If After the Cross sounds interesting to you, I have included the first chapter for you to peruse. Take a look and see what you think. Enjoy.
If you would like to read the first chapters of American Midnight and/or When the Sky Fell, just keep scrolling down. You'll find them.
AFTER THE CROSS
May 22nd, present day, Constantinople Library excavation site, Istanbul, Turkey
A solitary figure emerged from the shadows, darkness draping him like a smooth leather glove. Dressed in black beret and fatigues, Emel Dwayat’s profile was indistinguishable from the mouth of the ancient portico. He pulled the AK-47 held tight in his hands closer and slipped towards the flicker of movement under the eastern roof of the Constantinople Library. Despite his muscular frame, he maneuvered nimbly down the remnants of the 1600-year-old corridor, keeping to shadows as he crept towards the point of motion, cursing the day he’d agreed to work for a woman— and an English woman at that.
Dwayat scanned the eastern roof, lying half exposed, rising from the ground like the bones of a giant derelict. The size of the structure and multi-leveled trenches recently carved out by the dig team made a direct line of sight all but impossible. Securing the place was a joke. The grounds were littered with runs and hiding holes so intricate he would have needed an army to protect it. Complicating the defense further was the English archeologist’s notion that 500-watt spotlights mounted in the middle of the excavation would deter looters.
Nothing could have been more ridiculous. Dwayat had warned Dr. Lewis countless times those infernal lights would do more harm than good, that his eyes worked better in darkness where he held the element of surprise; but his advice had not been taken.
Ironic, he thought. She hadn’t hired him because of his ruthless reputation; rather, he’d impressed her with his knowledge of ancient Latin and Greek. Maybe he should have simply shot that large brimmed hat off her head instead of schmoozing her with a recitation from Virgil’s Catalepton.
“Errare humanum est,” he growled under his breath.
Silence was still his friend, if darkness wasn’t. He squatted behind a patch of the library’s scorched roof. Among the music of distant crickets came the quick patter of rubber-soled shoes running on sand— the insects went quiet.
Coming to his feet, he pressed his AK-47 against his shoulder and searched for movement. The dark green foliage skirting the excavation’s ridges rustled softly as a series of freshly dug archways glowed painfully under the glaring spotlights. Otherwise, silence. Nothing.
The crickets’ music bleated again.
Dwayat reached for the two-way radio piece in his ear. “Hassam,” he whispered in heightened Turkish, “the Devil is out tonight.”
Static crackled in reply. “You’re not hearing things again?” asked a voice in his earpiece.
Dwayat frowned at Hassam’s playful tone. His counterpart was an indolent, inexperienced young man, his job nothing more than an easy paycheck. Dwayat had little tolerance for such fools. In this line of work it was either kill or be killed; it was not uncommon to find a guard’s throat slit in the morning, and artifacts long gone. He himself bore the scars of three knife fights and a bullet wound in the leg.
“If I catch you asleep tonight, Hassam, I will carve my name in your chest. Do you hear me?”
His radio fell silent. The message had been received.
* * *
Malik al-Hassam rose from the slab of marble where he’d been resting, brushing off the ever-present dust that filled the halls of the half buried Constantinople Library. He readjusted the beret just above his eyebrows.
A quick thumb against his lighter and a cigarette glowed to life in his mouth. Hassam bent down and picked up his rifle, figuring he’d do his required rounds, and then find another place to sit where he could hear the old fox coming.
Metallic clanking sounds shuddered down the corridor. Crouching low, he tossed the cigarette from his mouth and slipped his finger around the trigger.
Hassam offered a quick prayer to Allah for protection, then navigated the lightless passageways towards the source of the noise. He neared a junction leading north to the records hall. Dozens of charred but recognizable manuscripts had been discovered there, though most had been reduced to cinders when the Ottoman Turks set fire to the library in 1453.
The opposite hall led to the heavily seared corridor with adjoining alcoves for private reading; and at the corridor’s end, the newly unearthed chamber of the priests was littered with charred remains, save two bookshelves that had miraculously survived the flames. A soft light flickered against its walls.
Hassam fingered his earpiece. “Dwayat, there is someone down here.”
“Where are you?”
Dwayat hissed with excitement. “Cut them off. I’ll come down from the western entrance. Whichever way they go, we’ll be waiting for them.”
A wrenching nausea assaulted Hassam’s stomach as he turned the corner. Dwayat panted from his earpiece, “And Hassam, don’t forget to switch your safety off.”
Hassam cursed silently as he brought up his weapon and flipped the switch near the trigger. He looked forward again and crept along the hallway of alcoves, carefully placing each step. Ahead, the frantic motion of a small flashlight dashed about the corridor. Hugging the wall close, he slid forward, his automatic pointed at the mottled gray entrance. For a moment, the flashlights moved out of view, then suddenly they went dark.
Hassam froze, his heart pounding. A man’s panicky voice said something in an unfamiliar dialect. The voice cut short, and an unchecked pounding of feet echoed off the stone floor. Two shadows flew from the priests' chambers straight for him.
The deafening roar from Hassam’s AK-47 pierced the hallway. His gun arched back and forth in quick stuttered waves. The weapon’s discharge flamed a pulsating orange light against the stunned faces of two black-cloaked men. Searing pain bit him in the arm, driving him backwards, and he sprang into an alcove.
He tried to control his breathing and remain quiet as warm blood flowed from his right bicep.
With stunning brightness, a light glared to life outside his hiding place.
Dwayat’s harsh tone came from the corridor. “Hassam, you jackrabbit. Come out of your hole.”
When Hassam stepped into the muted light, his partner was standing near one of the two bodies. Dwayat’s flashlight swept through the area until it hesitated on a shiny metal box partially obscured by one of the dead men’s hands. Hassam knelt beside him without speaking, his body trembling, gunfire still ringing in his ear.
“Sir,” he finally sputtered, “I’ve been shot.”
The old fox glanced at his bloodied arm and laughed. “These men have no guns. You shot yourself you idiot. One of the rounds must have ricocheted off the wall."
Hassam ran his fingers along the injury. “I’ve had worse.”
His attention returned to the two dead men. Dwayat slipped the metallic box from under the man’s lifeless fingers, then blew away a thin layer of dust, revealing a seal imbedded into the silvery surface. Even a superficial look at it told him this was artifact was important.
Hassam cast a glance at the man and then back at the box. Important enough to die for? he wondered.
“They came for this,” Dwayat concluded as he stared at the inscription. “Curious. It’s as if they knew where to look.”
Hassam fixed his gaze on the two men. “But that doesn’t make any sense. This place has been buried for hundreds of years. How could they know what was here?”
“I cannot say.” Dwayat studied the inscription a second time. “The writing here is Latin. Very old.”
His partner squinted at the symbols. “How can you tell?”
“Years of observation and study, Hassam. Unlike you, I do not spend my time idly. I watch. I listen.” Dwayat pointed at one of the dead men’s chests. “If you were smart, you would have at least learned to shoot by now. Look at the pockmarks you made all over the walls. It’s a miracle you hit these men at all.”
Hassam pressed closer. “What does the inscription say?”
“It’s some kind of royal crest. Whom it belongs to, I’m not certain. There aren't any names. But do you see that word below the crest? Veritas. Truth.”
Curiosity settled into Hassam’s gaze. “Let’s look inside.”
With a nod, Dwayat unlatched a gold clasp and flipped the top open. Inside, a partially folded parchment lay in the shadows. With a delicate touch, he lifted it from the box.
Even in the dim light a single name jumped off the page.
“Imad ad-din al-Isfahani,” Dwayat whispered, as though he feared to say the name aloud.
Hassam stared in disbelief. “Al-Isfahani was the advisor of Saladin the Great.” He pointed at the document with an accusatory finger. “Why would this be in a library of the infidels?”
“Shut up!” commanded Dwayat, scanning the parchment.
As the minutes passed, Hassam watched fear edge into the hollows of his partner’s face until, finally, his patience broke. “Can you read it?”
Dwayat put a finger to his lips, his eyes never wavering from the mysterious words.
Hassam felt a growing dread and glanced at the two men, their cloaks half-covering their lifeless bodies.
The old fox’s breathing grew shallow and his eyes drifted up from the letter. “The Devil has indeed come to Istanbul tonight.”
Hassam glanced at the parchment, then back at the two bodies. “Why do you announce the Devil’s presence? These men are dead; if the Devil was here, he is gone.”
“No!” Dwayat took in his surroundings. “The Devil still remains.”
He refolded the parchment and placed it back inside the silver box, and then a look of horror studded his face.
“What is it!” demanded Hassam.
The room throbbed with silence. Dwayat’s eyes were far away, held by something terrifying.
Hassam sensed another presence in the room, ghost-like and evil. An urge passed through him to claw at Dwayat’s face— to viciously club him with his gun.
“Speak!” he hissed.
“A map,” said his partner softly, staring into the night. “The letter is a map.”
Dwayat slowly withdrew from the spell he’d been caught in. His eyes locked with Hassam’s. “A map to the Cross.”
“What are you talking about? What cross?”
Dwayat licked his lips. “The letter refers to the cross of Yeshua, and al-Isfahani’s involvement in its survival.”
“A map…a map to the Cross? From the first century?”
Hassam’s eyes drifted down, the pitch-black ground grabbing his sight like a magnet. “The Cross,” he muttered, “of the prophet Yeshua. Allah save us all.”
Friday, Month of Nisan, 30 A.D., Jerusalem, Israel
The cross dug into Yeshua’s bloodied shoulder as he dragged the heavy beam through the streets. At a bend in the road, he caught a stone and fell. The blood loss from the scourging had been so severe, the weight of the cross finally overcame him.
A Roman soldier ran to where he lay face down on the cobblestones. Throwing back his whip, the soldier struck his shredded back. “Get up, you dog!” he spat, and struck him again.
The angry throngs pressed in, drawn by a cruelty not aimed at them, their shouts and taunts growing louder after each blow.
When it became clear to the soldier that Yeshua could no longer carry the one hundred and twenty minas of weight, the Roman spun around and searched the crowds. “You!” he barked. “What’s your name?”
A man who stood a few cubits from the cross pointed to himself. “Me?”
“Yes, you. Your name!”
“Simon of Cyrene,” he replied in a guarded tone.
The Roman marched over to the side of the sun-baked road. “Pick up his cross. We haven’t got all day.” He turned to the men under his command. “Untie this criminal and lash it to this Jew here.”
The procession, a parade from all walks of life, reached the top of Golgotha. The crowds followed closely, all except a small group of men dressed in priestly robes who held a wary distance.
One of them stepped in front of the others, never taking his gaze off Yeshua. He stood tall, proud. “We’ll wait here until the deceiver has been crucified.”
“But, Caiaphas,” said one of the priests, “why go up there at all? The Romans will see to this themselves. We should have no part in Yeshua’s execution.”
The high priest shook his head. “You know what I said about him, how I prophesied that he should die. How would it appear if I stayed away when that prophecy came true?”
A simple nod from the younger priest said what words could not.
When the small cadre reached the top of Golgotha, Yeshua, along with two other condemned criminals, had already been nailed to their crosses.
A stiff wind had blown in dark clouds, and a tall man yelled, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!”
Some of the people nearest him began to laugh, and an old man with a stale stench of wine on his breath said, “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Caiaphas studied the reactions of the people around him. Most were jeering and mocking Yeshua. A few, however, grieved, especially a handful of women weeping at the base of his cross.
Stepping forward, the high priest shouted, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. If he is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross, and then we shall believe him.”
Laughter erupted from several pockets of people dotting the craggy hilltop
As the hours passed, silence settled on the curious throngs. Caiaphas noticed Yeshua struggling to speak. It relieved him to see this self-proclaimed “Son of God” dying like any other man. Weak. Fighting for his every breath.
An anguished cry finally broke from Yeshua’s lips. “It is finished!”
At that very moment, a fierce wind swooped down on the hillside, crushing everyone like a weight. Dust and sand tormented the spectators as they tried to cover their faces. Suddenly, the ground trembled, and even the men screamed in terror.
“The wrath of God is upon us!” someone shouted.
Caiaphas and his fellow priests threw themselves against a large boulder for support just as the massive rock split in half with a deafening crack. Speechless, he motioned frantically for them to flee with the crowd. He hurried down the steep path, then went straight to the temple.
As he stepped into the shadows of the inner court, he found Nicodemus waiting for him.
“The Holy of Holies,” said Nicodemus, worry tinting his words. “The veil has been torn in two, from top to bottom.”
“What?” Caiaphas growled. “Who could have performed this sacrilege?” He clenched his hands into a fist. “The dead man’s followers. Of course they’re behind this.”
“What’s to be done?”
“The Romans can help us. Pilate. I should speak with him.”
Nicodemus grabbed his shoulder. “But it is still Passover. It is not lawful for you to meet with a Gentile.”
Anger flashed behind Caiaphas’ eyes, yet he knew his old friend was right. He could never have it said that he violated God’s law. “Then I will go to the governor at first light tomorrow and speak with him. I am certain the two of us will come to an understanding.”
* * *
When Caiaphas and his entourage arrived, Pilate was standing on his balcony staring down at the city. The Roman governor was dressed in purple robes and matching sash. Gold embroidery kissed the edges.
“Caiaphas, why am I not surprised?” Pilate went over to a table and poured some wine into a goblet. Golden aetos, emblems of his legions, lined one side of the room; a larger number of gladiuses and other kinds of swords lined the wall opposite them. “Would you like a drink?”
Caiaphas did not respond.
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t be proper.”
Pilate placed his arm around a wooden mannequin bearing his battle armor. He held up his cup and swallowed his wine slowly.
When he was done, Caiaphas finally spoke, “There has been talk in the street, dangerous talk.”
“That’s nothing new in this godforsaken place.” Pilate downed the remaining wine. “I condemned that king of yours, and I released Barabbas the murderer— what else do you want from me?”
“Most excellent, Pilate, Barabbas was nothing. The deceiver is the one we have to worry about.”
Pilate’s expression paled. “Why should I worry about a dead man?”
This was the opening the high priest needed. He chose his words with great care. “We remember that when the deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’”
Staring at Jerusalem, Pilate said, “Yes, I heard about his claim— nothing more than the ramblings of a brilliant madman.”
Caiaphas pressed closer. “It’s not what you and I think that’s important; it’s what the people think, including his disciples. The third day is tomorrow.”
“The body has been placed in the tomb, and the gravestone rolled into place— or would you have me hide the body in my bedchamber?”
“Please hear me out, most excellent Pilate. It wouldn’t take a great number of men to roll the stone back and steal his body. Then the deceiver’s followers could claim that he did indeed rise from the dead.” The words chilled Caiaphas as he spoke them. “This deception would be worse than the first.”
A look of sour wine crossed Pilate’s face. “Ah,” he finally said. “Rebellion ever looms in the air of this wretched place.” Pilate made as if to sniff the air before him. “Very well,” he replied. “You’ll have a squad of guards. Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”
“Thank you, Governor, but there is one more matter that bears discussion.”
“Which would be?” he asked doggedly.
“The deceiver’s cross. If we have any chance of stopping his following, we must do away with every piece of evidence that points to his existence.”
“That cross is nothing more than two pieces of wood nailed together, one of a thousand dotting the land. Find his followers. They pose the greater threat than anything else.”
Caiaphas’ muscles tensed. “It will take time. This so-called messiah has friends in many places. Like rats they hide in the dark corners of the city. But they’ll turn up sooner or later.”
A wary smile softened the governor’s features. “Perhaps.” He paused for a moment and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “It’s the heat, I think. That’s what makes the people around here believe in these insanities. But you may be right, and I shouldn’t take any chances. Dispose of Yeshua’s cross as you see fit.”
Standing erect, Caiaphas answered, “Thank you, most excellent Pilate. I believe these actions will help bring a decisive end to his so-called following.”
The Roman governor waved his hand dismissively and turned to watch the city below.
Caiaphas found his fellow priests waiting in the hallway just outside of the governor’s quarters. He handed one of them a small scroll. “Go down to the barracks and give the centurion these orders. He and a squad of soldiers are to secure Yeshua’s tomb. Tell him I don’t want anyone to get within a hundred cubits of it.”
“You aren’t coming with us?” one of the younger priests asked.
The high priest shook his head. “No, I must attend to another matter.”
As they nodded and left in turn, Caiaphas called aside the youngest member of his entourage, someone he had known his entire life. “Pedaiah ben Joseph, I have need of you.” Caiaphas put his hand on the priest’s shoulder. “I’ve been given permission to dispose of the cross. I need you to take it down, and then bury it in a secure place near where his crucifixion took place.”
A palpable silence filled the corridor. “Bury it?” he finally replied. “Wouldn’t it be better to burn it instead? If we have any chance of crushing this heresy, we must erase all traces of Yeshua.”
“The cross is only the start, Pedaiah. Hiding it in a spot known only to us produces the same effect as burning it, with one exception— it can be retrieved again.”
The lines on the young priest’s forehead deepened. “Why should we want to retrieve it?”
“Circumstances change. Priorities change. If we need additional proof of his death, it would be a simple matter of digging up the cross and displaying it for all the world to see. Either way, I would feel better if we had the option available to us.”
Pedaiah nodded. “An excellent point.”
Caiaphas had chosen this young man for two reasons: he was the most radically loyal to the priesthood and zealous for the law. Pedaiah would take this secret with him to the grave, of this Caiaphas had little doubt. Still, the hearts of men can change with the proper motivation, loosening even the most stalwart tongues. Certainty had to override personal feelings; there was only one way to insure his silence.
“I ask you to take a holy vow. No one must know where you bury Yeshua’s cross.”
“I will do whatever you ask.”
Caiaphas exhaled slowly, his trust confirmed. He extended his right hand and placed it on Pedaiah’s head. “Standing before God, do you swear to execute the charge I have given you without hesitation, to tell none but the high priest for the rest of your life?”
With his head bowed, he replied, “As God and His holy angels are my witness, I pledge myself to his task.”
Caiaphas lifted his hand. “You are so charged.”
The young priest looked squarely at Caiaphas, devotion stinging his eyes.
“Pray that we crush the remaining heretics," said Caiaphas, "and that the deceiver’s body and his cross never see the light of day again.”
Pedaiah nodded, then with a swish of his robe, spun and strode down the hallway.
When the corridor fell silent, a comforting thought leapt into Caiaphas’ mind. Perhaps I have just saved Jerusalem.
Mike Lynch & Brandon Barr
Rain thrummed against the Cessna’s windshield like thousands of little steel pellets.
Holding steady at an altitude of four thousand feet, Helen Peters stared at the thick canopy of trees extending to the horizon. In the midst of tangled foliage, a clearing several hundred feet across drifted into view. A dozen huts were huddled together in the middle of a grassy field.
She turned to Steve Myerson in the pilot’s seat. “If the vaccine we’re carrying doesn’t stop the epidemic in time, those people down there won’t stand a chance.”
“I’ll see if I can coax a little more out of the engines, but they're already straining against a sixty-knot headwind. This storm is getting worse by the minute.” The plane suddenly jerked to the right. “Whoa!” Steve exclaimed as he held firm onto the controls. “That was a deep one.”
Helen grabbed her seatbelt tight. “A deep what?” she asked above the whine of the engines.
“Air pocket,” he replied after checking the artificial horizon. “I expect it’s going to be a bumpy ride all the way to Xoacatil.”
Helen's countenance dropped. “Do you think we’re in…any danger?”
Steve didn’t respond. He sat rigid in the pilot seat, staring out the window.
Without any warning, high-pitched alarms exploded in the cabin.
“Blast,” Steve exhaled. He leaned forward and stared at the flashing red light in the middle of the panel.
“Oil pressure in number one is dropping.”
Helen turned towards the left engine. Black liquid spurted out from under the cowling. “One of the lines must have broken. Oil is leaking onto the wing.”
He snatched the microphone out of the holder and pulled it close. “This is Cessna HBQ117. We are presently traveling one-two-five miles-per-hour...heading 175 degrees, north by northwest from Simon Bolivar Airport. We are experiencing engine trouble. Do you read? Over.” Static. “Can anyone read me? This is Cessna HBQ117. Over.”
The same static hiss filled the cabin.
A sudden gust slammed into the plane and it violently pitched downward. Steve pulled hard on the controls, but they fought him. “Come on, come on,” he said over the roar of the engines. He brought the nose up, but the tree line below was still coming up on them fast.
“We need more altitude.”
“I'm trying!—but these down drafts are really vicious."
Black smoke belched out of engine number one, and a terrible grinding noise shook the cabin. All at once the prop froze. The plane shuddered then banked hard towards the ground.
“Steve!” Helen cried out.
“We’re losing power.” He pressed the microphone button. “Mayday, mayday. This is Cessna HBQ117 going down approximately twenty-five miles from Simon Bolivar Airport. We are on a heading of...” His words trailed off.
“Oh God in heaven—help us,” she prayed.
The right wing of their plane sliced through the top of a tree, and then another, and another—
“Mother!” Tania shrieked. She bolted up from her bed, breathing hard. A cocoon of blackness surrounded her.
Tania dug her fingers through her hair. She’d had that dream again. That dream...her mother. Not a dream—a nightmare.
Slivers of light streamed ghost-like through her bedroom’s slatted windows. When her breathing eased, she stared at the dimly lit walls. It was so vivid, that dream. Like a memory; it even held her mother’s scent, a smell she hadn’t encountered in three years.
Tania missed her mother all over again.
Raw emotions stirred inside. Her anger; a sense of betrayal. God, where are you? You’ve left me.
Suddenly, the thought of being alone overwhelmed her. She reached for her cell phone and pounded out a number. “Nick, it’s me. I really need you right now.”
“So you’ve changed your mind about the party.”
“The party? I don’t think now would be—”
“Look, you said you wanted to go. So do you or don’t you?”
“Okay, okay. Just get here,” she said and closed her phone.
Tania threw off her covers and tiptoed over to the door. She turned the knob slowly, opening it just a crack. The lights in the hallway were dark. She breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone was asleep.
After slipping back in her room, she took down a black dress hiding in the darkened recesses of her closet. She had promised her father weeks ago she would get rid of it: “Too revealing,” he declared. Tania thought he was overreacting. So what if it extolled her natural assets? She quietly laughed. Nick had used that same phrase of her figure once. She’d blushed redder than an apple then…but that was in the first few weeks they were together. She was a different girl now. After a couple of brushes of her hair and a dab of lipstick and mascara, she was ready.
She went to the window and checked outside. Nothing. Where was he, she wondered, and began to ache with disappointment. Maybe he's not coming.
Two rounded, pinpoints of light appeared at the end of the street. “Nick, finally,” she said aloud.
She placed her palms on the underside of the window, and pushed up, forming an opening just big enough for her to slip through.
Straddling the window sill, she extended her foot into the darkness, stopping when it brushed up against the lattice holding up her father’s trumpet vine. She negotiated one crossbeam at a time, until the firmness of the ground met her toes.
The passenger door of Nick’s red Camaro swung open as she reached the sidewalk. Even in the darkness, Nick’s eyes glimmered. His arm reached for her and she fell into his embrace, kissing him long and hard.
“What took you so long?” she complained after pulling back. “I was beginning to think you weren't coming.”
A long, idle grin blossomed on his face. “Hey, I got here as fast as I could.”
He started up the car and screeched down the street.
Nick flew through a number of red lights as he made his way to the other side of town. The entire drive he was quiet. Something else was on his mind. She didn’t care though. As long as she was away from her house…at least for a while.
They barreled down the road until Nick hung a sharp left at an intersection. A lone house appeared out of the mist. Shadowed silhouettes of cars lined both sides of the long, narrow court, and synthesized bass pumped out a steady boom, boom, boom into the night air.
He pulled into a spot just big enough for his Camaro. “Looks like Lane’s got a killer party going tonight.” A broad smile glided across his face, and he grabbed a case of beer from behind the seat.
Tania found her head moving to the rhythm of the beat. She basked in the sensation, until an unsettling question crept upon her. Why was she there, at the party? The girl she was four months ago would never have snuck out in the middle of the night. Back then she was still going through the motions of her Christian life. Tania hesitated. But why should she live like that when she no longer had faith to believe any of it? Besides, what would she be doing right now without Nick? Sitting on her bed feeling miserable and alone.
She let the question slip away. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”
Tania counted a dozen people hanging out in the front yard. Some of them were talking, while others were holding each other close. It was hard to see who they were in the shadows, but she was determined not to be outdone by them, and pulled on Nick’s arm, bringing it around her so his hand rested on her hip.
Inside, the living room was crammed with people, all bumping and pushing against each other as they danced to the music.
"Dude!" an unknown voice called from the crowd. "You made it." Someone Tania had never seen before wedged his way through the thongs.
Nick's eyes lit with recognition. "Lane. You know I'd never miss one of your parties." Nick grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back with ease. Tania was impressed. A big guy like this didn't pull back easily. "So where do you want the beer?"
"Just leave the case with me."
"You got it, but I think I'll take a couple here to get things started."
Nick popped a beer open for himself, then handed one to Tania. She flipped open the tab, took a quick swig then grimaced. “Something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” she shouted over the noise. “I still haven’t gotten used to the taste.” She paused a moment, and then added, “But like you say, after the first one it’s all good.”
He winked and pulled her into the middle of the room. She pressed close him and moved to the fast-paced beat of the music. It all felt new to her still. The parties. The beer. Dancing in a way that made him desire her.
It felt good to be wanted like that.
After her third beer, the people around her moved and dipped together like waves on the ocean. She felt warm inside. And free.
A slow song brought the frenetic energy in the room to a halt. Seeing Nick standing there in the opaque light, she threw her hands around his neck and pulled his lips into her own. His eyes focused on hers and his hands touched softly around her waist.
Nick whispered in her ear. “I think tonight should be the night.” His voice sounded soothing, almost hypnotic.
Tania brushed back her bangs. “I don’t know.” She looked around the room. Her words slurred, “All these people here.” But that was only half the truth. Half-foggy notions from her old way of life passed through her head. Phrases like, save yourself for marriage, and wait for your husband.
But why? She loved Nick. Why should she hold anything back from him?
Nick did not relent, his hold on her remaining just as resolute.
She fell into his gaze, and felt her fears slipping away.
He bent towards her again. “You said so after class today,” he whispered in her ear. “It’s your time now. You’re not a little girl who does everything her father tells her anymore. If you didn’t want to do it, you wouldn’t be here now.” He paused. “I promise, it will be a night you’ll never forget.”
Tania’s eyes met his. The desire pulsing through him fed hers like fuel for a fire. She moved her lips under his chin and brushed them along his husky neck. Everything he said, everything he did felt right. All those little objections faded further into the recesses of her mind. “You’re right,” she replied. “It’s my time now.”
A huge smile parted Nick’s lips and his blue eyes grew focused. “Lane said he would keep his parent’s room locked, so no one from the party would trash it. I’ll go get the keys.” He spun around and made his way into the kitchen.
Though a hundred or so people slow danced around her, it was like she was the only one there, her mind a torrent of anticipation mixed with fear.
And just like that, Nick returned, keys in hand.
Taking hold of Tania’s slender fingers, he led her upstairs. Her heart began to thump more loudly after each step. She didn’t say a word, her thoughts a cacophony of conflicting emotions. But one thing she did know. She was about to give her all to him—her mind, her body, her soul—everything. And once given, nothing would ever be the same.
WHEN THE SKY FELL
And I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and
the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth . . .
0102 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 30
“I’m beginning to pick up multiple images on my monitor,” the RadAR technician cried out.
Commander Yamane kept his place in the command chair, not moving. The Deravans were out there; that he knew. It was just a matter of time before they arrived. He gave his uniform a tug. “What’s their speed . . . and how long before they reach the Lexington?”
The r-tech’s hands fumbled for the information on his console. He turned back. “1.01 stellar velocity, Commander. Their ETA is fifteen minutes.”
Yamane glanced at the display on his right. To his horror, dozens of blips had already filled the screen. He turned away, his mind reflexively avoiding what it did not want to acknowledge. The confidence he had in his plan a few short hours before ebbed at the sight so many enemy warships.
Another feeling, almost as powerful as the first, hit him with near flawless perfection. Fear? Panic? No. Irony. Yes, that was it. How else could he describe the very best the enemy had to offer, pitted against a wreck of a ship? He looked up at the main screen. His former command, the Lexington, glistened in the distance. Sorrow tugged at Yamane. Images of abandoning ship came crashing into his mind. Both he and his crew just managed to get to the escape pods before the Deravans closed in for the kill, all but blasting the stellar cruiser out of existence. Now he had turned the tables on them and worked his ship’s demise into his advantage. All the hope in the world, however, meant nothing if those power cells hidden in the Lexington’s bowels didn’t charge up at the precise moment required. Otherwise, the fleet under his command would find itself in a very bad situation. “Come on girl,” he said under his breath. “Don’t let me down.”
"The Deravans will be in range of the Lexington in ten minutes.”
Yamane verified their position again. The blips were there, but with even greater numbers than before. "Have all sub-cruisers assume an attack posture. Standby on my mark!"
"Defensive computer protocols have been engaged," C-tech Landis said to Yamane. "All targeting monitors are online. Pulse cannons are at full power."
The commander leaned back in his seat and surveyed the bridge. He tried to gauge the status of his crew. Will they remember their training when both sides meet in battle? For that question, Yamane did not have an answer. "Distance to enemy ships?" he asked after glancing at the main screen.
Sitting to the left of the RadAR station, the nav-tech replied, "Sixteen thousand kilometers."
"The Deravans are redeploying their fleet,” the r-tech yelled over the sounds of computer systems buzzing around him.
Their overall formation, once a solid and unbroken mass of metal and machines, reorganized themselves into three lesser-sized squadrons in a matter of seconds. The efficient manner by which the Deravans executed the maneuver chilled Yamane. “Speed and heading?” he asked.
“Unchanged,” the r-tech replied. “They are maintaining their heading toward Mars."
Yamane’s ship, the Corona, sat behind and a little above the Antaren dreadnoughts. They were laid out in front of her like twelve breech-loaded shells, ready for use at a moment’s notice. Located at the highest point of the stellar cruiser, sat the bridge. And in the middle of the bridge Commander Yamane waited . . . and worried. The overwhelming numbers at the Deravan’s disposal rattled him—and he had good reason to feel as he did. If they tried to take on the enemy one ship at a time, the fighters, dreadnoughts, and destroyers under his command would be sitting ducks against the Deravan’s superior guns. But he had learned from past mistakes. They didn’t have the firepower to outfight them, but he hoped to outthink them. On this presumption his whole plan rested.
Optimism wrestled againstYamane’s fears. Perhaps we can win this fight with little difficulty after all. A nice sentiment, but it was a lie. Who was he kidding? A single fear had been haunting him from the beginning—the Deravans could alter their course at any moment and fly beyond the range of the Lexington. And if they did, Yamane would be right back to where he started—taking them on from a position of weakness. On the other hand, the Deravans might also hold their present heading, right into the trap he laid. The odds were fifty-fifty, either way.
Doubts crept in. What if—? Yamane could not finish so terrible a thought. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he stared at their trajectory marked on the r-tech’s targeting grid. The enemy armada held firm; they had not changed course. He should have been pleased, but something deep within told him they were taking too much for granted. “Time to intercept?”
“Six minutes, twenty seconds.”
Every tick of the clock forced his hand into a direction he didn’t want to go. Placing his frontline ships in the line of fire was taking a terrible risk, but keeping the enemy fleet on course had to outweigh all other considerations. Ruthless thinking to be sure, but with the survival of humanity at stake, he felt he had no other alternative.
"Signal Commander Moran," Yamane said to C-tech Landis. "Tell him to prepare for an assault on the Deravan fleet.”
Landis spun around. “Sir?” he gasped, his eyes wide. “You want him to do what?”
“You heard me, Lieutenant,” the commander barked back. “When the enemy armada flies within ten thousand kilometers of the sub-cruisers’ position, they will fire their thrusters and make their course right for them. Then when Moran’s fleet is ten kilometers away from the Deravans, they will fire a five-second salvo before circling back, past the Lexington. We must insure the enemy maintains it’s heading, even if it means risking some of our ships."
Landis shook his head in a knowing way. “Understood, Commander,” he smirked. “I’ll send the message now.”
0115 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 30
In less than a millisecond, decoding algorithms incorporated into the Drummond’s transceiver unscrambled Yamane’s orders, flashing them across her communication console. “Sir,” the c-tech called out, “I am receiving a transmission from the Corona. Commander Yamane is giving us the go signal for a direct assault against the Deravan fleet.”
Moran brought up his data pad and scrolled down the text. “What are the two distances?”
“Ten and ten.”
“Tell him we’ll make ourselves big fat targets,” he said with a broad grin.
The c-tech offered a weak smile in response and then sent Moran’s answer.
Repositioning himself in the command chair, he assessed their tactical situation. There, ahead of him, were hundreds of ships, all positioned equidistant from one another. Moran leaned to his right. “What is the distance between the two fleets?” he asked the r-tech.
Beads of sweat glistened on the tech’s forehead. “Twelve thousand kilometers, Commander.”
“And their heading?”
The r-tech inputted a set of commands into his console. “Unchanged. They are coming right at us, course—zero-zero-seven.”
“Not long now,” Moran said, almost in the form of a prayer. “Just a little bit more.”
“Deravan ships are now eleven thousand kilometers away.”
“Almost there,” he whispered.
The distinctive sound of the proximity alarm went off. “Ten thousand kilometers.”
Moran stood upright. "Now!" he yelled. "Fire up the main engines."
The c-tech signaled all seven ships waiting in line; their guns poised on those enemy vessels in the line of fire. In an act of unanticipated choreography, the thrusters of every sub-cruiser ignited at the same instant. A flash of brilliant white light demonstrated to the dreadnoughts and cargo barges behind them just how exact their timing had been.
Moran’s vessel took the point. Coming up about a thousand meters back, three ships on his starboard side and three on his port, the six other sub-cruisers fanned out like sharpened talons, readying themselves for a quick strike.
The r-tech’s attention remained fixed and resolute. Nothing existed for him, except the targeting display a few centimeters away. He tracked the enemy’s movements, until the proximity alarm just to his left rang out a second time. “We’ve reached the ten kilometer mark,” he said to the commander after turning back.
Moran’s face became tight. "All batteries . . . commence firing!"
A blaze of red and blue plasma bursts shot across the bows of all seven sub-cruisers. Multiple numbers of flashes registered in the distance several moments later, and then—nothing.
"What is their course and speed?" Moran shouted out.
The r-tech verified the results. "Unchanged, sir. Pulse blasts have had no effect."
Moran glanced at the astro-clock. They had just enough time. "Give them a second volley."
“I'm inputting the command now."
Every gunner homed in on his prey, locked on, and then fired. Dozens of energy bolts coursed through the cannon chambers, discharging a fraction of a second later. In a mirror-like repeat of the first salvo, the lethal bursts slammed into the hulls of those ships ten kilometers away, detonating into dazzling fireballs. When the massive bombardment dissipated, the truth became all too evident. Deravan shields had absorbed the full fury of what the sub-cruisers could throw at them. Without exception, every one of their vessels flew through the barrage, undeterred.
"Hard about!” Moran ordered. “One hundred and eighty degrees."
After he entered the command codes into his console, the nav-tech grabbed a hold of two support struts and held on tight. The sub-cruiser’s directional thrusters fired on cue. Fighting the forces throwing her forward, the million-ton warship traveling at 0.35 stellar velocity began to buckle. Bulkheads let out deep moans as they contorted under increasing pressure, while deck plates started to pop out of their holds.
“Commander, we’re coming in too fast,” the navigator yelled. “She’s not going to make it.”
“Hang on!” The Drummond suddenly lurched over. Everyone on the bridge took hold of whatever was within reach when the sub-cruiser banked hard on her port side.
“Come on, baby,” Moran whispered to himself, “don’t let me down.”
Responding in an almost cognizant way, his ship swung around in a parabolic arc, back towards the Lexington.
Moran clutched his data pad tight. "Are the Deravans still pursuing us?"
The r-tech wiped the perspiration from his forehead. "Affirmative, sir. They’re holding steady. Course—zero-zero-seven."
0119 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 30
Commander Yamane’s ship waited before the crimson disk of Mars. Despite being outgunned by a factor of fifty, he knew they had to be the victors. If not, the enemy armada would snuff out the human race without a second thought. The Deravan’s unprovoked attack against Earth had been brutal, savage. Their bombardment of death since that terrible day brought humanity to the brink of extermination. “Twenty to one,” Yamane whispered to himself. Too low. More like a hundred to one. He sighed deeply.
“The Deravans will be in range of the Lexington in thirty seconds.”
Yamane checked the r-tech’s monitor for a third time. To his horror, enemy ships encompassed the left side of the display; shattered remnants of their once proud fleet dotted the right. His attention remained fixed on those barely recognizable derelicts floating in the distance. Would they be joining them? He lifted his eyes. We’ll all know soon enough.
"The Deravans will be in range in twenty seconds.”
Yamane swiveled around in his command chair. His face became hard. “Don’t press that button until I give the word,” he said to the r-tech, his voice deep.
“Aye, sir,” he replied. “Ten more seconds.”
Every pair of eyes settled on the main screen. “Five . . . four . . . three,” the crew mouthed in unison, “two . . . one . . . zero.” High-pitched alarms rang out from every corner of the bridge.
"The Deravans are now in range!"
Yamane exhaled, paused for a second and then said, "Charge up the cells."
Without even looking, the c-tech’s finger came down on that most important of buttons, the one sequencing the final command directive. All three transceivers scrambled the compressed data streams before sending them to the omega band receivers on board the Lexington.
A penetrating silence filled the bridge.
"Power signal sent, Commander. They should charge up right about now."
The Deravan fleet, positioned at its closest proximity to the Lexington, flew past the stellar cruiser. Every gauge and display tied into the power cells, however, remained at zero. The electro-magnetic field had not formed. Yamane waited for several moments. A feeling of dread crept up on him. Seconds passed, but still no change. Something had gone wrong.
"The signal isn’t going out,” Landis stammered.
Now dread and fear gripped Yamane. "Re-initiate the program and send out the signal again.”
Landis inputted the sequence a second time. He looked back, his face pale and glistening. One second turned into two, then four, and then eight. The c-tech’s eyes darted back and forth. "I don't understand,” he said in a shaky voice. “Power levels are still at zero."
Yamane rushed over to the communication console and singled out the flashing red button amidst a sea of knobs and switches—the one signifying the difference between life and death. Giving it a firm press with the heel of this hand, he forced his attention back up to the main screen, hopeful. But only disaster met him there. They had not stopped the Deravans. Terrible images of what they would soon unleash against Earth flashed before his eyes.
“I’ve tried everything,” Landis complained, “but the signal still isn’t reaching the cells.”
"Try again!" Yamane snapped back with a distant, almost trancelike stare.
Hesitation filled the c-tech’s eyes. He started to speak, but inputted the directive instead.
Shrill noises came from every speaker on the bridge, providing the dim answer. "The transmitters are working perfectly, but something is blocking the outgoing signal."
Walls, ceiling tiles, deck plates—they all pressed in on Yamane. He responded with slow, deliberate steps away from the main screen. In that one instant, everything seemed lost. There was no backup plan for him or for Moran. The Deravans would hit his ships first, and then attack the rest of the fleet without hesitation. Confusion reigned in his mind. He needed a solution, any solution. None came.
Yamane closed his eyes tight. He hoped it would shake him out of his stupor. It didn’t work. He opened them again. The frantic scene of Landis yelling into his headset trailed off into a deep silence. Turning the other way, Yamane became acutely aware that the characteristic noises put out by the ship’s instruments were also absent. An undeniable feeling of timelessness seeped over him.
Amidst the darkness and confusion, however, something began to show itself. People and places long since passed became clearer as each moment trickled by. Commander Yamane tried to fight the pull back in time, but his desire to return there grew in intensity. Further back he went. Further and further, before the arrival of the Deravans, before the losses they had suffered at Mars, and before the future of humanity hung in the balance.
Then, like a flash of light overwhelming all of his senses, a new reality finally overtook him, too strong to resist . . .
GAGARIN STAR FORCE BASE, TITAN
2217, AUGUST 6
1545 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME
Lt. Commander Yamane hustled down the walkway, his pace brisk. Major Stan Kershaw kept up with him, stride for stride. They were running late . . . again. As a person who prided himself on precision and timing in every area in his life, Yamane hated the idea someone else, even a close friend like Kershaw, could affect his duties in so profound a way. But here he was, late for his third patrol in as many weeks. If things didn’t change soon, he would put himself on report.
Yamane caught himself. Despite all his efforts otherwise, he was becoming too rigid, too by the book. It bothered him when this happened. It was just another patrol, one of a dozen scheduled to go up that day. If he and Kershaw took off a little past their scheduled departure time, the heavens wouldn’t come crashing down on top of them.
Needing a distraction, Yamane found himself staring at a beautiful, darkening amber sky. A middle-aged yellow star hovered a little above the horizon, diminished in size and intensity, given the distance between itself and Titan. The day had almost ended, and many other nighttime stars were already flickering in the distance. Even when the Sun hung high in the mid-afternoon sky, the relative brightness was equivalent to an overcast day on Earth. If it were not for hundreds of light-enhancing satellites ionizing the upper atmosphere, people living in the capitol city of Kalmedia would experience almost perpetual twilight.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Frank,” Kershaw objected.
The accusatory statement pulled Lt. Commander Yamane out of his refuge of drifting thoughts. He stopped dead in his tracks. “Uh,” was all he could get out, followed by a feeble: “I guess—”
“No, you don’t guess,” Kershaw fired back. His black, wavy hair fluttered back and forth in the wind. "We have just as much right being here as anyone else.” He rammed his index finger into Yamane’s shoulder patch to better emphasize his point. “Think about it. For over one hundred years, Star Force Command has maintained a consistent policy of outward expansion. And the planets we’ve colonized have been nothing more than miserable heaps of dust and rock."
Yamane took in the distant jagged mountains shooting up from the valley floor. Up above them, a shiny object reflected the last little light from the waning Sun. He couldn’t tell if the ship was coming or going.
Trying a different tactic, Yamane approached their old argument from a new angle. "That's not at all what I'm trying to say. The right to colonize a planet isn't based on whether or not life exists there already. My concern is with the question of Man having a right to be here in the first place. Who are we that we should claim any planet for ourselves?"
A confident grin broke Kershaw’s thoughtful gaze. "But you aren’t asking a valid question,” he replied, as though a pawn had been moved in a game of chess. "When you go back in history, many of our earliest tribes wondered what was beyond the next hill; and then went on over—often with a large contingent of hunters I might add. If there happened to be another tribe on the other side, they resolved their differences, one way or the other. Not many people along the way asked if it should be done. Rather, they fought for what they believed was theirs."
“Again, who’s to say either tribe could say this or that piece of land belonged to them. Land is land. It’s still going to be here long after we’re gone.”
“I’ll give you that,” Kershaw agreed, “but think about what we’ve been through these past ten years. You remember those planetary leaders who believed Kalmedia could have posed a threat to Earth’s security; given the right circumstances. But those fears evaporated overnight when war broke out against the Antaren Empire. After that, no one dared question a need for maintaining a first line of defense here on Titan. Would you just say, ‘Hey, this moon belongs to everyone, so go ahead—take it for yourselves?’”
Yamane looked up at the stars again. A stiff breeze from the north had been blowing all day, making the sky particularly clear of dust and clouds. He found the small blue orb circling the middle-aged sun just below the constellation of Cassiopeia. He almost thought his hand could reach out and touch the planet he called home. “That’s my point exactly. You have two groups of people wanting the same thing—territory. Does one side have the right to take it by force?”
“History would say yes. How many peoples and nations have been subjugated by others because they opted not to fight? Again, I go back to Titan. If this base were not here, we would all be speaking Antaren.”
Yamane wasn’t so convinced. He always believed their fleet of stellar cruisers patrolling the fringes of known space provided a far better defense than a stationary base just outside Kalmedia. “We defeated the Antarens because of you and me, and millions of others who were committed to the fight; not real estate. And now that the war is over, we’ve managed a peace of sorts between our two peoples. An uneasy peace, to be sure, with suspicions running high on both sides, but they respect our borders, as we do theirs. Your point of view is based on how history has sometimes worked out, not on—"
The sounds of an A-96 Min fighter blasted by them. Haunting in nature, the piercing shrill was unmistakable, rattling a person down to the bones. Even after years of flying, most Star Force ground crews never really got used to the noise a ship’s engine could put out.
The pilot angled his ship down, until all three wheels hit the runway hard, filling the air with a multitude of screeching sounds.
“I guess we’ll have to settle this matter another day," Yamane concluded. “Duty calls.”
A look of disappointment crossed Kershaw’s face. Yamane recognized that sulky expression, but winning a philosophical debate paled in comparison to being up there, with the stars. His whole week had been planned around this patrol, and he wasn’t about to miss his chance just to appease his friend. Rather than argue, Yamane just spun around and hurried off to the hangar bay.
“Hey, wait up,” Kershaw surrendered, and then ran after him.
Upon entering the hangar bay, Yamane noted all fourteen single-seat fighters, seven on one side and seven on the other, parked in their assigned stalls with military precision. Near the front of the bay, Yamane’s ship waited for him. His initial inclination had been to climb into the cockpit and roll right onto the tarmac, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not yet. A ritual needed attending to first, one he had observed since his earliest days in the academy. He wasn’t certain if the informal ceremony had been followed out of superstition or habit. Probably a little of both. But he always made it a point of checking over his ship before departing. The mechanics had certainly gone over it with a fine-tooth comb during pre-flight checks, but a trip into space didn’t have the same feel if he didn't work the flaps or inspect his fighter himself.
Coming up from behind, Yamane stood before the tail section. Every line and angle came together for him in a significant and profound way. His attention ambled down somewhat. A careful examination of both sets of small, blunted wings, directional thrusters, and the single engine capable of pushing his craft past stellar velocity gave him a sense of limitless freedom. Any chance to go back up there did—every time.
Moving towards the front, Yamane stopped when he faced his ship head on. Two additional fighters parked towards the rear of the hangar caught his eye. Based on their disassembled appearances, they weren't going anywhere. Someone had removed all six turbines from both ships, while parts and tools littered the floor in a haphazard fashion.
"Are you two arguing again?" a mechanic joked after he came from behind a thruster nozzle. Swipes of grease covered his coveralls from top to bottom. “Only reason I know why you’d be this late for another patrol.”
Yamane gave the starboard wing a good shake. "I assume she's ready to go up?" he asked.
Kershaw walked up from behind. “Oh, don’t worry about him, Sergeant,” he said, sarcasm peppering each word. “The lieutenant commander can’t wait to get out there and answer the secrets of the universe."
The mechanic let out a restrained laugh before bringing his attention back to the half-repaired nozzle. Finding himself drawn to the same cone-shaped apparatus, Kershaw started rolling up his sleeves, exposing two muscular forearms. "Those crossover valves there need replacing,” he offered after a brief examination. “Do you have a modifier wrench handy?"
He had just gotten the housing assembly off when Yamane grabbed his collar and pulled from behind. "You should leave the repairs to the professionals. They know what they’re doing."
Kershaw rose to his feet. "But Frank, this will just take a minute.”
"We're scheduled for the next patrol, not to put fighters back together."
"I don't know why you always want me flying with you,” he replied with that same disappointed look as before. "You know I'm a much better engineer than I am a pilot."
"You don't have to tell me that," Yamane agreed, "but people should find ways of broadening their horizons so they aren't stuck in a rut."
Kershaw placed his hands on his hips. “Look who’s talking. You’ve logged in more flying time in the last two months than half the squadron combined."
“Maybe you’re right,” Yamane countered, "but this will all be a moot point if we don’t get out there in the next two minutes. The control tower is waiting for us.”
"Alright," the major conceded, "but if that fighter is here when we get back, she’s all mine."
The mechanic just shook his head, and then resumed his work.
MOFFETT TRACKING STATION, KORIDAN SECTOR
0237 PROXIMA MERIDIAN TIME, AUGUST 17
Monitor 1 came up negative again. Monitor 2, negative. Ten Seconds later, monitor 3 confirmed the results. The tracking computer moved array number 7 to its next pre-programmed position. Once scanned, a single column of numbers popped onto the screen. Monitor 1 came up negative, again. Monitor 2, negative. Ten seconds later, monitor 3 confirmed the results. And on and on the same mind-numbing activity had taken place throughout the night.
Sergeant Morris stared at all nine screens across from him, a blank look on his face, trying his best to remain awake. It had been his tenth double-duty shift in as many days, and he was exhausted. A fact driven home with a realization that monitoring those same planets in the Rovina system for hours on end had long become a tiresome sight. Most people would feel this way, he reasoned to himself, if they had to do the same monotonous activity for two weeks straight: check an area of space, usually one with little strategic significance, and then move on. The whole thing seemed pointless.
Array number 7 moved over again. Even though the targeted areas were light-years away, the transceiver relayed multiple streams of data in an instant. Morris smiled. In fact, he considered the operational system something of an amusing diversion. Dr. Fredrick Henkle, who had developed the Radial Amplification Resonator fifty years before, created more confusion than anyone he knew. He must have had a warped sense of humor, Morris thought. Why else would he call his creation RadAR? Confusing name or not, Henkle’s invention revolutionized space travel. At just about any point in the galaxy, an operator could send and receive a signal in a matter of seconds, as though the distance between the two had melted away. From then on, the business of space travel had become a much more practical endeavor. For Morris, however, reaching out to the stars did not give him the personal freedom he thought would be a part of his work. Instead, his duties in the military had become a kind of jail sentence—just him and his keepers, the machines.
Resigned to a purgatory-like existence for the remainder of his shift, Morris picked up another cup of coffee. He couldn’t remember if it was his fourth or fifth. As he put in a third packet of sugar, a high-pitched chirp registered on the speaker. He swiveled his chair around. The small, angled display revealed what it had an hour before, a class-M star cluster. Thinking he must be hearing things, Morris reached over and picked up the cream. A beep sounded a second time. He put the cream down and checked the screen again. The same stars appeared, nothing else.
“Those stupid birds are nesting at the arrays again.” He picked up his data pad and typed in a memo, “Note to self: Shoo birds away at end of shift.”
A high-pitched chirp sounded a third time. The mobile tracker stopped, indicating it had locked onto something. He stared at the screen. Nothing seemed to be different. He rubbed his chin. “Let’s see if this works,” Morris mumbled to himself. He typed a series of commands into his console. The booster array signal doubled in strength, increasing picture resolution by almost fifty percent. There, ever so faintly, a hazy image appeared.
“What are you doing all the way out there?” he said under his breath. “Maybe if I tighten the bandwidth.” Morris input the new directive into his tracking computer. That star cluster, filling just about every square centimeter of the display, moved inward, as though it had collapsed upon itself. Morris’ idea was working. There, right before his eyes, the ghost changed itself into a small, fuzzy blip. “Gotcha!” he declared in triumph.
Two rows of analytical computers began to click and whirr, evidence they were processing a flurry of incoming data. Morris scooted his chair over and studied the numbers. Though broken in spots, the telemetry indicated the object was traveling in a linear direction. “Must be a deep space patrol I forgot about,” he concluded. But after accessing flight schedules for that region of space, he found nothing had been scheduled out there for the next two months. Something's not right about this, he thought. Maybe I should contact the duty officer. Morris switched on the intercom.
"This had better be good," a groggy-sounding voice replied after a lengthy delay.
"Captain Gollanski, this is Sergeant Morris in tracking tower two. I just picked up something unusual on my monitor. I think you should come down here and double-check these findings."
A heavy sigh came through the speaker. "Can it wait until morning?"
"I don't believe so, Captain. Something tells me this might be important."
“You don’t believe? That’s not much of a—” Gollanski stopped. “I’ll be there in a minute,” he sighed again. And just as he promised, the duty officer arrived sixty seconds later, on the dot. Draped in a blue flannel robe, he went right up to Morris. "All right, Sergeant," the captain said in a conspicuously gruff manner, “what's so important that just couldn’t wait?"
Morris swallowed hard. “I’ve been tracking an unidentified object for the last ten minutes. Telemetry indicates the unknown is coming from sector seven, but we don't have anything scheduled out there until October. I was hoping you might know something about this." The captain, in the midst of a yawn, just shrugged. “Maybe if you see what I’m talking about.” He switched the transmission from his console to one nearest the Captain.
Gollanski rubbed his still tired eyes, then bent over and scrutinized the intermittent contact from a closer vantage point. “Preliminary analysis indicates the unknown is traveling in a linear direction,” he mumbled to himself. “Are you sure these readings are correct?”
“No doubt about it. I've checked them over three times.”
“Sector seven is right at the edge of known space,” the captain affirmed. “A transport would need a couple of weeks just to get out there. Has the telemetry indicated what this could be?”
“The object is still too far away. Maybe in an hour or two we can get more accurate data.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about this.” He stood up and stared at the nine screens above. “I think Star Force Command should be informed. Make contact with them right away.”