When I eventually write a fifth book in the Reckless Faith universe, it might start off something like this. This story would replace my last attempt, Fitz and the Flat, which I posted earlier.
“Hey, Agent Smith!”
Val was on his way from the front desk to the elevators when he heard someone call his name. He turned to his right and looked into the lounge area. His contact, Special Agent Ben Jones, was sitting at a small table near the bar. Val approached him.
“Agent Jones, nice to meet you,” he began, “I wasn’t expecting to see you until tomorrow morning.”
“Please, have a seat. Unless you’re absolutely bushed.”
Val moved his luggage to the side and sat down. Jones was a man in his forties, with glasses and a small moustache. He was wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants, and had his windbreaker draped over the back of his chair. The jacket was the type with concealable lettering, which was handy for traveling. He grasped a glass of brown liquor, and looked like he’d just arrived from the airport himself.
“No, that’s fine. What are you drinking?”
“Oban. Want one?”
Jones signaled the bartender and pointed to his glass. The tired-looking woman smiled briefly and brought over another. Smith took a small sip and let the smoky liquid roll over his tongue. The lounge area was much nicer than the lobby, with wood paneling and well thought out lighting, and seemed to speak of a heyday for this location at some time in the past. Val considered the other man for a moment before speaking.
“I must admit I’m rather curious as to why they sent someone from DC over here for this case. From what I read in the initial report…”
“Hold on,” said Jones, and removed a small device from his jacket. It looked like a black egg on a small wire-framed stand. “Can’t be too careful. Go ahead, please.”
“Is that the new short-range jammer? I heard about it, but my office hasn’t seen them yet.”
Jones smiled. “It’s more than that. It also dampens audible sound up to a one meter radius. I just want to be sure that this is a private conversation.”
Val looked around at the vacant lounge, then at the bartender, who was far more interested in the television than her patrons. “Of course. Wasn’t there some concern that our phones will be blocked?”
“Yours is, but the device has been programmed to allow my phone to work properly. Tomorrow I can add yours in case we need to do this again.”
Jones sipped from his glass. “Anyway, you were wondering why they sent me in from DC. I’m aware that your office is perfectly capable of investigating this case without oversight. Rest assured that’s not the reason for my presence. Tell me what you know so far.”
Val leaned back in his chair. “Someone claiming to represent the CIA has been recruiting former special forces operatives for a mysterious mission, using Flagstaff as a base of operations. One man, formerly with Marine Recon, was offered a job, but had second thoughts and decided not to take it. He approached the CIA because there were a few things about the recruitment process that he thought were suspicious, mostly that the interviews were conducted out of a hotel conference room and the supposed CIA representatives had nothing but pre-paid cell phones as a means of contact. He also recognized one of the men from his days in the service, who he identified as Chance Richter. While Richter was in fact once a CIA operative, the agency says they were running no such recruitment. Then, for reasons not specified in the report, the entire case was handed over to the DIA. So here we are.”
Jones nodded. “Agent Smith, I hate to add to your curiosity, but the DIA’s involvement is on a need-to-know basis. Suffice it to say for now that I’m here because of Richter, and if it becomes necessary, I’ll brief you on why. So, what’s our next move?”
“Well, sir, unless you’ve changed it, the plan is to show up at the appointed time and see what’s going on. The only problem I have is that we could be walking into a gigantic shit sandwich. I take it you read the packing list these people gave to their recruits?”
“Yup, they’re showing up ready for war. Smith, we’re not going to try to bust up the whole operation. It’s just recon. Based on the location given for the meeting, all we have to do is claim we took a wrong turn off of Route 66. Then we can make a determination if backup is necessary. If we go in too strong at first, we could scare them all off, or get killed. That’s why we’re going in hiking clothes. We’ll still be armed, of course.”
Val frowned. “It would have made a lot more sense to put a wire on that Marine and send him in first.”
“We asked, he said no.”
“I still think…”
Jones held up his hand. “Hold on, I have a call coming in. Special Agent Jones. Yes, sir.”
Val sipped his scotch and waited as Jones spoke on his phone. The older man was asking a lot of questions and obviously getting few answers. After a couple of minutes the call ended.
“Everything all right?”
Jones took a deep breath and gave Val a hard look. “How much do you know about the Portland Incident?”
Val had to think about that for a moment. “You mean the USS Portland in 2003?”
“The same thing they tell everyone, I guess. It was scuttled by an unknown terrorist group. Nobody ever claimed responsibility. Navy divers carved it up and the whole thing was sold for scrap.”
“Agent Smith, I’m about to raise your clearance level.” Jones pulled out his PDA. “Place your thumb on the bottom of the screen and look at the top, I’m going to do a retinal scan. When you hear the beep, please state your full name and title.”
Val did so, then said, “Special Agent Val Michael Smith, Defense Intelligence Agency.”
Jones messed with his PDA for a second. “Your first name is Val? Is that short for anything?”
“No, that’s the whole name. My parents named me after a character in a Heinlein novel. It was originally Valentine.”
“That’s fascinating.” Jones tossed a twenty dollar bill on the table and stood up. “Have your bags brought up to your room. We’re going mobile.”
“Now? Where are we going?”
“The Humphreys Peak Observatory.”
Five minutes later, Val and Agent Jones were headed north toward the mountains in Val’s ’27 Ford Endurance. The evening air had grown quite chilly and Val wished he had grabbed more than his goofy department-issue windbreaker. Smith seemed unaffected, but didn’t object when Val turned the heat up to 68.
“What I’m about to tell you is the reason why I had to increase your clearance level,” began Jones. “It will probably be no surprise to you that the story about the Portland is just a cover. However, the truth is much more bizarre. In 2003, a group of civilians came into contact with some sort of extraterrestrial probe. The probe contained technology that allowed them to construct a spacecraft. They disintegrated the Portland as a source of material for the construction of that craft. The CIA and DIA attempted to intercept this group before they could complete the construction, but were unable to stop them from leaving the planet. They haven’t been heard from since.”
Val looked at Jones, expecting him to be smirking at him. “You’re putting me on.”
“You want to keep your eyes on the road there, Ace? I’m perfectly serious, Smith. May I continue?”
“By all means.”
“So, two of the CIA operatives assigned to investigate the case ended up joining forces with the group. One was captured, the other escaped on the ship. The latter man was Chance Richter. He had been a Marine Scout Sniper before joining the CIA, which is how the man from our case recognized him. That’s why I’m here; this is the first hint of anything in over 25 years. That also leads us to why we’re going to the observatory. Initially, the CIA was able to track the alien technology thanks to signals identified by a group called ASTRA, the American Space Transmission Research Association.”
“Are they like SETI?”
“Yes, but funded entirely by universities and academic organizations. Ever since then, we’ve had a standing order with both groups to contact us the moment they receive a similar signal. The Humphreys Peak Observatory just did.”
Val nodded. “That can’t be a coincidence.”
“I doubt it is. I think the most logical explanation is that the ship is back, and they’re trying to recruit new crewmembers. Anyway, I wish you had time to read the full report, it would be helpful. For now I’ll just try to keep to the summary. Let’s see, I guess I can tell you about the Portland itself. Now at first, we thought that this group had chosen this decommissioned ship simply because of its proximity to Boston, and that it was composed primarily of the type of material they needed. It turns out that the Portland was the repository for sixty kilograms of a mysterious radioactive metal discovered after the end of World War Two. Military scientists tried unsuccessfully to figure out what it was, or how to make use of it. The Portland was the second of two ships to act as a mobile laboratory. Sometime after 1970, the project lost funding, and the entire project was buried in the Pentagon’s voluminous paper record database. By the time the Portland was decommissioned, everyone who had worked on the project was dead or retired. The stuff was simply forgotten.”
Val steered the truck onto the road that would gradually lead them up to the observatory. “So the spacecraft needed this mysterious metal in its construction?”
“Where did they find it in the first place?”
“That’s where the story gets even weirder. You’re aware that the Third Reich amassed a huge collection of artwork from around the world, right? Well, after the war the allies found a sandstone tablet in Berlin that dated to ancient Sumeria. Inexplicably, the tablet translated into modern celestial bearings for several stars. Some of the Nazi leaders revealed that they were planning on investigating the coordinates of the stars terrestrial counterparts before the defeat.”
“That’s like, Indiana Jones type stuff right there.”
“Are you making fun of me, Smith?”
Val stiffened up. “No, uh, of course not, sir!”
Jones laughed. “Relax.”
“Er, right. So which stars? And what do you mean by terrestrial counterparts?”
Accessing his PDA, Jones read off a list. “Excuse my pronunciation, I’m not an astronomer. They were: Alpha Cepheus, or Alderamin, Alpha Lyrae, or Wega, Alpha Ursae Minoris, or Polaris, and Gamma Draconis, or Eltanin. These are all stars that have been or will be the North Star. Next were Alpha Crucis, or Acrux, Beta Crucis, or Mimosa…”
“Like the drink?”
Jones glared at Val. “I don’t think so. Gamma Crucis, or Gacrux, and Delta Crucis, which is unnamed. Those are the four stars of the Southern Cross. So there was a code after the coordinates for these stars, which apparently wasn’t too difficult to decipher. It transliterated the celestial coordinates into terrestrial coordinates, with an accuracy of 100 meters. Once the tablet fell into our hands, the Army set about looking for anything they could find at those locations. Two were underwater, so that didn’t work out, and at two more they found nothing. But at the other four, they found 15 kilograms each of this mysterious metal. They spent the next 25 years trying to figure it out, and never did.”
“So, ancient aliens? Is such a thing even possible?”
“I don’t know, Smith. I was really just a hatchet man before I got involved in all of this. Oh, here’s some more information on the metal. It says here that it was some sort of stable meta-state of Neptunium, whatever that means. You wouldn’t happen to be a nuclear physicist on the side, would you?”
“Not even remotely. I like astronomy, though. That’s really interesting. I wonder who put that stuff there and why.”
“Probably the same aliens who helped build that spacecraft in 2003. Maybe that was their plan all along.”
The truck rounded a corner and the observatory came into view. The dome was open, and there was a man smoking a cigarette standing outside the front door. Val parked the vehicle and they got out. Away from the city lights, the night sky was spectacular. Val zipped up his windbreaker and followed Jones over to the man. He was in his mid-twenties and was wearing an ochre-hued down jacket. His long hair was tied into a ponytail, and his cigarette smelled like cloves.
“Doctor Morgan?” began Jones. “I’m Special Agent Jones, this is Special Agent Smith, we’re with the Defense Intelligence Agency.”
“Agents Jones and Smith?” Morgan scoffed. “Is that the best you can come up with?”
Jones glanced at Val and the two men pulled out their IDs. Morgan shrugged, threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped on it.
“Sorry to bother you at this time of night,” said Val.
“Well, come in, I’ll show you what I have.”
Morgan led them inside and underneath the massive telescope to a bank of apparently obsolescent computers. The doctor obviously spent a lot of time there, as the only desk was covered in old snack wrappers. His hands were shaking as he sat down and began working at one of the computer stations.
“Nervous about something?” asked Jones.
“Of course I am. Every person who works for ASTRA gets the same briefing when they’re hired. Detect this type of waveform, call this number, and cooperate with the people that show up. Don’t ask questions and don’t expect an explanation. The policy has been in place for 25 years, and as far as I know this is the first time this has happened. So yeah, I’m a little nervous.”
Jones shrugged. “I wish I could set your mind at ease, Doctor Morgan, but that’s exactly right. What have you got?”
The computer screen displayed a waveform and a few diagrams. “There you go. A waveform that fits the specified parameters. The signal was detected twice, once at L2, and once on the surface not far from here.”
“What’s L2?” asked Val.
“Don’t they teach you guys anything? It’s Lagrange Point 2, which lies on a point on the Moon’s orbit, opposite the Earth from the Sun. It’s a great place for astronomical observations due to the… you know what, forget it. The important thing is that whatever object transmitted this waveform ended up here in Arizona not fifteen minutes later. Nobody has a space vehicle capable of landing that quickly, not us, not the Russians, and certainly not the Chinese or Indians.”
Jones nodded. “Doesn’t it stand to reason that interested parties would want to keep that technology a secret? Besides, it’s not your job to speculate on the origin of the transmission. Just give us the coordinates to the local iteration.”
Morgan ruefully handed over a piece of paper with the requested info.
“You’re doing your country a great service,” said Val.
“I suppose I’m prohibited from discussing this with my colleagues,” Morgan said spitefully.
“Since you don’t know shit,” replied Jones, heading for the door, “knock yourself out.”
Val followed him back out to the truck and got in. Jones entered the coordinates into his PDA and harrumphed.
“So, where is it?”
Jones frowned. “It’s not the same place as tomorrow’s meeting. I suppose that would have been too easy. It’s on the opposite side of Flagstaff from here, out in the boonies. Let’s check it out.”
Doctor Morgan came out and ran over to the Ford. He had a PDA tablet in his hands. Jones rolled down his window.
“It just occurred to me,” puffed Morgan. “If that thing moves again, you’re going to need my help tracking it.”
“You’re right,” said Jones. “Here, take down my number, and call us if that should happen.”
“I’ve got the software linked to my tablet. I can give you that information in real time, if you take me with you.”
“I appreciate your adventurousness, kid, but that just ain’t gonna happen.”
“Did you miss the part where I introduced myself as ‘Doctor’ Morgan?” came the angry reply.
Val said, “Come on, sir, he has a good point. I’ve got the standard boilerplate NDA with me, he can fill it out and sign it on the way there.”
“Get in,” Jones said tersely.
Morgan got in the back, and Jones rolled his window back up.
“Thanks…” began Morgan.
“Shut up and listen to me, doctor. A standard non-disclosure agreement isn’t going to cut it. If you come with us, and if you see anything that remotely resembles classified or sensitive information, your career is over. You tell your friends, family, and colleagues that you’re retiring, and you all but disappear. Forget about ASTRA, or teaching astronomy, or anything in that related field. You’ll be lucky if you end up bagging groceries in South Bend. So you need to decide, right now, if coming with us is worth it.”
“I’d rather take that chance than live the rest of my life not knowing what this is all about.”
“Fine. You keep your face glued to that screen and follow our instructions precisely. Smith, let’s get going.”
Thirty minutes later, the trio arrived at an abandoned gas station far outside of Flagstaff. A couple of old signs indicated that the station was probably last in service back when Route 66 was still an active US highway. The station was alone except for a couple of small outbuildings. Val parked the Ford about seventy yards away and the three men got out. Two abandoned cars flanked the drive up to the station; their rusted hulks seemed a fitting tribute to the glory days of the highway. Morgan looked at his tablet one more time, and shook his head.
“Okay, Doc,” began Jones. “You stay here. Smith and I will check out the buildings. If you see anything, lean on the horn.”
“You’re the boss,” replied Morgan.
The sky was even clearer here than on the mountain, and Val couldn’t help but stare upward for a moment. He was able to identify Polaris and Wega easily enough, but didn’t know the other two that Jones had mentioned.
“You want to get your mind on the job at hand, Smith?” growled Jones.
Val and Jones took fewer than five steps toward the station when a bright light streaked from near the gas pumps and struck the Ford, smashing the front passenger window. A split-second later, a very loud flanging ‘whump’ followed the shot. They barely had time to seek cover behind the wrecks when more shots impacted the engine compartment and turned the front end of the Ford into a smoking heap. Both men swore are more shots whipped by. Val had no idea what kind of weapon was being used against them, but it was obviously very powerful. He glanced to his left and noticed Morgan crouched in a very small ball by his feet.
“We’re going to have to rush him!” yelled Jones from behind the other wreck.
“Across seventy yards of open ground?” replied Smith. “Are you crazy?”
“There’s a carbine in my trunk! Cover me and I’ll grab it.”
Val drew his S&W J-frame .38 from the small of his back and offered it to Morgan. “Do you know how to shoot?”
“This is Arizona, everybody knows how to…”
Morgan’s reply was lost in the noise, but he took the revolver. Val drew his primary weapon, a Sig P-229 in .40, and watched as Jones produced his own sidearm. The other agent wasted no time putting a few rounds downrange, and went for the rear hatch. Val covered him with a few errant shots, and Jones returned to his previous position with a Colt M4A1.
“Get ready to leapfrog it!” Jones yelled.
Val glanced out at the station again. There was some scrub brush, which could provide concealment if not cover. It might work if he also had a rifle. Or a diversion.
“Morgan, listen carefully,” he began. “Jones and I are going to work toward the station. When I get halfway there, I need to you fire off all the rounds you have and run as fast as you can back toward town. Take cover when you get winded, and keep going when you catch your breath. Call for help when you can. Do you understand?”
Morgan nodded, so Val readied his pistol.
“Moving!” cried Jones.
Jones sprinted forward as Val fired steadily toward the gas pumps. After a few seconds, Jones dove down and opened up with his rifle. Val sprinted forward as familiar words echoed through his head.
“I’m up, they see me, I’m d-“
He tumbled to the ground, his lungs robbed of air. He looked down just long enough to see a fist-sized hole square in the middle of his chest.