The last three months have been a boon for my books. The Fox and the Eagle has been doing particularly well, and my other titles are doing better than average as well. With so many new readers, I’ve decided to revisit past ideas for a fifth book in the series. As usual, I’ll be posting the content as I create it. The first draft of the prologue and first chapter are below; if the prologue seems familiar it’s because I’ve posted it here before. However, it concludes differently now.
“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.
“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, whom 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.” Jones showed Val a picture of the man. “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 Vega, 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 Vega 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 as 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 the trunk, right? 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 down…”
Their opponent continued to trade shots with Jones as Val repeated his bounding movements. With his lungs burning, his last effort got him to the shadowy remains of the station’s main building. In the gloom, he spotted a silhouette by the gas pumps, and fired his pistol until the slide locked back. He sprinted toward the corner of the building to reload, then glanced back toward the action.
Silence had returned to the desert. Val pulled out a small flashlight and slowly approached the pumps. He could see a body lying face down on the dusty pavement. He crouched behind a nearby pump, activated his flashlight, and shouted at the figure.
“Federal agent! Show me your hands! Jones, move up!”
The figure didn’t move, and Jones didn’t respond. Val crept up and kicked an unfamiliar rifle away from the body. The back of its head was a bloody mess. Val repeated his call for help, and again there was no reply. He used his leg to roll the body over, and was shocked to find that the figure had the head of a cat. Logic failed him at that point, but he could at least see that his opponent had been shot through the neck and forehead.
Val picked up the strange rifle, and backtracked to the abandoned cars. Jones and Morgan lay dead, each hit with a round that both penetrated their flesh and seared it black. He swapped the rifle for the Colt, noticed that it had a spare magazine in a pouch on the buttstock, and reloaded it. Returning to the station, he pulled out his phone and began to take pictures of the creature he had killed. It was at the same time that he noticed he didn’t have a cell signal.
Satisfied enough with the pictures of the giant feline humanoid, he returned to the Ford. Everything inside was toast. Again, his phone indicated no signal. That meant his choices were to leave the corpses behind and hike back to town, or sit tight and wait for somebody to figure out he was missing. He didn’t like his choices. He went back to search the body, but found himself hesitating. Even though he could see brain matter on the pavement, the creature still frightened him. Even more terrifying was the prospect that it had friends who might show up looking for it.
In the end, protocol dictated that he keep the scene secure. Val resigned himself to spend the night at the gas station, though he was sure he would not sleep.
It was a beautiful sunny day in the high desert, and Milena Zukova was nervous. She was riding in a 44-passenger bus with six men, all of whom were mostly strangers to her. The extra room on the bus was partially filled with rucksacks, duffel bags, and rifle cases. Her mood was doubtlessly shared by the four other recruits, although they were considerably more chatty with each other.
There were also two CIA handlers on board. The one driving had introduced himself as Chance Richter. He was a man in his early thirties, with high cheekbones and an intense stare. He had the build of a military man, and carried himself just like the others on board. Milena knew the other men were soldiers even before any introductions, that much was obvious. Only one recruit stood out as being a little bit different, and he was subsequently identified as a Navy surgeon. Milena’s own bearing was much like his, evidence of different training priorities for those not primarily concerned with ground combat.
The other handler sat directly behind the driver. He had introduced himself as John Scherer, mission commander. He had longer hair than the other men, and a softer expression. He had spent most of the bus ride staring out of the window. Milena wondered if he was worried about the recruit who was a no-show, or something more pressing. The total secrecy of the mission so far made it impossible to tell.
The entire recruitment process seemed unusual, but without any real knowledge of the CIA’s standard operating procedures, Milly could only take it at face value. The requirements were pretty straightforward, and just a little bit of small talk confirmed they had been the same for all of them; top secret clearance, a Special Forces background or a highly desired skill set, the ability to travel for long periods, and the ability to remain out of contact with friends and family for an extended period. The packing list required both civilian and military clothing, a laptop computer, and a PDA/smartphone of current manufacture. Optional items included an individual first aid kit, field gear, combat gear, and a pistol and/or rifle of choice. Since it also said that weapons would be provided otherwise, Milly hadn’t brought any. The other recruits obviously had.
All together, the recruits had made a rather impressive sight at the airport. They had been told to tell anyone who cared to ask, such as TSA officers, that they were attending a rifle course at the nearby Gunsight Academy. Apparently such students were a common sight at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, as none of them experienced any problems. Richter and Scherer had shown up with the bus, and with a rather grave warning from the latter man that this was their last chance to decline the mission, they’d loaded up and departed.
Richter pulled the bus off of the hardtop and onto a dirt road. The vehicle rumbled across another five miles of empty desert before they stopped. A group of people were waiting for them, just standing out in the middle of nowhere. Milly counted four men, four women, and a German shepherd. She only recognized one of them, a woman by the name of Ferro, who had been present at her interview.
“Last stop, everybody off!” said Richter.
There was a flurry of activity as everybody jumped off the bus and unloaded their gear. Richter and Scherer joined the other group and waited for everyone to gather around. Milly only had one bag, so she overheard a brief exchange.
“Where’s the fifth guy?” asked Ferro.
“He never showed up,” Richter replied softly. “Let’s not stick around any longer than we have to.”
Once all the recruits were standing there expectantly, Scherer addressed them.
“Gentlemen and lady, you’ve already met Richter and I. Some of you have also met Lieutenant Ferro.” The woman nodded. She was attractive, with shoulder-length black hair and green eyes, though she looked like she’d been through hell and back recently. Scherer continued. “Let me introduce the rest of our team, then we can finally reveal the mission. This is Ray Bailey, Dana Andrews, Seth Aldebaran, Miriam Colchester, Cassie Lyra, Reveki Kitsune, and Kyrie Devonai. Oh, and the dog’s name is Tycho.”
Milly couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard such an unusual collection of names. Each of the team members stepped forward when their names were mentioned. Now that they were together, she noticed that Colchester and Kitsune couldn’t have been a day over 18 years old. Either that or she was starting to lose perspective. On the other end of the spectrum was Devonai, who looked like he was in his fifties. Everyone else fell somewhere between 30 and 40. There was something different about Aldebaran and Lyra, but Milly couldn’t put her finger on it at the moment. All in all it was a very strange combination of people, and nothing like the nearly homogenous group of recruits.
“We’ll get into our individual duties later,” said Richter, seeming to anticipate the reaction. “Now I’d like each of you to briefly introduce yourself, including your relevant experience.”
Milly found Richter looking at her first, so she cleared her throat. “Hi, I’m Major Milena Zukova. I just finished up ten years with the United States Air Force. Most of that time I was an F-35 pilot out of Elgin.”
She looked to her left, and the rest of the recruits went down the line.
“Commander Jim Penrose, I was a cardiovascular surgeon for the United States Navy out of Bethesda.”
“Sergeant First Class James Ehrlich, United States Army, detachment Delta.”
“Tech Sergeant Grayson Hawkes, USAF Pararescue, formerly with the 563rd out of David-Monthan.”
“First Lieutenant Marc Sparrow, Marine Force Recon out of Alameda.”
Richter nodded. “Okay, thank you. As you can see this team brings a lot of very valuable combat operations experience to the mission. Penrose, don’t feel left out, your skills will almost doubtlessly be needed as well. And Zukova, you’re about to find out why we recruited a pilot.”
Scherer smiled. “Christie, we’re ready out here.”
A building materialized out of nothing in front of them. Milly’s brain struggled to catch up to what her eyes were showing her. She quickly realized it wasn’t a building, but some kind of vehicle. It was a least ten meters in height, and about thirty-five meters long. It strongly resembled the fuselage of a C-5 Galaxy, but without the nose cone, wings or tail section. It had a front ramp that was lowered to the ground, but the rest of the fuselage appeared to float a couple of meters above the ground. There was no rear ramp; instead the aft section was squared off with two sections jutting out slightly on either side. Above the ramp, just like the C-5, was a flight deck of some kind. Just below that, the unmistakable business end of a GAU 8/A 30mm cannon protruded from the hull. There were also top and bottom gun turrets midway down, each mounting a yet-unidentified weapon system. Along the hull, mostly on the top deck, were hourglass-shaped windows. Just below the flight deck, there was a striking painting of a blindfolded woman firing an arrow. Milly looked at the others in shock, which was obviously the universal reaction. Sparrow eventually broke their silence, and said what they were all thinking.
“It’s a God damned space ship,” he said.
“May I introduce to you the Reckless Faith,” began Scherer, “the first Earth spacecraft to leave the solar system. And before you think that your government has been lying to you all these years, it was built with a combination of Earth and alien technology by a private organization. The agreement was to build the ship and help liberate that alien world from an invasion force, which, I’m proud to say, we did. In fact, this ship has seen several major combat actions, and most of her crew are veterans of battles you can hardly even imagine. It turns out, to the surprise of nobody, that the galaxy is a very dangerous place. We have already eliminated one alien threat to Earth, but one more remains. That’s why we brought you here. This threat could range from a mere annoyance to an extremely grave problem. Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough information right now; only that the threat exists. However, our experience has taught us to prepare for the worst. Tomorrow, we’re departing for the region of the Vulpecula constellation to reunite Captain Kitsune with her ship, which has more than enough room for half of us, and together we’ll begin our investigation of the threat. But be warned! You may die in the black void of space, or be gunned down on some God-forsaken rock by hideous alien soldiers. So, anybody want to back out?”
“I have a million questions,” began Hawkes, “as I’m sure we all do. Let me start with this one: You said the ship was built by a private organization. How did the CIA come into possession of it?”
Ehrlich shook his head and spoke up. “Look around you, man, and think about it for a minute. These people aren’t with the government.”
“I apologize for misleading you,” replied Scherer. “But it was the only way we could possibly interview potential recruits. You would have dismissed us as lunatics long before we could prove ourselves. And if this ship isn’t proof enough, how’d you like to get an up-close look at Saturn? We can be there in five minutes.”
“This is the opportunity we’re offering you,” began Richter. “Take a tour of the ship. Accompany us on a quick tour of the solar system if you want. If you decide it’s too much for you, or you’re deeply offended that we lied about being with the CIA, then we’ll drop you off and you’ll never see us again. Or, take your leave now. The keys are still in the bus.”
The recruits looked at each other, and stared at the ship. No one said a word for almost a full minute.
“Well, shit,” said Sparrow. “At the very least I’ve gotta see the inside of the ship.”
Scherer smiled again. “Grab your gear, load it up. I guarantee none of you are going to want to go home after this.”
Twenty minutes later, Milly stood on the bridge of the Reckless Faith, staring at the rings of Saturn from less than five hundred miles away. The other recruits were crowded around her. It was all so overwhelming for her, almost to the point of physical collapse. She hadn’t felt that way since her first solo flight in an F-35 eight years ago. Scherer sat in the pilot seat, and let his guests gaze at the incredible vista.
They had toured the entire ship before the flight, and received more background information about the ship’s previous exploits as well as the upcoming mission. They were even further surprised to find out that the ship’s computer contained the consciousness of a crewmember whose body had died, but whose mind was saved. Her name was Christie Tolliver, and she seemed nice enough considering she was a disembodied voice being piped in over the intercom system. She was capable of piloting the ship herself, but had deferred to Scherer’s manual control.
The ship itself had been designed primarily by Scherer, though certain aspects of it were subconsciously introduced to him by the extraterrestrial entity they’d first encountered. That entity now resided inside the body of Seth Aldebaran, who turned out to be, along with Cassie Lyra and Reveki Kitsune, aliens. Milly had noticed minor physical differences but wouldn’t have guessed they weren’t human. They, along with the rest of the original crew, were simply staying out of the way during the tour of the ship, so she hadn’t had much of an opportunity to talk to them.
The Faith had a relatively simple layout, but contained incredible technology. As Scherer had indicated, its design was of rather conventional aircraft architecture but enhanced with essential alien hardware. The stardrive worked on cold fusion, though no elaboration was initially offered, and could provide a maximum speed of 1.5 million times the velocity of light, or c. Milly couldn’t do the math in her head during the orientation, but she was sure it made the local galactic neighborhood well within range. That speed, however, was only practical in extreme emergencies due to the effects of time dilation: the faster they went, the more time would pass for the rest of the galaxy. Peak engine efficiency was at 900 c, with far less deleterious effects, and was used for most operations. Other features that were mentioned during the tour included anti-gravity plating, an energy-negating hull, non-organic matter replication and transportation, and, of course, the formerly human entity inside the main computer. Scherer had saved the topic of most interest to the newcomers until they’d arrived back on the bridge. He activated an elaborate heads-up-display on the forward window, which was visible from anywhere on the bridge.
“The Faith is very well armed,” he began. “Many of you no doubt noticed the GAU 8/A 30mm up front. We also have plasma cannons mounted fore and aft. For offensive operations, the combination of the 30mm munitions and the plasma bursts have proven to be very effective. We originally had a GAU 8 facing the rear, but it was removed to make room for the aft plasma cannon. Our articulated defensive weapons are a pair of GAU 19/A fifty-caliber guns in the dorsal and ventral positions, and a pair of high-yield lasers along the port and starboard. The lasers are not very powerful by themselves, and are generally only effective against lightly-armored targets and electrical components. Their efficacy is improved if the target is also hit with the fifties, though hitting anything with both simultaneously is a challenge. It almost goes without saying that all of our weapons systems are extremely effective against ground targets. Captain Kitsune’s ship, the Fox, has different but equally formidable armaments.”
“How much soundproofing do you have between the bridge and the Avenger?” asked Milly.
“Not much, and we’re actually going to add more. Touching off a burst of thirty-mil isn’t exactly a serene experience up here at the moment. You’ll all get a chance to hear it soon enough. Anyway, all of our weapons systems can be controlled from the bridge or from the dorsal and ventral stations I showed you. We usually have those positions manned, because while the 30mm can be reloaded in situ, the fifty-cals must be reloaded manually.”
“How do the conventional weapons perform in space?” asked Hawkes.
“There’s no bullet drop or air resistance, so the rounds will travel straight to the target. There is no maximum effective range per se, but if you touch off a burst from too far away the enemy ship can simply maneuver out of the line of fire. We’ll also be beating up on some poor defenseless asteroids as part of our training. As I said before, we can simply replicate more ammo, so you’ll all get a chance to play with this stuff. You’re going to love it, trust me.”
“How does she handle?” asked Milly.
“Compared to what you normally fly? I don’t know. She’s nimble, though a bit slow through the Z-axis. She can aileron roll 360 in less than a second.”
“Most of you are going to puke the first time we put her through her paces, especially in atmosphere.” said Bailey.
Christie’s voice filled the bridge. “John, before you start with gunnery practice, there’s something you should see.”
“Whatcha got?” he replied.
“I’ve been reviewing the EM sensor logs from back when we were on the ground in Arizona. Check out these readings from last night.”
Christie put a graph on the main screen. There was an obvious spike in one of the bands, which repeated several times over the course of a few minutes.
“It’s plasma rifle fire. I can’t triangulate its origin point, but I can tell you it was approximately twenty miles due west of our position on the ground.”
“I take it that wasn’t one of yours?” asked Sparrow.
John shook his head. “Nobody else on Earth should have access to that kind of technology. If there are other aliens back home that we don’t know about, we could have a big problem. Christie, get us back there immediately.”
“I’m setting a course,” she replied.
Saturn swung out of view as Christie got the ship moving. Sol became the only obvious feature among the stars, and grew in apparent size until they arrived back at Earth.
“Wow,” began Hawkes, “we got home a lot faster than we got to Saturn.”
John said, “Normally we wouldn’t exceed 900 c for a trip that short, but this seems urgent.”
The Faith entered the atmosphere, and bright orange flames licked at the edges of the windows until North America appeared. Within minutes, they were five hundred feet above Arizona, twenty miles west of where they started.
“I’m running every scan imaginable, John,” said Christie.
“Okay. Let us know when you…”
“Got something! That was easy. I’ve got a trace amount of uranium hexafluoride near a structure about a mile from here.”
“I’m guessing there’s no chemical plant or something like that at that location?”
“Not according to my database. The last satellite photo shows a gas station.”
Christie put the image on the main screen.
“Sure looks like a gas station. Get us over there.”
It only took the ship a few seconds to arrive at the station. It was immediately evident that something had happened. A truck was smoldering by the main road, lazily wafting a thin stream of smoke into the calm air.
“I’m reading one life sign, human, inside the main structure. I can also see two corpses near the road.”
“Let’s check it out. Ray, Richter, Aldebaran, you’re with me. Ferro, Lyra, Devonai, you’ll provide overwatch. Grab your gear.”
“You’re leaving us out of the action?” asked Ehrlich.
“With all due respect, Sergeant, we haven’t had a chance to train together yet. I’m not doubting the skill of any of you, but we have to go over SOP for comms, hand and arm signals, fire teams, et cetera, before we can integrate you into our operations.”
“Colchester, Kitsune, Andrews, you’ll man our weapons stations. Christie, stay sharp. We don’t want any more uninvited guests.”