Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Untitled Chapter 20

A flock of birds that eerily resembled extra large pink flamingos circled overhead, riding the currents in the air.  Every now and then one would dive bomb the river.  Those that caught something would fly away with their prize dangling from their claws, the prize being something that looked like an eel with fins.  The rest would rejoin the others in the aerial ballet.

One flamingo who thought himself lucky made the mistake of flying away in Park’s direction.  A young Frian named Kel felled the bird with a blow dart.  Free of the birds claws, the eel began to slither back to the water.  Kel ran over and swatted it on the head, and then he picked up the dazed eel by the tail and threw towards the rest of the Frians laying in the grass.  The injured bird writhed in the grass with the dart sticking out of its chest.  Kel snapped its neck in one smooth motion and triumphantly carried it back to the group.

“A rococo and a canawin with one shot,” Bo said, beaming with pride, “well done, son!  Take them to Taober to prepare for lunch.  We will have quite the feast.”

“Yes, father,” he said as retrieved the eel and ran off.

Bo stood up and walked over to Park.  He was standing off from the rest of the group with a stern look on his face.  He had been furious when he learned that the Frian commandos had, in Bo’s words, rescued him from the Klavacs.  He demanded that they return him to Klavaci, but they refused, saying it would be impossible.  When they arrived at Frian several hours later, Bo had taken him to his home as his guest.  Park had laughed at that because a guest who isn’t allowed to leave is just a prisoner.

Bo said, “He has grown so much since I left.”

“Why did you kidnap me?” asked Park.

“We did not,” he replied, “We rescued you from the Klavacs.”

If he thought he could win a fight with a seven foot tall tiger, he would have hit Bo.  Instead, he said as calmly as he could manage, “Fine.  Why did you rescue me?”

“The Klavacs intended to use you to improve your weapon,” he answered.

Park looked at him for the first time, “What weapon?”

“Your X-88,” he said.

Park looked away again, “The X-88 doesn’t have any weapons.  Yeah, it might be faster than your ships, but it isn’t a weapon.  I mean, shit, we flew here in a day.  How much faster do you need to go?"

Bo moved to face him, “Jim Park.  It has been two years since we left Klavaci.”

“Two years?” Park said, and then it dawned on him, “Time dilation.  Of course.”

“Yes,” Bo replied, “For me, I have been gone two weeks, but for my family, I have been gone for more than four years.  This is why it is impossible for us to take you back to Klavaci.  We have been at war for two years now.  They would destroy our ship the moment it came out of warp.  Even if we could get you there, they would never let you take your X-88.  If they can perfect your weapon, they could destroy the Granthiams and all of their allies in an instant, including Frian.”

“That’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think?” Park said, “Stop calling it a weapon.  It might give them an advantage, but at the end of the day it’s just an engine.”

Bo gave him a puzzled look before asking, “Are you not aware of how your X-88 works?”

Park quickly answered, “Of course I’m aware.  I’m a test pilot, not an idiot.  Oh.  I get it now.  You want me to build you your own Krupp Warp Drive.  Well, you fucked up buddy.  I can fly it.  I can’t build it.  I may not be an idiot, but I’m not an engineer either.  If you wanted the X-88, you should have stolen the X-88.”

“We do not want the X-88,” he said, “We do not want anyone to have the X-88.  It is far too dangerous.  Had we known about it in time, we would have had the Granthiams destroy it.”

“So you wouldn’t take me back to Klavaci even if you could, would you?” Park asked.

Bo replied simply, “No.”

Park repressed the urge to kill him, “Well, at least you’re honest.  You know, if you had just waited one more day, me and my ship would have been long gone by now.”

“The Klavacs would not have allowed that,” he said as a matter of fact.

“Yeah, you said that already,” said Park, “So how about you go ahead and spit it out?  What don’t I know about the X-88?  How is it so dangerous that you’d side with the people who tried to kill you?  Why would you go to war over it at all?”

“This war has nothing to do with you, Jim,” Bo replied, “It is about resources, and it has been many years in the making.  The timing of your arrival in the Klavaci system was very bad and more than a little suspicious, but do not worry, having met you I am convinced it was just an unfortunate coincidence.  The worlds in the Union of Worlds are not really united at all.  The Monarks and the Inju are the only ones able to travel instantaneously like you do, but they do not share their technology with what they consider lesser species.  The rest of us are fairly isolated.  It takes years to travel between systems.  This is the only reason your…ship wasn’t destroyed in the opening salvo.  We had no way to warn the Granthiams about it.

“I would be lying if I said I was not upset that I was not given any warning about the attack on the estate, but I am just a diplomat.  I negotiate on behalf of the Frian government, but I have no say in our policies or military strategies.  And certainly not in the military strategies of the Granthiams.

“My mission on Klavaci was to distract the Klavacs from the Granthiams’ attack.  You did a much better job than I ever could have.  They treated you like a guest, but they assigned two of their elite soldiers to guard you.  They need your assistance to reverse engineer your weapon.  Getting you away from them will slow their progress, I am afraid it will not slow them enough.”

“Stop right there,” Park interrupted, “and tell me why the hell do you keep calling the X-88 a damned weapon!”

“I was getting to that,” Bo replied, “You say you are aware of how your ship works, but you do not appear to be aware of its potential for destruction.  I think it would be best if you see it for yourself.  Come with me.”

Bo led Park up a garden path lined with an array of colorful flowering plants to the entrance to a cavern prominently adorned with an ornate archway covered in hieroglyphs.  A split second after wondering what the glyphs said, Park knew it was the Frian version of a welcome mat, welcoming visitors to the home of the Pendu clan.  Park sighed as he stepped out of the oppressive heat of the Frian daylight and into the delightfully cool air of the cave.

A small anteroom opened up into an expansive multi-tiered hall.  A massive orb hung high above in the center of the room and filled the room with naturalistic light.  Smaller, brighter spotlights within the orb shone on murals painted on the walls of the cavern.  A waterfall poured down the wall at one end of the room into a small pool that flowed through a channel down the moss covered tiers to a larger pool that filled the lowest tier.  The first and third tiers each had a small stone bridge crossing the artificial stream.  The second tier, by far the widest of the four tiers, had three.  

A few Frians lounging around the room noted their entrance with a wave while a couple of children played in the pool on the lowest tier blissfully unaware of the adults in the room.  Park could hear Kel excitedly recounting his double kill from one of the many rooms that branched off this main hall, but the acoustics made it seem as though his voice was coming from everywhere.

“Wow, nice cave.  Being a diplomat must pay pretty well,” he said to Bo as they descended the slope to the second tier.

“Thank you, Jim,” Bo replied, “I admit I am quite proud of our home, but it pales in comparison to the homes of some of the larger clans.  There are two hundred in the Pendu clan, but some of the ruling clans have more than a thousand members.  Their homes are truly spectacular.  This way, please.”

They walked down a passageway on the second tier seemingly lit by the rock walls themselves and soon entered a smaller cavern.  A portrait of Bo’s immediate family adorned one of the walls spotlighted by a more modest orb hanging from the ceiling.  He led Park into his office, one of several rooms around the perimeter.  Bo took a seat behind his desk and directed Park to a stool opposite him.  A computer screen filled the top of the desk as soon as Bo sat down, and he began searching for a file as he spoke.

“This file I is from a group of satellites studying the Klavaci sun,” he said as he tapped away on his desk, “You will need to face the other way.”

Park turned around on his stool, and the room went dark.  A hologram of the red star appeared in the center of the room with several planets around it.  Bo walked around and activated the video from a touch panel hidden in the wall.

“Watch this side of the sun here and this area here,” Bo said as he pointed out the area of interest about forty degrees ahead of the second planet for Park.

The video seemed fairly mundane at first, but after a few seconds a black spot began to form on the star.  The spot grew with alarming speed to the point that it noticeably dimmed the star.  A stream of plasma began to flow out of it toward the area that Bo had noted.  Within two minutes the plasma stream had reached as far as the first planet which was luckily on the opposite side of the sun at the time.  The plasma continued to snake its way out from the sun for another two minutes until began to swirl around like water going down a drain.  Park knew this must have something to do with his arrival, but he didn’t see Bo shield his eyes so he was completely unprepared for what happened next.

Piercing blue light filled the room.

“Ah!  What the shit?!” he yelled as he turned away from the flash.

“I am not sure if that translated correctly,” Bo said, “but I am sure I agree.”

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Untitled Chapter 19

The order came down from a diplomatic yacht in orbit around the planet, and a team of six commandos was in the air within five minutes.  They left from a safe house on the outskirts of Nomaparra in a nondescript bread van type ship that had been discretely upgraded to make it space worthy, but making the upgrades discreet meant it had no heat shielding though so any trip to space would be one way.

An hour into their flight, they killed the lights and dropped down to treetop level.  The commandos checked their equipment and went over their orders one last time while they waited for the ship to arrive at the target.  Nobody spoke in the last few minutes of the flight.  Their intelligence indicated there would be only light resistance, but everyone on board had combat experience.  They knew that intelligence is military speak for ‘we think’ and plans are usually the first casualty in combat.

Five kilometers from the target, the ship began to slow down.  At a kilometer out, the rear hatch opened.  The commandos got to their feet and prepared to move as soon as the ship landed.   The ship cleared the last of the trees seconds later and put down a few feet from the front door of the house.  The commandos poured out of the back of the ship and got into position to breach the house.

At just that moment a Klavac guard walked around the side of the house.  Before the shock of seeing a team of commandos at his front door could fully register on his face, one of them shot him.  He stood there for a split second looking at them through already dead eyes before his body fell to the ground.

The point man cut through the door with a laser saw, and the team stormed the house.  In the main room, Park, who had been asleep on the floor, woke with a start.  One of the commandos shot him in the chest with a tranquilizer and then pinned him to the floor while another bound and gagged him.  The other four went to clear the rest of the house in two man teams.

As soon as they cut through the door to the first room, the pop-pop of a pulse gun took down one of the commandos.  His partner roared and threw a grenade into the room.  An explosion shook the house, and the room burst into flames.  The commando charged into the burning room firing his pulse rifle, but the Klavac inside had already been killed in the blast.  He yelled something to the rest of the squad in a series of hisses and growls as we walked back into the main room.  He put the wounded commando over his shoulder and began to carry him outside.

Smoke was already beginning to fill the house, and flames licked the ceiling through the open doorway.  One of the commandos at the door to the other room made a sound like he was coughing up a furball.  The door opened, and Bo emerged with a small suitcase.

“Right on time,” he said, “Let’s go.”

On the ship, they strapped the unconscious Park into a seat next to the wounded commando.  Bo strapped himself into the other seat next to Park.  The pilot lifted off and closed the rear hatch while the rest of the commando team took their seats.  The commandos growled and roared as the ship gained speed and altitude.
Fighters launched to intercept them as soon as they entered the no-fly zone above fifty thousand feet.  Even with its modifications, the bread van wouldn’t be able to outrun them.   By the time they reached ninety thousand feet, the fighters had closed the gap on them.  An alarm sounded inside the shuttle, but there was nothing they could do except continue on and hope the cavalry arrived in time.

The cavalry arrived in the form of two impactor projectiles fired from the Frian diplomatic yacht in orbit.  The little, high mass bullets tore through the fighters with no warning.  With the fighters climbing at nearly fifteen thousand miles per hour and the impactors traveling three times as fast, the devastating impacts set off huge explosions that lit up the Klavaci sky brighter than day.  Thousands upon thousands of smoldering bits of fighter and pilot rained down on the countryside.

When they felt the force of the explosions behind them, the passengers in the bread van were sure they had been hit, but they kept climbing up and away from Klavaci.  They left the atmosphere behind and kept climbing.  The pilot didn’t stop accelerating until it was too late.  The yacht came into view and grew quickly in the windshield.  The large luxury ship opened its rear landing bay, but they were closing much faster than they should have been.

Park began to regain consciousness as someone was putting a mask over his face.  He tried to push the hand away from his face, but his own hands were bound behind his back.  He tried to move, but he was tied down.  He couldn’t see what was happening or where he was.  All he could make out were blurry flashes of color.  He blinked to clear his eyes, but it didn’t help.  He thought he heard his name.  Someone was telling him to stop struggling.  Then he felt himself thrown forward into the straps holding him down.  That was a sensation he could identify even in a drugged state.  Someone was hitting the brakes.  Hard.

The pilot did his best to match the speed of the bullet-shaped yacht, but they would still be going to fast.  They wouldn’t be docking so much as crashing into it.  Nobody would die from the impact, but if they did too much damage to the landing bay or the van they might wish they had.  The dockmaster saw that the ship was going to crash and began closing the outer doors just before they came barreling into the landing bay.

The van bounced off the floor and ceiling of the bay with its retrorockets firing all the way.  The pilot killed the rockets at the last second before they hit the far wall, and the ship began to ricochet around the room.  A crack developed in the windshield.  It grew quickly, and then the windshield blew out.  The air inside the van vacated in an instant, but the passengers were lucky.  The landing bay had already begun pressurizing so they only had to endure a few seconds of vacuum.

As soon as the docking clamps latched onto the commandos’ ship, the dockmaster gave the okay to the captain.  It was still being lowered to the floor as the ship left orbit.  A squadron of fighters had been dispatched to give chase, but the yacht was well on its way before they could even circumnavigate the planet.  When he felt they were beyond reach the captain initiated the artificial gravity, and they barrel rolled into deep space.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Untitled Chapter 18

Park spent the next couple of days devising his plan.  He originally planned to steal the ship parked out front, but Mas and Sypha took shifts patrolling the grounds around the house.  Park found it to be a pointless impediment to his plan so he decided to make them unwitting accomplices in his theft of the X-88.  He made a lot of network queries about his ship and where it was impounded trying to glean what kind of security he could expect to find there without actually asking about the security.

In the meantime, Bo had gotten back on his feet.  Mas fashioned a sling for his arm, and he wore a robe to cover the large bald spot on his back.  He was already starting to talk about getting back to Frian, but off-world travel was still restricted to authorized military craft.  Even though the ship they had used for their escape was a space-worthy military transport, they wouldn’t be allowed to leave the planet until further notice.

The first order of business was to retrieve his rebreather from the diplomatic compound.  Park hoped Bo would want to stay at the cottage and rest, but he doubted he would be that lucky.  Just as he feared, Bo was eager to go collect his things as well.  Mas and Sypha weren’t as keen on the idea, but they agreed to go now that the Granthiam bombardment was over.

Despite taking heavy damage to key infrastructure in the opening salvo of the war, the Klavacs had regrouped and retaken control of their skies.  The reason they were able to beat back the Granthiam ships so easily was because the assault on Klavaci was a feint.  The ships that had entered Klavaci orbit under the guise of diplomacy had retreated to join the rest of the Granthiam fleet blockading the disputed mining planet.  While they destroyed defense and communications targets on and around Klavaci with hypersonic impactors, the bulk of the Granthiam forces had overrun the mining planet.

The planet was currently at its farthest point from Klavaci meaning the Klavac fleet would have to fight its way through a newly deployed minefield and the whole of the Granthiam fleet before they could even consider a ground assault to retake the planet.  Whether that was brilliant planning by the Granthiams or dumb luck would be decided by the victors.

They hovered above the ruins of the estate surveying the damage and looking for a place to land.  They found a relatively untouched area near the east garden and put down there.  The diplomatic estate wasn’t a viable military target.  In fact, it only had one conceivable  value as a target.  The Granthiams had attacked the estate to make a statement, and they spared no effort in getting their message across.

The dead and wounded had been recovered, but nobody had begun to clear the rubble yet.  Meters-wide impact craters scarred the grounds to such an extent that they had to take a circuitous route to cover the otherwise short distance to what was left of the dome.  Only a few pieces of the curved steel support structure remained standing.  Huge piles of wood and steel flanked the remains of the dome where they had been dumped during the search for survivors.

“You guys help Bo,” Park said to Mas and Sypha as they approached the first pile of rubble, “I’ll shout if I need you.  Bo, you got anything specific I should keep a look out for?”

“If it’s Frian, it’s mine,” he replied.

“Well, that’s pretty much the answer I would expect from a cat,” Park said to himself as he started digging into the pile.

Several hours of digging through rubble later, Sypha yelled out, “Jim!  We have found your breathing apparatus!”

Park ran over to their pile to get it from him, but he could see a problem with it right away.  Only a few inches of tattered hose hung from the side of the unit.  Sypha found his pressure suit and mask a few minutes later.  The pressure suit had a tear in it, but that wouldn’t be an issue unless he had to land on Mars.  The mask was a total loss, but that wasn’t a deal breaker either.  He wouldn’t have a HUD, but he should be able to set the controls from memory.  He’d be fine unless he did something colossally stupid like setting the max G’s to ten.  The cockpit of the X-88 was pressurized and held about an hour of breathable air of its own.  So as long as he could get the rebreather working, he’d still be in business.

They gave up the search for Bo’s things when the sun began to set even though they still had the light of a full moon.  The moon hung even larger in the sky than the sun.  To Park’s eyes it looked just as bright as the sun, and his companions had almost preternatural night vision.  He didn’t object to returning to the cottage though because he needed to get to work fixing his rebreather.

On the way back to the cottage, Park was amazed to find the rebreather still worked.  He held the hose over his nose and smelled crisp clean air without even a hint of burning.  He left it turned on so it could recharge itself and stowed it in a locker in the back of the transport.  It would be easier to explain leaving it in the ship than why he wanted to take it with him when they went to start the repairs on the X-88.  So far his plan was going as well as he could have hoped.  Now all he needed to do was get into the cockpit of the X-88.

Park spent most of that night looking at satellite images.  He wouldn’t have a HUD so he needed to find a guide star.  He started with the Milky Way and worked backwards.  There were enough memorable groupings of stars to get him pointed in the right general direction, but there was nothing he could use as a definitive aiming point.  For a trip of thirty million light-years, the right general direction wouldn’t be good enough, but it was the only option.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Untitled Chapter 17

They landed on a pad next to a small A frame house that would have looked right at home in Park’s native Colorado.  The house was old but well maintained.  It had large skylights built into its roof, and there was even a shed in the backyard.  It sat near the base of a mountain overlooking a small river that cut through the valley a short distance away.  If it weren’t for the red sun that looked too big in the sky, Park might have thought he was home.

Bo climbed out of the ship first, and that’s when Park noticed the dark, matted fur below his left shoulder.  He jumped out and helped him lie down in the grass.  He couldn’t see the injury through all of Bo’s fur, but it looked like a significant amount of blood.

“When did this happen?” Park asked as he carefully tried to move the fur aside to get a better look at the injury.

“I was just talking to Ambassador Grohlen and her aide about…something, inviting her to visit Frian after the conference I think,” he said as if trying to remember, “and the next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor face to face with her.  I asked her what happened, but she just stared at me, through me.  I didn’t realize until I reached out to touch her.  It wasn’t…it was just her head.  One step to my left.  One step to my left, and that would have been my head lying there.”

Sypha walked over while Mas went to open the house, “We are helping you walk into the house.  Mas is treating your wound then.”  They helped Bo to his feet and walked him into the house.  A main room that acted as kitchen, living room, and dining room dominated the house.  To the left were a bathroom and a couple of bedrooms.  Sypha led him into one of the bedrooms where he collapsed onto the pillow.  The rush of the attack had faded and taken with it most of his strength.

Mas came into the room with a bottle of something and what Park assumed was a first aid kit.  He held the bottle to Bo’s mouth for him to take a drink, and then he poured some onto the wound.  Bo tensed momentarily, but otherwise he didn’t move or make a sound.

“We are allowing Mas to tend to his wound,” Sypha said to Park as he led him out of the room, “We are staying here until we know what has happened.”

“Where exactly is here?” he asked.

“This home is property of the parents of Mas,” he replied, “We are approximately one thousand reddell northeast of Nomaparra."

“I have no idea what a…hang on,” Park queried the network for the definition of a reddell, but it only defined it in terms of other Klavaci values he didn‘t know so he pulled his file.  As soon as he converted his height from rennen to centimeters, the network began pulling information from his brain.  He didn’t think about anything specific, but everything he knew about weights and measures passed through his brain while UoW standards came to him in an instant.  He suddenly knew a thousand reddell were equal to twelve hundred kilometers, but he didn’t need to because he knew exactly how far a reddel was like it was second nature.

“I need to do a little homework,” he said to Sypha, “but first I need a drink.”  He walked over to the bar and poured a couple of cups of shiri for Sypha and himself, and then he sat down in the living area to figure out just exactly what he’d gotten himself into.  He started with the Union of Worlds.

The Union of Worlds consisted of representatives from twenty-three sovereign worlds in twenty-two solar systems within forty light-years of each other.  One solar system, the Unpronounceables system, had two members; the Unpronounceables from a fairly large Earth-like planet and the Cashians from an even larger moon in orbit around a gas giant.  Twenty of the twenty-two solar systems were in binary pairs.  Of those twenty binary systems, three had member planets from both solar systems.  Klavaci was centrally located within the sphere of the Union in one of those three systems.

Klavaci orbited a red dwarf star called Tur at about the same distance as Venus from Sol.  The Tur system, in turn, orbited a yellow dwarf called Paktakut at a distance of about nine light-months.  The planet Repus in the Paktakut system was home to the Granthiams.  The Granthiams were massive cold-blooded creatures with short, stubby legs, and four powerful arms.  They had cobra-like heads with eyes in front and back.  The Granthiam child’s boots Park had been given were actually baby shoes.  He hadn’t met them yet, but he already didn’t like them.

Union planets used a shared warp technology to travel between systems.  Unlike the Krupp warp drive which punched a hole in space-time, Union warp drives used true warping to achieve faster than light travel.  Rather than move their ships, they would compress the space in front of their ship and stretch it back out behind them.  This let them effectively move through space at up to ten times the speed of light, but that still meant fours years of travel time between the farthest planets in the Union.  Theoretically, there was no limit to how quickly they could travel, but they were currently at their technological limit.

The dispute between Klavaci and Paktakut had been ongoing for more than a century.  It centered around a small outer planet in the Paktakut system that was rich in rare minerals.  The Klavacs had already been mining it for decades before they made first contact with the Granthiams, and it was several decades more before they were admitted into the Union of Worlds.  With the new advances in technology they acquired through membership in the Union, they finally had the ability to mine that planet themselves, but the Klavacs had already claimed it as their own nearly a century earlier.  The conference on Klavaci was to have finally settled the dispute of who owned the planet and set clear guidelines for mining rights in uninhabited systems.

Park tried to get an idea of where in the Milky Way the Union resided.  When images of the galaxy began to appear in his mind, it took him a minute to acknowledge what he instantly knew.  This wasn’t the Milky Way.  It was a spiral galaxy, but there were only two spiral arms coming off a thick bar.  He tried to picture the Milky Way in his mind, but nobody had ever taken an actual picture from outside the Milky Way before so the network started flooding his brain with images of similar galaxies.  After a few frustrating minutes of watching spiral galaxies flash through his mind, he changed tack and tried querying for an image of the Milky Way’s galaxy cluster.

It only took a few false matches before Park found the image he was looking for.  He pulled the image up on the screen mounted on the wall behind him.  He couldn’t get a great look at the structure of the Milky Way because it was canted nearly forty-five degrees in the photo, but still, he was the first person to ever see an actual picture of the Milky Way.  Then other realizations began to creep into his consciousness.

He was thirty million light-years from home.  The Krupp warp drive had been categorized as a weapon, and the Klavacs would never let him leave until his ship had been retrofitted with a Union warp drive.  It would take him three million years to get home with a Union warp drive.  To top it all off, he had just given twenty-three advanced civilizations, who were obviously not above going to war, the location of the Sol system and the means to get there in a matter of minutes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Untitled Chapter 16

Tash carefully closed the journal and rested her eyes for a minute.  Jackson sat at his desk translating all of the scans they had taken of Martian text in the five years since they started excavating Jiashan.  So far everything he had translated had been pretty mundane; signs mostly, but knowing whether you were excavating a school or a hospital couldn’t hurt.

Tash swiveled around to face Jackson, “Has Dr. Cho sent you the information on Colonel Park and Dr. Krupp yet?”

“Right here,” he held up a data pad.

“So Colonel James Park is real?“ she rolled across the room and took the data pad from Jackson.

“He’s real,” he replied, “and so is the X-88.  Pretty much everything about it is still classified, but it definitely existed.  All we know for sure is that it was a failed prototype in the teens, but we probably won’t be able to get much on it until we tell the U.N. about the journal.”

“That’s ok.  We can put that off for a while,” Tash said, “We need to learn as much as we can from this journal before we tell anyone we have it.  You keep working on your translations.  Worst case, you’ve got about a week to get fluent in Guohua.  Even if they confiscate everything we’ve got, like Bae thinks they will, they can’t wipe your brain.”

“You better be right about that,” Jackson said half jokingly, “You know Dr. Cho’s supposed to go to MethLab for a concert tomorrow, right?”

Tash looked up from the data pad, “What?  Now?  That’s ridiculous.”

She rolled back to her desk and called through to Dr. Cho.  A still picture of him appeared on her screen and remained there when he answered several seconds later to indicate he wasn’t at a video terminal.

“This isn’t a good time, Tashi,” said Dr. Cho’s picture, “Let me call you back when I‘m done setting up the bots.”

“We have to talk now, Bae,” Tash insisted, “Are you really going to MathLab?  For a concert?”

“Of course I am,” came the reply, “Why else would I go to MathLab?”

“I mean why are you going now?”, she said, “You said yourself that we only have a week or two before we have to”

“Dr. Floyd,” he interrupted, “This is something we should discuss in person.  Do you understand?”

She understood.  Dr. Cho never called her Dr. Floyd unless they were in a formal setting.  Even when he was upset with her, he always called her Tash or Tashi.

“Yes, of course, doctor,” she said, “We’ll talk when you get back.  Any idea how long you’ll be?”

“I was just stepping into the airlock when you called.  It shouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to get the bots setup, and then I’ll be on my way home.  You just keep working on that pendant until I get back, and we can talk then.  Goodbye, Dr. Floyd,” and with that, he disconnected the call.

Tash, of course, no longer had the pendant.  Dr. Cho had that locked away in his office where he could run a battery of tests on it.  Spectroscopic analysis showed that it was an artificial ruby, and carbon dating put it at ninety million years old.  She knew that Dr. Cho didn’t really mean for her to work on the pendant, but she pulled up an image of the human etching in the pendant anyway.

The bio on the data pad for James Park had his picture so she held it up next to the one on her screen to compare the two.  At first she couldn’t really tell whether or not they were the same person, but when she covered the lower half of each face and concentrated on the eyes, the resemblance was unmistakable.  Somehow this test pilot who died twenty years ago traveled to a red dwarf system, got a ninety million year old pendant with his picture engraved in it, and left it on Mars sixty million years ago.

Travel season would open in about a week.  That meant they had at most two weeks until someone arrived from Earth to secure the pendant and review their data.  ’Review their data’ meant all of their data, including the everything about the journal.  That two week window was a best case scenario.  It assumed that they hadn’t already sent someone on a slightly longer flight the second they found out about the pendant, and Bae Cho wanted to waste two days singing pop music for a bunch of terraformers.

When he walked into the lab, Dr. Cho didn’t give Tash a chance to start the scolding she had been honing for the last three hours.  He simply told her and Jackson to follow him and not to say a word about until they got where they were going.  Where they went was Constable Gilmore’s office.

Gilmore looked up from his lunch when they walked in, “What’s up, docs?”

“I was hoping you could tell us,” said Dr. Cho as he took a seat across from the constable.

“Well, there is one thing,” he said, “but first, did you get those coordinates for me?”  Dr. Cho handed him his data pad.  He looked at for a second and handed it back.

“I figured as much,” he continued, “Those dead looters had GPS coordinates for your dig.  More specifically, they had the exact coordinates of that safe.”

“That’s impossible,” said Jackson, “There’s no way they could have known it was there.  I only uncovered it that day.”

“Impossible?” the constable replied, “More impossible than a human who died twenty years ago being on Mars sixty million years ago?  Or more impossible than what’s in his journal?  I’d say this is the least impossible thing about this case.”

“You’ve read the journal?” Tash asked.

“Of course.” he said, “Haven’t you?”

“I’ve started, but I’ve only had it for day,” she replied.

Dr. Cho chimed in, “Can we get back to the topic at hand?  How did they know where to find the stasis box?”

“The what?” the constable asked.

“The safe,” Dr. Cho said.

“Oh, right,” he said, “Well, that has to do with why we needed to talk in person.”

“So I was right about a bug?” Dr. Cho asked.

“Bug?” Tash asked, “What bug?”

“Dr. Cho thought someone might have bugged his office sometime in the last week so he asked me to scan his system,” Gilmore turned to Dr. Cho and continued, “I’m afraid you were wrong about the bug, doc.  Nobody bugged your system last week.  There’s been a worm in your system for months, and it’s in all of your systems.  I don’t know who’s listening or why yet, but I think it’s safe to say that’s how they knew where to find that safe.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Untitled Chapter 15

Despite being a little larger than Earth, the days on Klavaci were several hours shorter.  Because of this, Klavacs only slept about five hours a night, and Park still suffered from interstellar jet lag nearly a week after he arrived.  The jet lag, coupled with a hangover from drinking with Bo most of the night, made the shouting apparently coming from just outside his window at such an early hour even more annoying.

He rolled off his pillow bed and struggled to his feet to see what was going on outside.  When he stepped out on the balcony he saw dozens of uniformed Klavacs running to and fro.  He went back inside and quickly got dressed.  By the time he got his pants on, he started hearing noises coming from outside his door.  He stuck his head out the door to find a guard on either side and more Klavacs at the end of the hallway.

“What’s happening?  What’s wrong?” he asked one of the guards at his door.

“Nothing is wrong,” the guard to his right replied, “We are preparing for the delegates to arrive.  We are assigned to guard you.  Ambassador Friss is feeling that familiar faces are putting you at ease.  You are free to come and go as you wish, but we are accompanying you during the negotiations.”

“Sypha?” Park asked.

“I am Mas,” he replied, “He is Sypha.”

Sypha said, “Hello, Jim.  We are pleased to see you now.  You are not looking well.”

Park said, “I bet.  I discovered Frian beer last night.  Give me a sec, and you guys can guard me while I get a little hair o’ the dog that bit me and some breakfast.”

He ducked back into his room and stuck his lucky coin in his pocket, and then he and his guards headed downstairs.  After a quick stop by the lounge for a few cups and a bottle of Shiri instead of Frian beer at Sypha‘s request, he grabbed a couple of pieces of fruit from the kitchen that tasted much better than they looked.  He gained a new appreciation for the small red sun when his eyes didn’t scream in pain as he stepped out the back door of the mansion.

“I hope you boys don’t get seasick,” he said as they walked down the path to the dock.

A couple of hours later, Park poured the last of the Shiri into Sypha’s cup.  The soldiers had finished blending in to their surroundings in and around the house.  A couple of ships like the one Park encountered when he first arrived patrolled the skies around the estate.  Dozens of ships of just as many varieties delivered delegates from the various worlds of the Union of Worlds.

Mas looked very guard-like standing at the operator console of the boat even though he was feeling the Shiri he kept sipping on the sly.  Sypha relaxed on the deck, but he was just as careful about hiding his drinking.  Park still felt hungover, but he no longer cared.

He queried the network about the operation of Klavaci ships.  This was his first indication that he didn’t have full access to the network.  He was able to get information about all of the civilian craft, but most of his inquiries about the fighters were listed as classified.  He did learn that they were called Atmospheric and Space Ships.  As for the civilian craft, he learned the planet-bound variety were called xells, in general, and came in several types.  More importantly, he learned they were basically point-and-click because none of them were in any condition to drive.

“So, guys,” he said, “feel like going into the city?  I need to get started on getting my ship up to code.”

“We are protecting you,” Mas said, “We are going wherever you would like to go.”

“Oh, that kind of…”, he fell silent because glass and steel and bodies exploded from the side of the dome.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Untitled Chapter 14

Waves lapped at the shore of the lake while Park sat in the purple grass watching the ambassador from some unpronounceable planet and his wife enjoy a private lunch out on the lake.  When he had been informed that he had full use of the grounds, including any of the boats docked here, he had made a beeline for the dock.  It hadn’t taken him long to discover that the Klavacs’ penchant for forsaking chairs extended to their watercraft, but he was perfectly happy just sitting in the grass and enjoying his first opportunity to be outside in over a month.

He could see a herd of animals grazing on the far side of the lake, but they blended in with the dark forest too well for him to get a good look at them.  A few trees dotted the lawn nearby with broad, dark leaves that drooped nearly to the ground.  Small plants grew here and there around the grounds of the estate that he was told would blossom in a beautiful array of colors later in the year, but he hoped to be back on Earth by the time they bloomed.  Having taken a closer look, so to speak, at the list of repairs he needed to make to the X-88 though, he had his doubts.

“Tits,” someone said behind him.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Untitled Chapter 13

Large wings unfurled themselves as the shuttle sped away from the space station.  Retro rockets fired a moment later, and the shuttle began descending to the planet below.  Hardly any of the passengers onboard were particularly concerned or even interested in the plasma streaming past the small porthole windows while they plummeted through the atmosphere.  When the shuttle settled into supersonic flight, a few more passengers began to look out the windows, but most of them continued their conversations or naps.   At around fifty thousand feet, a double sonic boom declared they had slowed to subsonic flight.

The shuttle descended through a thin layer of clouds to reveal a sprawling metropolis silhouetted against the purple sky.  Towers that would dwarf the tallest buildings on Earth dotted the coastline for as far as the eye could see, and lights blinked on all across the wakening city.  The shuttle banked left and began its final approach to the spaceport located about a mile offshore.  It came to a hover above an empty landing pad and gently touched down.

A jetway nestled up against the door of the shuttle, and a disembodied voice inside the shuttle announced, “Welcome to Nomaparra.  You are disembarking now.”

The first passenger off the shuttle stood six feet tall with short jet black hair and a stubbly beard.  He wore a loose fitting off-white tunic secured with a dark belt and brown pants made out of some kind of animal skin.  His bodyguards, who he now knew as Mas and Sypha, stood on either side of him as he surveyed the terminal.  The first thing he noticed was that friendly Klavacs greeted each other by intertwining their face trunks.  The next thing he noticed was a billboard.

“You have money?” Park asked Sypha.

“I have money,” Sypha replied.

“Huh,” Parked said mostly to himself, “I kind of assumed you’d be a post-capitalist society.  I guess the ambassador isn’t here yet.  Is there someplace we can get one of those Shiri cocktails you were talking about while we wait?”

“I apologize,” Sypha said, “You are not allowed with no shoes.  We are waiting for Ambassador Fiss.”

“No worries,” Park looked down at his bare feet and wiggled his toes, “We have the same rule on Earth.”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Untitled Chapter 12

Park blinked, but that only made the huge red spots dominate his vision even more.  He could see his HUD, but he couldn’t focus on it.  He looked up and to the right, and he could almost make out the brightness control in his lower peripheral vision.  He managed to dim the HUD without blinking or looking directly at what he was doing.  It didn’t make the spots go away, but his eyes needed a rest to recover from that explosion of blue light.  Flash blindness wouldn‘t make landing on Mars any easier.  This was one scenario he had never gone over with Dr. Krupp.

As he sat there, trying to will the annoying afterimages to fade, a disturbing realization struck Park.  Even without the benefit of being able to read his HUD, he knew it must have been at least a minute since the Krupp drive had engaged.  It should have only lasted for a few seconds.  This could not be good.  Park needed his vision back, and he needed it now.

Park began to count to himself to keep a measure of time because what else could he do?  If he manually shut down the Krupp drive before he could focus, he’d be unable to avoid anything that might be approaching him at twenty-five million kilometers per hour.  Even sighted, he could be screwed if he got unlucky and popped up right in the middle of the asteroid belt.

Around two hundred Mississippi’s later his vision began to clear, and Park didn’t want to wait any longer to get out of this…void, or hyperspace, or whatever the hell this place was called.  There were no stars here; no light at all that didn’t emanate from within his own ship, and it made him uneasy.  He pulled up the emergency procedures on his display and powered down the Krupp drive.  Stars blinked into existence along with a new red spot rapidly growing right in the middle of his field of view.  This one was no afterimage though.

“Well,” Park thought, “I’m out of the frying pan, and here comes the fire.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Untitled Chapter 11

Jackson walked into the lab to find Tash already checking vidmail at her desk, as was usual in the week following her announcement.  The implications of her discovery spawned a flurry of hypotheses from those in the loop, including accusations of fraud.  It took her several hours each morning to watch and respond to all of the various questions and accusations.  Most of her replies were variations on the theme of “We just don’t know yet.”

“Morning, Tash,” he said as he sat down at his desk to check his own messages.

“Morning,” she replied without looking up.  She picked up her ear buds and put them in, and her screen fell silent.

Jackson put in his own ear buds and opened the message that jumped out at him from the bottom of the list, “Hello, Dr. Lima.  This is Constable Gilmore.  Please call me as soon as you get this message.  Thanks.”

“Finally!“ he said a little too loudly and tapped the Return Call button at the top of his screen.

“Constable’s Office,“ a shot of a hairy, muscular arm filled Jackson’s screen, “Gilmore speaking.”  Constable Gilmore’s head dropped into view as he sat down at the other end of the call.

“Good morning, Constable,” Jackson said, “Jackson Lima.  I’m returning your call.  Did you find my missing artifact?”

Gilmore leaned back in his chair, “Good morning, Dr. Lima.  I believe I did.”

“Is that Constable Gilmore?” Tash said from across the room, “Tell him I’ll call him back in a few minutes.  I’ve just got a couple more messages to reply to first.”

“No need,” Gilmore said to Jackson, “I’m going to need the both of you to come over to my office right away.”

“Of course,” Jackson replied, “I’ll be right over.  This is fantastic news!”

Gilmore leaned forward, “Both of you.  You and Dr. Floyd.”

Jackson’s smile faded a little, “I can come over right away, of course, but Dr. Floyd is pretty swamped right now.  Can she come by this afternoon?”

“Whatever she’s doing can wait,” Gilmore said, “My office is in Dome 1, Sublevel 1.  Come over immediately, please.  This is of the utmost importance.”

Jackson gave the constable a look of uncertainty, “A looter?  I don’t understand.  What exactly is going on, constable?”

“I’d rather not say over the phone,” the constable replied, “I don’t care if she’s talking to the President of the United States right now, this is more important.”

“Actually,” Jackson glanced at Tash’s monitor, “I think she is.”

Gilmore raised an eyebrow, “Oh.  Really?  Well, like I said, this is more important.  You both need to get over here as soon as possible.  Dome 1, Sublevel 1.  You can’t miss it.”

Jackson turned off his monitor and walked over to Tash’s desk, “Tash?  We have to go over to the constable’s office.  He found my artifact, and he wants us both to come over right now.  He says it’s important.”

Tash looked up at him, “More important than a message from the President of the United States?”
Jackson shrugged, “His exact words were, ‘I don’t care if she’s talking to the President of the United States, this is more important.’ So, yeah, I guess so.”

“Jesus,” Tash removed her ear buds and turned off her monitor, “He better be right.”

When they walked into the constable’s office, he hopped up from his desk and walked over to greet them.
“Dr. Floyd, Dr. Lima,” he shook their hands, “Please, have a seat right over here.  We need to talk.”

Tash took the seat nearest the door, “What’s this about, Constable Gilmore?  Why do you need both of us to pick up an artifact?  Jackson wasn’t lying when he said I was watching a message from President Collins.  I can‘t go into it, but I’m really very busy right now.”

Gilmore held his thumb to his lips and just looked at Tash for a moment before he replied, “I don’t doubt that, Dr. Floyd, and I meant it when I said this is more important.  What can you tell me about your work?”

Tash looked annoyed, “I’m afraid I can’t really go into it right now.  It’s…”

“He opened the safe,” Jackson interrupted.

“I opened the safe,” Gilmore confirmed.

Jackson and Tash excitedly asked in unison, “What was in it?”

“Where is it?” Jackson continued, “I have to see what was in that safe!”

“Yes,” Gilmore replied, “you do.  I need to ask a couple of questions first though, so I can wrap my own head around this whole thing.  How old would you say most of your archaeological finds are?”

“Fifty,” Tash answered, “maybe sixty million years.”

“Sixty million years,” Gilmore drew a breath, “That’s what my own test came back with too.  Son of a bitch.  You know, Dr. Lima, when I found that safe, I had a totally different picture of how this conversation was going to go.  You were my prime suspect.  Looking back on it now, I realize you probably weren’t even aware of the writing on the top of the safe.”

“Writing?” Jackson looked confused, “Prime suspect?  What do you mean prime suspect?  What did you suspect me of doing?”

Gilmore chuckled, “I didn’t even know yet, but it doesn’t matter.  As for the writing though…” He pushed something across the desk towards Jackson.

Jackson looked at the coin, “And?”

“That 1999 silver dollar is sixty million years old,” Gilmore said to them.

Tash chimed in, “That’s impossible.  Your test was obviously wrong.”

Jackson leaned forward in his chair, “Constable.  The writing?”

“E Pluribus Unum,” he replied.

“On the safe,” Jackson was starting to get agitated, “The writing on the safe.  I don’t give a shit about this damned coin.”

“E Pluribus Unum,” Gilmore repeated, “Etched on the top of a sixty million year old safe.  I don’t know if you can really call it a safe though.  It was designed to preserve what was inside it, not to lock it away.  It was actually pretty easy to open.”

Jackson and Tash stared dumbfounded at the constable.  He reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a metallic-looking sheet of paper, and slid it across the desk.

“You wanted to know what was in the safe,” he continued, “A journal, and this handwritten letter.  They’re both made of the same material.  It’s paper, but I’m told the composition is unknown.  And, it’s sixty million years old.  The journal’s in the safe for safekeeping, so to speak, but I wanted to be here when you read this.”

Tash pulled the letter closer to the edge of the desk, and she and Jackson began reading.

“To Anyone,

I don’t know if anyone will ever find this, but it feels good to at least have it all written down.  I know BP discovered some ruins somewhere around here before I left, and this box is built to last indefinitely, so who knows?

First of all, the natives of Mars call the planet Guo and themselves Guoren.  It’s a beautiful world, and they’re wonderful people, but it‘s still been a lonely existence for me.  Their language is Guohua, and the name of the city where you found my stasis box is Jiashan.  I’ve included an English-Guohua dictionary in the journal.  You’re welcome.  I’ve been here for close to 10 Guo years, and my Guohua is still pretty shitty, but it should get you started.  BTW, they call Earth Naguo.

I leave for home tomorrow, for good this time.  I’m old, and I want to die on my own planet no matter how long I’ve been away.  The earthquakes have been getting more frequent and severe, and I’m fearful that the next eruption of Gaoshan (you know it as Olympus Mons) will be the one that turns Guo into Mars.  I wish I could warn them, but the Union (see journal) would never allow it.  I don’t know what the Guo could do about it anyway.  They’re very advanced in their own ways, but they aren’t a technological species.  A welcome change after everything that happened on my way here.

I guess that’s it.  You can find everything else in the journal, if it survives, and if anyone ever finds it.


Colonel James Edward Park (Ret.)

P.S. Take to the stars, but never forget where you came from.”

Untitled Chapter 10

Constable Gilmore had found the wrecked vehicle the previous day, but it was already getting dark so he had decided to wait until the next morning to try to reach it.  He didn’t enjoy having to drive three hours in the dark at over a hundred kilometers an hour.  He certainly wasn’t going to climb down a ravine at night by himself with the only potential medical aid that far away.

“Shit.  I need a damn deputy,” he said to himself as he stood at the edge of gully.  He could see a trail of wreckage strewn all the way down the deep slope culminating at the overturned rover.  His robots could get down there from here, but he would have to find a gentler slope if they needed to bring anything back out.  He had no way of recovering the rover itself short of airlifting it so this would probably be its final resting place.

He pulled the levers to lower two robots from their storage spots on the right hand side of his rover.  Once the robots successfully unfurled themselves, Gilmore climbed into the rover to give them their instructions in comfort.  He removed his mask and rebreather and hung them on the wall before he sat down at the workbench.  He picked up his data pad and opened the robot control program.

A list of menus appeared at the top of the screen.  The left side of the screen showed representations of his four robots, two of which indicated they were online and ready to receive commands.  A satellite view of his current location filled the rest of the screen with two green triangles representing the robots next to the red square of the rover.  He zoomed the map until he could easily identify the large boulder about two-thirds of the way down the slope.  He noticed there was another slightly smaller boulder at the bottom near where the overturned rover would be now.  Then, he drew an ellipse around the area of the crash site and opened the accident menu to give the robots their instructions.  The triangles on his screen began moving toward the gully.
Once he confirmed the robots were indeed walking over to the edge of the gully on the monitor above the workbench, he checked the satellite map for an easier way out of the gully.  The problem with satellite maps though is that they don’t give the best impression of how steep a grade might actually be.  He marked a couple of candidate locations within a kilometer on the map and set off to check out the closer one first.

Oddly enough, the first entry point he checked was perfect.  About five hundred meters from the crash site, the surrounding terrain formed a shallow depression which made the gully a few meters shallower.  Entry into the channel would be a breeze, and he might even be able to recover the vehicle if he could get it to this point.  He suited up and started making his way back up the channel on foot with data pad in hand.

Just as the wreck started to come into view around a bend in the gully, an alarm sounded on the data pad to indicate that one of the robots had located a person.  Gilmore acknowledged the alarm on the display and noted it was located inside the rover.  It had already been twenty-seven hours since he received the first call from Dr. Lima, but as long as the rover wasn’t compromised, there was still a chance he might find a survivor.
He started running down the ancient creek bed, but before he had even take five steps he could see it was too late.  He already knew the rover was overturned, but this new vantage point showed him the grisly details of the crash.  Dying of exposure on Mars was never pretty, but this man had also suffered a massive head trauma.  Gilmore hoped he had died on impact.

The body lay at an awkward angle against the boulder.  One arm extended out the windshield, but the other still held onto the steering wheel.  A large dark stain covered the ground and much of the lower half of the boulder.  The liquid in the blood had already evaporated.  The man’s face was blackish-blue and swollen to the point that any features were unrecognizable.  Two desiccated, blood-stained raisins dangled from his eye sockets.  From the wound that hopefully mercifully killed him on impact protruded most of his brain.

As he approached the gruesome scene, Gilmore noticed that the waist of the body looked too thin, and the chest and neck looked bloated.  Nausea overwhelmed him when he realized that the sudden change in pressure inside the man’s body had caused his internal organs to try to escape through his head.  The poor bastard’s stomach was literally in his throat.  Gilmore vomited into his mask.

“Oh, my fuck, I need a goddamned deputy,” he thought with every tentative step as he walked back to his rover.  He had to fight the urge to run to keep the bile in his mask from splashing into his eyes.  He tried to remove his mask as fastidiously as possible inside the airlock, but he still got vomit all over his pressure suit.  When he got into the rover, he vomited into an evidence bag.

Three hours from the nearest shower and covered in vomit was not Constable Gilmore’s ideal way to start a day.  He took a moment to regain his composure and clean himself off as best he could, and then he put on a spare rebreather and mask just to get away from the smell.  He had lost his data pad somewhere, probably when he threw up, so he pulled his backup out of a drawer and quickly ordered the robots to recover the body.

By the time he got back to the accident scene, the robots had finished removing the body from the wreck.  They stood quietly next to the corpse waiting for new instructions.  Gilmore put one of them into wheeled mode and ordered it to bag the body and deliver it to his rover.  He didn’t bother to supervise the task.  Instead, he found his primary data pad, unbroken, right where he knew it would be.  He set the pads on top of the remaining robot and proceeded to inspect the scene.

He tried to enter the rover through the rear airlock, but it wouldn’t respond.  He walked around to the front and inspected the broken windshield with trepidation.  He could probably fit through the hole, but there was also a good chance he would rip his pressure suit in the process.  A small tear in his suit wouldn’t be fatal, but he decided to err on the side of caution.  Besides, that’s why they had robots.  He retrieved his data pads and found a small boulder to sit on while he worked the robot.  He put it in manual mode and activated the POV camera, and then he began the tedious task of removing the windshield via remote control.

Once he had finished with the windshield, he moved the robot a few feet away from the rover and put it standby.  He put the spare data pad back on top of the robot and walked around to the back.  It took him a minute to enter the identification number from the back of the rover.  He had never been good at reading things upside down.  A few seconds later the data pad confirmed what he already knew.  The rover belonged to Arch Coal.  The looters had been miners.

He walked back around to the front of the rover and set his data pad on top of the robot.  He took off his utility belt and laid that on the robot as well.  He took a couple of deep breaths before he grabbed his flashlight and crawled into the cab.  The inside of the rover was surprisingly neat for a vehicle that had barrel rolled down a ravine.  These miners had been good about stowing their equipment.

Everything that hadn’t been properly stowed in the rear of the rover lay in a pile at the bulkhead behind the cab.  Gilmore gripped his flashlight with his teeth and began sorting through the debris.  He saw the square metal box that must have been Dr. Lima’s safe right away, but he had to clear the pile before he’d be able to retrieve it.  He set aside a half full flask of vodka, but everything else got quickly inspected and tossed into a new pile on the shattered overhead light.

“What the hell?” he asked himself when he saw the writing etched on the box.  This was no simple looting.  Doctors Lima and Floyd obviously mistook Constable Gilmore as a fool.  Questions began to form in his mind.  First and foremost, what was in that box?  What was the connection between the archaeologists and the dead miners?  The question that bothered him the most though; did those assholes really think he was dumb enough to believe this thing was a millions year old Martian artifact?

Gilmore threw the flask out the opening behind him, and then he dragged and flipped the box to the front of the cab for his robot to retrieve it.  He picked up the flask from where it had thankfully landed  far enough away to clear the large blood stain in front of the rover and collected his things from on top of the robot.  A few minutes later he walked back to his own rover with the robot rolling along ahead of him with the safe.

On the walk back, he placed a call to the Olympus Mons airfield to have the rover airlifted out of the riverbed.  He needed to know if the accident was really an accident, or if someone had tampered with the vehicle prior to the crash.  He placed a second call to have a mechanic standing by to inspect the wreckage as soon as it arrived at the airfield.  He held off on calling Dr. Lima.  He wanted a clearer picture of what was really going on here before he confronted Lima.

He received a call from the mechanic while he was still half an hour out of the settlement to inform him that the rover had arrived, but it would be several days at least before he could give Gilmore any kind of report.  Gilmore told him he understood, but to please work as quickly as possible.  When he finally pulled into the Dome 1 parking garage forty minutes later, he took his usual spot next to the entrance to the jail and hauled the safe inside.  He spent the next several hours staring at it, trying to figure out the best way to get it opened.

Untitled Chapter 9

Pink didn’t realize that he hadn’t heard from Tash all day until he walked into their empty apartment. She should have beaten him home by hours, and she always gave him at least a quick “How you doin’?” when she got home. He checked the bedroom to see if maybe she had gone straight to bed, but she wasn’t there. He checked their vidmail, but Tash was on his list of priority callers. Several messages from some very important people on Earth waited for Tash, all since 1800 that day, but there was nothing from her. A sense of dread suddenly washed over him as he touched his personal ear bud, “Call Tashi.”

“Pete! Oh my God! Honey, I forgot to call you! Are you home yet?! Get over here quick! This is fucking huge! Hurry, hurry, hurry! Love you! Gotta go, bye!” He didn’t get a chance to say a word before she disconnected. He took a moment to enjoy a feeling of relief before we walked over to Tash’s lab.

When he entered the lab, he saw Tash and Jackson setting up a camera and projector. Jackson was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but Tash still had on her dirty red pressure suit. Pink thought about how he didn’t get to see his beautiful wife in a pressure suit often enough. Dr. Cho sat at Tash’s desk watching a message from what looked like the Secretary General of the U.N. saying something about the need for secrecy, but he only caught a snippet before Dr. Cho closed the video.

“Tash? Baby? Is everything alright?” he said as he walked into the room.

She ran over and greeted him with a hug and a kiss, “Oh my God, Pete! You’re never going to believe it!”

“Tashi,” Dr. Cho interrupted, “top secret, remember? I thought you locked the door.”

She looked over at Dr. Cho while still holding onto Pink, “I did, but Pete’s on my exceptions list. You know we don’t have any secrets, not even top secrets. He’s going to find out now or later, Bae, so it might as well be now.”

“I know,” he said as he picked up a data pad from the desk, “That’s why I already have an NDA ready for him to sign. You go change for the presentation, and I’ll get Pink squared away and fill him in on the details. Ok?”

“Ok,” she gave Pink another quick kiss, “I’m burning up in this pressure suit anyway, but I get to break the news to my own husband. Mum’s the word until I get back.” With that she unwrapped herself from Pink and disappeared through the door in a blur.

“Ben, Jackson. Big find, huh?” Pink walked over to the desk and quickly signed the NDA without bothering to read it.

“Hey, Pink,” Jackson said while adjusting the projector, “Huge find. Colossal.”

Dr. Cho quickly cut him off, “But you won’t get a word out of us until Tashi gets back, right, Jackson?”

Jackson looked over his shoulder at Pink, “Not a peep, and don’t bother speculating because you’ll never believe it.”

“What? We’re all descended from Martians?” Bae and Jackson looked stunned. Blood drained from their faces, and their jaws dropped in unison. Jackson tried and failed to keep working. “Bullshit. Come on, guys, seriously? We’re descended from Martians?”

“We, um,” Dr. Cho tried to compose himself, “we should wait for Tash. How are things at the plant?”

“Yeah, uh, good, I guess,” Pink cleared his throat to gather his wits, “We got our last delivery of water today. We should be ready to start generating by the end of the week. I’ll never get used to the idea of designing a plant to maximize pollution, but that’s what we’ve done. Oh, Ben, I haven’t seen you since the concert. Terrific show. What was that new song at the end of the show? That was fantastic. Did you write that yourself?”

Dr. Cho smiled, “I did. Thank you. I’ve been working on that one for a couple of months, and it seemed like a good time to try it out in public.”

“You should be on Earth making the big bucks.”

“There isn’t enough money on Earth to get Dr. Cho to leave Mars,” Jackson chimed in.

“I don’t know about that,” Dr. Cho laughed, “but I doubt the Earth kids are ready for a fifty year old Korean pop star. I’m happy with my wonderful Martian fans.”

Tash came rushing back into the lab still buttoning her blouse and with her seldom used makeup bag tucked under her arm. Her short dark hair dripped onto her blouse as she hurried over to her desk. She pulled a clean rag from a drawer, and dried her face before she started putting on some makeup. “How much time, Jackson?”

“Plenty. Five minutes,” he replied.

Pink looked on in disbelief at his wife applying lipstick, “Makeup. Wow. It really is true?”

“They told you?! Who do I kill? Bae or Jackson?”

“I guessed, I think,” he said, “but…I need you to actually tell me before I can believe it’s really true.”

“Oh, I can do more than tell you,” she smiled.

Untitled Chapter 8

Tash kept herself busy covering up the work site while Constable Gilmore took Jackson’s statement in his rover.  She was glad the Constable had taken her statement first.  She had kept it short and sweet and gotten the hell out of his rover as quickly as possible.  She preferred her dead bodies ancient and finished decomposing rather than fleshy and sitting at her feet in a body bag.  Aside from finding a few tiny jewels disturbed by last night’s looters, they had accomplished absolutely nothing today.  Jackson’s statement was taking much longer because of that body.

“Okay, Dr. Lima,” Constable Gilmore said as he looked at the data pad in his lap, “Just a couple more questions, and we should be about done here.  Let’s see…  Race?”

“Huh?” Jackson looked confused.

“Your race?  I need your race, height, weight, and contact info for my report.  Are you Mediterranean, African, Hispanic, Asian, Arabic?”

Jackson scratched his head, “Um, all of the above?  Is mutt an option?”

Constable Gilmore chuckled, “Not really, no.  I’ll just put you down as Other.  Height?”

“One hundred and ninety-five centimeters.  Weight, one hundred and five kilos.”

“One…oh…five,” the constable said to himself as he wrote on his pad with a stylus, “Hair, black.  Eyes,” he glanced up, “brown.  And, your address?”

“Dome 12, Sublevel 2, Olympus Mons,” he replied.

The constable finished writing down Jackson's address and held the pad and stylus out to him, “Ok, Dr. Lima.  If I can just get you to sign at the bottom here, that should do it.”  Jackson signed on the line and handed the pad back to him.

“Pen?”  The constable gestured as Jackson’s right hand.

“Sorry,” he handed the stylus back to him as he stood up, “What’s that?”

Constable Gilmore looked at the evidence bag sitting on the workbench, “Oh, that’s just an old coin I found in this poor guy’s pocket.  Dr. Floyd said it definitely isn’t from your dig.  I’ll be heading back to where you found the body when I leave here to see if I can follow his trail.  I might even be able to get your stuff back if we’re lucky, but my guess is his partner threw him out of their rover for whatever reason.  Not sure why he’d give him a rebreather though.  Change of heart, maybe?”

“Mind if I take a look?” Jackson pointed at the evidence bag.

“Sure,” the constable replied, “just don’t take it out of the bag.”

Jackson held the bag up in front of his face, “Boy, that thing’s beat up.  1999 silver dollar, definitely not ours by a few million years.  I wonder who he stole it from.”  He put the bag back down on the bench and pulled his hood over his head.  He strapped on his rebreather, and before he put on his mask he asked the constable to let them know as soon as he found anything.

Tash stood at the back of their rover with an empty tote waiting for him as he stepped down from the constable’s rover.  It sped away as soon as the outer door clunked closed.  Tash pushed the button by the door then put her hand to her mask, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

On their way back to the Olympus Mons settlement, they saw the constable’s rover creeping through the desert.  He must have been following the dead looter’s tracks.  Jackson was tempted to turn off the road and track down his missing artifact himself, but he didn’t.  They were still three hundred kilometers from the Olympus Mons settlement, and he had to piss something fierce.

Three hours later they pulled into the parking area.  In another few months an underground parking garage would be finished complete with drive-thru airlocks.  The drive-thru entrance was already built, but it only led to a multistory cavern with no entrance to the colony.  Today they got a shitty parking spot a good five minute walk from the entrance to Dome 12.

The domes at Olympus Mons were more specialized than those at Mathlab.  While Mathlab housed mostly terraformers and engineers, Olympus Mons was home to archaeologists, botanists, exobiologists, other assorted researchers, miners, engineers, roboticists, flight controllers and crew, and a few administrators.  The administrators and their offices were in Dome 1 along with the botanists.  The roboticists lived in Dome 2 and maintained all of the robots in the settlement and mines.  Most of the colony’s engineers lived in Domes 3 through 5.  Some of them worked on the soon to be operational coal power plant isolated in Dome 15 some five kilometers away from the rest of the complex, but the majority worked for the coal and oil companies.

Miners made up a third of the population and lived in Domes 6 through 9.  Dome 9 was the place to go if you wanted to find contraband.  You couldn’t smoke in the domes, but you could cook.  Pot cakes were very popular, but they were scarce and expensive.  Vodka was the unofficial official drink of Mars, but even the best Mars Vodka paled in comparison to the liquors smuggled in by newcomers.  It wasn’t technically legal to run your own still, but there was no official prohibition either.  Constable Gilmore knew better than to try to shut them down.  Besides, he liked to have a shot or two in the evenings.

Like Dome 15, Dome 10 sat a short distance away from the rest of the complex.  The control tower coming out of the top of Dome 10 made it instantly recognizable as the tallest man-made structure on Mars.  During travel season the flurry of people and supplies ferried to and from Earth turned the airfield into a bustling interplanetary spaceport.  The other fifteen months of the year it reverted to sleepy little airfield status with maybe a couple of flights, on a busy day, delivering coal to the already operational power plant at Mathlab or bringing water to Olympus Mons.  Domes 11 through 14 housed all of the researchers and their labs.

Each dome stood a few stories high above ground, but they each went four stories or more below ground.  The above ground portion of most of the domes housed a common area were sometimes people would stage plays or concerts.  Elevator banks that sat in the center of the domes acted as impromptu stages.  The five thousand or so people living at Olympus Mons weren’t the most artistically talented bunch, but any live entertainment was appreciated.  Even the most amateurish endeavors were loudly cheered, and the few genuinely talented people around were treated like celebrities.  It wasn’t unusual for a particular archaeologist from Dome 12 to sign an autograph in one of the underground tunnels connecting the domes.

Labs and living areas were all built to spec below ground.  Most people who worked within the domes lived less than fifty meters from their offices.  A large steel dome could be lowered over the elevator banks in the case of an inner wall breach, and all of the tunnels had large blast doors at each end.  Those emergency measures had only been needed once in thirty years at Olympus Mons, and even then only as a precaution, when an outer glass panel on Greenhouse 5 cracked during a dust storm in 2112.

Tash and her husband, Peter “Pink” Floyd, lived next door to Jackson on Sublevel 2 in Dome 12.  She was the only person who never called him Pink or Pinky.  He had to explain the nickname to her on their second date back on Earth.  She tried listening to the music, but she didn’t like it.  She liked her music like she liked her dead bodies; ancient.  Maybe in another hundred years she might warm up to it.  She also tried calling him Pink, but that didn’t work for her either so she stuck with Pete or Hun.

When they reached Sublevel 2, Jackson practically ran to his apartment to take his long awaited piss.  Tash peeked in on her own apartment, even though she knew Pete would still be working at the coal plant, before she walked across the hall to her lab.  She poured the three little diamonds into a small plastic container, catalogued them, and placed the container in the storage cabinet, and then she pulled the pendant from its place in the cabinet.

She held the pendant up to the light and looked at the etching in it for the hundredth time.  There must have been a reason for it, but she couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  She decided to try something new, so she grabbed a flashlight off the tool bench and turned off the lights in the lab.  When she held the flashlight up to the ruby and shined its light through, an image of it appeared on the far wall.  Alien writing formed a circle around the image in the center.  This wasn’t like any other Martian writing that had been found, and there was no Rosetta Stone for Martian so it would take years to decode, if ever.  In the center was a picture of a…Martian?   That was new.

Was this the first visual evidence of an actual Martian?  It had two large eyes and a thin mouth.  Where the nose would be there were two fairly long finger looking things.  It had catlike ears near the top of its bald head.  In fact, it looked completely hairless, at least from the part of it pictured from the neck up.  This pendant had just turned into the find of a lifetime.  Tashi Floyd would be writing papers about it for years to come.

Almost as an afterthought, she turned the pendant around and shined the flashlight through the other side.  That couldn’t be right, but she’d be damned if it didn’t look like a man complete with two eyes, two ears, nose, mouth, long hair, and a thick beard surrounded by more Martian writing.  The implications of this would be profound beyond belief, but what the hell did it mean?

Untitled Chapter 7

Tash knew it was her tarp as soon as she saw something blowing across the desert away from the dig site.

“We got looted,” she said calmly.

“What? Why do you…,” Jackson followed her gaze, “oh. Maybe we just didn’t put enough rocks on it.”

“Yeah, maybe,” she said, “but you know we did. Between your safe and my jewelry, someone had a good night.”

Jackson slammed his hands down on the steering wheel, “Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! That safe was important. Damn it!”

“You don’t know that. It could have been empty for all we know.” She watched the tarp catch on a large rock. “We should probably catch that tarp before it goes too far.”

“Fuck that tarp,” he snarled, “Even if it was empty, it was still an amazing find. It wasn’t like any other artifact anyone’s ever found. It almost looked like a safe you could buy on Earth today. It had an electronic keypad, for Christ’s sake! And what if it wasn’t empty? Whoever owned it left a fifty carat ruby pendant lying out. How valuable does something have to be to get put in the safe? Fucking looters.”

“We don’t even know for sure it was a safe,” she said, hoping she sounded reassuring, “We don’t even know for sure if we got looted yet. Let’s just stay calm until we see how things look in the pit.”

Jackson pulled the rover into the site and drove slowly past the uncovered pit, “Can you see the safe? Is it gone?”

“No,” she replied unhelpfully.

Tash climbed down from the cab and started to strap on her rebreather while Jackson parked. No sooner had the rover came to a stop, he jumped down from the cab and started putting his on too. He hadn’t even put on his mask yet when he opened the inner door of the airlock.

Tash tapped her visor and shouted, “Mask,” from inside her own. He put on his mask and said something muffled into it.

He reached over his left shoulder and turned on his rebreather, “Oops.”

Tash touched the radio button on her helmet, “Calm down, Jackson. Mistakes get you killed out here. Now let’s go see how much damage they did. And turn off your VOX.”

Before they even got into the pit, the ragged hole where the safe had been was painfully obvious. Tash checked on her own little work spot. Her marker had been stepped on by someone with a fairly large boot, but other than that it looked undisturbed. She even saw something glinting in the morning light. One of the missing diamonds from the pendant, maybe? She knelt down to pick up the glimmering whatever, and she noticed the dirt had been slightly disturbed. Someone had pulled something out from here. She pinched the glimmering mystery item in her fingers and dropped it into her open palm. It was a diamond. At least they hadn’t gotten that. She reached for the pouch on her utility belt, and she realized that neither one of them had bothered to put them on. She wasn’t as unaffected by the robbery as she wanted Jackson or herself to believe.

Tash pressed her radio button, “Jackson, you want to chase down the tarp while I start cleaning up this mess?”

He didn’t answer. He just stood over the hole where his discovery should have been, staring at her.


He put his hand to the right side of his visor, “Sorry, forgot to push the button. Yeah, I’ll go get it.”

“Thanks,” she replied, “and grab my belt out of the rover for me, too. Okay?”

There was a pause before he touched his radio button again, “No problem.” He made his way back to the rover.

“And one more thing, call Dr. Cho and let him know what happened.” Tash didn’t hear Jackson swearing at that last request because he didn’t have his radio set on VOX. The inner airlock door made a muffled clunking noise as she approached the rover. A moment later it clunked again, and then the outer airlock door swung open.

“Belt,” Jackson handed Tash her belt, “Back in a bit.” The outer door clunked shut followed soon after by the muted clunk of the inner door. Tash dropped the tiny diamond into a pouch and watched the rover drive away as she put on her belt.

A few minutes later and a few kilometers down the road Jackson disconnected his call with Dr. Cho. Dr. Cho had told him that he would contact the Olympus Mons Constable and that they should expect a call from him sometime that morning. Jackson could see that the tarp had already been blown off the rock it caught on earlier so he kept going down the road.

When the road wound around a hill, he decided to drive up to the top to get a better look, and he found the tarp caught on another rock a few hundred meters away. As he drove down the hill, he saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. He looked that way but didn’t see anything, but then it flashed again. It looked like a discarded mask, but he couldn’t be sure from that distance. He thought he might check it out if he had time after he retrieved the tarp, but when he saw tracks leading that way while he was folding the tarp, he knew he had to take a look. Footprints in the middle of nowhere on Mars never had a happy ending.

Untitled Chapter 6

The bar on the HUD turned yellow as it ticked below fifty percent. Tash ignored it and continued brushing away dirt from what looked like a piece of jewelry. Jackson was doing the same thing a few feet away with something she couldn’t see. They both wore rust colored pressure suits to hide the stains from digging in the Martian dirt all day.

“…be damned,” she heard him say over the radio.

Tash pressed a button on the side of her mask, “Jackson, you’re on VOX again.”

He looked up, “…know. I like to keep my hands free. Come look at this, Tash. It’s…interesting.”

“I’m busy,” she said, “Just tell me what it is.” She gently brushed clean a brilliant red jewel that was the centerpiece of what looked more and more like a pendant, possibly a brooch. She wanted to get it out of the ground before they left the dig site in an hour.

“…think it’s a safe.”

“A safe?” She looked up and pressed her radio button, “Did you say a safe?”

“…h, I think so. It’s got a door, and this looks like some kind of control pad or a display maybe? Come look at it.”

She put her brush in her belt and pulled out small knife, “Give me a minute.” She slipped the edge of the knife under the edge of the pendant and carefully began to pry it loose.

“…ously, Tashi. You’ll want to see this. It doesn’t look like anything else we’ve found out here.”

“One minute,” she said. The pendant came free of the dirt. She put her knife away and picked up the pendant. The stone had to be at least fifty carats, and it was surrounded by dozens of smaller stones set in what looked like silver. She had been working on Mars long enough to be able to guess what something would look like in indoor lighting, but she also knew you could never completely trust your eyes in Martian light. Some of the smaller stones were missing, but it still looked beautiful in any light.


“Coming,” she said as she stood up.

Jackson looked up as she walked over to where he was working, “…owza.”

“Still on VOX, Jackson.”

“…ight. Sorry,” he said, “What do you make of this panel?”

She tucked the pendant into a small bag on her belt and knelt down to look at the artifact. Only one side of it was exposed, but luckily it appeared to be the front. It was about eighteen inches on each side and made of metal. About an inch inside the rounded edges she could clearly make out the seam of a door and in the center of the door was some kind of glass panel. It looked electronic, but there was no way they would ever get it to work again. It had been shattered.
“…do you think?”

“What?” She looked up.

“…said what do you think?” he repeated.

“I think,” Tash stood up, “there’s no way we’re getting it out of the ground in an hour so help me with the tarp, and we can dig it out in the morning.”

“…re thing, boss,” Jackson stood up and stretched his back.

They spread a tarp over their work site and weighted the edges with decent sized rocks to protect their work from any Martian storms that might pop up overnight. It wouldn’t rain. I might snow a little overnight, but it never rained on Mars, not yet anyway. The rare clouds that appeared near Olympus Mons were invariably thin and wispy. Martian storms consisted of massive walls of windblown dust. They could ruin an archaeological dig and kill anyone dumb enough to not seek shelter.

As Jackson set down the last rock, Tash walked over to their rover. She pressed the button next to the airlock door. A second later the door made a clunking noise and swung open. She grabbed the tote with the day’s finds, stepped up into the airlock, and waited for Jackson to join her. Once he climbed into the airlock, she hit the button by the inner door. The outer door clunked closed, air whooshed into the airlock, and the inner door clunked open. They pulled off their masks and hoods as they stepped into the interior of the rover, and the lights flickered on. They helped each other remove their rebreathers, and stowed them in the rack by the rear door.

Tash pulled the pouch from her belt and carefully laid it on a small workbench, “You want to drive while I check out this pendant?” She took off her utility belt and hung it on the wall behind her.

“No problem,” Jackson said, “I can’t wait to get home and take a piss.”

“Why won’t you ever piss in your suit?” Tash asked even though she already knew the answer.

“Call me old-fashioned,” he said as he climbed into the cab of the rover, “but I don’t like pissing myself.”

“I’ll call you a prude. It isn’t pissing yourself. There’s a receptacle.” She removed the pendant from the pouch and held it up to the light. A big, red ruby held in place by a silver setting covered in sapphires and diamonds. It was a beautiful piece, but the ruby had a fairly major flaw. No, not a flaw. There was an etching inside it.

“Beautiful,” she said to herself as she waggled the pendant side to side to get a better look at the etching, “Why wouldn’t this be in the safe?”

“It still feels like you’re pissing yourself,” Jackson said from the cab.


“Never mind,” he replied, and the rover lurched to a start, “We forgot to remove the chalk again.”

Late that night another rover drove up to the dig site. A few minutes later, two men stepped out of the back wearing dark red camouflage over their pressure suits with their visors set on night vision. Coal miners by day, amateur archaeologists by night, they worked in silence tossing the rocks away from the edge of the tarp. They surveyed the hole for a minute before one of the men went to retrieve a couple of shovels. They dug out the safe as quickly as they could and hauled it back to their rover without saying a word. They climbed in, and a moment later the rover took off silently into the night. The whole affair had taken less than half an hour.

The driver motioned toward the back of the rover, “That thing kind of looks like a safe. I wonder what’s in it.”

“Who knows? Check out what I found while you were getting the shovels,” the man in the passenger seat of the cab said, “It’s a coin. It looks like it’s got writing on it even. Eplusoom. Wonder what that means.”

The driver glanced over and held out his hand. “Let me see that,” he said. The passenger looked at him distrustfully.

“I’m not gonna steal it, asshole,” the driver reached his hand out further for emphasis, “Just give it here a sec.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the passenger said as he put the coin in his hand.

The driver inspected both sides of the coin, “Thought so.”


“It says E Pluribus Unum.” He flipped the coin at his passenger who caught it awkwardly. “It’s an old American coin. The letters should have tipped you off. It’s probably worth about five bucks.”

The passenger stuck the coin in his jacket pocket. “Shit.”

The driver laughed, “Yeah, shit.”

Suddenly he screamed, “Oh, shit!” A proximity alarm sounded in the rover. He jerked the wheel to the right and hit the brakes, but it was too late. He had been driving too fast in the dark trying to put distance between the dig site and themselves, and he had been paying too much attention to his idiot partner and his worthless coin.

The rear wheels broke free, and the whole rig slid sideways over the edge of an ancient river bank. It flipped and rolled down the steep slope. The back of the rover struck a boulder. That stopped them from rolling, but it caused them to slide upside down, head first, into another boulder.

The air inside the rover vacated in an instant. The boulder crushed the driver’s skull, killing him instantly. The passenger scrambled to reach the rebreathers in the back of the rover. His face burned with the pain of a thousand exploding capillaries. His eyes bulged, and one of them popped out of its socket. His lungs screamed, but he didn’t dare try to breathe until he could get to a mask.

He reached one of the rebreathers without a second to spare. He held a mask to his face and activated the rebreather. He tried to take a breath, but his dangling eyeball kept him from getting a good seal on the mask. He tucked his eye inside the mask and tried again. Air. He tightened the straps behind his head and passed out.

When he woke up several hours later, the sun was coming up. He activated the other rebreather and disconnected the hose from the tank. Then he switched his own hose over as quickly as his pain addled body would allow. He tried to pick up the safe, but a sudden shock of excruciating pain made him realize he had broken several ribs in the crash.

He dragged his broken body out of the broken rover and to the top of the bank, and then he began the long walk towards the only road within twenty kilometers. The first time he fell he was able to get back on his feet. The second time he fell, a big rock hit him right in his injured ribs, and he passed out. The low air alarm from the rebreather woke him just in time to suffocate. He died unaware the road was just over the next hill.

Untitled Chapter 5

Launch day; the day Colonel Jim Park would die. He awoke at 0430 hours to the sound of Flight of the Valkyries. He shit, showered, and shaved. He wrapped a towel around himself and walked into the living area when he heard breakfast being delivered. A technician in a clean suit was setting things on his table.

“Good morning, Jasmine,” he said as he sat down, “What’s for breakfast this morning?”

“Good morning, sir. I’m afraid you aren’t going to like it. Bagels and cream cheese, grapefruit, toast, and orange juice.”

“Au contraire, mon Cheri. This is exactly what I wanted,” he lied, “but you can take that grapefruit with you on your way out.”

She smiled at him from behind her mask, “Yes, sir.” She returned the unwanted grapefruit to her cart and headed for the door. It slid open as she approached, and she wheeled the cart into the buffer room. Before the door slid closed behind her, she turned and said, “Good luck, Jim.”

After breakfast, Park donned his pressure suit. He looked like an Alpine skier in the white, form fitting, two-piece body suit complete with hood, gloved hands, and glove-like footies. He had asked for and been denied permission to wear his uniform over the pressure suit. Even if he was the only person who would admit it, everybody knew this was practically a suicide mission. He was about to rip a hole in the fabric of space. The least they could do was let him do it with a little dignity.

He tucked his lucky silver dollar inside his collar, near his heart. He had found it by the bank of the river at his grandfather’s house when he was ten. 1999, D for Denver. His grandfather had told him the woman on the front was named Susan B. Anthony. He always carried it with him because he figured as long as he had that dollar, he could never be completely broke.

At 0530 a team of technicians in clean suits arrived to escort him to the launch bay. They strapped a rebreather onto his back. The rebreather was connected via a hose to a gas mask with a gold colored visor. He held the mask to his face and took a couple of breaths to verify everything was working. He held the mask out to reposition the drinking tube, put it back up to his face, and gave the tech to his left a thumb up. The tech tightened the straps around his head to the point of discomfort, and then he tightened them some more. A green bar appeared on the right of his field of view showing one hundred percent oxygen. One way or another, the mission would be over no more than twenty four hours from now. That’s all the oxygen the rebreather held.

They led Park out of quarantine and down a short hall to an elevator marked, “Authorized Launch Facility Personnel Only.” When they arrived at sublevel twenty, they ushered Park into a golf cart which drove him five kilometers down a wide tunnel to the launch bay. The tunnel buzzed with activity; mostly people walking or driving away from the launch bay.

A new group of technicians and a few administrators met Park at the entrance to the launch bay. They were all talking over each other as they escorted him across the gang plank. Asking him questions, giving him encouragements, wishing him luck, but he barely heard a word. He was looking at the X-88.

The X-88 was the eighth prototype in the X-80 series. The other seven had all suffered catastrophic failures, but the X-88 had something the others hadn’t; a pilot. The Krupp warp drive sat in the snub nose just ahead of the cockpit. An updated version of the elder Dr. Krupp’s sub-light propulsion system and the reactor occupied the bulk of the body of the craft behind the cockpit. The engine had been put into commercial use several years earlier. That model was governed at a maximum of twenty-five percent power, but some enterprising souls had already hacked it up to thirty-five percent. It had already reduced the flight time between Earth and Mars from three months to as little as just over a week. That had allowed for a far longer launch window, and the population of Mars was booming.

There were four tapered and flared main wings and two stabilizing tails at the rear of the X-88 to be used in the event that Col. Park actually landed on Mars. It wasn’t the prettiest bird, but it damn sure would be the fastest. From nose to tail it only stood about twenty-five feet. The ship would launch on rails to guide it out of the tunnel.

Two burly techs lifted Park into the cockpit and helped him strap in. They closed and sealed the cockpit hatch, and then everyone made their way back down the gang plank. He had to listen to a loud horn blaring every few seconds for another forty-five minutes while the launch bay was cleared. He went through the pre-flight checklist with Flight Control while he waited. Finally, he heard the call he had been waiting for.

“All systems go. T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, FIRE!”

A loud boom tore through the launch facility followed by an increasingly high pitched whine. The force pushed Park into his seat like an industrial press. His peripheral vision faded away, and his breathing became shallow and difficult. Survivable, yes. Pleasant? Not at all. Two more booms rang out just as he exited the launch tube when the ship broke the sound barrier.

“Payload is away.”

For several seconds the only sound was the roar of wind, and then there were several small cracks like a string of firecrackers.

“Sled jettisoned. Altitude ten thousand. Speed five thousand. All systems nominal.”

“Altitude twenty thousand. Speed seven thousand. Commence roll program. All systems nominal.”

At one hundred thousand feet the engine throttled back. The sudden change from six G’s to micro gravity felt like it would have thrown Park through his cockpit window if he weren’t strapped in tight.

Everything went silent for a second before flight control broke in again, “Altitude one hundred ten thousand. Speed seventeen thousand five hundred. All systems nominal. She’s all yours, Destiny base. Godspeed, Colonel.”

Park responded, “Roger. Thank you, White Sands.” He strained to look over his shoulder, but he was only able to catch a glimpse of the planet as it receded away from him.

“Destiny, this is X-88, over.”

“X-88, Destiny. We read you, over.”

“Powering up to ten percent then I’ll begin the warp drive power up. I should enter lunar slingshot in approximately two hours. Are you tracking? Over.”

“Roger, X-88. We have you. See you in a couple of hours, out.”

Park programmed the sub-light governor for ten percent and the g-force limiter for three G’s. He set a trajectory that would take him to within fifty kilometers of the surface of the moon. At the speed he would be traveling, he needed to get that close for the moon to get him pointed towards Mars. He confirmed the settings on his HUD and engaged the engine. When the ship reached speed twenty minutes later, he began working on the warp drive checklist. Once he had finished bringing the warp drive online, he settled in to watch the moon grow alarmingly fast in his window.

The lunar flyby took less than a minute, and Park was headed towards Mars. He set his new trajectory for Mars orbit, set the sub-light governor to maximum, left the g-force limiter at three, and activated the Krupp warp drive system. The computer would automatically engage the warp drive when he reached his target velocity. He double and triple checked his settings on the HUD and put in the call to Destiny base.

“Destiny, X-88, over.”

“X-88, Destiny, over.”

“All systems are nominal. Ready to begin test run, over.”

“Roger, X-88. On your mark, over.”

“On my mark in three, two, one.” Park executed the program, and the ship began to accelerate.

“Fifteen percent.”

“Twenty percent. Speed two hundred thousand.” The band of the Milky Way began to turn a brilliant blue.

“Twenty-two percent. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.” Park’s world flashed blue then turned black. The X-88 disappeared in a flash of gamma rays. No wreckage could be found. No trace of Colonel James Park or the X-88 remained.