Operation Lumi'nor Free Chapters

Operation Lumi'nor Cover

Chapter: 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 27

One

24 December 2003

NSA Special Section Director Frandrake was reading a progress report on a space operation so secret not even the president knew about it. Although, he thought for a moment, given the seriousness of the alien threat, the president probably should know. NO! Frandrake resolved, the president would be asking too many questions.

He was startled by a firm knock on his office door. He ignored it.

Another knock. He felt his blood pressure rise, but then remembered that he had an appointment.

“Come in,” he said in his deep Texan voice. He continued reading. He was nearly done.

Agent Landers walked into the office and stopped in front of Frandrake’s large oak desk. It brimmed with documents and folders, some neatly stacked, some scattered. Glad I don’t have his job, he thought, dealing with my paperwork is bad enough.

Landers stood and waited. He knew better than to clear his throat. The boss knew he was there.

“Ah, Agent Landers,” Frandrake said a few moments later, while putting the report on one of the piles. “How’s the situation?”

“No indication anyone suspects our involvement in the Beagle 2 failure, Sir. And it appears it produced the distraction we hoped for. Everyone who’s looking at the sky seems to be looking at Mars, trying to find the lander. There have only been a handful of calls to the National Observatory about the southern sky event, three professionals and two amateurs. They got the prepared explanation, Sir.”

“And internationally?”

“Nothing significant, Sir. A dozen or so calls to local government observatories across countries, mostly in the southern hemisphere. Same prepared message being given. Anyway, in another day the event’s gone.”

“What about the uncooperative head astronomer in Australia?”

“We got him round. He preferred to keep his career.” Landers grinned.

“Excellent,” Frandrake replied. “And that alien conspiracy group?”

“Ah, yes. They seem to be unaware, Sir. At least so far they haven’t posted anything relating to the matter on their website.”

“So we’ve contained that email to them in time then?”

“Yes, absolutely. They never saw it.”

“Excellent. Is the debrief a-going?”

“Agents are en route, Sir. We should have the subject at Edwards later in the morning.”

“Good. That’s all.”

Landers turned and walked out.

Frandrake pushed a button on his phone. “Darling,” he said, “cancel all appointments for the next two days.”

“Sure,” Linda’s voice replied. “Where ya going Honey?”

“You know better than to ask,” he said with a sigh.

“Yeah,” she sighed, “but it’s worth trying. I haven’t seen much of you lately. It’s Christmas, and you’re still disappearing at the drop of a hat. Seeing someone else?”

“Hell no! Wouldn’t have the time. Trust me, you’d be the first to know if I did.”

He got up and walked out of his office. At her desk he stopped.

“Sorry Linda. I’ll get back like wild dogs are after me. Promise!” He bent down and kissed her.

Then he walked into the hallway and pressed the down button on the left most of three elevators.

Ding.

The door opened, he walked in and pressed the door-close button. When the door had shut he swiped his ID card over a section of elevator wall just below the main button panel. The featureless gray of the brushed steel of that section became translucent and extra buttons lit up. He touched one and the elevator began to drop at increasing speed.

Two minutes later it slowed down and stopped. The doors opened into the deep underground High Speed Train Network station. Only three people at the NSA knew about it, and only two of them were authorized to use it at their own discretion. He was one of them.

What was now the High Speed Train Network had originally been built during the Cold War as a conventional, nuke proof rail system to connect all major underground command facilities of the country. But without a nuclear war it had fallen out of use and was eventually forgotten.

Frandrake smiled. His group had rediscovered the old network eleven years ago during construction of top secret facilities deep below existing locations, including Cheyenne Mountain Complex and Area 51. A few years later, after antigravity technology had become available to this black budget project, they had upgraded the network to a hyper fast, vacuum tunnel transportation system.

He swiped his card at the control desk, and selected CMC as his destination. A minute later a cab moved into the airlock and opened up. He got in. The door swished shut and the cab moved into the run-in stream to the main tunnel. Imperceptible to him a combination of gravity and antigravity generators began to accelerate the cab to cruising speed. He knew that when the cab joined into the main tunnel eight seconds later it would already be traveling at 1152mph.

***

Agent Johson rang the doorbell at the old Utah farm house.

“Yeah? WHAT?” a gruff voice sounded from the inside of the closed door after the light on the front porch had come on.

“Mr Sean Murphy?” Agent Johnson said measured.

“Who wants ta know? It’s midnight ya dumb ass!” Murphy replied.

“Federal Agents. Open the door.”

A lock turned, the door opened, Agent Johnson pushed. The door slammed into two chains.

“Gotta badge?” Murphy said.

Johnson took a deep breath. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his identification and held it into the gap. Murphy peered at it through half closed eyes, then took a long look at Johnson.

“What ya want?”

“We want you to open the door and let us in.”

“Ya ain’t coming in if ya don’t say what ya want.”

Johnson took another deep breath. He caught a whiff of whiskey in the warm air coming from inside. A shiver ran down his body. The outside air was cold, probably below freezing.

“Ok.” He paused. “Your son Patrick may be a witness in a matter of national security. We need to talk to him.”

“He ain’t here.”

“Where is he?” Johnson said with a sharper edge in his voice.

“He’s in college in San Francisco.”

“Mr Murphy!” Johnson said, his voice as hard and cold as the weather now. “It’s the holidays! We know he’s come home for vacation! I have a warrant! You cooperate, tell us where your son is, and you and your little daughter will have yourselves a nice little Christmas tomorrow. You don’t, and you’ll have yourself a nice little jail cell. Want your daughter to know how they celebrate Christmas at an orphanage?”

He paused. Murphy stayed silent.

“Ok, guys smash the door!” Johnson said.

Two

Patrick Murphy was alone in the mountain cabin an hour’s walk from the main house. The world outside was dark, cold and quiet, it was 1am. Only occasionally a gust of crisp high altitude wind broke the eerie silence. It had snowed over the previous two days and the landscape looked magical. In a few hours the sun would rise for a beautiful, white Christmas over the peaks of the Utah mountains.

For Patrick though this year’s Christmas magic was in the low southern night sky. He had first seen the strange light phenomenon three days ago, but then the heavy snow fall had prevented him from checking it out further. He hoped it was still there. If the phenomenon was what he suspected, it probably wouldn’t last for long.

He glanced at his watch. In a few more minutes the phenomenon should begin to creep over the horizon. In the dim, red light Patrick adjusted the telescope to point roughly where he was expecting it.

With just a bit of luck..., he thought while having another glance at his watch. Just a few more minutes! Too bad it probably can’t be named.

He smiled at a memory. Two years ago, he had been nineteen, he had spotted a large asteroid, and had calculated its orbit. It would come dangerously close to Earth in some years, so he had reported it to the National Observatory. Much to his surprise they had not only named it after him, but had also rewarded him with a scholarship in astronomy at UC Berkeley.

He hadn’t planned to make a career from his beloved hobby, but the offer was too good.

“PATRICK MURPHY?” a voice shouted from the outside.

Patrick  was startled by the rude interruption, and annoyed at himself drifting off into thoughts. He made a mental note to install a proper lock on the door. He never thought he might need one. Expecting the stranger to come barging in he quickly reached for his Smith & Wesson 500 and swiveled on his stool towards the door behind him.

When he realized that the stranger had not yet come in he shouted in his best Dirty Harry impersonation, “Go ahead, make my day!”

“Hey, take it easy Harry. Your Dad said I’d find you up here. He also told me not to get shot by your bear gun, which is why I’m still out here in the freezing cold.”

“Who are ya, and what ya want?”

“My name’s Frank Johnson. I work for the Government and we need to talk to you. Can I come in now? I’m freezing my ass off.”

Patrick smiled. If this guy hoped for a nice log fire, he’d be pretty disappointed. Having grown up out here, Patrick was not only used to the cold - and tonight it was well below freezing - he also knew how to rug up for it. Something Johnson had obviously failed to do. City Slicker!

He looked at his watch. Daggit! The phenomenon would be up. He only had about ten minutes before it set again, and now he had to deal with that clown.

“I ain’t buying anything, get lost!” Patrick said.

“Nice try! I’m a Federal Agent, open the door! I need to talk to you.”

“Then talk! And make it quick. I ain’t got all night.”

Johnson nearly choked before taking a deep breath. Like father, like son!

“Look, kid!” he said with artificially enforced calmness that was as much an attempt to sound jovial as it was an attempt to stop his teeth from chattering. “I don’t wanna be here any more than you do. Open up. It’s a matter of national security. I ain’t got all night either. I need to be home.”

Patrick didn’t respond. He glanced at his watch again. Daggit! Daggit! Daggit! Not much time left.

“Hey Kid, aren’t you curious what the national security thing is all about?”

Yes, he was curious, Patrick realized. He had no idea why federal agents wanted to talk to him.

“Alright then!” he finally said. “If ya come in nice and slow and with yar hands up, I won’t shoot ya. The door ain’t locked. So, what does the FBI want from me? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Slowly the door opened with a deep moan. A brush of air rushed in. It reeked of cigarette smoke. The silhouette of a blocky man appeared against the slightly lighter outside.

“Actually,” Johnson said. “I’m not with the FBI; I’m NSA, and I’d feel much better if you’d put your gun down. Man, it’s just as cold in here as out there! You an Eskimo or something?”

“This is my observatory, I need the roof open for the telescope,” Patrick said matter-of-factly. After a short pause he added. “NSA as in National Security Agency?”

“Yep, that’s the one kid. Look, my boss thinks that you’ve accidentally come across some info relating to a matter of national security. I’ve got orders to take you to the director for a debriefing and then bring you back. I’ve talked to your Dad, he’s ok with it. So how about you put down your gun, come along, and we both get back home in time for Christmas presents?”

“What if I don’t wanna come? Gotta badge or something on ya?”

Johnson slowly put his right hand in his pocket and brought out his ID. Patrick tried to see, but the small red light near the telescope didn’t reach that far. All he saw was a shape.

There were only minutes left before the phenomenon would set, so resigned to another fruitless night he grudgingly turned on the main light. After briefly being blinded by the sudden bright light Patrick saw that Johnson was about six feet and the stereotype of an agent. He was probably in his forties, had dark, neatly trimmed short hair, a rough looking face, blocky build and was wearing a black suit. If it had been day, Patrick was sure Johnson would have worn dark sunglasses too. No wonder the guy was freezing. Johnson pocketed the ID.

“Well,” Johnson spoke again. “Look, I don’t like it any better than you do, but I have orders to pick you up. So ....”

Patrick had to admit that Johnson was probably for real. Curiosity began to replace his anger over the missed opportunity. He also realized that he didn’t have much of a choice. From what he had heard, the NSA usually didn’t like their requests refused. Johnson certainly didn’t look like he was going to go home empty handed. He figured a refusal would just get him arrested, and shooting an NSA agent was definitely not an option he would get away with. Patrick secured the gun and put it in his belt.

“Ok, but I have ta close the roof first.”

He got up, and before Johnson could respond he began to turn a creaking hand wheel on his left. Johnson opened his mouth. Patrick cut him off with “Turn the other one.”

Johnson closed his mouth without a sound, but didn’t move. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Unlike normal people, this kid, like his father, were clearly not intimidated by the Federal Agent bit. Someone needs to teach him some respect, he thought, but he let it slide as he was close to freezing solid. He wished he could just have arrested him at gunpoint, but for some reason the director had ordered that arrest was to be the absolute last resort.

Patrick finished turning the second wheel. The roof closed with a clonk.

“Let’s go!” Patrick headed for the door, Johnson followed.

They were immediately flanked by Agents Smith and Miller. They had been quietly freezing outside the door as backup.

Three

“Heya guys,” Rod and Laura said as they walked in for an evening meeting at the office. It smelled of fresh coffee.

Not that anyone else would call it an office, Laura thought. The room was in an old shed at the back of the property. The place was really more a combination of junk room, tree house hideout and hacker’s delight than a real office. She really hated seeing all that litter of electronic junk that Mike and Rod collected. At least the kitchenette was clean and tidy. The guys aren’t in charge of that bit! she added with a mental grin.

They called themselves ACCIA - Alien Conspiracy and Cover-up Investigation Agency.

Mike Wright, a 26 year-old computer engineer with AT&T, and 24 year-old Steven Rogers had started it several years ago. These days it also included Rod, Steph, Laura, Megs, and sometimes Patrick. In their spare time they researched everything from UFO sightings and alien abductions to government cover-up allegations, and produced a small newsletter sent to anyone who subscribed on the ACCIA web page.

“Hi,” the assembled group of friends echoed.

 “Anything up?” Laura asked.

“Oh yeah, a hella stuff!” Mike said, looking more serious than usual. “Three days ago Patrick sent me an email about, um, some strange cosmic phenomenon and his, um, alien theory about it.”

Steph raised her eyebrows. “I thought all his theories revolve round like real space thingies?”

“Maybe we rubbed off on him,” Mike replied. “Anyway, um, he sent me this email, but I was busy researching other stuff, so, um, I just gave it a cursory glance. However, and this is where it gets interesting, last night I noticed that the message had disappeared from my inbox by itself.”

“Maybe you just like trashed it and don’t remember?”

“That’s what I thought.” Mike stroked his neatly trimmed mustache. “But I checked the trash. It ain’t there. Hadn’t, um, emptied it for weeks, so it had to be there if I had trashed it, but it wasn’t. Then I took a look at my inbox in the raw, um, just in case something had corrupted it. That would prevent the message from displaying. Bingo.”

“Bingo what?” Steph interrupted again.

“Can we let Mike report without interrupting?” Steven said annoyed.

“Thanks, Steven. As I was, um, saying, when I checked my inbox file the message was gone there too. BUT... hear this! The first two lines of the header were still there. That’s a clear indication that the message was deleted by hand. And whoever did it stuffed up, probably in a hurry to get out of the computer.”

“So, in short,” Steph said, “someone hacked like into our computer and trashed your message. Didn’t we hacker proof the thing?”

“For sure, but there’s no 100% protection for a machine that is online 24/7. Besides, um, this wasn’t the kid from next door, this was a top expert.”

“How’d you know THAT?” Steph asked.

“Well, piece of cake. As part of our, um, hacker proofing we installed a number of security programs. Some commercial, some shareware, some, um, homegrown by Rod. They all monitor, backtrack and log pretty much everything going on in the machine, including the activity of our hacker.”

“Doesn’t sound too expert,” Steven said, “if he got busted by us. Can we kick his ass?”

“Yes it does. And no. An amateur would’ve been caught by all the programs. If he’d even managed to get in. I mean, this guy busted in like we had no password, and didn’t leave a trail in any of the normal system logs, or in the, um, commercial or shareware security programs. He disabled it all. But he didn’t notice Rod’s nifty little code in the kernel. Logged him sneaking in, and traced his computer.” Mike grinned.

“Awesome, Bro!” Steph beamed a broad smile at her brother Rod. “How’d you like do that?”

“Ahhhh ... That’s the big secret, Sis.” Rod grinned back. “But I’ll let ya in on it. Most add on security is, well, add on. They are separate programs. The clever ones hide behind inconspicuous names, but an expert can spot and bypass them. My code ain’t separate. I wrote it into the Linux kernel. Hides the program, and ya also can’t kill it. To kill it ya’d have to kill the kernel and that would kill the whole machine. Awesome, eh? Yes, one could modify the logs, but it wouldn’t help. My code keeps a copy of the log in memory, and writes it to disk every ten minutes. Any changes to the file on disk just gets overwritten. So, where did my logs say the hacker came from?”

“You ready?” Mike said with raised eyebrows. “Ok – get this! Our hacker came in from the FBI lounge.”

The FBI lounge, as they all knew, was a dirty little internet café in central downtown. For 30 cents an hour anyone could use the computers to surf the net, send email and do almost anything. If you paid for the connection and a few of the exorbitantly priced snacks, nobody asked any questions. And the systems weren’t monitored as in most other places. Probably half the local gangs used these computers for their business activities.

What wasn’t known to the gangs, however, was that the FBI covertly monitored the computers to get a drop on the local drug trade. What was even less known was that the FBI actively used those computers to hide their tracks when they hacked into someone’s computer. If someone managed to trace the hack, it would just be attributed to the next best local criminal.

Mike had accidentally discovered this about a year ago. AT&T, his employer, had sent him to investigate why their Internet services had dropped dead in that area of town. It wasn’t Mike’s service division, but the local system administrator had come down sick and they couldn’t get anyone else in a hurry.

When Mike had checked the logs he had soon discovered the FBI connections. He had, of course, pretended he’d seen nothing.

“But, um, it gets better,” Mike continued. “The hacker didn’t use normal FBI protocol, but connected directly from the FBI computer to the lounge PC. This bypasses the, um, tracing block the FBI has with AT&T, and allowed Rod’s program to trace him beyond the lounge. The lounge got hacked from an FBI machine, which got hacked from a CIA machine, which got done from, um, Military Intelligence, and that one was accessed from station143.area51.nsa.gov.”

He paused for a moment to let it sink in, then he continued. “So, we got hacked from inside the NSA! More specifically from someone who’s on an internal subnet called area51.”

Mike peered at his friends over the top of his glasses checking their responses. He got stunned faces.

Area 51! The secret government installation in the desert of Nevada, some ninety miles north of Las Vegas near Groom Lake.

The government had denied its existence for decades, but every once in a while there had been a leak here or there, each confirming that an underground complex did exist, and that the facility was used to develop top secret projects, such as the stealth aircraft. Only very recently had a court case forced the government to concede that there was indeed an operating location at that spot. In alien conspiracy circles Area 51 was also believed to be the final resting place of the infamous Roswell UFO.

“Wooohh! That’s heavy” Steven finally broke the silence. “Too bad you don’t know what Patrick wrote.”

“Ah, but I do. I never trust a hard disk. I backup daily and store it in the, um, cabinet. Of course our hacker didn’t know that, or he would’ve broken in here to get rid of the, um, backups too. Here’s a print.” Mike passed it around.

Hi Everyone. Here’s a bit of conspiracy from me, of all people. Last night I observed a light phenomenon in the lower southern sky. I’ve got a powerful telescope, so I got a good look. It just isn’t looking natural. There are a lot of light streaks and flares over a small area of space, just like a Sci-Fi space battle. I called the National Observatory. They said it is an active region of space where stars are born. I think that’s bullshit. Star formation only happens in dense areas with loads of stellar material and changing gravitational fields. This area don’t fit. I think they know what’s there and are covering it up. I think it’s to do with the Roswell crash. This bit of space is 56 light years away, so what we’re seeing happened 56 years ago, same time as when the ship’s supposed to have crashed. Since the government is lying, maybe there’s something to it? Got to fly. What’s your take? Catch ya soon. Patrick

“A SPACE BATTLE?” Steph frowned.

“Hey, we believe in aliens, right? So why not aliens who fight a battle?” Megs said.

“Well, I guess if you put it that way.”

“In any event,” Megs brushed her long hair out of her face. “Patrick must’ve scored a home run, or the NSA wouldn’t have tried to stop us from getting that email. So, it either was a space battle or there’s a connection to Roswell.”

“Yep, or both,” Laura said.

“Yeah, well, um, I think there’s definitely something going down, especially with Patrick. Megs called from Healdsburg this morning.”

“Healdsburg? What?” Steph frowned again.

“We didn’t want to call from, um, here,” Mike continued. “Figured if the NSA is in this, Patrick’s phone’s going to be, um, bugged. And the email for sure. Figured we call, see if he’s ok, ask him how the skies are doing.”

“Yep,” Megs continued the story, “but I only got Patrick’s dad, so I said it was about a school reunion. He was friendly until I asked for Patrick. He hesitated, then told me, very matter-of-factly, that Patrick wasn’t home. I asked when he’d be back. He hesitated, then told me that Patrick had gone to visit a friend who’d suddenly taken ill. He didn’t know when he’d be back, but if I left him my name’n number, Patrick would call me. Now what makes me really suspicious about the whole thing was the weird echo on the line, and the two clicks when he hung up.”

“You didn’t leave your number, righty?” Steven said.

“Think the line was like bugged? Did the echo sound watery or more like a hall?” Steph continued the questioning.

“No, yes, watery. I’m not stupid,” Megs fired back as fast as the questions had arrived. “Of course I didn’t leave my number and I used a bogus name. I told old Murphy I’d be away for the next few days, so I’d have to call’m back later. Say, what’s the forensic expert make with watery?”

Steph smiled. Such public praise from Megs felt good. She wasn’t an expert, just a student of forensics, and often felt unvalued by the guys. Being the baby of the group certainly didn’t help. Megs seemed to be the only one who regularly acknowledged her excellent abilities to absorb and correlate all sorts of details from her field and beyond, especially when it had come in handy for something.

“Well, a hall echo usually means like the voice is reflected close to the speaker. Watery indicates like a distant reflection that had time to be muffled by like the line attenuation. So, the Murphys have their phone bugged - but we figured that, right? It’ll be pretty like weird if the booth was tapped.”

“Gotta plan? I hope it’s an interesting one this time!” Steven asked.

“Well,” Mike smiled, “I think we better avoid those things you’d call, um, interesting. You’ve got your Air Force for those.”

Four

Wayne Frandrake stepped out of the cab deep below Cheyenne Mountain Complex one hour and forty minutes after leaving Baltimore. Only a fighter jet could have covered the 1600 or so miles as fast as this train, and with a lot more hassles. He swiped his card to exit the arrival room and took the elevator to the command level foyer.

“Sir!” the Duty Sergeant saluted.

“Here to see General Hulloway.”

“Yes, Sir!”

The sergeant picked up the phone and pressed a button, “General... Yes Sir. Visitor Sir, Director Frandrake.... Yes, Sir.”

Looking up at Frandrake he said, “Sir, take a seat, the General will be here shortly.”

 

“Director!” Hulloway said with a smile ten minutes later as he stepped out of an elevator.

“General!” Frandrake got up.

“I was in a meeting. Come with,” Hulloway said.

He walked past Frandrake towards his office. When he walked in he glanced at his desk, but sat down in one of the armchairs around the meeting table instead. Frandrake took one of the others.

“Wayne... Why didn’t you call?” Hulloway said. “You know how busy we’re right now. Hate to let a friend wait like that.”

“That’s ok. Fixing to go to Edwards right quick, dropped in on the way.”

Hulloway frowned. “So what’s this about?”

“The report I got this morning. Why don’t you tell your guys to stop spinning it? I’m not the president, Jeff! If it’s bad I need to know, not guess, so I can do something about it.”

Hulloway took a deep breath, leaned his head back and sighed.

“I was gonna call you later today,” he said. “Yeah, it ain’t looking good. Federation Intelligence says the Protectorate is gonna be ready for an attack on Earth about two months earlier than they had initially thought. We’re gonna have the ships ready just in time, but the personnel.....”

Frandrake was about to speak when Hulloway continued. “I think we should ask Britain if we can borrow some of their black teams.”

“Hell nah!” Frandrake nearly got up from his seat.

“But ...”

“You know we can’t. If they know, they want a hand in the pot. And security? We can’t trust the Brits. We blink and next we know we have an international committee deciding when you can fart in your office!”

Hulloway took a deep breath and slowly let it out. He sounded like a boiling hotpot. Wayne was right. If they told one ally, they’d soon have to tell all. And if it leaked elsewhere they’d have the Russians and Chinese wanting a say too, but...

“Other ideas?” Hulloway asked.

“I’ll pull in some more NSA black ops teams. We’ve got a few more specialists.”

Hulloway’s lips grew thin. He raised his eyebrows. They’d already secretly pulled a lot of personnel, including civilians. “And that’s safe?” he asked. “We can’t keep telling everyone we’re sending more to Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ll start asking questions upstairs.”

“I’ll get the people.”

“You better.... While you’re here, wanna see the new prototype?”

“No time. Expected at Edwards.”

 

Half an hour later Wayne Frandrake arrived at Edwards Air Force Base.

“Good morning, Sergeant. Is he here yet?” Frandrake asked his assistant.

“Yes, Sir. He’s in waiting room two, Sir.”

“Good, send him to office six in five minutes.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Frandrake got a coffee from the dispenser in the hall outside office six, and walked into the room.

A few minutes later a woman’s voice spoke out of the intercom, “Your guest is here Director.”

“Send him in.”

The padded door to the office opened. A handsome young man with curly brown hair walked in. Frandrake knew that the young man was five foot eight, 21 years old, held a scholarship at UC Berkeley and was originally from Torrey, Utah. Frandrake was not at all surprised to see him walk up to his desk without hesitation. The file his aids had prepared said: distinguished Scout leader, sky high IQ, astronomer, likes Sci-Fi, independent, brazen, gun owner, patriot, and aspiring astronaut. In short, someone who isn’t cowered by authority.

“Sit down Mr Murphy,” Frandrake said.

Patrick obliged quietly. He wasn’t intimidated, but he knew that talking before being asked may be a mistake here. This guy, Director W.L. Frandrake as the sign on the desk declared, was obviously the boss Agent Johnson had spoken of.

“Mr Murphy, I’m Director Frandrake, NSA. What do you know about Roswell?”

“It’s a quiet little town in New Mexico, where a UFO is supposed to have crashed a long time ago,” Patrick said matter-of-factly.

“So, tell me,” Frandrake said slowly, “what makes you think that the phenomenon you observed has anything to do with Roswell?”

“Excuse me?”

“We know you observed it and contacted the National Observatory. We also saw and deleted your email in which you claim that the star birth area is a space fight connected to Roswell. I wanna know why you believe that.”

“What’s this to the NSA? Ya’re the code makers and breakers, not the Feds or CIA.”

“We deal with cryptography, but also with intelligence security and information containment. It’s our responsibility to restrict potentially upsetting information from reaching the public. The last thing we want is some hysteria about a non-event a-spreading from websites.”

“A space battle is major league,” Patrick replied calmly. “Star birth my ass. It’s only 56 light years from us. No gas, no strong gravity. Ya can’t keep that quiet for long.”

“Leave that to us!”

Frandrake took a long look at Patrick.

“Patrick, would you consider yourself a patriot?”

Patrick was surprised by the sudden shift in tone and attitude, but he didn’t show it. He figured the appeal to his loyalties would soon be followed by a strong request to keep his mouth shut for the national interest.

“Yeah, sure am.”

“Good. You do understand that everything spoken in this room is top secret confidential, and we will deny you were even here, should you pass this on to anyone.” Frandrake spoke quietly, but with practiced seriousness.

“If that’s so, where am I?”

“You are inside a secret administration compound at Edwards Air Force Base. Would you fight for your country?” Frandrake paused for a moment. “In exchange for total knowledge of and participation in this mission?”

“And I keep my mouth shut?”

“Yes, as I said before, we will deny everything if required. But nobody in their right mind would believe you anyway. Interested?”

Patrick had misjudged the tall man on the other side of the big desk, with his short black hair, fortyish looking grim face and dark suit. Patrick had expected a stern talk about patriotism and some threats if he chose not to stay quiet. Instead the director was offering him to join up.

He really must’ve touched a very raw nerve with his email about Roswell and all. Patrick’s eyes widened suddenly. They really do have a UFO! Oh! Hah! NSA! Cryptography! Decoding the language of the UFO’s instrument panel! If they’ve gotta ship, bet this mission is going to space!

Hell, he was interested. If there was one thing he wanted to do more than astronomy it was being an astronaut. He had added Aeronautics and Space Engineering on top of his astronomy scholarship just so he’d get qualifications for NASA’s astronaut program. Astronomy alone wouldn’t get him sent up.

“How long’s the job for?” he asked.

“About six months, although possibly less, depends.”

That would be a problem, Patrick realized. He shuffled in his seat. He’d have to drop his studies for the year.

“Family and friends?” he asked.

“No contact. Not for the first three months. And you can’t tell’em anything!”

Patrick crossed his arms and stared out the window.

That’s no window, he thought, that’s a large screen. Hmmmmmmmm ------ Three to six months. Phew. What am I gonna tell Dad; my friends?

“Well, Mr Murphy?”

Patrick focused his eyes on Frandrake. Frandrake looked back in expectant silence.

Five

“Wonder how Mike and Megs are doing,” Laura commented over her piece of pizza.

Rod mumbled something unintelligible, busily chewing the large bite he had just stuffed into his mouth.

“Huh?” Laura responded.

He swallowed. “I said They should be there by now. Hopefully, it ain’t a waste of time. They don’t even know if old Murphy’s home!”

“Not a waste, it’s still a short vacation for them; return flight’s tomorrow. So, how’re we to casually catch up with what’s his name?” Laura said.

“Dr Moran Jones. Well, Mike said he liked his beers when they were in college together. Suggested we hit the local bars near the observatory tonight. We pretend to be surprised, so it’s going to look casual. I hope.”

“Do you know him? I mean, it’s going to look weird for sure if we act like old pals and you’ve never met him.”

“Yeah. Mike introduced us last year at the Berkeley Astronomical Society.”

“You? Astronomical Society? Thought you weren’t interested?”

“I’m not. Mike dragged me along. They had some new findings. Mike thought it be awesome enough to get me interested. Yeah, was interesting, but...”

 

“Man!” Rod said hours later. “He must’ve joined alcoholics anonymous or something. That was the 6th bar!” He sighed. “Let’s go home, my feet hurt.”

“Come on! Can’t be many left. What’s the list saying?” Laura replied.

Rod dug into his top pocket and unscrunched the paper Mike had given him. “Argh!”

“What?”

“Should’ve looked at the whole list first up! Look!” He jabbed his finger at the paper while holding it closer to Laura. “The Black Hole! Gotta be the astronomers’ haunt.”

 

The Black Hole was a surprisingly large bar Laura realized. The ceiling was covered with a large galaxy made from tiny lights, and photos of various planets were hanging on the walls. Even the bar desk fitted into the theme. Instead of having the usual mirrors, shelves and racks, the back wall was a protruding circular shape covered in a photo of Saturn, with the bar itself making up the ring system, and a few strategically placed ball lights filling in for some of the moons.

Yuck, she thought. Astronomer’s haunt? Hmm. More like haunted astronomers.

“There!” Laura heard from behind and turned around.

“What?”

“Moran. At the bar.” Rod nodded his head in the direction.

Laura turned. She saw the bar, but with several men sitting there she didn’t have a clue who Moran was. She turned back, but Rod was gone. He had sat down at the table a few feet from her.

“How about you go over and get some beers?” she said sitting down next to him. “Now,” she said with raised eyebrows while nodding towards the bar.

Rod looked at her, frowned, sighed, then got up and headed to the bar, right next to Moran Jones.

“Two Buds,” Rod said to the bargirl.

He turned to his left while waiting. A short while later Moran turned to signal the girl. He noticed Rod looking at him.

“Do I know you?” Moran said.

He didn’t sound very friendly.

“Um...are ya Moran Jones?”

“Yes.” He kept staring at Rod.

“Um, yeah, thought so. Mike and I came to yar talk last year. Microlensing?”

“Gravitational Microlensing. Yes!” Short laugh. “Big crowd on that one. Mike? ...Mike Wright?”

“Yep. I’m Rod. We met up after the talk.”

“Two Buds, $8.50,” the bargirl interrupted.

“Right - Wanna join us?” Rod said while paying off the girl. He nodded towards Laura.

“Yeah sure. So, what’s Mike up to, haven’t seen him in ages?”

***

“Mr Murphy - Colonel John Melbonn, in charge of your mission group,” Frandrake introduced. “Captain Susie Crayland, weapons and technology specialist, close combat skills. Mr David Johann, expert on known alien species, and language specialist. They’re in charge of training. Listen carefully, learn quickly. Basic exams in three weeks.”

“Pleased to meet ya Ma’am, Sirs. So what’s the mission? Where am I now?”

“That’s need-to-know,” Colonel Melbonn replied. “Right now you don’t need to know. You’ll be briefed after graduation.”

“Mr Murphy, come with me,” Captain Crayland said. “As you’re first up with me at 1400 hours today - 2pm - I’m doing your intro tour.”

She walked out the door of the meeting room. Patrick looked around. Melbonn raised his eyebrows and nodded towards the door. Patrick turned and followed Crayland.

His quarters were down the hall. It was a small room with no windows, and an adjoining bathroom. It was furnished with all requirements, but it looked sterile, all white, no pictures. He didn’t mind. In fact, he was surprised he got a private room in what was obviously a military complex. He had expected to be bunkmates with lots of cadets.

“Why the single room, you wonder?” Captain Crayland asked.

She must have read his expression.

“Yes, Ma’am!” he shouted.

“Yes, Captain is fine.” Crayland smiled. “No need to shout or jump to attention. We’re not the Marines. Anyway, you are not officially military yet, so strictly speaking, you don’t even have to salute properly. Don’t tell anyone I said so.” She grinned.

Patrick frowned.

“Single room,” Crayland continued, “cause rookies aren’t mixed with graduates. No info sharing that way, in case you wash out.”

“I thought I’m signed up. Ya telling me I could get sent packing?”

“Well...if you fail training or are found unsuitable, in theory, yes. But I’ve seen your file. Haven’t yet seen someone with your record wash out. Besides, we’re short on recruits, so don’t worry. Anyway, let’s get the show on the road. Bathroom’s there, wardrobe’s here. It contains a number of normal clothes and a number of combat combinations. Soiled ones into the laundry chute over there, they come back the next day. Boots are your job.”

Patrick’s eyes followed as she pointed.

“Here’s your training schedule. Read, remember, and be punctual. Here is your ID and access card. You need it on you at ALL times. You step out the door without it you trigger an alert. Also, no door opens unless you have your card. Note the number on the card. Access is only to doors at or below that number. If you ever find a door with a higher number open, and you go in, full on alarm. Ok?”

“Yeah. Yes...Captain,” Patrick stammered. He was frazzled, and it wasn’t because of all the details. He had probably missed most anyway. It was because of Captain Susie, as he had already nicknamed her. Observing her speak and move had been much more interesting than finding out where his bathroom was.

She was about his height, had beautiful blue eyes, dark short semi curly hair, and a stunning smile. He figured she’d be late twenties. And against expectation she seemed very friendly. Somehow Patrick had always imagined women in the army as sharp faced, loud shouting drill sergeants with no humor and no mercy. Either he was wrong or she was the exception.

They continued the tour outside his quarters. Crayland pointed out the mess hall and eating times, door to the training area, and a few other things.

“Any questions?” Captain Crayland concluded her tour.

“Huh?”

“Any questions?”

“Nah! Nah...can’t think of any, Captain Sus... um, Crayland”

Six

“Right, everyone’s on time for a change,” Mike announced with a smile as he walked into the ACCIA office. Waves of laughter and the smell of fresh coffee greeted him.“What’s funny?”

“You’re late!” Steph said from the kitchen corner.

More laughter.

“No, actually, Megs just like recounted your skiing adventures. Coffee? Just boiled the pot.”

“Sure.”

Mike plunged into his favorite armchair, and grabbed the bowl of chips.

“Right, so how did – thanks Steph – did it go?” He picked up the cup Steph had put down. “Rod, find Moran?”

“Yeah, hard work! Laura and I finally met up with him at The Black Hole. Man, they’ve got excellent machines in the Internet corner! Had a play with one of them. Latest hardware, super fast, quick network. Can we upgrade those?” Rod glanced over to the ancient PCs sitting on trestles farther back, his face beaming.

“Yeah, maybe. So, Moran. Does he know anything?”

“Oh, yes, I mean no. No, I think he knows nothing. We asked him over for a beer, and then tried asking him lots of questions without being too obvious. You know What’s work like these days? Discovered anything interesting lately? That kind of thing. Mostest boring evening.”

He looked at Laura.

“Yep... Moran must really like his work,” she said. “Two hours rambling on about all sorts of projects. Bet it would’ve been really interesting for you. Me, I really don’t care if a planet was real or a misinterpretation, or if our sun is going to die a million years earlier.”

“Had to be you two,” Mike said. “He only says too much when he, um, spools off to make himself look important, and he knows most of his stuff won’t impress another astronomer. With me he wouldn’t say much.... Anything on, um, star births?”

“Nope,” Rod said.

“Nope, that’s the only thing I was listening for. Not a peep,” Laura confirmed.

“Hmm, strange.” Megs sounded like she was thinking aloud.

“What?” Steven turned his head.

“Well, not sure,” she replied. “I’m not an astronomer either, but ... star birth areas are big news for astronomers, right?” She glanced at Mike who nodded.

“So, if they found one this close,” she continued, “I mean, if he wanted to look important, shouldn’t he have showed off his star birth knowledge?”

“You’re right, totally!” Steph pointed her finger at Megs, her brown eyes wide. “In my interviewing course they told us to like watch for what a suspect didn’t say, not just like what he did say. If like this is so important, Moran should’ve said something. Like it should’ve been all over the news also. But not if it’s like a cover-up or something.”

“Yeah!” Steven smiled. “We flicked through as many online scientific journals and news bulletins as we could in the last few days. Zip! Nothing on space on the mainstream news, and CNN’s Space and Tech pages only had that mistaken planet.”

“So all the bar hopping wasn’t for zilch?” Rod said.

“Yep, I think the lack, um, of info from Moran and the other places is confirming a cover-up. So, um what about the other conspiracy groups?”

“Righty. Each thought they had zip,” Steven continued. “But if you pull it together...” He paused for a moment. “Well, a number of groups say UFO sightings, especially in Nevada, have gone up, but they’re scared to publish it on their websites. They say the government has threatened groups who published with fabricated evidence, forcing them to shut down or be arrested on false terrorist links.”

Laura and Rod raised their eyebrows.

“Conspiracy USA had unpublished stats showing the number of missing persons has gone up in the last few months. Most are unmarried brains and the like. The Patriotic Citizen reports that the military seems to be gearing up for action. They suspect a surprise strike on North Korea.” He paused to grab some chips.

Steph picked up the sentence. “Yeah, but when you like look at the areas where most groups report something it’s like weird. It’s all like round Edwards Air Force Base, Area 51 and Cheyenne Mountain Complex. And NASA is upping security a lot also. Blaming like terrorist threats on supply flights to the Space Station.”

Laura furrowed her brow.

“Makes total sense. Listen,” Mike said. “Ok, as you, um, know we trekked out to Utah to see Patrick’s dad. Tried to get some, um, info on Patrick. Well, the old man’s pretty bad. Agents smashed the door down on, um, Christmas Eve, frightened the heck out of Maire the little sister, arrested him, but then let him go when they got Patrick. Dragged him off in the middle of the night. Um, same time the email was trashed.”

He paused for effect. The room was totally silent, all eyes were on him.

“The following day,” he went on, “Patrick called home. Said, um, he’d been offered a job on a government project. Top secret, wasn’t coming home for a while. The old man thinks the call was done on the sly. Patrick’s been, um, whispering, and breaking up all the time, likely on his, um, cell phone. Said he was at Edwards, but it broke off. Hasn’t called since.”

They looked at each other in silence.

“What now, publish it?” Megs asked.

“No!” Rod jumped up. “Wanna end up in Guantanamo?”

“We ain’t publishing,” Mike said.

Rod sat down.

“Rescue mission!” Steven suggested.

“You nuts?” Rod said almost as loudly as his previous outburst.

“I AM not!” Steven raised his voice and sat forward.

“Totally nuts,” Steph sided with her brother. “Rescue? How? We don’t even know like where...”

“Yes we do. Edwards!”

“Yeah, right! So we waltz like right in. Excuse me, got a Patrick here? Can we like have’m please?”

“Yes, totally! I’m Air Force, I got clearance!” Steven insisted.

“For sure!” Rod mocked.

“Come on! Yes I DO!”

An ear-piercing whistle burst into the argument. It was Megs.

“Guys? Come on! That’s not going anywhere.”

“He’s nuts!” Steph repeated.

“Don’t call me nuts!”

“GUYS! Stop! Let’s do this right.” This time it was Mike.

They all turned. Expectantly silent.

“You have clearance for Edwards Air Force Base? It’s a closed base,” Mike continued.

“I know. My old man’s stationed there, but I’ve got my own clearance too.”

“Why?” Laura piped in.

“It’s classified. Not supposed to tell you about clearance even.”

“Well, too late for that. Come on!”

“I really can’t tell you, but I DO have clearance. I can get us into Edwards, they know me there. They know my old man. I know the layout, where the detention is, and what the protocol is.”

“So like they’re just going to hand him like over?” Steph said.

“No, course not. We’ll need to make up some orders. Got stationary for it.”

“Wow! You really are nuts! They’ll like court martial you big time.”

“Nah, old man’s top brass, got a lot of pull. All in favor of a rescue?”

Steven raised his hand and looked around. His smile dropped. They all looked to the ground in silence, not a single hand was up.

Steven raised his eyebrows, dropped his arm, and jutted his head forward. “You’re kidding, righty? We can HELP Patrick! Come on!”

“No we can’t Steven.” Mike spoke calmly and collected. “Yeah, we might get in, and, um, find Patrick even. Maybe even get out. But then what? They know where he, um, lives. You’d be signed in, and they know where you live.”

He paused briefly. Steven was about to reply when Mike continued.

“Look. We wanna help Patrick. For sure. But we can’t, um, break him out. Even if your old man can keep you out of jail, they’ll bust your ass out of the Air Force. As for us, we’ll get, um, totally busted forever. Sorry Steven.”

Steven lowered his eyes and leaned back in his seat in silence. Mike was the group’s leader, once he said No nobody would take up the cause now, no matter how much he argued.

“So what do we do?” Megs said after a few moments.

Seven

The next morning the phone interrupted Mike while he was researching the best way to draw public attention to Patrick’s plight.

“Mike!” Steph sounded breathless.

“Whoa, what?”

“Steven’s gone off! He just took off! You need to help!”

“Hey! Slow down. What’d you mean He’s gone? Start over.”

Steph paused. He could hear her take a slow breath.

“Ok, I went over to Steven. I like get off of the bus and he’s just down the road putting a suitcase in the trunk. I wave, he waves back, and he gets in the car. He didn’t stop Mike! I run, wave, he drives right past me. I turn, he stops up ahead, so I run there, try to open the door, but’s like locked. He winds down the window just enough to talk. Says Sorry, in a rush, back in a few days. And then he’s gone. You need to go like after him! He was in uniform!”

She paused and took a breath.

“Mike?”

“Yeah, I’m here. Look, he’s probably been, um, called up for immediate duty. Happens.”

“He wasn’t like called up. He always like tells us when he is. He didn’t even smile.”

Mike frowned. “Yeah..... I think you’re right.....Damn!”

“What?”

“He’s trying to do it alone. Idiot!”

“That’s what I’m like trying to tell you! What’re you gonna do?”

Mike took a deep breath and let it out quickly.

“How long ago did he leave?”

“Em... em... maybe half an hour or so? Sorry, my cellphone’s not working, so I had to find a booth first. Tried his cell, but no luck.”

“Mike?” Steph said when she didn’t get an immediate response.

“Just, um, thinking.... I’ll have to try to chase him... He’s gotta take the I-5 south. Should be able to catch up with him. Can’t miss that car... Yeah, I’ll chase him.”

“I’m coming with you!”

“Sorry, no time to pick you up.”

He hung up the phone, shut the lid on his laptop and raced to the stack of clothes on the floor. A quick rummage. He paused and lifted his head.

Something’s burning!?

He sniffed.

Toast!

It hadn’t popped. He still wasn’t used to that recent fault. He quickly pulled the plug out while putting on a jumper. No time to eat. A quick gulp of water and he was out the door.

Keys!

He stopped the door just in time, ducked inside, grabbed the keys and was off again.

He raced down Siler Place and onto Alvarado as fast as he dared. No chance of a highway patrol, but the road was narrow and winding all the way to Tunnel Road. He switched on his radar detector as he was turning left onto Tunnel. He’d never seen a patrol here, but as soon as it joined into the Warren Freeway there’d be some.

 

He reached the Warren and MacArthur Freeway merge in the record time of ten minutes, his detector saving him twice. He kept going. The risk was too high that Steven had already passed through here, or that he was coming down on the Nimitz Freeway which didn’t connect until Castro Valley. He had to get there fast.

By the time he got there he had avoided two more patrols, but had also lost time in traffic. He turned east and drove on until the highway began to head into the hills. It had a wide shoulder here to pull over on and wait. He turned on the hazard lights, pulled the hood, then pulled a sensor wire from the electronic fuel injection. The engine began to sputter. He turned it off.

He waited.

***

Patrick was waiting in the training area, he was slightly early.

His first sessions at Edwards had been rather boring. Mostly theory, followed by some time on a shooting range. He already knew how various handguns, rifles and military weapons worked. And he knew how to dismantle and reassemble them too, and what the different ammo could do. He wasn’t a gun club member for nothing.

Today, however, promised to be more exciting.

The previous day he had been relocated to another underground facility. Same security, similar quarters, except this time he had two roommates. John and Terry, two friends from Challis, Idaho, who had applied for the Marines about six months ago, but had been rejected. The day after Christmas federal agents had visited and had offered Special Forces training. Apparently the NSA liked their psych profile better than the Marines did. Patrick didn’t, they were weird.

Tom and Jerry, as he’d dubbed them, turned up together a few moments later laughing with each other. Then six guys Patrick hadn’t met yet wandered in followed by Captain Susie.

“Right. Everyone ready for today?” she said.

“Yes, Captain,” they replied in unison.

“Well. You all did really well with your standard weapons drills, so we’ve fast-tracked you to this. Our mission will involve highly advanced weaponry, which I can guarantee you have not seen before. You’ll learn all about them here.”

She typed a code into an electronic lock on the cabinet to her left. It opened quietly, revealing a stash of futuristic looking guns.

“These are the two main assault weapons you will be using in addition to the conventional backup weapons. They’re not loaded, so grab one of each and check them out.”

Patrick hung back a little, letting Tom and Jerry grab their guns. When he had his own, he walked over to one of the desks in the room, carefully picking one that wasn’t right next to theirs. He started with the larger gun. It had two muzzles, one small and one large, as he would expect from an assault rifle. The bigger muzzle would be firing grenades of sorts, but neither of them looked quite right for a gun.

He noticed the guy who had just sat down on the table next to him must have had the same thought. He was already peering down the muzzles with a puzzled look. Idiot! Patrick knew better than to look down a gun barrel without checking first that there wasn’t a round in the chamber. At the very least one would have to check that the safety was on.

Never trust a gun, the word of someone who handed you one, or your memory of what state you left your own gun in, his Dad would always say.

Patrick didn’t find a safety, but at the back of the gun were three small switches, a dial and a small screen. He looked at the icons next to the switches. Circle and lightning - power switch; big double circle and small double circle - barrel selection; skull with crossbones and skull crossed out - no idea.

He flicked the power switch.

***

Mike checked his watch. He’d been waiting on the side of the Breed Junior Freeway for about forty minutes, getting increasingly nervous with every passing minute. He had been watching the road like a hawk for Steven’s distinctive red-yellow Chevy Impala. Nothing. A few Impalas had come through, but they had been the wrong color and had no deer antlers on the grill.

“Damn! Damn! Damn!” Steven should have come through by now. Traffic wasn’t that bad down MacArthur or Nimitz, and there was no other way to Edwards. Well, not without a lengthy detour. Surely he didn’t do the coast? That’ll take forever. The I-5 was the fastest route and that was already going to take over six hours.

Another glance at the watch. He must have missed him. It was time to go home. Mike slammed the hood, got in the car and turned the key. The engine roared alive, sputtered and died.

“Argh!” He threw his head back as he groaned. Then he remembered the sensor cable.

The car started perfectly when he came back in.

“Damn it!” A big sigh. He put his hands over his face and inhaled. He let it out slowly as he slid his hands down to his shin. He couldn’t just let Steven throw his life away. The blasted loyal idiot!

He sighed again. It was a six-hour drive! And he had to do it faster, a lot faster than that if he wanted to catch Steven before he got to Edwards. And he had forty minutes of wasted waiting time to make up too. His stomach rumbled.

“Oh HELL!” No food, no drink, no time to buy any.

He took the breaks off and pulled onto the freeway.

What a hair brained idea!

***

The power switch on the rifle had done nothing. It was as dead as promised. Patrick had continued his inspection, and had soon figured out how to disassemble the riffle. It was back together again, and he picked up the handgun.

“Anyone not figured out the basics yet?” Captain Susie said.

No response.

“Good. Let’s have some fun. Take your guns and follow me.”

She headed for the automatic door at the rear of the room. The next room was narrow and very long with small metal plates hanging at various distances. An indoor firing range.

“Ok, spread out behind the yellow line. Sergeant Brown will now demonstrate these guns on the targets.”

The class lined up, Brown walked forward to the red line. He pulled the handgun and flicked the power switch, triggering a short high-pitched whine. He aimed and fired. A short, ultra-bright bolt of light shot out with a thunderclap and struck one of the metal plates half way down the room, leaving a decent hole with glowing edges.

He flicked the switch and put the gun in the holster, then he unslung the rifle from his shoulder. He aimed and fired. A short bolt, a thunderclap, and a plate at the farthest end sported a nice hole. He flicked to the other barrel. He aimed and fired. The bolt was a lot fatter and at least twice as loud. A plate at the far end vanished. He then very deliberately demonstrated that he was switching the other switch from skull to crossed-out-skull. When he fired again, a blue bolt shot out almost quietly. It hit a plate in the mid-range and produced sparks and crackling.

“That was a stun shot at maximum power,” Captain Susie said. “It will knock you unconscious for about eight hours. It will also knock out anything electronic that isn’t hardened. As you can see, both weapons operate the same, and as you will discover in a moment, feel the same. The difference is range and power core size. Sergeant.” She nodded to Brown.

“From this end step forward! One at a time!” Brown barked. “Come here, pick up a power pack and clip it in!” he said pointing to Patrick, then pointing to a spot to his right.

Patrick walked over and loaded both his guns.

“Your turn Cadet! Aim your handgun and fire!”

In a smooth move Patrick flicked the switch, raised the gun and fired without any noticeable effort to aim. The bolt missed a far plate by several feet.

“Target too far! Try a closer tar...” Five bolts echoing in quick succession cut off Brown’s words.

Three far plates, a medium-range plate and a close-up plate were left smoking, with the close up one nearly disintegrated.

“Showoff,” someone said behind him, probably Jerry.

“That will be enough, Cadet!” Brown said harshly.

He grabbed Patrick’s rifle that was leaning against the wall, and held out his hand for the handgun. Patrick flicked the switch and handed it over, his eyes looking expectantly at the rifle.

“I said That will be enough! Fall in line!” Brown barked.

***

Mike checked the car’s clock after he had turned onto State 138. Just on 3pm - four hours! He grimaced. He sure had made great time, but he was exhausted.

With his attention temporarily taken off the road he suddenly noticed his eyes burning, back aching and a sudden pressure making itself known.

Shit!

He pushed his concentration onto the road trying to force his bladder out of his mind, and stepped on the gas a bit more, but his bladder forced attention with a vengeance a few minutes later.

“Oohhhr!”

He let his eyes wander onto the road’s shoulder ahead for a suitable spot with bushes when he suddenly spotted a red-yellow Impala in the distance. He swallowed hard and gunned his engine.

A few minutes later he had caught up. It was the right car and color, and the right head shape of the driver, but he couldn’t see the hood to check for antlers.

He had no choice but to overtake and look, despite the double yellow lines. He pulled out, leveled with the Impala, and threw a quick glance to the right. The other driver glanced at the same time, turned his head back to the road only to snap right back, jaw dropped and mouth open.

It was Steven.

Mike motioned him to pull over. No reaction. He waved his arm again, and this time Steven responded. His hand shot up pointing forward, then his car dropped back fast. Mike’s gaze went to the rearview mirror, but a loud air horn hoot forced his attention to the road ahead.

He was still in the left lane and heading straight into an oncoming semi. He was about to hit his brakes hard when his college race driving experience took over. At 112mph a hard brake and a jerk on the steering wheel would send him flying. He gradually pushed the brakes down as much as he dared and eased the steering wheel to the right. He missed the semi by inches.

He exhaled while continuing to brake. He looked into the mirror. The semi grew smaller. Good! With the semi gone and no chance of being bashed to death by an angry trucker, he pulled over, took a deep breath, reached his hands behind his head and exhaled slowly, his eyes closed.

A knock on the window gave him a start, but it was only Steven.

He wound down the window.

“You maniac!” Steven shouted. “Are you out of your f....... Phew, you stink!”

Steven screwed up his face, pulled his head out of the window and stepped back a step. Mike looked puzzled for a moment, but then gave a sheepish grin. He didn’t need those bushes anymore.

Eight

1 January 2004

“Righty, up, up!” Steven said as he pulled the blanket off Mike’s bed. Mike stirred, and groaned. He opened his eyes and peered at the clock.

“It’s only eight!” he whined.

“High time to go this time! How’s the head? My old man gets busy after ten.”

Mike lifted his head and groaned.

“Oh come on!” Steven said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t shit me - you can’t possibly still have a dehydration migraine. You had gallons yesterday!”

Mike smiled inside. He didn’t have a headache, nor did he have one yesterday. Having been unsuccessful at the roadside to persuade Steven of his stupidity, he had just been trying to buy time. Of course his need for a serious clean up and his clothes getting laundered had also helped to persuade Steven to at least take a motel for the night in Lancaster, instead of going straight to Edwards.

“Come on!” Steven shouted. “You said one night, now it’s been two. We’ve lost a whole day already! Get up man! .... Ah, forget it. Sleep in. I’m off now.”

“Wait, I’m .... coming, I’m coming.” Mike sat up, slowly rubbed his eyes, got up and dragged himself to the shower.

***

Patrick put an extra bread roll on his tray, lifted it up and looked for an empty table. He didn’t feel particularly sociable. Easier thought than done, breakfast time was always busy. He spotted a table on the other side of the mess hall and headed over.

“Morning Patrick,” he heard from his right a few minutes later. He looked up.

“Morning Captain.”

“Mind?” Captain Susie said nodding towards the empty chair opposite him.

“Nah.”

She put her tray down and sat. Patrick lowered his head and launched another attack on his bacon and eggs.

“Bad mood?” she asked.

“Just tuckered out. Don’t know how many combat scenarios Sergeant Brown’s been putting us though in that virtual reality simulator over the last two days, but ...” He sighed.

“Actually, I’ll need to talk to you about that,” Captain Susie said.

Patrick raised his eyebrows.

“Your behavior in training.” She paused, looking directly at Patrick.

He felt uncomfortable. Brown had already expressed his opinion on the matter quite clearly.

“Yeah, I know,” he reluctantly conceded. “Need to follow orders as given.”

“Yep, especially in basic training, and especially with your Drill Sergeant,” Captain Susie replied. “But ... initiative can be good in other areas. We’d like you to do some special training.”

“More? Like what?”

“Come to my office at 1500.”

“Sorry, got language training all day.” Another sigh.

“Ah. Language will be good. Initially it’s all direct injection learning. You’ll sit in a recliner all day with an electronic hood on your head, having stuff written directly into your brain. Come over after dinner then.”

***

Steven looked into the mirror as they turned the corner onto Edwards Air Force Base. Mike, dressed in a spare Captain’s uniform was looking grave, and was shuffling in the back seat.  Steven couldn’t figure out why Mike had volunteered, he was clearly no happier with the plan than when he had first refused it.

The guard at the gate saluted as they rolled up. Steven saluted back.

“Oh, hi Steve! Back for a while?”

“Nah. Just me and a mate saying ‘Hi’ to my old man.”

“Well, we’ve got poker on tonight. Come over at eight!”

“Not sure bout tonight. We’ll see.”

He started to wind up the window.

“Hey - sign in you dummy,” the guard said with a smile.

Steven wound the window down again and put his hand on the palm reader. Two seconds. It beeped once and turned green. The gate opened.

“Poker?” slowly came from the back seat a moment later.

“Yeah. Good fun. How’d you think I paid for this baby?” Steven grinned mischievously as he patted the steering wheel.

They got out at the old man’s place in Carpenter St inside Edwards AFB shortly after. Now the fun begins! Mike thought. He was wearing one of Steven’s uniforms to avoid questions at the gate, but Lt. Gen. Henry Adam Rogers would want to know whom that friend of Steven’s was. He would ask questions.

“Hey! Look at you!” Rogers said with a broad smile at Steven when he opened the door. “Assigned to another test flight?”

“Nah, still at Travis!” Steven responded. “Just shooting to LA for a few days. Thought I’d say hello. Oh... this is a friend, Mike. He’s in my unit at Travis.”

“Welcome Mike. Come in y’all. Staying?”

“Just the night if it’s ok?”

“Sure,” Rogers said flatly, and paused. After a moment he continued, “Well, gotta get ready for duty. Ya know the house, make yourself at home.” He disappeared into another room.

So far so good! Mike thought. He let out a breath and sat down on the sofa.

“Drink?” Steven offered.

“Yeah!”

Steven walked over to the liquor cabinet, but paused half way. He turned and headed over to the fridge instead. He could do with a Wild Turkey, but that might attract questions from his old man as to why this early in the day.

“Soda or juice? Got apple or orange,” he asked.

“Soda.”

Five minutes later Rogers re-appeared dressed in office uniform.

“Back at five. Behave boys, will ya? Show Mike round, eh?”

“For sure.”

“Oh,” Rogers said before closing the door. “This time watch out for what clearance he’s got!”

With that the door closed and they were alone.

“So, what’s the plan?” Mike asked.

***

Patrick was wiped out. Despite sitting in a recliner all day he felt completely drained. Probably a side effect of the computer implanting language memories directly into his brain. Even seeing Captain Susie hadn’t improved things. He must have been a total zombie. “Daggit! Way to impress man!” he mumbled quietly while brushing his teeth. Tom and Jerry had already been asleep when he had come in, and he had no intentions of changing that.

He silently changed into his pajamas, slipped into his bunk and lay down with a soft sigh. He shot bolt upright two seconds later, banged his head on the top bunk, stifled a yelp at the last second, and sank back into his bed. Jerry groaned above him, turned over and fell quiet again.

Patrick let out his breath. His heart and mind still reeling from the double shock of seeing his clock, tied neatly to the underside of the bunk above him, and then hitting his head - hard.

What the ...? He took a long look at his clock. Yes, it was showing 0200 hours. Two in the morning!

He thought it had been maybe 9pm when he had come back. Training was scheduled to finish near seven, his smaller than usual dinner wouldn’t have taken more than half an hour, and the visit to Captain Susie wasn’t long either. Although.......

He thought he had turned up, discussed the extra units Susie had suggested, agreed to think about it, and then left. But....

His memory was very foggy trying to remember anything, and what he did remember didn’t match the time it had taken. He closed his eyes to try to replay the evening, but as soon as the lids closed his mind switched off, and he fell asleep.

***

Steven had left a note for the old man: Poker Night! Will be late.

But that wasn’t where they went. They got in the car and drove to Edwards Auxiliary North - the location of the main detention facility. It was still early enough in the evening not to arouse suspicion.

Twenty minutes later they passed a check point at Aux North.

“ID! Purpose of visit?” the guard demanded.

Steven presented his fake orders.

“One moment.” The soldier walked into his booth and closed the door.

A few long minutes later the door opened.

“Cleared. Proceed to the main entrance.”

Not long after that they parked the car and got out. Steven led the way. The place didn’t look like a jail Mike thought, but presumably Steven knew his way around. They walked into the main entrance.

“Follow me!” a sergeant greeted them. He turned and marched away.

They walked into the next room and starred down the barrels of five guns.

“You are under arrest!” a snarling voice said from behind.


------------------------------------------------

Twenty-Seven

The spaceport was a jumble of beings and vehicles busily coming and going. The roar from the main landing pads was intense, despite the noise dampening fields. During the battle and orbital cleanup that followed, the port had been closed. It had apparently just reopened in the last hour.

It had taken Rod and Laura nearly a day to get here. After stunning the two hapless repair workers, they had loaded them into their vehicle, and had eventually managed to fly it up to the open access hatch in the ceiling. Laura still shuddered at the thought of how lucky they had been to stumble across one of the repair teams. They would never have seen the access hatches, and they certainly would never have been able to get to them. The hatches were in the 300 foot-high ceiling.

As Lumar’ina traffic rules were not part of their implanted memories, they had left the maintenance vehicle by the other side of the hatch, and had moved off on foot leaving the stunned workers in their locked vehicle. They would be out cold for around eight hours, and it would be unlikely that a vehicle in these parts would be reported to the local cops. Lumar’ina’s dark ground level was shunned by everyone but the seediest beings.

Freshly decked out in spare coveralls from the vehicle’s locker they had quickly ascended out of the more dangerous areas into the bustling middle-class regions of the massive maze of interconnected super towers that made up the continent city. Despite the large scale damage caused by the battle, it seemed most beings were still following their daily routine of going to work, going shopping, and having fun. There was no shortage of beings milling about on the city’s walkways, escalators, pedestrian conveyor belts and levitation trains. The crowds of all shapes, sizes and species were ideal cover. Nobody took any notice of Rod and Laura. However, talking English with each other had attracted some looks. Since then they had been talking exclusively in Talnarn. It was the oldest and most common trading language spoken in both the Protectorate and the Federation.

Unfortunately, in the absence of good signposts — apparently the locals all knew where to go in the interconnected mess of paths — it had taken them many hours of fruitless wandering to build up the courage to actually talk to someone and ask for directions. With so many beings and native languages, Rod and Laura’s accented Talnarn didn’t even cause a raised eyebrow with the few humanoids they asked. Unfortunately, most directions given to them involved taking the levitation trains from here to there and there. That was a problem, they didn’t have local money. It wasn’t until much later that they discovered that the trains were free!

Rod looked around at the throng of beings busily rushing everywhere. With the port just reopened everyone who had been stranded either on the ground or in space was eager to get a move on things. If there ever was proper security it had just fallen victim to the commercial interests wanting to put through as many freighters and passenger liners in as short a time as possible. Rod and Laura had no problems getting into the terminal lounges, and most passengers were simply waved through onto a liner without even a ticket check. So in theory he and Laura should also have been able to just walk onto one. However, each time they had joined the boarding queues for a liner, they had been asked for their authorization pass. Their excuse of Oops, must have left it in the vehicle worked, but it still attracted more attention than they liked.

“Darn, it’s the coveralls,” Laura suddenly said quietly in Talnarn. “They didn’t ask for a boarding pass. They wanted an authorization pass! They think we’re maintenance crew!”

“Ahh. That’s why we could just waltz right into a secure terminal area,” Rod mumbled while they continued to wander along a corridor overlooking a part of the landing field filled with smaller craft.

“Hah!” Laura said suddenly a few minutes later.

“What?”

“We’re trying the wrong thing. The liners have internal security to check on us, and we’re stuck with the darn coveralls. We need to hit the smaller, private ships.”

“Nah! Can’t stow away on them,” Rod objected.

“For sure, I know. Wasn’t thinking that. More along the line of piloting one while the owner’s gone.” Laura grinned.

“Steal a ship?”

“Ssshhhhh! Wanna let them all know?”

“Oops!” and then at a whisper, “Stealing? A ship? That’s serious crime! We probably can’t fly one anyways.”

“For sure we can. Just start thinking of ship bridges and it all activates up there.” She tapped her right forefinger to her temple. “Most small cruisers will fit into one of the six main categories common across the Federation and Protectorate. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Rod grumbled, but then pointed at a ship just outside the window, “How’s that one? Ramp’s down.”

The craft was a sleek looking all-wing number. About sixty feet long, pointy nose and a wide rear. It looked like a fat silver arrow head resting on four struts. Two main engine pods were at the center rear and two smaller pods half way up the wings. A six feet wide ramp was lowered from the belly.

Still shouldering their survival packs, Laura and Rod made their way down from the walkway. Access to these docks was via the lower concourse. Even here there was a hectic bustle. Beings coming and going, techs fixing and prepping ships.

Laura and Rod walked purposefully towards their chosen craft. Nobody bothered the service technicians. They walked up the ramp. Laura was ready with her newly concocted excuse, “Unusual energy readings from this area of the spaceport”, but she didn’t need it. The ship was empty. A look into the cockpit showed a familiar layout of controls. It seemed that the continued legal and illegal trade across the border between Federation and Protectorate systems was ensuring that commercial ship designs hadn’t diverged much over the many centuries of the war.

Since Rod had managed to almost crash that service glider while escaping the undercity, Laura took the pilot’s seat this time. A very strange looking pilot’s seat. It had eight grooves at the sides. She activated the ship’s main systems, while Rod activated the ramp closure from the copilot’s seat.

***

“Krastip! Rsal, dhsas hduu!” Qwkl cursed as he jerked his hands back just in time. The backup life-support power bus had suddenly activated while he was tightening one of the bolts of the new nuclosonic scrubber grid right next to the unprotected power connector panel. The power coupler was still dangling on the crane outside so Qwkl had space to work until he had finished putting the large grid into its place.

He was about to head for the cockpit to see why the power systems had become active when he heard the ramp clunk shut. The ship began to vibrate with the antigrav system powering up. Krastip! Someone is stealing my ship! he thought.. Wait... they can’t! The hatch is still open! With the maintenance hatch open the ship was not vacuum tight. Surely the thief would see the warning light on the console!

Moments later Qwkl realized to his horror that he was wrong. The ship began to hover and the landing struts retracted. It was ready for lift-off.

They were all going to die!

Qwkl turned around in the narrow duct faster than he thought possible. He hurried to the hatch and began to pull madly. The hatch was designed for a much larger Ara’dinoid to operate. It always took him forever to open or close it.

***

“Search Finder we read engine start up. You are not cleared for launch! Power down and request launch window!” a growling voice demanded from the cockpit’s comm speaker.

“Is that for us?” Rod asked.

“No idea,” Laura replied without taking her eyes of her console. “Check the computer for our registration and owner details. No, scrap that! Find us a course to Federation space. Calculate a jump from as low an orbit as you can.”

She activated her navigational screen to scan the overhead ship traffic. She needed to find a decent gap if she was to launch without an authorized launch path. After monitoring the patterns for a little while, she thought she had spotted a recurring opening. She activated the low level particle shield.

“Search Finder you are NOT cleared to launch! Do NOT launch! Power down your shield and engines IMMEDIATELY!” the traffic controller’s alarmed voice boomed from the comm.

“Yep, it’s us,” Laura said.

She pushed the thrust controls to maximum and pulled up on the control stick. The ship shuddered then lurched forward as first the main engines and then the auxiliary engines roared to life. The ship accelerated into a steep climb narrowly missing a number of craft coming in to land. A shower of highly irate and probably highly rude words in various incomprehensible voices and languages burst from the comm system. They nearly drowned out the traffic controller’s tirade of curses, demands and threats.

“Rod? Course?” Laura shouted.

“Um, yeah, working on it,” he replied timidly.

“Working on it? We need a course NOW!” She knew they’d be intercepted by a warship soon. The place was full of war ships and on high alert after the attack.

“Got a preliminary, but the computer’s still chugging, and needs to recheck when it’s done,” Rod said a few seconds later.

“Prelim will have to do, there’s a frigate on the radar coming our way!” Laura replied.

There was a strange pitter patter noise behind her. She turned just in time to see a short, hairy spider being on eight legs move into the cockpit. It was looking at her with two stalkeyes and pointed a gun at her with a spindly hand.

Laura’s training kicked in. She threw herself out of the pilot’s chair and behind a control console. Rod jumped up from his seat, startled by the sudden commotion. He was hit and collapsed in a blue aura. Stun shot! Laura let her breath out. She drew her own gun and fired, but the little critter was fast. He took cover in a small alcove.

“Search Finder this is Wing Star Alpha-2. You are in violation of space traffic regulations. Stop your engines! Prepare to be boarded!”

Shit! Not now! Laura thought. Another shot screamed past her. She poked her gun past her cover. It was hit. Her hand began to tingle and the skin went slightly numb, but she managed to hold her grip and pull back. A split second later she jutted it out again, firing off three quick bursts. They missed.

“Search Finder this is Wing Star Alpha-2. Stop your engines! We are authorized to open fire!”

Oh fantastic! If the critter doesn’t get us, the frigate will! Laura desperately looked for a way to break the shootout stalemate.

Bleep, Bleep, Bleep, blip, blip. It was the computer. It had finished the course calculations and was running a continuously updated jump calculation. They could jump at any time along the current heading.

Laura’s eyes spotted a food bar on the ground near her. It must have fallen out of Rod’s pocket and slid across when he had hit the deck. In one fluid motion she lunged, grabbed it and tossed it over the top of her cover. She heard it hit the floor. She jumped up just in time to see blue energy engulf the packet and half of the strange alien sticking out over his own cover.

She fired two quick bursts. The critter collapsed in a heap on the floor, all eight legs and two arms sprawled to the side. She jumped to her feet and threw herself at the pilot’s seat. A red light began to flash, and a noisy alarm indicated a target lock on them. The frigate fired as Laura hit the jump initiator button. She was slammed into her seat, and then was thrown off it as the Search Finder lurched violently under the impact of the frigate’s energy beam. Laura’s body exploded in waves of pain, her vision blurred and faded to black.

The Search Finder disappeared from the Wing Star’s screens in a brief flash.



------------------------------------------------


For more, download a free sample of the book