iridescent headsets had looked identical, they were each programmed for one of four different crew positions on the Altreian craft.

Mark had been altered for the security officer role, his muscle coordination and strength augmented beyond any of the others along with his ability to learn languages and mimic voices. Heather had chosen the commander’s headset, gifting her with savant mathematical abilities that included instantaneous calculation of the odds of upcoming events.

Jennifer had chosen the communications officer headset, gifting her with strong empathic and telepathic abilities.

The fourth headset was designated for the crew’s political officer, the one designated to keep an eye on the rest of the crew and make sure they were complying with the will of the Altreian High Council. Jennifer didn’t know its full capabilities and didn’t really care to. Truth be known, that headset scared the hell out of her. The amazing enhancements imparted by the other headsets had ensnared the three of them in the Altreian agenda, destroying their once comfortable lives.

But whenever they put the headbands on, no matter where they were, they could interact directly with the Altreian starship’s computer, and that was an awesome experience.

Now she wasn’t feeling that connection. Perhaps the Altreian headset’s subspace communications capability was range limited. Right now, Jennifer really, really hoped that was it.

***

For the last hour, Jennifer had felt herself getting stronger as the amazing nano-machines healed her body. Despite her knowledge that her mentors, Jack Gregory and Janet Price, had been the recipients of Dr. Stephenson’s nanite infusions, she couldn’t shake her revulsion at the thought of thousands of tiny machines derived from Kasari technology crawling around in her blood stream.

After consuming two MREs and a quart of water, she’d let Raul bring her up to speed on their situation.

The Rho Ship’s matter disrupter, the device that transformed any kind of matter to energy, was fully functional.  Having studied the theory behind the disrupter that Dr. Stephenson had built at the Large Hadron Collider site in Switzerland, she understood how it worked.

She and Raul had power, working gravitational distortion engines, food, water, and a portable camp toilet. So much for the good news.

“None of the onboard sensors are working?” Jennifer asked.

“We’re flying completely blind out here.”

“And life support is failing, too?”

“No, there’s nothing wrong with the life support system.” said Raul. “It’s just not running.”

Normally, Jennifer would have used her computer skills to help identify and fix these problems, but since Raul was the only interface to the Rho Ship’s neural net, she was stuck asking frustrating questions. His answers weren’t improving her mood.

“Why not?”

“This ship’s only designed to carry living passengers for sub-light journeys. Since nobody can survive an unanchored wormhole transit, the life support systems automatically shut down whenever the wormhole drives engage. They don’t come on again until the ship takes on new passengers.”

“But it has passengers.”

“And if its sensors were operating, the ship would probably detect that.”

Jennifer felt her teeth grind and forced her jaw to relax.  “Seems like a pretty important problem. What the hell are you doing to fix it?”

Raul scowled at her.  “That’s just it. I can’t fix it.”

“You’re not even trying!”

“Bullshit. The sensor systems are located in the aft, along with the gravity distortion engines and the weapons systems. Normally I would use the stasis field or the nano-material controls to make repairs throughout the ship.  But without the worm-fiber sensors I can’t see a damn thing back there.”

“Then float your ass back there and fix it!”

Jennifer watched as Raul floated toward her, invading her personal space. “I can only connect with the neural net in the forward compartment. Without that, I won’t be able to control the stasis field or the nano-materials. I’d just be crawling around on the floor, even more worthless than you.”

Jennifer took a deep breath and pulled forward the perfect memory of how she felt during deep meditation, feeling her alpha waves smooth out as she centered.  This bickering was only using up more of their precious oxygen, getting them nowhere closer to a solution.  If they were going to survive, she needed Raul’s help.  And whether he recognized it or not, he needed hers. It was time for her to step up and take control.

“What if I could be your eyes?”

Raul looked surprised at her sudden change in tone and she subtly reached into his mind, amplifying the warm feeling but not so much that he would notice her influence.

“You want me to let you back inside my head?”

Jennifer almost smiled at Raul’s naiveté, thinking that he could block her if she chose to force her way in. Yet that approach wasn’t likely to lead to a cooperative working environment for the longer term, assuming they survived long enough for that to be a possibility.

“Unless you can think of a better plan.”

Raul hesitated, his robotic eye elongating to scan the wall behind him, reminding her of a sea snake wriggling out of a coral hole. Jennifer imagined that the move enhanced his interaction with the massive computation systems behind the wall.

After several seconds, he shrugged. “I guess it’s worth a try.”

“Are you sure the rest of the ship has air?” she asked.

“Unless there was a hull breach, it should still have the air that was trapped inside when the outer hatch closed.”

“So you’re just going to open the door and hope for the best?”

“I’ll seal the entrance with the stasis field before opening the door.”

Jennifer followed Raul’s human eye, looking toward a spot on the rear wall of the compartment where she could just make out the vague outline of a door.

With all that had happened, she’d barely taken notice of the alien equipment that crowded the back half of this forward compartment. There was nothing beautiful about the ship. Everything was gray, shaped for efficiency and utility, not aesthetics, functionality trumping beauty at every twist and turn. The Kasari had made no attempt to group equipment in any way that made its functionality apparent, instead positioning everything so that the translucent tubes and bundles of conduits that connected the various apparatuses optimized efficiency. Very narrow walkways led through, around, and over an assortment of machines and instruments, all built to be operated by the Rho Ship’s neural net and manipulated by the nimble fingers of the stasis field.

Floating over the equipment, Raul beat her to the closed door, its outlines barely visible in the cool, gray light.  “You ready?” he asked.

“As ready as I’m going to be.”

Behind Raul, the nano-particles that made up the door melted away into the surrounding walls. Although she knew the opening was draped by the invisible cloak of the stasis field, Jennifer still found herself holding her breath.  Then she heard a slight hiss as Raul opened a tiny hole in the field.  It wasn’t a significant air leak, just a slight variance in the relative air pressures between the rest of the ship and the sealed-off forward compartment.

Jennifer stepped forward until her outstretched fingers touched the repulsive barrier, located the tiny hole, and sniffed.  Air was definitely entering the forward cabin instead of leaving it and, as judged by her enhanced senses, it smelled just fine.  Two positive signs.  During the time the air replenishment system had been offline, the CO2 levels in the forward compartment had been rising as oxygen levels decreased.  Allowing outside air to mix in would buy them a considerable amount of additional time to try to make repairs before the atmosphere became toxic.

“You can drop the stasis field,” she said. “The air’s good.”

Raul complied and Jennifer felt a gentle breeze as the air pressure equalized.

“I guess it’s time to try your mind trick again,” Raul said.

Jennifer noticed a tightness in his face and knew he was recalling the mental force she’d brought to bear when she’d forced her way into his head a few hours earlier.  That psionic talent to enter another person’s mind to share thoughts and feelings was another of her Altreian alterations, perhaps the most powerful of them all.  Her power had simpler beginnings, starting as an empathic ability to feel and alter the feelings of others.  Then had come the occasional flashes of mental communication between Mark, Heather, and herself while they weren’t wearing the Altreian headsets.

Still, it had taken the psychopathic Columbian assassin known as El Chupacabra to show her just how little of her abilities she was using.  She hadn’t gained full control of her power until she, Mark, and Heather had been imprisoned in the secret NSA super-max facility known as the Ice House.

The thought of her twin brother and best friend brought a sudden tightness to her throat, but she pushed the feeling aside.  Now was not the time for grief.

Although Raul didn’t like submitting to this experiment, he would have to remain in the forward compartment, seeing into other parts of the ship through her eyes as he manipulated the stasis field and nano-materials to fix the damaged systems.

Jennifer inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, and centered.  For better or worse, the time had come to test her limits.

***

Raul felt Jennifer step across the boundary to his mind like a cool breeze.  Although he knew it was just her manipulation of his feelings, it still felt wonderful.

“I need you to show me the ship’s layout.”

Raul watched her in fascination.  Her thoughts sounded exactly as if she’d spoken to him but her lips hadn’t moved.

He tried thinking a response.  “Can’t you access the neural net through me?”

“You still have free will. I can delve into your thoughts and emotions, but can’t make you do something you don’t want to.”

A sudden coldness brought gooseflesh alive on his arms.  “How deep can you dig into my head?”

Again, Raul felt a sense of warm reassurance as she answered.  “Until you learn to put up some mental blocks, I can go as deep as I want.”

The horror returned, only to ramp down to mild concern as Jennifer continued.  “You’ll know exactly what I’m accessing in your mind whenever I do it. But I promise not to poke around too deeply inside your head, at least until we get this ship fixed.  Then, if you play nice, I’ll teach you how to set up those blocks.”

Despite the reassuring feelings, Raul didn’t trust her, although right now that didn’t matter.

Accessing the neural net, he pulled up a detailed 3-D diagram of the ship and felt Jennifer’s mind absorb it.  Interesting. Through their mental linkage he could actually sense what she was feeling as he focused on it.  Right now he sensed amusement at his amateurish exploration of that linkage. Shit. She was laughing at him.

Raul rotated the diagram around the X-axis and then around the Y and finally around the Z, observing it from multiple angles.  The cigar-shaped ship was designed with a single deck, divided into thirds.  The forward compartment housed the vessel’s neural net, along with control interfaces to the engines, sensors, weapons, and maintenance/environmental systems.  The middle third of the ship was a honeycomb of compartments, most of which were nano-particle adaptable living quarters, automatically configured for whatever species occupied them.  A narrow hallway circled this hexagonal collection of inner rooms. The external hatch and ramp were located in the exact center of the ship on the starboard side.

Raul thought of the rear third as the engineering bay, home to the gravitational distortion engines and guts of the other systems controlled from the forward command bay.  The rest of the ship’s systems, as well as the connections between them and the controlling neural net residing below the main deck, were accessible via narrow crawlways. If the interior gravity system failed, all the passages would become float-ways.

“Okay,” she thought, “that’s enough to get me started.”

Raul watched as Jennifer turned and walked out the door into the warren of middle compartments. As she disappeared around the corner, a wave of dizziness assaulted him. A disorienting vision filled his head.  He found himself seeing through her eyes, amazed at the clarity of it.  She paused before a closed doorway that had no apparent means of being opened.

“Well?” Her irritation was readily apparent in the thought. “Are you going to make me wait all day?”

Catching her meaning, Raul visualized the operating instructions, watching as she traced the intricate command on a panel and entered one of the passenger compartments. Then she paused.  A single platform-bed stood in the center of the room, with facilities arrayed along the port wall that appeared to be configured for humanoid use, something Raul’s neural net immediately confirmed.  Not surprising since the ship’s last detected occupants were human.

Jennifer stepped back out into the hallway and continued along the starboard side, past the compartment that housed the exterior hatch and the instrumentation that the Rho Project scientists had used to study this ship.  With each step closer to the engineering bay that held the key to their survival, Raul felt his tension rise.  They were about to find answers to some very weighty questions.

He just hoped those answers weren’t all bad.

***

Jennifer remembered her excitement when she, Mark, and Heather had first climbed aboard the crashed Altreian starship they had come to call the Second Ship or, subsequently, the Bandolier Ship, its smooth flowing lines and abundant colors so wondrous they had taken her breath away.  But this ugly monstrosity filled her with a cold dread, as if it were a ghost ship that had been drained of all life and beauty.  Without viewports to let her see the stars, the inner honeycomb structure left her with the feeling that, at any moment, a nano-particle wall would dissolve to unleash one of the Kasari horrors they had battled for control of the Stephenson Gate.  Her skin crawled.

When she rounded another of the outer hallway’s hexagonal turns, Raul’s voice spoke in her mind.

“Stop.  This is the place.”

Again she traced the symbols and the wall on her left melted away, revealing a room filled with hulking machinery that towered from floor to ceiling, all dimly illuminated with the same shadowless gray light as the rest of the ship.  Lovely.

Just inside the engineering bay, Jennifer stopped to listen.  The room pulsed with a deep thrumming sound, a slow heartbeat that made it feel alive.  She stood in the dull light, breathing hard and dripping sweat despite the chill that clawed its way into her bones.

Only one thing required her attention but she found herself having difficulty focusing.  The strain of maintaining her mental link with Raul was starting to tell on her. The ceiling was fifteen feet above her head and as she looked around and through the strangely shaped machinery, draped with thick, translucent conduits, she felt as if she stood in the narrow confines of a lava tube. A wave of claustrophobia assailed her, but she shoved it aside with an angry thought.  Christ! What the hell is wrong with me?

“Take the passage on the right,” said Raul’s mental voice.

Jennifer slipped between bulbous columns of machinery and Raul’s thoughts tagged them with their shipboard functions. The huge matter disrupter occupied the centermost portion of the room, containing a belly chamber that could open to ingest external items.  The conduits that draped its exterior ran to the gravitational distortion engines or disappeared into the floor or walls, carrying power to the ship’s other systems.

When a portion of the floor panel dissolved away two steps in front of her, Jennifer halted.

Raul’s next thought confirmed her fears. “The sensor system’s primary power coupler is below deck.  You’ll need to go down there.”

A tight crawlspace. Wonderful!

The thought that Raul might be playing games, guiding her forward along the most difficult route possible, occurred to her, but a deeper glimpse into his mind dispelled that notion.  This was the only way to get to the likely cause of their sensor problems.

Swallowing hard, Jennifer climbed down into the tight space, knelt, and then slithered forward, crawling around, between, and over the tightly packed conduits and hard edged equipment. Although the light down here was much dimmer than it was above deck, it was more than sufficient for her neurally augmented vision.  As she looked around for the easiest spots to squeeze through, she almost wished she couldn’t see what was coming or what lay behind. If she hadn’t seen the large gorilla spider pursue Heather in the Atlas Cavern electrical cage, contorting its body through tight places, she would have had trouble believing that large species could traverse this part of the ship.

Then again, robot ships should be able to repair themselves.  And this one probably would have if she hadn’t forced its engines beyond their design limits.

Raul’s mental voice pulled her out of her thoughts.  “There it is, on top of the crawlspace six feet ahead.”

“I see it.”

“Get me a better view.”

Jennifer crawled to the indicated spot, lay down, and rolled onto her back.  The nature of the machinery that surrounded her had changed.  Directly above her a rectangular gray access panel shifted as the nano-material flowed aside to reveal the workings within.

She felt Raul’s query to the neural net return an answer in the form of a three-dimensional wireframe diagram that seemed to float before her eyes. The image expanded, twisting to exactly match the orientation of the equipment she was looking at, then moved so that the wireframe draped the equipment, changing colors so that red indicated the problem areas. Unfortunately, she now found herself looking at a lot of red.  Several of the lines that should have matched the arrangement of equipment weren’t even close, pieces having been torn from their moorings or snapped off completely.

“Shit!” The panic in Raul’s thoughts hammered her.

“How long?” Jennifer asked.

“What?”

“How long will it take to fix it?”

The neural net performed the required calculations and the answer formed in Raul’s mind.

Jennifer froze. “Sixty-three hours?”

“That’s the estimate,” Raul said.

“And how long until the CO2 levels gets toxic?”

“No problem there. This ship holds a little over 108,000 cubic feet of air, which should keep us alive for at least a hundred days.”

A wave of despair engulfed Jennifer.  There was no chance she could lie here and work for six straight hours, much less sixty. Even if she could force her mind to maintain the link, her physical demands would require periodic breaks.  With that factored in, this repair job would take a minimum of four days. Lying on her back for that long in this claustrophobic space wasn’t something she looked forward to.

If only Heather were here, her savant mind might be able to arrive at a better solution.  But Heather wasn’t here, so Jennifer would have to come up with some ideas of her own, even though her mind was already tiring from the effort of maintaining her mental link with Raul.

Okay, Jen, she told herself, just relax and breathe.

Her mother had always reminded her of how you eat an elephant…one bite at a time. Jennifer repressed the memory before it could deepen her depression.  Over the next four days she was in for a hell of a lot of chewing.

***

The breakthrough came on the eighth hour of day three.  As Raul felt Jennifer’s mind near the point where she could no longer maintain their mental link, the first of the sensor systems came back on line, this one an electro-optical array on the Rho Ship’s outer hull. The sensors delivered video imagery across the wavelength spectrum, from deep IR all the way into far ultra-violet.

With the delivery of that imagery into his mind, he could feel Jennifer sigh in delight at the shared view of the beautiful, star-filled space that surrounded them.  Raul felt it too, that feeling described by inmates upon their release when they stepped out through the prison gates and inhaled that first breath of freedom. Marvelous.

“Where are we?” Jennifer asked, awe lacing her voice.

Raul manipulated the view, searching for a known point of reference.  They were in the Milky Way, but where exactly, he couldn’t tell.  Definitely not in one of the outer spiral arms and he had no idea in which of those distant arms the Earth resided.

It was odd.  He would have thought that the Rho Ship’s data banks would contain detailed star maps of the galaxy, but they didn’t, at least not in any of the areas Raul could access. That thought worried him.  Was it possible that he was still being denied access to key portions of those data banks, even with his enhanced connection to the neural net?

Of course it was also possible that the Kasari intentionally omitted uploading their robotic world ships with information that could be used should the ship be captured by an advanced species such as the Altreians.

“Somewhere in the middle of the Milky Way,” Raul responded. “Beyond that, no idea.”

He felt her probe his mind to see if he was lying. It pissed him off, but before he could respond he felt her mental connection die.  Crap! She had hung up on him.

* * *

The shock of what she’d seen in Raul’s mind hit her in the head like a sledgehammer, instantly severing her mental link.  That brief glimpse of the relative positions of known stars within the galaxy had brought her mind to an inescapable conclusion, the certainty of it curling her into a fetal ball.

She shuddered. Whispered sobs of denial escaped her lips. “No…no…no…”

Travel through a wormhole was supposed to be instantaneous. But she’d thrown the gravitational distortion engines out of their normal mode of operation and that had produced a time dilation. During what had only been a couple of horrible minutes for her, several years had passed back on Earth.

As badly as she missed Mark, Heather, and her parents, the consequences of that time dilation tore at her spirit, robbing her of one more connection to her former life.

Jennifer and Mark Smythe were no longer twins.

Chapter 2

United States Senator Freddy Hagerman leaned back in a soft leather swivel-chair, his artificial left leg propped up on a footstool as he watched the crime of the century unfold on the television centered on his mahogany-paneled wall. He rolled his lucky marble in the fingers of his right hand. The marble had been in the box of Admiral Riles’s notes that Mrs. Riles had given Freddy, the notes that had nailed down his second Pulitzer. He could damn sure use some of that luck now.

The very reason he’d quit investigative reporting and gone into politics was to try to stop the lunacy for which the president was about to officially sign up the country.  Had it only been seven years since Dr. Stephenson had tried to flush the world down the toilet by welcoming an alien species through his wormhole gate?  Seven years of wars had since ravaged large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia along with South and Central America. Old conflicts were fanned into flames by the Rho Project’s release of “beneficial” alien technologies that promised to improve and extend the lives of everyone.  What a sad joke!

But that wasn’t what was about to destroy all that Jack Gregory, Heather McFarland, and the Smythe twins had managed to save. No. Revisionist history would accomplish that.

Freddy watched the revisionist-in-chief, President Ted Benton, sit his stately, patrician ass down at the circular treaty-signing table, his perfectly coiffed gray hair unusually long for a president.  He was accompanied by a host of international dignitaries representing the New Soviet Union, the East Asian Peoples Alliance, the European Union, and the United States.  Broad smiles all around, especially for the cameras. The sight of those false smiles got under Freddy’s skin.

The fact that this agreement was being signed in the Peace Palace, the home of The International Court of Justice, commonly called the World Court, didn’t improve Freddy’s attitude toward it.

As impotent and corrupt as the old United Nations had been, Freddy almost missed it.  A new alliance between three of the world’s four superpowers—the New Soviet Union, the Southeast Asia People’s Alliance, and the European Union—had replaced the UN with an entity meant to usher in what had once been referred to as a new world order. Many believed that the EU had been pressured into joining the alliance after the New Soviet Union had reabsorbed the Baltic States and threatened greater European expansion.

Headquartered in the Hague and known as the United Federation of Nation States, or UFNS, this was no assemblage of every half-ass country on the planet. The group was a true federation with authority over its member nations. Disputes were arbitrated by the International Court of Justice, whose dictates were enforced by the Federation Security Service.

On this side of the Atlantic, more than two years after the United States Congress granted statehood to nine of the ten Canadian provinces, Freddy was still getting used to the idea of fifty-nine states. Only Quebec had refused to petition for statehood, electing instead to become its own sovereign country.

The desire to join together for common defense and the fact that we shared a common language and border had greased the path to union. But fear had been the driving factor. That and the economic advantages associated with paying for only one military. The same common defense argument had now driven the majority of Americans to conclude that membership in the UFNS was the next desirable step.

The multi-continent religious wars had been the primary impetus for this bonding. Freddy included sectarians among the warring parties, some of whom sought conquest, while others fought to save their way of life. World War IV had been deemed too politically incorrect to be the name of this ongoing collection of conflicts, but, in Freddy’s mind, that was exactly what it had become.

Almost a year into his second term in office, President Benton finally had what he had long desired, a two-thirds majority in the 118 member United States Senate that had pledged to ratify the treaty he was about to sign.  And once the US ratified it, the UFNS would have all four superpowers on board.  Other nation states might petition to join the UFNS, but good luck with that. The big boys’ club didn’t need strap hangers.

In a few minutes, at midnight Central European Time, the symbolic start of a new day, the President would sign the UFNS treaty.  Then at noon tomorrow, on the seventh anniversary of the nuclear explosion that had put an end to Dr. Stephenson and his wormhole gateway, President Benton would journey to the site of the new Stephenson Center for Inter-Species Reconciliation in order to participate in its ribbon cutting ceremony.

Freddy snorted in disgust. Benton was on a roll during this European trip: ceding US federal authority to the UFNS as the new day began and honoring that crazy bastard Stephenson at mid-day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The camera zoomed in on the man engaged in smiling conversation with President Benton, an elegantly dressed, bald Russian looking trim and fit for his sixty-one years, his shark’s eyes glittering in the flash of the cameras. Nanites did that for you. Alexandr Prokorov, ex-KGB operative, ex-head of the FSB, was now the UFNS Minister of Federation Security, or, as Freddy thought of it, KGB 2.0. The sight of that man seated at the right hand of the president of the United States felt like a bad omen.

Freddy continued to watch as the president signed the treaty but he switched the television off before the dignitaries could parade before the microphone to welcome the United States as a full member of the UFNS.  There was, after all, a limit to what he could stomach.

With a glance at his watch, an old-school Swiss mechanical timepiece, he sighed and stood.  It was getting late and he would just have time to get home to his two-story Watergate East apartment, eat dinner, and get ready for tonight’s fundraising gala in his honor. Lord knew that if he wanted to be able to continue heightening public awareness of the dangerous direction the world government was taking, he would need every dime he could collect. And the event would give him a chance to see some old friends.

The walk from his senate office to his car took five minutes. His new artificial leg was much more comfortable and responsive than his previous leg, and if he would have allowed his doctor to inject him with the latest version of nanites rolled out from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division, he wouldn’t be experiencing any discomfort from the old wound.  But discomfort and pain were important parts of the human condition and Freddy damn sure didn’t want to live for another five hundred years.  He was scared to think about what would happen during the next five.

When he stepped out of the elevator into the topmost level of the Hart Senate Office Building’s underground parking garage, his car and two bodyguards were waiting for him. These driverless vehicles still amazed him, and not in a positive way.  No matter how much they improved public safety and traffic flow, to be denied control of one’s own driving felt like one more freedom lost.

In cities like D.C., there was no reason to even own a car.  Whenever you needed to go somewhere, the nearest available driverless vehicle of the type you wanted simply came to you, dropped you off at your desired destination, and then marked its network status as AVAILABLE.  The US Senate had its own private fleet of armored cars that would even notify you if you left something inside when you got out. These vehicles looked no different than typical luxury models from an assortment of manufacturers.  It made sense from a security perspective…the government didn’t want the cars screaming U.S. SENATE VEHICLE. The armored bodies were barely heavier than stock models thanks to carbon-fiber bonded titanium and bulletproof glass.

Freddy climbed into the back seat while his two bodyguards slid into the front. Since the car had no steering wheel or pedals, all his people had to focus on was their guarding duties.  Freddy just had to tell the car his desired destination, kick back, and enjoy the ride. Weren’t robo-chauffeurs grand? He doubted all the ex-drivers thought so. Then again, they weren’t the only ones who had lost their jobs to this brave new world of super-technology.

There were still a few military pilots left, but only until the older military equipment could be phased out or converted.  Pilotless planes, trains, ships, and automobiles.  Every day it seemed that new categories of jobs were wiped out.  One day pilots were gone, the next, cabbies.

And that wasn’t even counting the economic devastation from the reverse-engineered alien technologies that continued to be derived from Dr. Stephenson’s work on the Rho Project. Why would you need a doctor when you could inject nano-machines that read your DNA and kept you fixed up?

Between that and the advances in robotics and automation, the number of unemployed had skyrocketed, but so had productivity. In order to avoid revolt, all of the first-world countries, including the United States, had been forced to adopt new laws guaranteeing a “fair” distribution of the proceeds of that productivity to the population.  It had worked, after a fashion,  if you called countries filled with idle and bored people success.

The third world was a complete goddamn mess.

Freddy shook his head to clear it of the depressing thoughts. He’d known for a long time now that he was on the wrong side of a losing fight. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t go down swinging.

When he stepped out of the car, flanked by his security detail, the chill of the November night’s breeze made him wish he’d worn a heavier jacket. But the sky was clear and, despite the bright glow of the city lights, he could see Jupiter and a few stars.  Nice night for a party.

Yes. It was about time to get all tuxed up.

***

Heather’s slender fingers slid along the back of Mark’s neck, her delicate touch sending shivers of pleasure down his spine. His own hand responded, fingertips barely touching the naked hollow of her back, lingering there, nerves so alert that it seemed each contact produced tiny sparks from her skin to his. He felt her ear touch his, the scent of her bare throat filling his nostrils.

She moved against his six-foot-three inch body in perfect rhythm, the feel of her breasts against his chest robbing him of any lingering self-control. Heather’s skin shone with sweat in the dim light and her breath came in small pants of exertion, barely audible above Mark’s heart. Her right leg encircled him and her body swayed. As Mark’s body writhed within her limbs, Heather’s back arched until only his right arm kept her from falling. Then, in a thunderous, climactic crescendo, the tango ended.

As Mark lifted Heather back to her feet, the applause from the crowd that filled the Marriot Marquis Ballroom was accompanied by exclamations that, in a less cultured crowd, would have qualified as catcalls. With his arm still encircling Heather’s waist, they both smiled and gave a slight bow of acknowledgement before Mark signaled the orchestra to continue with the music.

Ignoring the people who moved out onto the dance floor, Mark straightened his tuxedo and then took an extra moment to appreciate his wife, stunning in her black evening gown, split down the right leg from hip to ankle. He took Heather’s outstretched hand and walked with her to the spot where Senator Freddy Hagerman waited, the crowd parting before them as if they were royalty.  And, in a way, they were.

When the senator smiled and stepped forward, Heather hugged him warmly, planting a kiss on his cheek before stepping back to let the two men shake hands.  Despite his artificial leg, Freddy looked good in his black tux, his dark rimmed glasses and trimmed beard adding a certain gravitas to his appearance. Quite a change from his old investigative reporting days.

Mark gripped Freddy’s hand and smiled.  “Good to see you, my friend.”

“Speaking of looking good, I thought you two were going to set the ballroom on fire. Half the crowd left to get a room. Steamed up my glasses, that’s for damn sure.”

Heather laughed and Mark found his eyes drawn to her again. At twenty-six, she looked sexy as hell, projecting an aura of confidence and power.  Then again, she was the CEO and co-founder of the world’s fastest growing technology company.

“Thank you for hosting this fundraiser,” Freddy continued. “If the president was in town, he’d be green with envy.”

The mention of President Benton darkened Mark’s mood. “I don’t think any of us are on his Facebook friends list.”

“Did you watch his little ceremony in the Netherlands?”

Heather’s eyes narrowed slightly. “As much as we could stomach.  But let’s not talk about him.  Tonight’s all about helping you and your Humanity First movement.”

She took Freddy’s arm and led him toward a nearby group of people.  “Let me introduce you to some deep-pocket donors.”

As Mark turned to follow Heather and Freddy, he saw an elegantly dressed Jack Gregory moving leisurely through the crowd, Janet Price on his arm. Damn they were good. Any casual observer would be hard pressed to recognize that they headed up Mark’s and Heather’s security detail.  While others scanned the crowd, Jack and Janet’s effortless mingling allowed them to make an individual, up-close assessment of hundreds of guests.

It had been three years since Mark and Heather had lured Jack out of South America and talked him into taking over as the head of security for their Austin based Combinatorics Technology Corporation, also known as CTC. Yet the seven figure annual salary hadn’t closed the deal.  The clincher had been their offer to help Jack and Janet with their young son, Robby, and his unusual developmental needs, something for which Mark and Heather were uniquely qualified.

Thinking about security, Mark amplified his senses to the point where he could listen in on conversations anywhere in the room. His perception of the room itself had changed.  The thick, wavy, gold and black lines that threaded their way through the maroon and tan carpeting took on a garish quality, whereas only moments before the decor seemed elegant. The fourteen-foot-high ceiling, with its grid of dark brown rectangles framing hundreds of can-lights, was so expansive that Mark felt like he was inside a monstrous ice-cream sandwich, waiting for a giant to take a bite out.

He shook off the worried thought, painted on his pleasant party face, and walked to the spot where Heather stood in animated conversation with Freddy and two titans of industry. Mark was confident that if any danger arose, Jack would detect it. In the meantime the tech giant would focus on radiating positive energy.

After all, if they were going to help Freddy build a movement that had any hope of stopping President Benton’s agenda, they had money to raise…and lots of it.

The Kasari Nexus In Production September 11, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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My publisher has now settled on the title for Book One of The Rho Agenda Assimilation series … THE KASARI NEXUS. Having just completed the developmental edit, the book now goes into the production process which has several steps:

  1. Copy Edit
  2. Cover Design
  3. Audio Book Production ( This is a lengthy process and I hope to get MacLeod Andrews who’s done all my books ).
  4. Proofread of hard copy format
  5. Printing
  6. Publication ( no date yet … hoping for January )

I’m taking a long weekend and then plan on starting to storyboard Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation.

Banned in China, Part Deux September 7, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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So my latest novel, DEAD SHIFT, continues to be banned in China … the only one of my books to have been banished there. Ah well … Jack Gregory has apparently ticked off Chinese sensibility, even in fiction. To be fair, Jack does have a way of doing that.

DEAD SHIFT

DEAD SHIFT

Banned in China June 16, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
7 comments

Apparently Dead Shift was hitting a little too close to home for the Chinese Government censors.  Looks like that’s the only one of the six Rho Agenda novels to be banned from Amazon’s China site.

Banned in China

Banned in China

Bob Mayer’s Excellent Take on Theme and Intent June 16, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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I saw this from my buddy, Bob Mayer, and wanted to share it.  Excellent stuff for all you aspiring writers out there.

Theme and Intent– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River.

Dead Shift ~ Rho Agenda Inception #3 #JackGregory #Thriller @RhoAgenda #wwwblogs June 10, 2015

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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BetweenTheLines

AudiobookReview

In this page-turning sci-fi adventure, the NSA’s most brilliant hacker is abducted and the world stands on the brink of cyberwar. The Ripper and his ghost team commandos are called to action, battling a host of enemies ranging from a genius tech-billionaire and the Chinese government to an emerging superintelligence capable of bringing the world to its knees. With every threat in play, Jack must confront his alien passenger and regain some semblance of self-control. As the origins of the Rho Agenda come to light, Jack struggles to embrace his destiny. But how can even one such as he prevail against an existential threat to humanity?

Jamal Glover is the best of the NSA’s elite team of hackers, known as the Dirty Dozen, who work in the War Room at the NSA headquarters…

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