“My opinion is that the asteroid belt is a zoo of rare animals captured from all different parts of the solar system.” —Eugene Shoemaker, U.S. Geological Survey; Planet Earth, SOLAR SYSTEM, TIME-LIFE BOOKS, Kendrick Frazier, p. 154
HE PLOPPED HIS feet beside the holographic deskscreens and closed his eyes to boredom. No matter what adjustments he had made, the weather in the tugship’s cabin was always slightly off compared to his home on Earth. But after fifteen years of towing asteroids he had acclimated. This was only Brown Arbon’s second job since he graduated from high school. He didn’t mind it because the earning was enough to make a trip back to Earth on his four month holiday. Extreme boredom was what bothered him.
Brown Arbon’s partner was a young man of twenty-two years old, fresh out of school and eager for the adventures of space and Mars. Everything about Gust Hein looked out of place—the sleek black hair, big brown eyes, and innocent look of youth. It was initially difficult for Brown to figure out why a handsome and intelligent young man was working as a Hauler. Brown thought it was an unused life for a youth to be spending so much time in isolation. But Brown took a liking to the kid when he discovered how Gust quickly learned procedures. Then when Brown found out that Gust was part of the RFC (Robotic Fighting Championship) team of Ram, he liked Gust even more. Brown also admired Gust’s bluntness. Although he didn’t know what it meant, Brown also admired the kid’s passion for ACS (adaptive combat software) engineering, which Gust had refined during the trip to the Asteroid Belt and back.
“How long, Mr. Arbon?” Gust asked, approaching from behind. The tugship’s powerful tractor beam was humming, with dark space circumventing the windows.
“What was that?” Brown was startled. He dropped his feet from the countertop and lifted the cap off his eyes to face Gust. In the middle of the cap were the words WHITTAKER RESOURCES and below them were ‘Mineral Suppliers to the Universe.’
“How long until we reach Phobos?” Gust repeated, already knowing the answer. Just making mandatory, small talk.
“Oh, the arrival. I’m sorry, son. My mind wandered off.”
“I know how it is out here. The mind drifts to far off places and time,” Gust agreed, and sat beside Brown. He dreamily gazed out the port window at vast, monotonous space.
“It’s a battle with loneliness out here.”
“I’ll try to be better company next time,” Gust joked. If there was a next time, thought Gust.
Brown forced a smile. “Back to your question—half a day. You can get a good view of Deimos pretty soon. According to the orbital information, Deimos should be close to our path. Do you have your telescope handy?”
Deimos was the second and smaller moon of Mars and Gust had never observed it at close range. They had missed it during their departure from Phobos’s spaceport. Deimos was in conjunction with Phobos at the time, on the other side of Mars. It was too far and Mars had obstructed the view. Of course Gust knew all this, but wanted to make small talk and hoped Brown felt important.
“It’s in my room. You’ve been to Deimos a few times, how does it compare with its ‘brother’?” Gust asked.
“Brother?” Brown looked at him awkwardly.
Gust took the extra step of explaining. “Mars was named for a Roman war god and Phobos and Deimos were the sons of Mars. So, Phobos and Deimos, Fear and Terror, are considered brothers to this day.”
“Mars, named for a war god and he had two sons named Fear and Terror? That figures. It’s a desert they’re trying to turn into an oasis.”
“We’ll get there one day with our ingenuity, like we did with Mars,” Gust said.
“I won’t be around to see it, son. Right now I’m just excited to see the wife and kids again.”
“Only hours, Mr. Arbon. Then we’re free like birds.” Gust reached over and patted Brown on his beefy shoulders. He looked out the tugship’s side window, out into space. To the untrained eye it was empty space, but the knowledgeable observer could visualize cosmic rays, dark energy, dark matter, radio wave broadcasts, electromagnetic radiation, micro blackholes, gravity, and of course the primordial microwave background of the Big Bang that gave birth to the Universe. It wasn’t empty space, Gust thought, just things invisible to human eyes. He then walked back to his chamber to study adaptive combat software engineering.
Their official job title was Asteroid Retrieval Personnel (ARP), but were commonly referred to as “Haulers.” Their job was to fetch an asteroid from the Asteroid Belt and tow it to Phobos, one of Mars’s two moons. The Asteroid Belt was between Mars and Jupiter and encircled the sun. Only one person was needed for the job but a second was necessary to keep the other sane during the long trip. Whittaker Resources didn’t trust autopilot alone because the value of the asteroid was too valuable.
In addition to ACS (adaptive combat software) engineering, Gust Hein’s other hobby was astronomy. With access to open space and no atmosphere to obstruct his view, the stars were for his eyes’ delight. The information of every known star was on the tugship’s computer, but Gust had wanted to use his telescope to map them himself—like astronomers did in the days before computers and holograms. He toiled for months and recorded his observations in three notebooks. The first star system he had mapped was Alpha Centauri, which was the closest star system to Earth. The Alpha Centauri system had three known stars. The two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, were binary stars. The third star of the system, Alpha Centauri C, was smaller but was the closest star to Earth at 4.27 light years.
The transport shuttle was arriving soon and Brown was anxious to arrive on Mars. His plan was to relax for a week or two, then shuttle to Earth to see his wife and kids again. Then four months later, come back to Mars with his family where they would see him off on another trip.
Gust was increasingly drawn to Mars. It was 2194 and all things humanity had moved from Earth to the Red Planet. Earth, with its pluralistic society of Naturalopists (natural humans), biomechs (biological-mechanical humans), cyborgs (part human-part machine), pharmies (pharmaceutical zombies), milbots (military robots), cilbots (civilian robots), anibots (animal robots), and wobots (worker robots) had become a multi-humanoid planet. There was a wide and uneasy disconnect between the species. At the forefront was the simmering tension between the Naturalopists and biomechs. Mars had become a refuge for Naturalopists, but others were slowly encroaching on their utopia—again.
Gust’s parents were on Earth along with his girlfriend, Christy, who was due to arrive in two weeks. Their relationship had been strained before the trip and was still struggling according to her messages. Gust often wondered if this trip was about me-time to refine adaptive combat software engineering. Or was it about getting away from certain people and things?
After arriving on Mars, Gust wanted some alone time to live it up for a few days in Xanadu—the party city of Mars and the solar system. Everything consensual could be had in Xanadu. Then after Xanadu, spend a few days at the Olympus Grand Resort, the most expensive hotel on the Red Planet. Cost was not a concern since Whittaker Resources paid all expenses for the first two weeks of his return. All Asteroid Retrieval Personnel of Whittaker Resources had this privilege. It was hard to go anywhere on Mars without seeing the name “Whittaker.” It was synonymous with Mars.
TWELVE HOURS LATER, the tugship approached Phobos. Brown waddled to the controls with Gust in tow. They saw the transport shuttle inching up. There was a loud thud as the transport shuttle and tugship interlocked. Thirty feet away the port door clanged open. Brown and Gust jumped off their seats and saw two men in blue suits entering the tugship’s cabin. Finally, other people. From now on, the computer and ground control would take over the logistics, and the asteroid.
Brown turned to Gust. “Well, son, aren’t you glad we’re leaving this hotel suite for a while?” Brown chuckled.
“Ecstatic, Mr. Arbon,” Gust answered, dying to hit Xanadu. He glanced over his shoulders to check if he had left anything behind. Nothing.
As the men led them to the transport shuttle, Brown and Gust examined the tugship’s interior. The flashing lights of the holographic screens seemed to be beckoning them.
The door quietly hissed behind them as it closed and they were on their way to Mars. For Gust, it was to party in Xanadu for a few days.
Whittaker Extraction Facility One, Phobos
PHOBOS, ONE OF MARS’S TWO MOONS
THE VALUE OF each asteroid towed back to Phobos was worth over one hundred billion dollars. But as a gargantuan rock the asteroid had little value. Many tedious steps were required to extract the rare metals and minerals. Whittaker Resources was the only company with the resources to do it. The asteroid was towed from Phobos’s orbit and placed at either Whittaker Extraction Facility I, II or III, depending on the type of metals and minerals it contained. The first extraction step was to break the asteroid into smaller, manageable pieces.
There were three main classes of asteroids, with the S-type being the most prized. The S-type had a high content of silicate materials, and was extracted at Whittaker Extraction Facility I, or WEF I. Demand for it on Mars was at a peak due to the relentless construction of glassed-domed buildings and biospheres.
The asteroids that passed through Whittaker Extraction Facility II were of the M-type, which had a high metallic content, mostly in the form of nickel and iron. The third type, the C-type asteroids, were comprised mostly of carbon materials. They were being extracted at the WEF III on the most isolated region of Phobos.
After the asteroid was broken down into manageable chunks, endless columns of blue rovers, cranes, and wobots (worker robots) moved in and scooped the chunks and placed them onto huge moving platforms nearby. The platforms themselves were bigger than one hundred yards in width and stretched for miles down tunnels and domes. As the platforms snaked farther down the tunnels, they were filled with breathable air.
RANDAL UNGER WIPED his forehead clean of sweat—sometimes it got hot in these underground platforms. Beside him was his co-worker, Kurdick Stengel. They were working the night shift at WEF I, Platform II. The two sat on the edge of their seats and watched as the asteroid chunks glided past in front of them on the rumbling platform.
Randal and Kurdick were young men in their late twenties. Not long ago they had heard how vibrant Mars was for Naturalopists and wanted to be a part of it. There was also a massive ongoing terraforming effort, using microbes, to turn Mars into a habitable planet. Randal and Kurdick were Platform II Extraction Personnel of Whittaker Resources. Although they worked on Phobos, their homes, like everyone else’s, was on Mars. Phobos was only a spaceport and asteroid mining facility. All the dirty work was done here.
“Everything looks good, Kurdick,” Randal commented as he took a sip of water. Small talk was mandatory at this isolated job.
Kurdick said, “Yep. That’s the way I like it: uneventful.”
“Just like my marriage.”
It was a comfortable job with no nagging managers looking over their shoulders. Most of Platform II was underground. By the time the asteroid rocks arrived here from Platform I they had to be the correct size. If the rocks were too big, Kurdick and Randal halted the platform, used the large overhead cranes and pulleys, hoisted them out, and sent them back to Platform I. If they were the correct size, the rocks continued to Platform III, then eventually to Platform IV, where the final extraction process took place.
Randal sank into his snug seat, almost to a lying position and focused on the moving platform in front. He was looking for irregular sized rocks, ice, or unidentified objects.
Randal was telling Kurdick about his family on Earth when something striking on the platform caught Kurdick’s attention. “Wait a second, Rand.” Kurdick put a hand up to Randal’s face. “What is that?” Kurdick was mesmerized by the object on the platform. He slowly slid off his chair, his face in awe.
Randal turned his body to the platform. He slowly said under his breath, drawing out every syllable, “That is out of this world.” He gently set his water down by the holographic deskscreen.
Awestruck Kurdick pointed his finger at the HALT button on the holographic deskscreen. The platform made a screeching noise and came to a long, grinding stop. Randal jumped off the chair and walked to the wide platform. On the stationary platform was a large slab glowing brightly among the asteroid rocks. It was partially covered in asteroid rocks.
“What do you think it is?” Randal asked in wonder.
“I’m not sure from this distance,” Kurdick said with his mouth half-open. “It looks like a big block of ice?” Kurdick’s eyes widened at the awesome object. He quickly moved ahead and left Randal behind.
Randal was still too far to ascertain what it was, but Kurdick could see that it wasn’t ice after all. It looked like crystal or diamond. The object shone brightly in his eyes and the closer he got to it, the brighter it shone. Kurdick put his hands to his eyes to shield them from the glare. They both stood and started at the platform, eyes slowly adjusting to the light emitting from the object.
“It can’t be from this solar system. I’ve never seen anything like it. What is it?” Randal asked for the third time.
“It could be diamond or jewels, worth billions of dollars by the looks of it,” Kurdick said in awe again. “Let’s find out.”
They couldn’t make out the object’s exact shape because most of it was still tangled in chunks of rock. But whatever part was visible was glowing brilliantly.
Kurdick was the first to reach the controls. He tapped a series of buttons on the holographic deskscreen. The crane whirred and slowly hovered over the platform and picked up the big glossy slab. Kurdick and Randal watched the crane as it lowered the slab onto one of the railcars nearby.
“Should we tell Platform III now?” Randal asked, sounding a bit worried. Their immediate supervisor was in Platform III.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Go get the jack.” Kurdick pointed to the back wall of Platform II.
A “skyjack” or “lift” was a vehicle used to elevate people and objects to high places. The railcar in which the crane had placed the slab in was too high for them to see. They had to get a top view looking down.
Five minutes later, Randal returned with the skyjack. Kurdick climbed on the left seat and they made their way to the railcar. Kurdick quickly socked buttons and like an unfolding ladder, the skyjack elevated them above the railcar.
“No good! We need to see it from another angle,” Kurdick said. He still couldn’t figure out what it was but it was unlike anything he’d seen. “Too many rock scraps stuck to it. They need to be completely removed.”
“I have an idea that just may work,” Randall said.
“Let’s hear it.”
“Remove it from the railcar and set it on the ground.”
“That’s against regulation. All rocks must be placed in railcars. Even if we did that, would good would that do?”
“We can use the laser drill from Platform III to brush off the outer layer.”
Kurdick went along with the idea, regulation or no regulation. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you’re not as handsome as I am,” Randal said.
Kurdick tapped buttons on the skyjack’s panel and the lengthy arms slowly folded into smaller sections and set them on the ground. They then used the crane to hoist the shiny slab and set it on the ground.
Randal made his way to the control panel, and was about to hail Platform III when he saw a message flashing on the holographic deskscreen: “Why has the platform been off for so long? Is there an emergency?”
Randal told Platform III they had found an unidentified object and asked them to bring the laser drill.
TEN MINUTES LATER, three workers from Platform III arrived with three transport vehicles, which were used to carry equipment and people around the tunnels and platforms. One of the transports had a laser drill on its back bed. The three vehicles whizzed passed Kurdick and Randal, and parked by the shiny slab. Randal noticed that the team leader was Epson Rebus. Not long ago the two had worked together at Platform II before Epson Rebus got promoted to team lead.
Epson turned to Randal and asked, “I understand you boys found something unexpected?” Epson hopped out of the transport, looked around and immediately saw the shiny object. He shook his head in admiration.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Randal said.
Epson, being the supervisor, said, “What you boys have done is against company policy. All rocks removed from the platform must be put into the railcars. It’s for your own safety.” Epson admired the stunning object and added, “But I’ll let it go this one time.” Then Epson pointed to an open space on the ground. “Johnny and Kenny, you guys set the markers and try not to torch the floor this time.” Epson then turned to Kurdick and joked, “Kurdick, you just stand there and tell me what a great job I’m doing.”
Kurdick grinned. Epson grinned back, then yelled instructions and pointed his finger to where he wanted the laser drill. Johnny and Kenny from Platform III placed blue markers in a big circle, with the slab in the middle. Kurdick stood near the controls and watched as the four men went about their business. He felt left out.
“This is not a cut job, boys. It’s a brush job. Be careful not to break it. We want it in one piece. Just brush off the surface. Be gentle. No scratches, knicks, or dents. Or else,” Epson warned. “Everyone hear that? No scratches, knicks, or dents. Or else!”
“We heard you. It’s not a cut job. It’s a brush job. We got this, Eps. You don’t need to be so tight with the boys all the time. Just relax and enjoy the show,” Johnny assured him.
Johnny and Kenny moved the drill to the center of the circle, placed it on the ground, and moved the transport vehicle away. They slipped on the dark protective masks over their faces and started the flow of red laser lights. Slowly but surely the laser chipped asteroid fragments from the shiny block. Small thudding sounds were heard as the fragments hit the ground and more of the dazzling object revealed itself. It was big, rectangular, and extremely shiny. Johnny and Kenny finished with one side and moved the drill to the other side.
“What do you suppose it is?” Randal asked Epson.
“Rare jewels or minerals. This stuff can be worth millions or billions of dollars. Mr. Whittaker is going to be dancing when he hears about this.” Epson was sure of it.
“If the man doesn’t already have enough money,” Randal said and they both shared a grin.
Ten minutes later, John hollered as he removed his face guard, “All done, Eps! I told you not to worry. It’s all in one shiny piece. No scratches, knicks, or dents. Just like you wanted.”
“Move the drill out of the circle,” Epson ordered.
Kurdick approached the shiny object in measured steps. He was almost used to the brightness now. The length of it laid parallel to the floor. Everyone skimmed it with their hands to feel the alien texture.
Epson stood motionless while he admired the huge diamond-like object. “I can see a small bonus for us, boys.”
“It’s got to be at least ten feet deep, twenty feet in length, and what? About twelve feet wide?” Kenny asked.
“I’m guessing that’s about the size,” Randal agreed.
The object was opaque, except for a liquid layer that was barely noticeable. Kurdick moved away from Epson and walked around it. He glided his hand along it as he paced to the other side and noticed something about its geometry. It was evenly divided into four sections. The light from the high canopied-roof had reflected off the bright object so he was unable to see it at the previous angle. But from where he stood it was evident. A thin but noticeable gap separated each of the four sections. There were also markings and lines running around it near the top.
“Randal, come have a look at this,” Kurdick grunted excitedly and waved a hand.
Randal, Epson, and the two cutters jogged to where Kurdick was standing. They formed a broken circle around the astounding object. Kurdick pointed to the gaps that gave perfect symmetry to the four sections.
“You see those,” Kurdick said and gestured a hand toward the lines in the object. “I think we can break it up. This thing for some reason is in four parts. If we break it up, we’ll see what’s inside.”
“Yes, I know,” Epson snapped as though he developed the idea. What a boss. “Guys, go get the drill and break it up where the lines are. We’re gonna open her. Remember, one piece! No scratches, knicks, or dents! Or else!”
The two cutters hurriedly grabbed the drill. Randal ran to the controls and had the crane tilt the object on its side and a smaller crane to hold it steady.
It took another twenty minutes and the object was split into four identical, perfect crystal-like rectangles. Now, they had to cut the top of each block along the lines near the top of each one to see the inside.
Slowly but surely, the top of one tomb was cut. John hit a button on the drill and the intense red light stopped. Kenneth and John jumped off the floor and proceeded to the tomb. Kurdick followed. They circled the tomb and stared at it in utter amazement. There was no denying how bright and awesome it was.
“There you go, Eps. No scratches, knicks, or dents, like we promised you. Now, how about rescheduling my vacation time? I need to see Menace fight in the next RFC,” Kenny said.
“You and me and everyone else. Let’s focus on the task at hand.” Epson, mesmerized, moved to the top of the tomb and wiggled his fingers, getting ready to open it. He slowly, inch by inch, slithered off the top. At five inches, all he saw was more bright light from the thing. Epson inhaled deeply, paused, and looked at each one of his co-workers. They each returned his stare as if to say, “Stop being a tease, boss, and open it already!”
Epson continued, this time a little faster, and at ten inches down he saw symbols inside. There were six of them adjacent to one another. They were big and ran the width of the tomb. One of the letters looked like an inverted triangle and another looked like a Greek Alpha letter turned ninety-degrees. The remaining four letters looked like chicken scratch to Epson. He was excited and awed. For a moment he saw his face on the evening news on Mars and Earth. The man who discovered… The fame, the fame, he thought. With a hard thrust of both hands, he pushed the top half ways down, looked inside and—
What he saw packed his face with horror. “Awwww!” he shrieked and bolted back. “There’s no way!” It took him a few seconds to recover from what he saw.
The other four just stared at the thing in admiring awe. Their mouths were partially open; words failed them for a long time.
It was the most awesome sight. Astonishing. It was humanoid, maybe android. No one knew for sure. But it looked like a gigantic human male.
“Look at the size of that chest,” Kenneth finally stuttered.
“That’s humongous. It makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a little girl,” Kenny said.
“Who’s Arnold Zawanooker? Is that an upcoming robot gladiator in the RFC?” Epson asked.
“He was a body builder, actor, and politician. You should watch his movies on the Oldies Action channel. Man, the guy fought commies, terrorists, kidnappers, Santa Claus, kids, and even aliens. I like the oldie flicks, you know. I can watch them—”
“Not now, Kenny.”
The creature was completely bald. Its arms were crossed in front of its robust chest in a crude X, in a mummified position like the ancient Egyptian mummies. It was completely naked. Immense, was the only word Kurdick could find to describe its physique. Its chest bulked with muscles. Herculean. At closeup, its face was leathery and scaly with crisscrossing lines like a jigsaw puzzle. Its eyes were tightly sealed.
Just as Randal, lost in the moment, was about to touch the creature on the face, Epson said, “That’s not a good idea. It could be contagious.” He stepped forward and pulled Randal’s hand away. “Remove the top and put it on the floor.” Epson ordered.
The four subordinates each grabbed a piece of the cover and placed it on the ground. The tomb was completely opened. Epson eased up and leaned on its edge, peering into the tomb. He noticed the colossal legs bulging with muscles. Epson estimated that the creature was at least seven feet tall. Whatever it was, he was frightened and awed at the same time. His hands trembled slightly. He cleared his throat.
Kurdick wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “What if the other three blocks contain the same thing?” he asked quietly, with a touch of fear.
“They probably do. All four look identical,” Randal answered under his breath.
Epson was five inches away staring the alien directly in the eyes. But the creature’s eyes were closed and couldn’t return his curious stare. Epson dangerously ran his index finger on the creature’s face, down its gigantic neck. Its flesh was hard and colder than the air.
“I thought you said it could be contagious?” Randal asked, perplexed.
“We all die sooner or later. At least I want to be remembered for something, and being the first human to literally make contact with an alien is a good start,” Epson said bravely. He did not want Randal to touch it because he wanted to be the first. “A work of art,” Epson muttered. He inched his body ever closer, closer, until his chest rubbed against its chest. He was in total awe at the creature before him. He thought about appearing on every deskscreen tomorrow. He would be famous as reporters asked him how it felt to be the first human to make contact with an alien. He thought about the fame. It was going to his head. Only the fame now. What a wonderful day it’s going to be, he thought.
A cold and strong hand snatched his puny neck. The grip tightened—tighter, tighter, and tighter. Epson’s horror-stricken face turned red. He wanted to yell profanities but couldn’t exhale or inhale air from of his lungs. Still in its tomb, the creature bolted to a sitting position and effortlessly lifted Epson off the ground with one hand. Epson’s legs kicked furiously in midair. The creature tightened its grip with such force that blood throbbed out Epson’s throat, squirting in every direction. It then tossed him aside like a ragged doll. Epson’s body laid twenty feet away, motionless, with blood leaking from his throat. But Epson died quickly, without long, agonizing pain.
Total panic set in but no one thought about escaping. They all wanted to play hero—wanted to see their faces on holoscreens tomorrow.
Kenneth was furious and yelled curses at the creature. He clenched a tight fist, raised it above his head, and lunged forward like an idiot, driving his fist at its enormous chest. Nothing. It didn’t even blink. It gave Kenneth a toothless, menacing grin, then its eyes glowed red. Sinister eyes. With its right hand, the creature seized Kenneth’s left arm. With its left hand, the creature wrenched his elbow and held it firm. Kenneth struggled to free his arm. Then, crack, it twisted his arm in a circle.
Kenneth wailed in pain.
Then it clamped both hands over Kenneth’s ears, held it in place, and effortlessly twisted his head in the most grotesque way. It released its grip and Kenneth dropped to the ground like a puppet with its strings released.
John dashed to the nearby laser drill. His legs buckled with fear as he ran. He glanced back at the muscular creature as his face reddened with horror. He saw it leap out of the tomb. Those glowing electrified eyes saw right through him. Apocalyptic eyes.
Randal and Kurdick frantically ran to the controls. “Get the transport! Get the transport!” Kurdick clamored to Randal. “I’ll call Platform III!” He should be calling the Mars Police instead, but like Epson, Kurdick thought about the fame.
John punched a button and the laser drill kicked to life. He aimed it at the approaching creature. A red line of laser darted from the nozzle and violently struck it in the chest. Nothing. John aimed for the face this time. Still nothing. The creature kept advancing. John repeatedly slapped and cursed the drill. It was coming, with red eyes glowing in satisfaction. John kept firing but couldn’t do damage.
The alien kicked the drill aside and it tumbled to the ground. The red laser stopped. John crawled backwards on his hands and feet, keeping his terrified eyes on the alien. It caught up and hovered above him, coolly walking the same pace he was crawling, glaring downward at him with that menacing grin.
“We should’ve left you in space to die!” John sobbed. He thought it useless and stopped crawling. The creature stood over him and with an evil snicker, kicked him in the stomach with its enormous leg. It took one blow and John was dead. His eyes remained eerily open looking into the white lights above.
The creature paused above John’s dead body, clenched two fists, and slowly turned its head in Randal’s direction, who was coming with the transport. Randal stepped on the accelerator as he watched the heated-red eyes closely watching his own. At three seconds to his target Randal noticed the creature hadn’t flinched. It stood motionless and fully erect with clasped fists. No matter how big it was, Randal thought, it’d be injured by the speed of the vehicle. He aimed the transport between its legs. Then, bang, a direct hit.
Randal felt the vehicle shake but kept on driving. He whipped his head back and noticed it was stumbling backward on its feet, tottering, trying desperately to maintain its balance. He spun the transport around for another run.
“Die already! Just die!” Drops of sweat dripped down Randal’s forehead.
The creature waved its broad arms wildly in the air to maintain its balance. It managed to stay upright. Again, Randal slammed the accelerator. It was the same thing this time—the creature stood firm as if wanting to be hit. Maybe it was too stupid, he thought. He grinned in satisfaction. It was going to pay for what it did to his friends. Their dead bodies were on the blood-stained floor.
Randal grinned again and howled. For a fleeting moment he was having fun. He tightly grabbed the stirring wheel with both hands and braced for another impact. Two seconds later, a meter away from the target, the creature sidestepped and the transport missed its target. With one hand the alien snatched the rear of the transport and raised it above the ground. Randal violently cried, furiously kicking the accelerator with his foot. The front wheels screeched as smoke poured from them. The back wheels continued their rapid spin in mid-air. It grabbed the back of the transport with both hands and slowly dragged it back.
Randal whipped his head back and saw the glowing red eyes. His face quivered with fear and he spat. He was about to jump from the driver’s seat, but it was too late, the creature had him in a firm hold. It released the transport and snatched Randal with both hands, one around his neck and the other around his uniform. It raised him above its head as though he were weights.
Randal desperately screamed for help. His legs ferociously kicked in mid-air while his hands fluttered up and down, laboriously trying to escape the incredibly tight grip. It was no use. The creature raised its left knee, and with tremendous force, smashed his body onto its knee. After a loud cracking noise, the creature threw his body to the ground like a sack. Randal laid on the ground with his spine broken in half, body curled like a fetus in a womb. His eyes were chillingly open.
“Nooo!” Kurdick screamed as he sobbed. His voice echoed throughout the gigantic complex. It had happened so quick. He had watched helplessly by the controls while calling Platform III.
“This is Kurdick Stengel, call Mars Police. Emergency,” Kurdick said into the air. Normally, the geofenced soundfield projected from his wristband would recognize his voice and call the Mars Police for help, with his exact coordinates. But there was a short-range electromagnetic interference that prevented his com from working.
“This is Kurdick Stengel, call Mars Police! Call Mars Police! This is an emergency! Emergency! Call Mars Police.” The com on his wristband notified him it couldn’t send the message. There was interference. He slapped his wristband.
Forget about calling in the calvary. Forget about being a hero. Forget about the fame. There was only one way out of this. Kurdick darted to the tunnels. He did not want to meet the same fate as the other four. He glanced over his shoulders about every fifteen metres, watching the massive creature pursue him. It was big but its motions were catlike, very graceful and smooth. He saw it accelerate from a walk to a powerful run in one smooth motion, almost unnoticeable.
He was almost in the tunnel now. The tunnels were the first things he saw at work everyday and he knew them well. Safety was only meters away. As he entered the mouth of the tunnel, he looked back. The creature was still far behind and probably wouldn’t catch him. Once he entered the tunnel there were manifolds of twists and turns, each of which he knew like the back of his hand. He ran for several seconds, then ducked around a corner. Safety at last. He looked around the maze of tunnels and smiled weakly to himself. No beginner could find their way.
After several seconds, his heart sank with fear. The alien was closing in. Its speed was increasing almost exponentially. He tried a few awkward turns, left, right, left, left, right. He needed to get outside to the shuttlepads. Ten seconds later, he looked over his left shoulder to see how close it was. He saw nothing. He wanted to make sure so he checked his right shoulder. And still saw nothing. The sonofabitch got lost in the maze of turns, he thought. He stopped and turned backward, fearfully looking down the tunnel. He still saw nothing and heard nothing. He turned around and made his way to the shuttlepads. The maze of tunnels was too complex for beginners.
Ten more meters down, Kurdick stopped and inhaled a load of air. His heart wasn’t pounding against his chest anymore. He cleared his throat and breathed evenly. He bent down and rested both hands on his knees.
“No one’s gonna believe what just happened,” he whispered to himself, smiling, thinking of the fame again. The only survivor of an alien invasion, he thought. Ten seconds later, he straightened up and walked forward.
Ten meters ahead, and smack, something stopped him dead in his tracks. He couldn’t figure it out but he had just walked into something solid but he couldn’t see what it was. He waved his hands experimentally in front to feel the object. It was bulky and rigid, almost steel-like. He retreated a step backward, waved his hands, and felt something cold. He waved his hands experimentally in all directions. Nothing on the sides, nothing on the back, but there was something in the front. It was invisible and yet solid. He paced to the side and took two steps forward, there was something. He paced four more steps in the other direction and two more forward. There was something solid there. It seemed to be mimicking his movements, preventing him from moving forward.
“This isn’t happening,” he whispered in fear. Again he stepped forward but couldn’t progress. It was like an invisible brick wall that mimicked his moves. He had to find another way to the shuttlepad. Kurdick turned and sprinted in the other direction. He glanced back as he ran but couldn’t see anything.
As he ran a frigid hand clutched his shoulder and brought him to a dead stop. He whipped his head back and saw nothing. But he felt a cold and beefy hand gripping tightly on his shoulder. He stood there motionless with fear gushing in his eyes. Beads of sweat ran down his eyebrows. Then the cold hand gradually moved toward his face, softly stroking it, pinching his cheek skin into folds and squeezing his lips as though he were a lab animal.
His face was pale and his cheeks shook involuntarily. He wanted to scream but couldn’t because he was frozen in fear. Slowly, ever slowly, the cold hand reached the other cheek, pinching a little skin here and there. His legs buckled as though they were about to collapse. Then the skin pinching stopped. For a second he thought about breaking into a run. There were now two hands on his face, one in each cheek. They felt like the hands of a dead person, cold and never moving; just resting on his cheeks. As if it attained pleasure from his fear.
Kurdick broke into a sprint. Twenty meters away, an invisible hand grabbed his head and lifted him off the ground. He hollered as loud as he could, his eyes wildly sweeping the tunnel. He saw no alien. But something was holding him up, something invisible to the eyes.
Then with a mighty force, that something violently threw his delicate body against the metal wall. His body slid off the wall and onto the floor, dripping with blood.
Kurdick never saw his killer. The tunnel was eerily quiet.
Musk City, Mars
AEOLIS SUBURB, MUSK CITY, MARS, 2194
EVERY FEW METERS by the wall stood a tall and green leafy plant—some of them were rare, but were abundant here. The room itself was larger than most dwellings on this thriving colony. The wide windows and roof provided unobstructed views of Mars in every direction. The walls were marble and the maroon floor matched the surrounding soil. There were two gigantic parabolic disks outside transmitting financial information to and from Earth. The mansion was in the Aeolis suburb of Musk City, Mars. From the large windows, the hustle and bustle of Mars’s vibrant economy were visible—forty story cranes in the sky and shuttles ferrying supplies from Earth. The private shuttlepad was visible from the den. The mansion belonged to Udell Whittaker, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Whittaker Resources.
Udell Whittaker usually had the alarm set for 08:00, but today was going to be different. He wasn’t expecting this emergency call. The face flickered to life on the huge holographic wallscreen directly in front of his bed.
“My sincere apology for waking you, Mr. Whittaker,” the voice cracked. It was 06:55.
Whittaker ran a finger down the air and turned the speaker to minimum. “Did the markets crash again, Rafal?” Whittaker asked, ever the tycoon.
It was Rafal Neiman, his closest business confidante. The fifty year old had only a few hair mercifully hanging above his floppy ears. He paused and breathed deeply before answering. “There is a major situation developing at one of our extraction facilities on Phobos, specifically platform two at extraction site one…” Rafal couldn’t bring himself to finish.
The markets didn’t crush. So far so good, Whittaker thought. He wearily rubbed his eyes and waited a long moment.
“Go on,” Whittaker ordered.
Rafal looked pale and properly sad on the wallscreen. He spoke slowly, “Our chemical team and the MPs are on it as we speak.” MP was the abbreviation for Mars Police.
“This situation, is it covered by insurance?” Whittaker asked precisely, ever the industrialist.
“I haven’t been fully briefed, sir. From what we know, five extraction personnel were killed last night at WEF I, Platform II.”
Whittaker’s eyes lit up in disbelief. “Killed?” Whittaker asked coldly. “Is Xavier and his religious crazies responsible?”
“Not as far as we know, sir.”
Xavier and his crazy theory of aliens frozen in the polar regions, Whittaker thought. He rubbed his temple and exhaled through his mouth. “When did this happen again?”
“Roughly four hours ago.”
“All right,” Whittaker sighed heavily. “Are we on top of this?”
“To the best of our ability, sir. But it doesn’t look like we’re in the driver’s seat for this one.”
“Have the MPs figured out any motives?” Whittaker interrogated.
“We only know bits and pieces as the MP is very selective with what they’re releasing and who they’re releasing it to. It appears to be on a need-to-know-basis right now.”
“All right. Arrange a meeting at the office for 09:00.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll keep you updated.” There was a soft chime and the holographic wallscreen flickered off.
Udell Whittaker was a scion of a vast fortune. He was a hard-working perfectionist who married only once. He was handsome, calm, and very intelligent with distinct features. His wife and two girls were still on Earth. The family visited him three times a year and was due for another visit soon. His only son, Lazar Whittaker, a biomech, was on Mars with him.
Whittaker was by far the richest man on Mars, with majority ownership of Whittaker Resources. It was the foundation in which all his other companies were built. Whittaker’s other claim to fame was his son Lazar Whittaker, a biomech, founder of nBotics who had senatorial ambitions, although it was illegal for a biomech to hold political office at the moment. For his work on artificial intelligence, robotics, and zeptobiology at nBotics, Lazar Whittaker was quickly becoming as famous as his father. Rumours were swirling that Lazar Whittaker was the sole heir to Whittaker Resources. But Udell Whittaker often wondered if he had created a monster. He would keep that thought to himself until the day he died.
After a quick shower, Whittaker stepped inside his elegant, dimly lit office. Whittaker admired Mars’s maroon soil decorating the large picture windows for a long moment before speaking at the air. “Call Rafal Neiman.”
A huge holographic wallscreen flickered into view in front of Whittaker. Rafal’s face was on it. Whittaker spoke first, “Rafal, there’s been a change in plan. I’m going to Phobos so cancel the 09:00 meeting. Have all the appropriate people on Shuttle Four at 09:00 instead.”
“Understood,” Rafal obediently replied. “May I ask why you’re going to Phobos?”
“I need to personally attend to this matter. The longer our extraction facility remains closed, the more money we’ll lose. Did you say five workers died?”
“Yes, five.” Rafal paused on the wallscreen. “There is something else I wanted to tell you, sir.”
“What is it? Are we being sued?”
“No. Four tombs were found in Platform II.”
Whittaker was visibly shocked. He eased closer to the wallscreen and looked hard at Rafal. “Tombs? Tombs as in what they put dead people in?”
“Any bodies in those tombs?”
“Not any that we’re aware of. Rumour has it that those tombs were encased in the asteroid we pulled in.”
“That’s an incredible piece of news. Have you discussed this with Rhinehart? This is getting quite elaborate.”
“I couldn’t contact the Director, sir. But Ellis is on it, I think. I’ve talked with Loren a few times. She either doesn’t know much or isn’t saying much. Callen’s been denied access to Platform II all morning.”
Whittaker rubbed his temple and looked at the Martian soil outside with reflective eyes. After a long silence, he glanced at his lonsdaleite watch. “It’s sketchy right now. We have tombs, deaths, and too many assumptions. I’m heading to Shuttle Four.”
Whittaker waved a hand and the holographic wallscreen flickered off.
Although the staff could escort him to his office forty miles away, he wanted to do it himself at sixty-two. It was one of the few things he had had to do himself nowadays. He was from the old school of hard work and believed that if you wanted to get something done, do it yourself. For example, if you wanted to legally bribe someone, do it yourself.
At 08:40, Whittaker’s personal shuttle hovered over Whittaker Tower. The dome folded overtop and the shuttle silently eased down. The shuttle door automatically opened and Whittaker ducked out and walked down the slanting ramp. Rafal and three executives stood waiting. Whittaker walked straight up to Rafal.
“Gentlemen, have there been new developments while I was in the air?” Whittaker asked.
Rafal walked alongside Whittaker. “Nothing, sir. The MPs are adamant about keeping this low-key. It’s on a need-to-know basis, and only to the right people.”
“Have our chem people been able to dig up anything?” Whittaker asked as he approached Shuttle Four twenty meters away. The other three executives followed closely with hands stuck deep in their pockets.
“They’ve been denied access to the facilities. You may be the only person that Rhinehart would consider giving access to,” Rafal said.
“What a day, and it’s just getting started. At this pace, I’d like to see how it finishes. We have a mystery to unravel, gentlemen,” Whittaker said.
They climbed onto the slanting ramp of the larger Shuttle Four and walked in. The door seethed shut as the dome above opened once again, and the solar powered shuttle quietly took off. Phobos was 9, 350 km from the centre of Mars and Whittaker’s personal shuttle took over four hours for the trip. Shuttle Four was designed for long distance flights and took about ten minutes. Once it cleared the dome, the shuttle made a sharp turn and headed to Phobos.
Platform II, Phobos
WHITTAKER’S SHUTTLE FOUR landed gently on the farthest shuttlepad from the entrance to Platform II. The closest pads were occupied by Mars Police shuttles. As the shuttle landed, the transparent dome above it closed. Whittaker was the first to duck out of the shuttle’s slanting ramp. The head of the Chemical Division of Whittaker Resources walked up and greeted him. He was a burly man in his late thirties, clean shaven with little hair. His name was Dittmar Callen.
“Good morning, Mr. Whittaker,” Callen greeted and thrusted out a hand.
Whittaker firmly shook it. “Callen, it’s been all bad news this morning. It felt like Rafal hit me with a double jab, a hook, an uppercut, a roundhouse, then a kick to the groin. Do have you any pleasant news to report?” Whittaker asked.
Callen walked beside Whittaker. “I’m sorry to report nothing for the time being, sir. The MP has refused us access to the platform until they’re satisfied with their investigation.”
Whittaker led the way into the tunnel with Callen beside him. The other executives followed with hands stuck deep in their coat pockets. The wide tunnel was divided like a road with a yellow line split down the middle.
The tunnels were lined with knots of people in black uniform with rifles strapped to their backs. Whittaker’s entourage moved against the wall to let a transport vehicle pass. When they approached the tunnel leading to Platform II, it was sealed off. Two Mars Police officers with rifles guarded the tunnel leading to Platform II. They had stern faces.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Whittaker greeted and stood in front of the two MPs.
The guards stood firm and stared at him, expressionless. “No unauthorized personnel beyond this point,” one guard said with a military voice.
Whittaker stood and returned their soldierly stare. “Look, son. This facility is the property of Whittaker Resources and I’m Udell Whittaker.”
“We know who you are, Mr. Whittaker. But we have our orders,” the same guard spoke again.
“That is understandable then. Is Donald Ellis inside?”
“Lieutenant Ellis is inside.”
“Please inform the Lieutenant that I’m here to see him,” Whittaker said politely, but assertively.
One guard spoke into the air, the geofenced soundfield projected from his watch verified his voice signature and called the right person. “Don, Mr. Whittaker is waiting outside. Should I send him in?”
“No,” the voice flashed back. “I’ll be right out.” Because of the targeted soundfield, only the guard could hear Donald Ellis’s voice.
“Yes, Don.” The guard then addressed Whittaker, “Lieutenant Ellis said he’ll be right out.”
“We’ll wait. Thank-you.”
Ten minutes later, a well-built man over six feet tall with brown hair wearing a black uniform bolted through the tunnel in a transport. He parked it on the side and hopped out gracefully and cordially shook hands with Whittaker. Whittaker’s entourage watched in silence.
“I’m Lieutenant Ellis,” Ellis unnecessarily introduced himself. They had met on several informal occasions. Ellis’s boss, William Rhinehart, and Whittaker were the closest of friends. And Ellis had had a few minor run-ins with Whittaker’s biomech son, Lazar.
“There are ground rules that we need to establish because of the severity of the matter,” Ellis continued. His voice was strong and confident. “It’s very hectic in there and we don’t want to disturb the crime scene. Mr. Whittaker, you can choose one and only one person from Whittaker Resources to go inside. I hope that is understandable.”
“It’s perfectly understandable. I choose me,” Whittaker said, to no one’s surprise. He continued, “However, I would like my own team to evaluate the situation at the earliest possible time.”
“Arrangements can be made for that as soon as we’re done. Let me assure you that we’re not hiding anything from your company, Mr. Whittaker. When the time is right, you’ll know what we know.”
Ellis had never liked the avaricious Udell Whittaker, and never trusted his son, Lazar Whittaker—Lazar was Whittaker’s eldest child and only son. But he had to play the game because of Rhinehart’s friendship with Whittaker.
“That’s assuring. Like you, I just want to get to the bottom of this, considering five of my employees were killed.”
Ellis paused, studied Whittaker’s entourage, and continued with the assurance to appease the tycoon. “I’m glad we’re in agreement on that. We also don’t want to spread fear on Mars until we know exactly what happened here.”
“Do you think there are more tombs in the other platforms, Lieutenant?”
“I haven’t ruled that out, but none have been reported so far.”
Whittaker sighed. “It would be a shame for the wonderful colony if this became a pattern. I don’t have a stomach for murders. They were just employees doing good work. Why anyone would want to kill them is beyond reason.” Whittaker motioned his head toward Rafal and instructed, “Rafal, bring the boys back to the shuttle and wait for me.”
“Yes, sir,” Rafal said and walked back to the shuttlepad amidst the crowd of Mars Police officers.
Whittaker continued with his orders, “Callen, assemble a team of the best and brightest from our chemical division. Have them analyze this place thoroughly when the MPs are satisified with their investigation.”
“I’m on it like maple syrup on pancakes, Mr. Whittaker,” Callen, the chemical division leader said.
“You engineers have quirky metaphors. I missed breakfast this morning. You’re making me hungry, Callen.” Whittaker eased in the passenger seat of the transport with Ellis on the driver’s side. Ellis slowly drove to Platform II and neglected to tell Whittaker that in the adjacent tunnel was the dead body of Kurdick Stengel ,which was still being examined. Ellis took a roundabout way to the platform in order avoid the gruesome sight he knew Whittaker would rather not see.
When he arrived in Platform II Whittaker saw rock debris scattered all over the floor. There was a flurry of activity. The immense complex was jammed with people, wobots, and equipment from different divisions of the Mars Police. The people from the Chemical Division wore red with white gloves and the ones from the Enforcement Division wore black. Blue transports loaded with weapons, tools, and medical equipment were whizzing everywhere. The wobots (worker robots) were quietly and dutifully doing what they were instructed. Unlike the cilbots (civilian robots), the wobots never spoke until spoken to. If they couldn’t perform an assigned task, the wobots simply powered down or waited for further instruction.
Ellis pulled up near the makeshift command post, which was lit with holographic deskscreens, and jumped out. He yanked out a chair and Whittaker slowly lowered himself on it while admiring the Mars Police officers hustling. He took particular interest in a group not far away gathered in a circle around one tomb.
Ellis sat down and watched the side of Whittaker’s face. “Would you like green tea or something to drink, Mr. Whittaker?”
“I’m perfectly good, Lieutenant. You don’t look like the type to drink green tea.”
“I wasn’t until the wife insisted. I like its calming effect.”
“It’s a strong woman who can change a man’s diet.”
They shared a grin, then Whittaker turned away from the cluster of people in red suits. “Have you determined the cause of deaths? Those five men were loyal employees of the company.”
Ellis gulped the green tea and stared Whittaker in the eyes. He wasn’t sure how to say this to the great man. “Let’s just say they weren’t accidents. At this time we believe a group of people is responsible.”
“Have you ruled out robbery?”
“We have. The deaths were very violent, and inconsistent with robbery. If it weren’t for the tombs, the motive would be consistent with a personal vendetta, a long-running desire for revenge that finally surfaced, or suppressed anger expressed through violence. That’s how violent the deaths were.”
“Revenge?” Whittaker inquired. “I assure you, Lieutenant, that we do a thorough background check on all our employees. We pay them well and treat them with the utmost respect. Whittaker Resources has won the Elon Musk reward seven of the last ten years.”
“You might have misunderstood what I said. Revenge would be the motive if it weren’t for the tombs. We believe the deaths are directly related to the tombs. I was merely expressing how violent the deaths were.”
“Sorry if I jumped to conclusions.”
“No need to apologize. It’s been hard on everyone. Let me show them to you.” Ellis rose to his feet and walked to the tombs.
Whittaker slowly stood and followed.
While they walked to the tombs, Ellis studied the side of Whittaker’s face. The tycoon was completely composed. If he was concerned, Ellis could not tell. As they neared the tombs, a knot of red-suited MPs cleared a path for Ellis and Whittaker to walk through. Ellis stepped aside for Whittaker to examine the tombs. The covers of all four tombs were now opened. The MP had found them like that when they arrived.
The first thing that caught the tycoon’s attention was the tombs’ brightness. Whittaker inched up and stood above the nearest one. He peered in carefully and studied its humanoid contouring. But he had no interest in its shape, only the material he assumed it was made of. Diamond, Whittaker thought.
He veered to Ellis. “What is it made of, Lieutenant?”
Ellis knew it was coming. “It’s not diamond,” Ellis said, to Whittaker’s great dismay. “Its index of refraction is slightly greater than diamond’s. It’s a material unknown to us at the moment. If you look closely there is a thin liquid layer inside. We haven’t been able to discern that inner layer.”
The liquid layer had become more noticeable. Earlier the MP’s chem team had tested for the refractive index of the tombs and found that it was greater than diamond’s. The refractive index of diamond was supposed to be absolute like the speed of light in vacuum. But the tombs were harder than diamond, which had utterly puzzled everyone. The chemical team also found that the tombs’ atoms were smaller than any known natural crystal, which was another mystery.
Whittaker stood directly over the first tomb and glided his hand along its side. He leaned down toward the tomb without protecting his eyes. By the time the MPs had arrived, the tombs had lost some of their glaring shine.
Whittaker intensely studied the humanoid contouring. He gave Ellis a sidelong glance and asked, “Lieutenant, surely you were jesting when you said a group of people is responsible. These are not people.”
“That’s correct. They’re humanoid but don’t appear to be human.”
“Have you found them?”
“What do these markings mean?” Whittaker pointed to the six alien characters near the top.
“We’re still trying to decipher them.”
“A mystery on top of an enigma,” Whittaker mumbled. “What do you know about them so far?”
“The first four characters of every tomb are identical and the last two are different. We’re not sure what the first four are but we believe the last two are numbers used for identification.”
They stood in silence as the cluster of red ran more tests around them. Overly excited and speculative voices were floating around. The tomb they were hovering over was the same one Epson had opened. They stared at each other for a long moment. Whittaker was aware that for the tombs to had reached Platform II, they first had to pass Platform I. He was also aware that before anything could enter Platform I, it had to originate in space. In the Asteroid Belt.
“Where?” Whittaker blurted.
“The best guess right now, and it’s a premature guess, is somewhere in our solar system.”
“The solar system is a big place, Lieutenant. Are there plans to capture them?” Or kill them, Whittaker thought.
“That task has been assigned to me.” What a burden.
And yes, the solar system, at 1.87 light years across, was big. Save for a few secret military bases and settler colonies beyond Pluto, humans had only recently began colonizing Saturn’s moons.
“Are they still on Phobos?” Whittaker interrogated.
“Our records indicate that no shuttle has left this moon since the incident. From what we know, they’re still here.”
“It took us decades to make Mars a vibrant colony. We can do without the murders. I’m sure you’ll see to it that they remain where they are and do not reach Mars,” Whittaker said, looking at the huge humanoid contouring.
“I’ll do my best,” Ellis assured him.
Whittaker checked his watch. “William chose the right man when he picked you for his Lieutenant, Don. Don’t disappoint him and the good Martians. We Naturalopists need to stick together.”
The Naturalopy philosophy of the Naturalopists had taken hold on Mars.
They exchanged handshakes, and Ellis offered the tycoon a ride back to the shuttlepad but Whittaker insisted he knew his tunnels. Ellis watched Whittaker disappear into the crowd of MPs. He eased through the thick crowd and sat down at his work table. He stroked his chin as he watched his officers hustling in the distance. Should he wait until they’re captured before breaking the news to the Martians or do it immediately and cause unnecessary panic? He would first have to consult with his immediate boss, William Rhinehart.
The Hunt, Phobos
THE MP’S LEAD patrol shuttle flew over the jutting and dipping landscape of Phobos with its beaming spotlights scanning the surface below. Diane Loren was the pilot and her partner was Ty Maxwell. Loren was thirty one years old and Maxwell was two years her junior. Both were born and raised on Mars and worked for the Enforcement Division of the Mars Police. Their task was to scour Phobos for the now officially declared alien convicts. While Loren navigated the shuttle, Maxwell looked for unusual radiation patterns from the infrared detector and movements from the motion detector.
“There’s been no abnormal reading so far,” Maxwell said with his eyes intensely on the vertical, holographic deskscreen. The shuttle’s solar powered, electric engine was barely noticeable.
“The other nine Birds haven’t picked up anything, either,” Loren said.
There were ten patrol shuttles, or birds, flown in formation. Loren’s was the lead shuttle. She was the third in command and Ellis had personally assigned her the task of hunting the aliens on Phobos.
Loren’s shuttle flew past a high jutting region of Phobos’s terrain, scarred with cragged boulders. “Keep a close eye on the pipes,” she instructed Maxwell.
“Roger that, but our drones haven’t detected anything abnormal.” The drones’ search data was fed to his holoscreens.
Loren scrutinized the craters below as she thought out loud. “They’re not roaming the pipes, nothing has left Phobos, and there’s no sign of them outside. Where does this leave us?”
“Persistence pays off,” Maxwell encouraged. Then reiterated, “My guess is they’re in the pipes.”
On Phobos’s surface laid intricate pipes which cropped up from the natural landscape. They were gigantic, circular, and half-buried beneath ground. Many believed that the aliens had taken refuge there.
Frustrated, Loren jumped up and headed to the back of the shuttle.
“Where are you going?” Maxwell demanded.
“I’m going for a cruise.”
“Don’t tell me you’re taking the levbike.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“I’ve never been able to stop you from doing anything you wanted to do, so I’m not going to try now. Just be careful.”
“I’m a big girl.” She headed to the vehicle bay in the back of the shuttle. In the bay, she stepped to the sidewall and spread her arms out, then eased into the portion of the wall contoured like a human body. As she slid in, the thin nano-carbon protective suit wrapped around her body and automatically sealed itself. She stepped out and the protective oxygen helmut, hidden in the spacesuit’s neck collar, folded around her head. The spacesuit hugged her frame perfectly. She walked ahead and eased into the levbike, or commonly called a scooter or airbike by earthlings.
Sitting on her levbike, she turned on the engine and instructed, “This is Loren, open bottom vehicle bay door.” The targeted soundfield projected from her wristband verified her voice and relayed it to the shuttle’s computer. The shuttle’s bottom door opened and the levbike dropped from the shuttle. She looked up and saw the shuttle flying away and disappearing into Phobos’s horizon. She twisted the levbike’s handle and accelerated downward. She cruised twenty metres off the ground.
From her vantage point, Loren could see Mars. She stopped the levbike and admired the Red Planet. She then cruised to Whittaker Extraction Facility One, Platform II. It was a gigantic structure from the outside, almost a small city. She scoured the walls of the complex on her levbike. Then she briefly took a tour of the pipes on the levbike. She couldn’t find anything.
After fifty minutes, she turned the levbike around and headed back to the shuttle.
AFTER A SIXTY mile radius search around Platform II, WEF I, there was no sign of the aliens and Ellis ordered all the birds back to Platform II. As Loren’s shuttle was hovering above the colossal WEF I, Whittaker Extraction Facility I, Maxwell noticed an unusual reading below. The shuttles and drones had not scanned Platform II since the ground troops had thoroughly searched it earlier.
Loren turned and faced the holographic deskscreen. She spoke at the air-traffic controller on the ground. “Ten to land. Ten to-“
Maxwell jabbed an elbow at her. On the deskscreen, he saw a blob twisting and curling inside the facility. Loren’s eyes widened in amazement as she watched the glowing image on the screen changing shape.
“What is that?” Loren asked, drawing out every syllable. She was utterly perplexed.
Maxwell shook his head, bewildered. He gestured above the shuttle’s control panel and a female MP from the chemical division in Platform II flickered into view on another holographic deskscreen.
Maxwell said, “Chemical, we have an abnormal reading up here.”
“Please specify,” the female MP in Platform II below requested.
“It’s unclassified in our system. You’ll need to see it to believe it. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. The radiation is, ahem…”
“The radiation is what? Please specify.”
“The radiation is actually changing shape, if you can believe that.”
Loren listened intently as she studied the infrared reading on the holoscreen. The dark spots were coiling. She watched it as she radioed another shuttle and requested a second scan. There had to be a mistake, she thought. The second shuttle radioed back and informed her that he was getting the same reading—unclassified radiation emitting in Platform II, where the aliens had been discovered.
“Please specify radiation,” the chemical personnel below requested again.
Loren stood over Maxwell’s shoulder and replied, “Unclassified radiation in Platform II. We cannot specify because it’s not in our system. Have the ground crew examine it.”
“Consider it done. Over and out,” the female MP said and cut the transmission. Her face disappeared from the deskscreen.
Loren steadied the patrol shuttle above the shuttlepads of the massive WEF I facility. She then ordered the other nine shuttles to land. She would monitor the situation from above with Maxwell. She watched as the blob of radiation filled half the holoscreen. All they could do now was wait for Ellis’s instruction.
The shuttle’s engine was humming softly in the background as an update flashed on the holoscreen. “They’ve narrowed down the radiation,” Loren said, waving her hand across the holographic screen. “If it’s what I think it is, then there’ll be fireworks,” she gamely said.
WHEN ELLIS WAS notified of the unusual radiation, he gathered thirty-six officers from the Enforcement Division and three from the Chemical Division to analyze it. The thirty-six MPs, three units, all equipped with laser rifles, gathered in a group and chatted anxiously among themselves. The lead for detecting and analyzing the radiation was John Lawrence, a thirty-four year old male who was a career engineer.
Lawrence sat on a chair at Ellis’s makeshift command post, the same chair Whittaker had used earlier. From there, he studied the five coffins of the employees who had died earlier. The coffins were scheduled to be flown back to Mars for proper burials.
Ellis looked at Lawrence across the table. Anxious and speculative voices were floating around them.
“Our shuttles have detected radiation of an unclassified class near the platform.” Ellis pointed toward to the gigantic platform, which was now stationary. “We need to pinpoint the source.”
“That should be relatively easy. We have portable infrared detectors available. But the source could be from the tombs since they’ve been reacting with our oxygen environment.”
“Unlikely. It’s near the platform. Come with me,” Ellis disagreed. They hopped on a transport and Ellis weaved to the tombs. The transport stopped beside the tombs with smoking tires and they hopped out. The other two chem men were already studying the radiation with their infrared detectors.
Ellis walked around and asked two of his officers to set up six 3D cameras around the platform. He wanted all this to be on record. The first human to battle aliens, caught on video! He was confident that his team would capture or kill these aliens.
Lawrence approached the radiation, holding his infrared detector with both hands. He inched toward it with a frown on his face. “I’m not getting anything,” he said. His infrared detector only showed white spots. “Are you guys reading anything?” Lawrence asked the other chem men.
“It’s a miss so far,” one of them muttered.
“What happened to it?” Ellis asked from behind.
“I’m just as baffled as you are, Don,” Lawrence answered.
“It can’t just disappear like that.”
“It can and it did. Let me make some adjustments,” Lawrence said, looking perplexed. He walked forward in measured steps. His infrared detector began to darken as he advanced. “There’s your radiation. It is by the platform after all,” Lawrence said as he examined the infrared detector. There was nothing near the platform, at least nothing visible to the eyes.
Ellis shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t see anything there. Make sure those detectors are correctly calibrated .” Ellis was confused.
“They are and they’re accurate. It’s right here.” Lawrence rapped a finger on his detector. He tilted the screen upward and showed Ellis the darkening spots. It got darker and darker as he inched closer. “Are you guys getting the same reading?” Lawrence asked his two partners. The dark spots on his infrared detector were twisting and coiling.
“It’s somewhere by the platform, getting stronger,” one of them replied and gestured to the platform.
Incredible, Ellis thought. There was nothing where Lawrence claimed the radiation spot was except the wide leg of the platform and the huge crane stationed high above.
“Could it be the asteroid scraps you’re reading? Or what’s inside them?” Ellis pointed out.
“No. The readings are inconsistent with what you’re suggesting. This is different, unique.” Lawrence was mesmerized by the dark twisting blobs on his detector. He couldn’t take his eyes off the detector. He tensed up. His palms and fingers began sweating. Lawrence said nervously, “Whatever is in front of us is changing its molecular structure. I have never seen anything like this before, not even in the lab.”
Ellis ordered, “All three of you, stop. Don’t go any farther.” Ellis turned around and gestured hand signals. Just like that, more than a dozen transports loaded with MPs gathered behind Lawrence. The three MP units jumped out and took swat team positions. Lawrence felt like a criminal about to get arrested.
Ellis eased up to Lawrence, waved his hand for the other two chem men to come, and instructed them, “Gather as much information as possible but don’t risk your lives. Clear?”
The three nodded in agreement. Risk our lives? One chem man asked himself. What was that all about? No one had told him about the aliens.
Lawrence led the way to the radiation source in small, deliberate steps. Holding the infrared detector in his left hand, he slowly inched toward it. Every couple of steps he looked back at the group and smiled nervously. He knew he shouldn’t be scared, the group was only yards behind. Maybe having had analyzed the body of Kurdick Stengel in the tunnel scared him. It was Lawrence who had discovered the radiation on Kurdick’s body. The part about “don’t risk your lives” scared him. What did Ellis mean by that? Don’t risk your lives?
Nervous and anxious voices were floating around Platform II.
Lawrence frowned at his detector. “The radiation is getting stronger,” he said and paced closer. At fifteen feet he noticed something peculiar on his detector. He shook his head sideways very slowly, utterly bewildered. He peered up at the air in front of him. “Something’s off-the-charts with this reading. It’s atomic structure is unstable,” he said nervously. He took two more steps, then paused, and looked down at his detector. What he saw sent sheer terror through his body. He stuck his detector forward and it shook involuntarily in his hands. The one black spot of radiation slowly diverged as he stepped forward. The thing was actually moving apart. The glowing blob was slowly twisting and coiling into multiple radiation spots on his detector.
Lawrence froze in his footsteps. He bit his lips and beads of sweat dripped down his forehead. He stood there motionless and watched the detector, almost paralyzed. Slowly, the splotch of radiation coiled into a recognizable form. The shape was small on his handheld detector, but the features were distinct.
The arms. The legs. The head. The movements. They were humanoid.
Lawrence peered up with sheer terror in his eyes. He had difficulty breathing, and his heart stopped momentarily. He clenched his left fist and raised it in the air. The signal for danger.
The air in front of him moved, fluttering back and forth, up and down, like swirling dust. Then the air sizzled and popped with electrical sparks—red, green, blue, then all the colors of the rainbow. Like firecracker.
Two enormous creatures appeared directly in front of Lawrence. The four sinister eyes glowed downward at the helpless man. He nearly wet his pants at the sight. Then with a Herculean force, one of the aliens picked him up and hurled him through the air. The other two chem men dropped their detectors and ran to the back, away from the platform.
Lawrence convulsed on the ground to his death.
“That’s them!” someone hollered from the back.
Ellis frantically scrambled away. He watched as his officers opened with a barrage of lasers. Ellis yanked the rifle from his back and aimed it at one of the aliens. He couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw it advance despite being hit with lasers.
One alien coolly walked to an MP and gamely grinned. Its eyes flashed red. It was the most awesome creature, with clumps of muscles protruding all over. The MP furiously fired his rifle. But it had no effect. It towered over him, snatched his laser rifle and whacked him across his temple with it. The MP laid in a puddle of his own blood, moaning in excruciating pain. His legs stopped moving and he died.
Ellis hopped on the transport and weaved it to the alien. In total chaos, he slowed down behind a line of transports. The laser firing grew more intense. Platform II had become a war zone with blazes of red light zipping in all directions and transports spinning wildly to get in shooting position. Some MPs actually relished the danger. They leaped and rolled wildly between steps, got up, and leaped and rolled again as to evade enemy fire that wasn’t there.
One of the aliens leaped fifteen feet in the air and landed on a transport. The transport flipped and cracked in pieces. The alien stood still for a second and watched six MPs in front of it fiercely firing away. The lasers had no effect, it was like throwing toothpicks in wet cement. Everything was being absorbed. The alien changed colors in the parts where the lasers had hit it. But the un-hit parts remained fleshy with muscle bulging all over. More MPs clustered around and mercilessly fired at it.
It casually walked forward while its body glowed red from the intense laser fire. Six feet away from the MP group, the alien staggered backwards on the balls of its feet. Then it shifted colors and vanished. Invisible. Gone.
The air was shifting.
Forty meters away, the laser fire also had little effect on the second alien. Three brave female MPs gunned three transports right at it. Just before the collision, they jumped out and rolled on the ground. They scrambled to their feet and watched in awe as it kicked each transport aside as though it were smacking mosquitoes. The three hurried back to the main group and fired continuously.
The alien tottered back, sneered sinisterly, then collapsed on its back with a loud thudding sound.
The MPs rushed forward with laser darting from their rifles. The alien was trying to lift itself off the ground but the fire was too intense. Its naked body flared with colors of the rainbow. Just as the MPs hovered over it, the alien gradually shifted colors. Then it disappeared. The air was rippling where it once laid, then it was gone.
The firing raged on, then total confusion set in. The lasers didn’t hit the ground as it should have, but it was hitting something between the ground and the MPs. An invisible object. They kept firing and got the same result. The streams of laser never reached the ground. One MP moved his aim three meters sideways, and the laser scorched a hole in the ground. It didn’t take long for the MPs to realize that that alien was lying at their feet. Invisible and probably in pain. Then an earsplitting scream rippled across Platform II.
Ellis shook his head in amazement as he watched.
Seconds later, the lasers found their way to the ground and scorched a crater. Everyone fired in different directions hoping for a blind hit to pinpoint its location. Only two managed, but it didn’t last long. Seconds later, all the lasers found their way on the far wall of Platform II.
Ellis weaved his transport to where the alien had disappeared and yelled, “Get the detectors! They’re still here!”
The MPs assembled in two groups as the two chem men sprang to their feet and stared at their infrared detectors. They walked in opposite directions clutching the detectors in front of them. Their hands and legs trembled uncontrollably. One chem man tightly grabbed his detector to end the nervous shakes, but his legs wouldn’t stop.
“Over there!” one of them bellowed. “The other one’s over there!” He pointed wildly with his index finger. The MPs fired wherever his finger pointed.
“Over there! No over there! No, no, over there!” He changed his finger’s direction with every word, so did the firing.
Ellis gunned the transport to his command post and jumped out before the transport came to a full stop. He used his fingers to punch holographic buttons on the holographic deskscreen. He then yelled at it. “This is Ellis, all patrol shuttles takeoff! All patrol shuttles takeoff!”
He didn’t want the aliens getting hold of the patrol shuttles and their heavy weapons. Also, the shuttles were their ticket to Mars, and he wasn’t going to let that happen. He hopped on his transport and darted back to the main group.
“Damn! I can’t keep up. They’re too fast!” one chem man shouted.
The other chem man expressed the same words. The glowing spots were jumping furiously across his detector. His fingers couldn’t keep up with the random movements. All the MPs could do was fire blindly at unseen targets.
In the next minute, Ellis watched helplessly as the two chem men were struck down along with thirteen of his officers. He painfully stared at the sixteen bodies, including Lawrence’s, scattered on the ground, lying in puddles of blood. They had met the same fate as Kurdick Stengel. Killed by invisible aliens. The aliens were already responsible for the deaths of twenty-one Martians.
The remaining MPs frantically hopped on transports and fled through the tunnels. Ellis rushed back to his makeshift command post and pounded the table in disgust as he watched the disorder. Loud, horrified screams hammered his ears. He stood and listened, powerless to intervene.
Ellis yelled at the holographic deskscreen and the image of Loren appeared. She was on her shuttle. Ellis’s face twisted in anger, and he spoke angrily. “Listen carefully. Keep the patrol shuttles up there. Do not bring them down. Do not bring the patrol shuttles down!”
“Roger that. All patrol shuttles will remain in flight.”
“Prepare two transport shuttles for evacuation.”
“Ellis out.” He didn’t have time to explain. He then ordered the officers guarding the tunnels to retreat to Platform III and wait there. Then he had every entrance to the remaining platforms sealed. There were over two hundred employees and countless wobots trapped in the WEF I complex.
He watched in anger and disgust as transports frantically darted by. He studied the platform and saw no aliens, and wondered where they were. Perhaps they were standing next to him, waiting for the perfect moment to strike like they had with Lawrence.
“Move it, Don! Wrong time to meditate!” one MP wailed as she passed Ellis on a transport.
Ellis snapped out of his thoughts and hopped into his transport. He drove it like crazy through the crowd. One transport stopped and let him into the tunnel first. Ellis waved a thank-you and headed to the shuttlepad. He was disgusted with himself. The sixteen officers who laid in pools of blood were his responsibility. But he knew he couldn’t kill what he couldn’t see. He who knows when to fight and when to run will be victorious, he remember the Sun Tzu quote. Now was the time to run.
When Ellis reached Shuttlepad I, he jumped out, looked up beyond the glass dome and saw the ten patrol shuttles overhead. Good, they had followed his instructions and took off and remained in flight. The MPs rushed clumsily to the waiting transport shuttles. Ellis dashed to the slanting ramp and ushered his officers through. He climbed aboard when he saw no one was left behind.
“Take off!” Ellis shouted to the pilot.
The shuttle’s ramp hissed and vertically closed. The glass dome above opened like a flowering rose and let the shuttle out.
The flock of twelve shuttles hovered high above Whittaker Exaction Facility One. Ellis sat beside the pilot and set his rifle down. The breathing was loud and labored. The engine’s hum was drowned out by it.
On the holoscreen in front of the pilot, Loren’s face came into view. Her lips were just about to move when Ellis beat her to the words, “Are there readings on the shuttles or in the platform?” Ellis panted.
“Nothing. Our shuttles and drones have lost the signals. They disappeared just like that,” Loren said and snapped her fingers for effect.
Ellis sat still and stared down at Phobos’s harsh terrain. He needed to get back to Mars and formulate a plan. He had decisively lost the first battle, but had won another one: He now knew what he was up against. Knowledge is power when it’s applied.
Quietly, he said “Jim, take us home. Loren, you stay here until the next birds arrive.” He sank back on his chair and dropped his arm beside his thighs to release the tension.
The two transport shuttles headed back to Mars while the ten patrol shuttles remained on Phobos to continue the hunt.
AT FORTY STORIES Whittaker Tower was the tallest structure on Mars. It was originally designed for sixty stories but the Mars Zoning Board had warned of marsquakes. Udell Whittaker occupied the penthouse three floors beneath the shuttlepad. His office was safely insulated from the shuttles passing by the large reinforced, panoramic windows. The three story panoramic windows were separated into triangular sections, perfectly aligned with each other, which gave Whittaker a commanding view of the air streets. Furniture was scant for a large office—mostly empty until the holographic deskscreens and wallscreens flickered on to display the latest financial news from Earth and Mars. There was an enormous fish tank mounted on the side wall and exotic plants spiralled from the entrance to the marble office table.
Whittaker had spent the last several hours with Rafal monitoring the situation on Phobos on his deskscreen. To Rafal’s surprise Whittaker did not display any emotion, even when the deaths of Mars Police officers were reported. Whittaker had become preoccupied with the tombs’ material. If they were harder than diamond, there was no telling how much they were worth.
Whittaker sat upright on the big chair with his chin resting on his fist. He had requested a meeting with Ellis after he heard the Lieutenant was returning to Mars. He was adamant that this meeting take place in person and not over deskscreens.
Whittaker once remarked a report wouldn’t have the same content if it was presented to him by a man with husky legs and a handlebar moustache. Or a cilbot (civilian robot) with a monotonous voice. Thus, female secretaries for the tycoon.
“The Lieutenant is here to see you, Mr. Whittaker,” the brunette said and steered Ellis inside.
Whittaker was staring out the picture window, which was opaque at the moment, but could be made transparent at will. “Thank-you, Margaret,” Whittaker said and turned his chair to face Ellis.
“You’re welcome,” Margaret said and flashed a bright smile. She strutted elegantly out and the large, biosensored door automatically closed behind her.
“Have a seat, Lieutenant.” Whittaker motioned to a chair. He made a subtle gesture with his eyes and Rafal took a hike.
“Thank-you.” Ellis walked a few meters across the dimly lit room and sat on the chair farthest from the tycoon. Ellis continued, “I’m very busy, so I’m only doing this as a courtesy to the Director. Whatever it is, please make it quick. And the next time you want to see me in person, talk to me. Don’t go behind my back with the Director.”
How dare he talk to me like that? Whittaker thought to himself. Whittaker fumbled his fingers on the marble table. “Yes, Lieutenant. I’ll keep that in mind,” Whittaker said, then got right to business. “There are a few things we need to discuss. How long did it take?” Whittaker interrogated. It was an interrogation and not discussion with Whittaker, unless the other person could affect his business operation.
“It couldn’t have been more than five minutes.”
“What do they look like?”
“Humanoid with no facial or body hair. No teeth. Red glowing eyes and easily over seven feet in height. Extremely muscular.”
“Anything else of note?”
“They have a unique ability.” Ellis looked down at his hands, he could feel Whittaker staring intensely at him. He was supposed to be meeting with William Rhinehart, Director of the Mars Police, at this very moment but Whittaker pressed Rhinehart and here he was sitting with Mars’s richest man.
“And that ability is?”
“They can appear and disappear—turn invisible at will. They also love to kill.”
“What is the status of WEF I now?”
“We have ten patrol shuttles monitoring it and more are arriving as we speak.”
“Excellent, Lieutenant. How long do you think it will take to apprehend them? Or kill them if necessary.”
“It’s hard to say. It could be another week.”
“That’s too long. In fact, it’s an eternity when every construction company on Mars relies on our minerals,” Whittaker touched a button on the table and the opaque window turned transparent, allowing the glaring sunlight to penetrate and illuminate the room.
Ellis shielded his eyes with both hands from the sudden rush of sunlight.
“There is something I find a bit troubling,” Whittaker continued, “that you only saw two aliens, yet, there are four tombs.”
“The other two tombs could be empty.”
“They could be. I’ll leave it to your discretion to make that assumption,” Whittaker said and turned his chair to the large picture window. Two passenger shuttles flew by, followed by a cargo shuttle. Whittaker turned back to face Ellis, then reached down and pulled a cigar out of a drawer and lit it. He offered Ellis one but Ellis declined. A long, uneasy silence passed the room as Whittaker puffed his cigar. Smoke clouds swirled and curled in the air.
Ellis, still in his black uniform, loosened his neck collar and exhaled quietly. He turned his head and saw a big oil painting of Kirk Whittaker hanging on the dark-brown marble wall. Like father like son, he thought. Originally, it was Kirk Whittaker’s idea to start a mining operation on Mars’s moon. A big portion of Udell Whittaker’s wealth was inherited from his father.
Whittaker exhaled a heavy cloud of smoke. “Are the four tombs still in Platform II?”
“They are for the time being.”
“What are your plans for them, Lieutenant?”
“After we retrieve them, we plan to study them.”
Whittaker’s voice hardened. “You mean bring them back to Earth, study their composition, or put them in a museum for academic savants to admire?”
“Mr. Whittaker, don’t think for a second that the monetary value of those tombs has gone unnoticed. No one is that naive. You have your agenda, which isn’t always the same us ours. We have everyone’s best interest at heart, even yours. You’ll find that the common good is to your best interest. All we ask is that you remain patient until our work is done. Being meddlesome will only hinder you in this situation.”
How dare this boy give me a lecture, Whittaker thought. Has he forgotten who I am? Even though he felt slighted, Whittaker remained composed. “They come from another world, kill my men, wreck my facility. I don’t know them, they don’t own stock in my company. I want them captured, or dead if that’s the only option.”
Still defiant, Ellis said, “It could be a misunderstanding since there is no way to communicate with them. To them we could be just as hostile. Would you not do the same under the same situation?” Ellis inquired. He remained still in his seat, frowning and reflecting for a second. He couldn’t believe what he had just said. He had actually defended the aliens who had killed sixteen of his officers. Then he thought, perhaps the aliens were misunderstood, lost in a foreign world. After all, the tombs were found in space, in an asteroid. They could had been floating in space for years, decades, millennia, or even eons.
Whittaker let all that pass, because he knew Ellis said that to spite him. “To expedite their demise, could you send the search and destroy drones to kill or incapacitate them? We’d be happy to assist the MPs in that matter.”
“We’re only employing search drones for the time being. I’ve been notified that the search and destroy drones aren’t effective in this situation. The aliens’ ability to camouflage will throw off the SAD drones’ sensors. There could be untold collateral damage if those drones misidentified targets.”
Whittaker suddenly stood up and walked across the table toward Ellis. He slouched over with one hand and leaned against the table to support his weight. “Back to the tombs, there are four of them?”
“It’s only fair, since they were found on private property, that they be handed over to Whittaker Resources.”
“You’re looking too far ahead, Mr. Whittaker. The ownership issue will be sorted out at the proper time. That is not even a priority for us at the moment. I’m saddened anyone would think along that line after twenty-one people have just died.”
Whittaker took another puff of his cigar and stubbed it on the astray on the table. He leaned closer to Ellis and said, “They need to be captured or killed within one week, Lieutenant. Whittaker Resources cannot continue to absorb mounting financial losses while our facilities are down. As for the tombs, they belong to their rightful owner—the owner of the property they were found on.”
All he wants are precious the tombs, Ellis thought. “Yes, the tombs. We’d like to test them first before letting the Director make his decision.”
“Rhinehart, Rhinehart, the Director. I got a hold of him once this morning. He’d better not be avoiding me again. Where is he now?” Whittaker asked.
“At headquarters monitoring the situation. His com is off when he’s in important meetings.”
“I’ll try again later. Ellis, there are no two ways about it. Those tombs were found on private property. Dittmar said that their index of refraction is greater than diamond’s, which means they’re very valuable and can be used to compensate our losses.”
“Again, that issue has never crossed my mind, especially when lives have been lost. If money is more important to you than lives, then you’ll have to discuss it with the Director. He has more say on the matter than I do.”
“I was afraid of that.” Whittaker detested asking old chums for favors. He had known Rhinehart for thirty five years. “Money isn’t more precious than lives, but it does pay the tax, which are then used to pay the salaries of public employees, of which you are one.”
“Then those public employees are used to protect the disenfranchised mob from killing the ultra rich.”
“We’ll agree to disagree before this escalates, Lieutenant. I’ll go to the top with this request.”
Ellis ignored the remark, sat in silence and stared out the window. Another passenger shuttle passed by, carrying tourists from Earth.
“Mr. Whittaker,” Ellis said as he rose to his feet. “I need to go. The Director is expecting me soon.”
Just as Ellis was leaving, Whittaker said, “Tell that little rascal Rhinehart I need to see him ASAP.”
“You’re still healthy. You can tell him yourself.”
Up Close and Personal
THE AIRSPACE OVER Whittaker Extraction Facility I, WEF I, was crowded with patrol and transport shuttles. Diane Loren looked outside her shuttle window and saw another group of shuttle arriving in a V-shaped formation. Two things troubled her as she peered down at the gigantic WEF I complex below. For one, why were they no longer detecting radiation? If the aliens were dead, where were their bodies? Also, there were four opened tombs, why were there only two aliens spotted? Things were looking grim for the Mars Police.
“Things aren’t adding up,” she remarked to Maxwell. She had read the report that warned her of their uncanny ability to turn invisible, or camouflage in the environment. The report also warned to avoid contact because of potential radiation hazard. She was most impressed with the line in the report that read: “Aliens able to apply force to any object when invisible.” And oh yes, those glowing, electrified eyes were mentioned.
Maxwell broke the silence. “Do you think they’re in platform one, three, four, or the pipes?”
“No. No. No. No,” Loren said. “Unless they can walk through ten inch metal doors. The report said they can’t go through solid objects. But nothing would surprise me anymore.”
Loren was partially right. The aliens couldn’t pass through solid objects with their entire bodies, but they could, by design, with their arms.
As they spoke, the latest report flashed over the shuttle’s holographic deskscreen. Loren stood over Maxwell’s shoulder. The report said that the second group and a drone team had finished another sweep of Phobos and detected nothing. The aliens where not on the surface of Phobos, so it was time to attack the WEF I facility on foot.
IN PATROL SHUTTLE Three, John Yamoto and Michael Ender anxiously waited for word from Ellis. Both were tall, muscular, and had military style haircuts. Both in were their late twenties and proud to wear the black MP uniform. They were ecstatic when they had heard news of the aliens. It was something that they had wanted to be a part of. They were the lucky few who were let in on the aliens. The others were simply told to “look for something unexpected. You’ll know it when you see it. And when you do see it, you are not to divulge it to anymore except your immediate commander. Disclosing the information will result in your immediate dismissal from the force.”
John had a friend who had died in Platform II, and Michael’s friend was still trapped in Platform III. All they wanted was a chance to fight the much-hyped aliens.
A flock of shuttles was hovering outside their side window.
Both sat in silence and patiently waited. There was an update on the holographic deskscreen: With the exception of Platform II, every other platform had been searched and every tunnel secured. There was no sign of the aliens. With the help of Whittaker Resources’s engineers, the assault on Platform II would soon begin. The only possible hideout for the alien fugitives was Platform II, where they were found.
John and Michael would soon get their chance to meet the aliens in mono a mono combat.
IN PLATFORM II, 60 MPs, five units, stormed the entrance and neatly dispersed into five groups inside. They scanned the platform floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, but there wasn’t a sign of the aliens. The only readings were from the 21 dead bodies—16 sixteen on the ground and five in the coffins. The MPs inspected every crane, transport, and even the platform itself. If the aliens were alive, they weren’t in Platform II.
“Platform II is secured,” an MP reported to Ellis. The Lieutenant was on the lead shuttle with the Director, William Rhinehart. The shuttle was hovering above Platform II.
“Excellent job, boys. I couldn’t ask for a better team,” Rhinehart praised and caressed his bulging belly, even drumming the fat folds a couple of times in exhilaration. Rhinehart was sixty four, with fat folds around his sagging cheeks and neck. He wasn’t aging well. His narrow black eyes were sunk deep in their sockets and he seemed to be sleeping most of the time. Rhinehart was old and out of shape but he was still the Director of the Mars Police.
“It’s secured. It means it’s safe for me to go down there. I want to peruse the place,” Rhinehart said like kid.
“There isn’t any sign of them, but I would advise against it. At least for the time being,” Ellis said.
Nothing was going to keep Rhinehart from seeing the tombs. “At my age, this could be the only opportunity to witness something this spectacular.”
“If you must. I’ll have a group meet us at the shuttlepads.”
Three minutes later, Rhinehart’s shuttle landed softly on shuttlepad six. He waddled to the shuttle ramp with Ellis and three engineers behind. Rhinehart ducked out and plodded down the slanting ramp.
Rhinehart waddled and looked around. “Take me to Platform II,” he demanded. Ellis motioned for a transport nearby, and the big man stepped in. The transport would’ve overturned if wasn’t for Ellis’s counterweight. Ellis hoped that the aliens didn’t appear, because Rhinehart had no way of escaping. He couldn’t run, that was for sure.
Inside the massive Platform II, Rhinehart trudged off the transport and looked wildly around. Then he stood still and analyzed the gigantic structure strewn with asteroid debris, dead bodies, rifles, transports, tombs, wobots, and five coffins to his left.
“This looks like a war zone,” Rhinehart grunted.
“It was a war zone, sir,” Ellis said from behind.
“I read your report but didn’t expect this chaotic mess,” his voice changed to the grouchy grandfather of sixty-four.
Rhinehart turned left and lumbered to the five coffins. He stood over the nearest one. The inscription read RANDAL UNGER. Rhinehart moved to the next one with the inscription KURDIC STENGEL. Then he saw the names of Epson Rebus, John Hibler, and Kenneth Rogers. The first five humans to die at the hands of aliens, Rhinehart thought.
“Has an autopsy been performed?”
“Not yet. We need to shuttle them back to Mars,” Ellis answered.
“They deserve better than this. Send them to the morgue and temporarily freeze them. We need to sort out the mess here first. And get those bodies off the floor. It’s a disgrace seeing them like that.”
“Yes, sir.” Ellis barked orders. A group of MPs and wobots gathered their fallen comrades on the ground. He then ordered two officers to gather the cameras and fly them back to Mars, along with the five coffins of Whittaker Resources employees.
Ellis took Rhinehart to the alien tombs, which were now beside each other. They had lost some of their brilliant shine. Rhinehart stepped up to one of the tombs. “So these are the four famous, or should I say infamous tombs,” Rhinehart said as he glided his hand along the humanoid contouring. “They must be gigantic.”
“They are,” Ellis said. His mind reeled back to the encounter and it was strangely exciting and frightening at the same time. The glowing red eyes, bulging muscles, and shifting colours were vivid.
“I don’t envy you, Ellis. You have a daunting task before you. Do you think it’s possible to capture one to study?”
“That’s a possibility, now that we have enough manpower and know more about them. But I can’t guarantee anything, sir.”
“Every resource of the Mars Police is at your disposable. See to it that no one else is killed. Remember, you will be Director after I retire.”
“Yes, sir.” Ellis nodded. He could see himself as Director Ellis with a big, plush chair and a private, posh shuttle. How proud his wife Arlene would be.
Big ass swivelling and all, Rhinehart sort of waddled duck-like around another tomb and glided his hand up and down to feel it. It was harder than anything he’d touched before.
“I see why Whittaker wants to get his greedy hands on these.” Rhinehart then turned to Ellis and sternly said, “See to it that these aliens don’t make it to Mars.”
ON SHUTTLE THREE, John Yamoto and Michael Ender were disappointed when they heard the news from Ellis. They would be returning to Mars along with the other eight shuttles. Thirty more shuttles were arriving to relieve them. They had missed their chance to battle the aliens, so they thought.
John set in the autopilot for Mars and propped his feet beside the holographic-navigational screens. In about ten minutes they’d be back on Mars, then drop by the Olympus Grand Resort and enjoy a few afterwork drinks to release the stress.
The shuttle’s engine was softly humming. Bright sunlight flashed through the windows as the shuttle flew.
“The waiting game really got on my nerves, you know,” John said.
“Join the regret club. There’ll be other opportunities. They’re not going anywhere. We’ve isolated Phobos.”
Just as Michael was about to take his eyes off the reports on the holoscreens, there was a thumping sound from the storage compartment. Every shuttle had a twenty-by-twenty feet storage compartment near the back; it was used to store two rifles, two jumpsuits, emergency batteries, and two six feet personal lockers.
“I think your rifle might have dropped,” Michael said with his eyes on the reports.
“I’ll be back,” John said like Arnold whats-his-name. He made his way to the storage compartment in the back. He pulled the metal door open and looked around the compartment. There was no rifle or anything else on the ground. He opened the rifle rack and saw both were still there. It must had been Michael’s imagination. John kicked the door shut and started for his chair. At four steps passed the door, he heard another thumping sound, identical to the last. He turned around, yanked the door open again. Once inside, he pulled it shut to investigate.
In the cockpit, Michael was absorbed with the alien reports and hadn’t notice that John had been gone for over five minutes. From what he read, he badly wanted to meet the aliens. The report mentioned the glowing eyes several times.
“John!” Michael hollered finally.
No reply. Just the soft hum of the shuttle.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” Michael asked himself and yawned. He stood up and walked to the storage compartment. He jerked the weighty door open, and looked inside.
“Fuck me!” he cried in sheer horror.
The alien was towering over him, glaring downward.
John’s dead body was lying at its feet in a fetal position.
The first feature Michael noticed were the eyes, glowing brightly in his face.
“Call MP. Code 4! Code 4!” he yelled. Under normal circumstances, the geofenced soundfield projected from his wristband would’ve recognized his voice and called the Mars Police for help. But something was interfering with his com. That something was electromagnetic radiation interference from the alien.
“Call MP. Code 4! Code 4! Call MP! Code 4!” The com on his wristband wasn’t working. The geofenced soundfield wasn’t working.
He twisted around and tried to reach the holoscreen in the cockpit to hail for help. It was too late; he felt a strong, warm hand clutching tightly on his left shoulder. He slowly turned around to face it. Those eyes were the most evil things he’d seen. His body was quivering. He struggled to free himself from the unbelievably tight hold.
The alien, slowly, very slowly, pulled him to its gigantic chest. Michael began sweating, as they stood like slow-dancing partners. The alien had no odor. But those eyes.
His eyes filled with tears. The heat was becoming unbearable.
“Just kill me,” Michael begged tearfully. For a brief moment all he could hear were the soft hum of the engine and sizzling sound from its arm.
The alien slowly moved its right hand toward his stomach. As the hand got closer, it changed colors, then it glowed. Electrical pulses sparked from its elbow to its fingers. Every other part of its body remained fleshy.
Nearly paralyzed with fear, Michael managed to stare down at his stomach. “Just kill me.” He knew he was dead once the hand touched. He wildly shook his shoulders side-to-side in an attempt to break free. The left grip was incredibly tight.
“Just fucking kill me,” Michael begged, wanting his life to end without pain. He was sweating profusely.
The hand finally touched. He felt a warm tingling sensation in his mid-section from the heat radiating from its hand. He stared at his stomach in horror as sweat beads dribbled down his forehead. A few drops of sweat found its way to its electrified forearm, which fizzled with a thin cloud of smoke. Every part of the alien was flesh-like, only the elbow to the fingers glowed. Its four shiny fingers twiddled slightly as it inched closer, sizzling with electrical sparks.
Then the hand slowly inched inside his stomach, becoming a part of him. The heat was intense. The alien moved its hand through his body, up the chin then down to the groin. The ominous eyes squinted, methodically studying him. The glowing hand finally rested inside his chest, poking through to the back. It stayed there for ten seconds while he dripped with sweat. His heart and breathing stopped.
“Just fucking kill me!” he pleaded, dying.
The alien mockingly grinned at the dying man. It knew he was feeble.
Then Michael got his wish. Suddenly, his body jerked and violently convulsed. Countless volts of electricity had passed through his body. The body stumbled to the ground, and the head knocked against the door and bled profusely.
The alien cooly pulled its hand back, then its arm morphed to flesh like the rest of its body. The last images Michael Ender saw were the dead eyes of John Yamoto beside him and another alien appearing into sight.
The air was coiling.
The shuttle, on autopilot, would navigate itself through 9 350 km of space to Mars Police Headquarters.
Rhinehart and Whittaker
WHITTAKER’S NUMBER ONE secretary, Margaret, sat behind the black desk and lithely polished her nails. First with the pinky, then she worked her way to the lovely thumb, then to the right hand. She could had used the cheap paste on fingernails or fingernail enhancement surgery, but Whittaker considered them unworthy of her beauty. She re-crossed her legs each time a nail was finished. With a skin tight skirt, she had to. Despite all the advances in technology, the art of female cosmetology hadn’t changed. The timeless art of beauty was still timeless and still required a woman’s personal touch.
William Rhinehart, the Director of the Mars Police, slowly made his way from the elevators—forty stories and it took him seven seconds. He loved the technology or it would had taken him days to walk the stairs. Rhinehart lumbered to Margaret’s marble desk and stared at her long, slender legs with every step. He was sixty four but still had the hormones. Whittaker wanted to interrogate him in person about the events on Phobos.
“Here to see Udy, Margie,” he announced with a lusty old man smile.
Margaret poked from behind her desk with a teasing smile. “Director Rhinehart, it’s always lovely to see you. Do they look good?” Margaret asked, waving her nails in front of his creased face.
“Very nice. I like how they’re colourful, reminds me of my grand children’s birthday balloons,” he said, leering at her. A V-shaped sweater revealed a good part of the neck down.
“How ‘bout these?” She waved her other hand in front of his face.
“Very nice, bright and delightful, just like you,” he complimented.
“Thank-you,” she said and smiled to herself.
“You are absolutely welcome, Margie. Udell doesn’t know how lucky he is to see you every morning. I know it would brighten my day every day,” he flattered her.
She put down her bottles and steered him to the door, which automatically opened as it recognized her biosignatures. She was the only one who had access to his room while he was inside.
“The Director is here, Mr. Whittaker.”
Whittaker motioned Rhinehart in. The tycoon was on the holographic deskscreen with a Chinese tycoon from Earth. Whittaker gestured at Margaret and she walked out. The door automatically closed behind her. Rhinehart waddled to Whittaker’s desk and almost tripped over the plant vines dangling on the ground. Whittaker waved him to a chair and Rhinehart managed to squeeze in it.
“Mr. Lui, I have a very important meeting with the Director of the Mars Police. We’ll be in touch soon to finalize the deal.”
“I look forward to what your thoughts are on the projected return on equity, Mr. Whittaker,” Patrick Lui said and then disappeared on deskscreen.
“What was that all about?” Rhinehart asked.
“I’m trying to put together a deal with a few Chinese investors to build the biggest golf resort on Mars without using any of my money.”
“Par for the course,” Whittaker nodded with a conquering smirk.
“You greedy sonofabitch. I have good news for you, Udy. Well, most people would call it good news. You probable call it profitable news.” The Director was only one of two people who dared call the tycoon Udy.
Whittaker pulled two cigars from his drawer and gently twisted one in the gold holder. He handed Rhinehart one and Rhinehart lit it.
Whittaker blew puffs of smoke. “I’m listening, Will.”
“I’ve been informed that extraction facility one is secured. It should be cleared to operate soon.”
“That was the good news I was waiting to hear. Your boy was here earlier. Tough as nails,” Whittaker said between puffs.
“He gets that toughness from me.”
“That’s not what the female interns are saying.”
“Every man has a weakness.”
“Your weakness is too obvious.”
“I got it from you.”
“But you don’t have to be so overt and brazen about it. The ladies like a bit of subtlety and subterfuge.”
“Every man has his own style. Don’t judge me, Udy. At my age, I don’t have time for subduu, subdaaa, what did you call it? Nevermind, let’s get back to the matter at hand, or business at hand for you greedy bastards. What did Ellis do that you didn’t approve of?”
“He could be more accommodating to those in, let’s say, the upper echelons of power.”
“He wasn’t nice to you?”
“Let’s just say that he could had been a bit more accommodating.”
“I don’t know if you would had done anything different in his position, Udy. He’s sending more shuttles and ground troops to protect all three of your facilities on Phobos. They’ll be secure and operational soon. You have my word on it. Trust me.”
“The last time you said that I almost got arrested.”
“That was ten years ago. And I got you off, didn’t I?”
“Okay, I’ll trust you again. But if anything goes wrong, I’ll sue your big ass. Have you let the good Martians know about the aliens?”
Rhinehart paused and watched as four passenger shuttles sped by. Probably on the way to the Olympus Grand Resort, he thought. “At the moment there is no need to spread unnecessary fear. Once people go in panic mode, they’ll leave the planet for Earth en masse. It’ll be an exodus in the making. I don’t want that, and you don’t want that.”
“Good point. A business can’t make a profit without consumers. And the tombs?” Whittaker interrogated.
“From what I understand, two of them may be empty because only two aliens have been spotted,” Rhinehart puffed on his cigar.
“Since those tombs were found on my private property, how do you feel about handing over two to Whittaker Resources?”
Rhinehart knew it was coming. He paused for a second. “Is money all you ever think about? You can’t eat it, make love to it, or take it with you when you die. But if you must know, our chemical team is running tests on them. They just finished an x-crystallography to determine their atomic structure. We’ll have to sit down to discuss this issue another time as it’s not a top priority. Apprehending or killing those aliens is.” Rhinehart looked out the window and watched a cargo shuttle pass.
“Look, Will, how long have we been friends? Eighty, ninety years?”
“Thirty five,” Rhinehart grunted.
“Okay, thirty five. But who’s counting.”
“I am,” Rhinehart said behind a smoke cloud. He knew that with Whittaker every interaction was transactional in nature, and it usually involved money. “Look, Udy, you’re only analyzing this from a financial perspective. Sometimes you need to temper your greed, old friend. See the forest rather than focusing on a few trees. There are bigger consequences and rewards at stake.”
Whittaker inhaled heavily, turned his head and stared out the large window at another passing cargo shuttle. “It’s easy for you to preach the moral high ground because you’re not responsible for employees and shareholders, Will. I have a fiduciary duty to increase profit for my shareholders every quarter. You have no idea the pressure I’m constantly under. It’s part of the job of CEO. We get paid lots for putting put with lots.”
Rhinehart puffed and watched a flock of shuttles edging close to the window. They didn’t even make a sound. The ambience was beautiful at forty stories up, nestled between ancient red rocks, and looking at shuttles peacefully gliding by. Only the Olympus Grand Resort had a better view.
“We have a litany of problems right now. I’ll think about the ownership issue later,” Rhinehart said.
“Don’t deliberate too long. Time is money, Will. Besides, there isn’t much cerebral matter in that watermelon of yours anymore. Not that there was much in the first place.”
They sat and finished their cigars and talked about old times.
After a brief intermission, Rhinehart continued, “I have a concern you need to heed.”
Whittaker glared at him as if he hadn’t heard the question. “And what is that concern? There’s another pending heart attack?” Whittaker finally asked.
“We’ve detected four tugships from Whittaker Resources heading to the Asteroid Belt. My guess is you’re trying to retrieve more tombs, which can be dangerous considering we know little about them at the moment. Are you? Are you being the greedy SOB that I think you’re being?”
“It was purely an investment decision.”
“You understand the potential consequences of that decision, don’t you?”
Whittaker said nothing. He knew his company could have future flights revoked. Every shuttle and ship that were airborne had to be approved by the Traffic Division of the Mars Police.
“I understand that Whittaker Resources is permitted twenty three flights per year to the Belt.”
“Which is one per month,” Rhinehart grunted with the cigar touching his lips.
Mars orbited the Sun every 687 days. The Martian calendar used the 30 day a month cycle, same as Earth. Therefore, 23 months to a Martian year.
Whittaker said, “It wasn’t explicit in the contract, which only specified twenty three flights per year to the Belt. We’re within our legal limit if we send four flights this month and refrain from flying for the next four months.”
The drumming of the fat folds stopped. “Clever, Udy, and a bit underhanded. After all these years I haven’t impressed upon you that not everything legal is moral, nor ethical. A slight of hand can cost you goodwill down the road. There are things money can’t buy and goodwill is on that list. Being legally right doesn’t equate to being morally right, nor ethically right.”
“Don’t get philosophical with me, Will. If it hasn’t worked in over thirty years, it won’t work now. And you should be the one preaching morals. You don’t think I know about your, okay, I’ll stop here before you come up with an excuse to arrest me or interfere in my business.”
“We were discussing business ethics, not affection for young women, especially ones in skimpy bikinis.”
“Will, let’s stick to the business at hand before you go off on a tangent. I assure you there are enough tombs to go around. You see, what makes capitalism work is competition.”
“Where’s the competition if you’re the only one with the tugships and extraction facilities?”
“Okay, I lied. Competition is a sin.”
They talked some more while Rhinehart watched an assortment of shuttles gliding outside the panoramic windows.
After an easy silence, Rhinehart said, “I need to go now. I’m expecting a full report from Ellis within the hour. He’s on Phobos intensifying the search.” Rhinehart, with great effort and heavy breathing, started to his big feet.
Whittaker rose to his feet and led Rhinehart out. “Please keep me updated, old friend,” Whittaker said at the door.
“You can count on it. In the mean time, you can send your chemical team to Platform II to do your own analysis and tests, or whatever it is you greedy bastards need to do to make more money that you can’t spend in this lifetime.”
Rhinehart walked out and flashed Margaret an old man’s carnal wink. She flashed him a bright back and he almost went into a convulsion. For a brief moment he thought about divorce.
At the precise moment Rhinehart called for the elevator, nine patrol shuttles, including shuttle three—the shuttle of John Yamoto and Michael Ender—landed in the Docking Bay at MP Headquarters.
FOR THE LAST three hours Ellis had the chemical team painfully analyze and re-analyze every inch of the four tombs. The tombs’ substance was unique and not found on Earth or Mars. Ellis was told they were a type of crystal—regular layers of atoms packed extremely close together, but the layers of atoms on the tombs were stacked closer than the regular crystals found on Earth and Mars. This was an enigma to the Chemical Division.
“The third test should be done within the hour,” Dale Mackenzy said as he approached the makeshift command post. He was the lead for the MP’s chemical team.
“I look forward to reading it,” Ellis said without looking at him. He rubbed his temple in fatigue with both hands. His short, brown hair was a mess. He hadn’t had a moment to himself in the last twelve hours. He looked up at Mackenzy and said, “There’s something important we need to do before moving on.”
Mackenzy waited for a few seconds. “I’m listening.”
“We need to get the platforms moving again.”
Mackenzy waited again. “And why is that a good idea?”
Ellis paused and squinted at the platform. “Because we need to know if there are more tombs.”
“More tombs mean more aliens.”
More deaths, Ellis thought. “You said only one tomb was forcibly opened by the drill, correct?”
Mackenzy nodded. “From what we know.”
“That means the other three tombs were opened by the first alien that was released by Whittaker’s people.”
“They must have opened the first one out of curiosity.”
“And what did curiosity do to the cat?”
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
“That’s right. Get the platforms moving again. If you find any more tombs, let me know right away. Don’t open them. Remember what happened to the curious cat.”
“It died. You got it.”
“Now for the question without an answer. Do what you want hear it?”
“I’m all ears, Don.”
“There are four tombs, but only two aliens have been spotted. Where are the other two?”
“That line of thinking assumes that all four tombs had aliens in them.”
“If they were empty, why were they opened?”
“I don’t have all the answers, Don. My head is constantly spinning trying to ascertain the material of the tombs. Do you believe all four tombs had aliens in them?”
“My guess is as good as yours. We’ll soon find out.”
WITHIN THE HOUR, all the platforms at WEF I were moving again. Ellis drove slowly to the rumbling platform and intensely studied each irregular-sized slab as it was being removed and x-rayed.
“Don, check your com. It’s either off or there’s interference from the machinery,” an MP shouted.
Ellis, sitting on his transport, stared tiredly at the MP, who pointed to Ellis’s makeshift command post. It was Loren on the holographic deskscreen, the man said. Ellis said thanks and drove the transport to his command desk.
“Loren, I could use some good news about now,” Ellis said, almost begging.
Loren slowly shook her head sideways. Ellis got the answer.
“Are you positive?” Ellis asked.
Loren nodded a yes.
“What about the other platforms and facilities?”
Again, Loren only nodded. She was exhausted, too.
“And the housing facilities?”
“Nothing,” Loren finally spoke.
“I feel like we’re tasked to solve a puzzle but were not given all the pieces. Have you scanned down here?”
“Only ten times by our search drones,” Loren said.
He pounded the table with his fist and she blinked on the holographic deskscreen. “My intuition says they’re still alive, in this facility,” he insisted. He surveyed the platform again. There were hundreds of people working in small groups, assisted by wobots.
He swallowed hard before speaking again. “I want you to do another sweep. This time on rovers and levbikes if you have to. I know they’re in here or out there. There are only so many places to hide on this moon.”
“Roger that. But if nothing shows up again, we’ll need a new plan,” Loren said as her face faded from the deskscreen.
Ellis sat on the chair and buried his face in both palms.
A few minutes later, Callen and Mackenzy approached with the x-ray results. The sight of Ellis’s face buried in both palms was discouraging.
Callen, the lead from Whittaker Resources’s chemical team, spoke first. “It appears the tombs are absorbing more and scattering the x-rays less. They’re very sensitive to atmospheric pressure and become malleable under they certain conditions.”
“With what we’re dealing with, you need to pay attention to the smallest detail. Don’t leave anything to speculation. Now, keep testing every hour,” Ellis said without looking up.
“We should analyze the tombs on Mars,” Callen suggested. But it sounded more like a pressing recommendation to Ellis, perhaps one from Whittaker.
“Just keep doing the tests,” Ellis said firmly, still with his face planted in both palms.
“We have precise instruments on Mars that will yield better results,” Callen suggested again.
Ellis glanced up at Callen, who was about his age. “Keep doing the tests.”
“Don,” Mackenzy offered, “we’ll get finer results on Mars because the testing equipment is much more sophisticated. We don’t have an atomizer here. We can also analyze the data at the Steve Jobs Clustering Centre.”
“Whatever happens on Phobos stays on Phobos. We’re not bringing anything back to Mars until we know more. There’s no need to take unnecessary risks for the time being. Besides, Rhinehart has the final say on the matter. Until then, keep doing the tests here.”
Mackenzy and Callen stared at each other, as if Ellis was a near the breaking point.
Ellis finally sat upright and drank the green tea. He watched the hectic activities—everyone was working feverishly. The twenty-one coffins had been flown back to Mars to a cryogenic facility at the Mars Mortuary. Rhinehart had insisted that they preserve the bodies until the whole alien mess was resolved on Phobos. The freezing process was perfected a few years ago by Whittaker Cryogenics, a division of nBotics, founded by Udell Whittaker’s biomech son, Lazar Whittaker.
KEVIN FRYER HAD worked at the Mars Mortuary for the last six years. The job was easy, but he hated it because it was the night shift. And he particularly hated his boss for putting him on the night shift. But things were looking up now because Michelle Gardner was his new assistant. She was twenty-eight years old, eight years younger than the balding Fryer. And she looked stunning in the long white lab coat. Suddenly the night shift was bearable.
Kevin Fryer’s official title was Supervisor of Data. He catalogued the dead and had seen every type in his six years—he often wondered how he would hit the bucket himself. His job was to verify the deceased with the information on his handscreen—the visuals from the handscreen’s holographic display was projected from his wristband. If they matched, he’d send the official notice to their respective families so they could mourn. Easiest job on Mars.
The third floor in which Fryer and Gardner worked was sanitized and cleaner than most hospitals on Mars. It had white floor and walls with no odor or dust. The lights were white and the glass was translucent. The entire floor had that heavenly look to it, although no one had gone to heaven and came back to let others know what heaven looks like. But whatever heaven looks like, the third floor looks pretty much the same, minus the dead bodies.
There were only two rooms on the third floor. One was Fryer’s office with two big, snug chairs, where Fryer worked and made ridiculous passes at Gardner. The other room occupied over 90 percent of the floor and was called the Nitrogen Chamber. A wide glass-walled hallway separated the Nitrogen Chamber from Fryer’s office. The Nitrogen Chamber was where bodies were temporarily frozen after Fryer and Gardner identified them.
Gardner was learning the job nicely and he was trying hard to learn her. Just one month, he hoped, and he could get some candlelight going. But she was getting married in two months and wanted none of it.
“Okay, last time,” Fryer, alias Romeo, explained for the hundredth time. “Enter your code at the flash. Then punch in the coffin number. Then make sure the face and personal ID match. Then move it to the Nitrogen Chamber and stuff it in. Get it?”
“Got it,” she said with a smile, leaning toward the deskscreen.
Now he had to be sly because she was leaning toward the holographic deskscreen just inches from him. He needed a good line, one that would get her to move closer across the table. He couldn’t tell her his hair was receding, or he had been celibate for six months. Hmm, something witty, something unused. It came to him. “You ever seen two people die from making love?”
Gardner looked at him strangely. “No I haven’t. Have you?” she asked with a puzzled face, but couldn’t wait for the phony answer.
“I sure have, twice in fact. See chambers 69 and 92,” Fryer said and waved through the glass door to the Nitrogen Chamber. Chambers 69 and 92 were near the top. “A couple had a bucket list with an item to have sex in every conceivable place. Tourists found them in embrace near the Olympus Grand Resort. The second couple went the same way. But they went having sex. What a way to go, having sex, then dying. Having sex without gravity, I wondered how that must have felt, having sex in zero gravity. Must have been a great feeling having sex on Mars, while the sex lasted for those poor kids, anyway. Sex, geez, sex.”
Gardner counted, the poor guy used the word “sex” nine times. He’s definitely on to something, Gardner thought. “You’re serious?” she asked innocently enough. Just playing along. Maybe she’ll make him beg later, then shoot him down. But for now, she would just toy with him.
“I’m very serious. It’s on record. They were in embrace smiling when they died,” Fryer said as if it were true. He was smooth as glue, but she didn’t inch any closer.
Gardner thought about it for a few seconds while glaring at the deskscreen. She tried to look interested but couldn’t hold it any longer. She cupped her mouth with both hands and pretended to cough, but was really hiding a big laugh. She had studied the deaths of all one hundred and sixty and recalled no such deaths. Pitiful, she thought, just plain pitiful. She couldn’t wait to tell her fiancé. However, she did award him two points of ten for effort.
“Wow. That must have been something,” Gardner said after recovering from her near-death cough.
A moment of silence passed as Romeo worked his mind for another line. Finally, she was saved by the people on the second floor for the fifth time in five days.
A man in a long, white overcoat stepped out the spacious elevators. In front of him were twenty one coffins. The black, shiny coffins were quietly propelled down the white hallway by a lev engine. Near Fryer’s office, the man touched a button on the small panel and the twenty one coffins stopped. The lev engine was almost unnoticeable. Fryer followed Gardner to the coffins.
“Good evening, Albert,” Gardner greeted as the man approached.
“Good evening, Michelle. Got a big load for you tonight,” Albert said.
“Good evening, Albert,” Fryer greeted.
“Hi ya, Kevin. Got lots for you tonight. These have special instructions. Only ID the first five. Leave the last sixteen alone—they are not to be identified. Just stick them in the chambers. No identification, per instruction,” Albert said.
“Who wants it that way?” Fryer asked, suspicion hanging on every word.
“The Mars Police. Again, please do not identify the last sixteen. The MP will send you the files for verification later. When later? I wasn’t told. For now, just stick them in the chambers. There should be enough room,” Albert said.
Fryer and Gardener exchanged perplexed looks, then they both stared at Albert.
“That’s odd,” Fryer said. “Why do they want to keep the identities of these sixteen undisclosed? Are you sure that’s what the order was?”
“The request was signed by the Director himself, Rhinehart. Don’t feel bad though, we didn’t get to pull out the intestines and brains. They said we could do it later. Hee, hee. Right now, they just want to freeze them until further notice. The MP will drop by and take care of them.”
Gardner stared weirdly at Albert. “And you didn’t ask why they wanted to keep the names from public record?”
“That is not my place to ask, Michelle. I do what I’m told. It makes my job easier. We’re dealing with the MP here.”
Of course, Fryer thought. “Okay, it’s hard to post obituaries without names. How did these sixteen people die?” Fryer asked suspiciously.
“I don’t know, Kevin.”
Gardner gave a perplexed look at the coffins before her.
“Okay. Forget about the sixteen. How did the first five die?” Fryer asked, waving his hand across the five coffins.
“I was told by an industrial accident on Phobos.”
“What kind of industrial accident?” Gardner queried.
“They didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”
“How did five Mars Police officers die in an industrial accident? That doesn’t sound right.”
“I don’t know. They didn’t tell me much. If I knew more I’d tell you.”
“When’s the MP dropping by to take care of this mess again?”
Albert’s face lit up. “You’re asking too many questions I don’t have the answers to. Don’t ask me anymore questions. I just want to go to work, do my job, get paid, get my vacation time, and be the minion that I am. Some people want to rock the boat. Some people want to change the system. Some people want to change the world. That’s not me. I’m not an idealist. I come to work early and leave late so management thinks I’m a good employee. I just want to get paid and go home. I have kids to fed. I have a retirement plan to live out my days on Earth. I don’t want any problems or be known as a troublemaker. Last time I got nosy they—”
“We get it! No more questions.” Gardner shook her head, then looked suspiciously at the coffins. “Thanks, Albert.”
“Thanks,” Fryer said, almost whispering. What was Albert’s tirade about? Fryer asked himself.
Albert walked back to the elevator and went down to the second floor to be a card playing busybody. Gardner and Fryer stood and watched the coffins. Not much work tonight. The verification was the tedious part and they didn’t have to do most of it tonight.
Gardner walked to the lev platform cart’s control panel by the elevator door. She softly tapped the ADVANCE button and the coffins gently glided forward. The hidden lev engine barely made a noise. Fryer went over to the Nitrogen Chamber door and pressed his index finger on a palm-sized IDpad mounted on the wall. The sensor recognized his fingerprint and biosignatures and beeped twice. The glass door hissed and slid wide open.
Gardner swung around the corner with the twenty-one coffins and gingerly steered them through the door. She navigated the coffins to the center of the expansive Nitrogen Chamber, and touched the HALT button.
The Nitrogen Chamber had four walls. The hallway wall was all glass with the holographic words NITROGEN CHAMBER in black. The coffins were the only other objects that were black, everything else was white. It was an eerie contrast.
Fryer walked across the ghostly hallway. Gardner had decided to put the coffins in chambers 161 to 181. Only 19 spots left. She lightly tapped the SEPARATE button, and the first five coffins separated from the other sixteen.
Romeo walked back in and eased up to Gardner.
“The side walls are full,” she said. “We should use chambers 161 through 181.” Each side wall had fifty chambers, numbered 1 to 50. The back wall had 100 chambers numbered 100 to 200.
“You’re making good progress. Let’s put these sixteen away before we ID those five,” Fryer said, pointing to the five coffins, which contained the bodies of former Whittaker Resources employees who had died at Platform II.
Gardner glided the sixteen rectangular coffins toward the back wall. She noticed an identical warning on each of the sixteen coffins: PROPERTY OF MARS POLICE. DO NOT TAMPER WITH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. PUNISHABLE BY FINE AND/OR JAIL SENTENCE.
On the front wall was another panel with flashing green lights. Gardner skimmed her hand across the LOWER button and chambers 161 through 181 eased slowly to the floor. She pressed the OPEN button and a light cloud of nitrogen-smoke hissed from the chambers as they opened. She positioned the sixteen caskets near the middle, then a long robotic arm automatically reached through the white wall and placed the caskets in their respective chambers. As the robotic hand pulled away, the chamber seethed shut and another cloud of nitrogen-smoke rose. The chambers smoothly glided to the top, back to their rightful numbering on the wall. A red light flashed in each occupied chamber instead of green. The 16 bodies of the Mars Police officers were temporarily frozen.
“Okay, let’s begin IDing these five,” Gardner said as she approached Fryer.
“I was going to start on it earlier but I wanted you to have a little practice.” Fryer emphasized “but.” He pulled the cover off one coffin and stared down. It was Epson Rebus with his eyes closed and hands folded across his chest in a mummified position. His lips were swelled with stitch marks criss-crossing his pale face. Fryer checked the laser-etched inscription on the first coffin and cross referenced it with his handscreen. They matched. It was Epson Rebus, the first victim of the aliens at Platform II.
“That must have been some industrial accident,” Gardner said doubtfully, and looked away from the dead face.
Fryer ran his index finger down Rebus’s neck. “The cuts and wounds don’t appear to be consistent with an accident, but then what do I know. I’d hate to see how the other sixteen died if they didn’t want us to identify them. I’m guessing that Xavier and his morons had a role in this.”
Lately, the biomech cult leader Xavier had been recruiting and making threats. He claimed he was close to making a major discovery in Mars’s northern and southern polar caps.
Fryer looked at the picture of Rebus on his handscreen, then glanced down at the dead Rebus lying before him. Both pictures looked the same, except the corpse wasn’t smiling. He pushed the coffin top closed and she steered it aside.
The next two corpses had incisions through their chests with stitches running through their faces. The inscriptions read John Hibler and Kenneth Rogers, the two laser cutters at Platform II.
Gardner stood and watched in horror. “Let’s quickly get this over with,” she said with her palms cupping her mouth.
“Only two more to go. You can start putting those three in the chambers. I’ve ID’d them,” Fryer said.
Gardner dutifully steered the three coffins to the near wall. She eased them by the waiting robotic arm. The servile machine hissed a few times, then the three coffins disappeared in the wall. She stood by the front wall with her arms folded in front of her chest and waited for Romeo to finish. Two left.
Randal Unger was the next corpse, then Kurdick Stengel. Fryer casually opened the coffin cover. He looked at the pale face of Unger, then looked at the holographic handscreen. The two faces looked the same, except the corpse wasn’t smiling for some reason. Fryer paused a second and frowned at Unger’s handsome picture on his handscreen. Then he looked at the corpse.
There they were!
The glowing red eyes blinked open and stared at him. Unger did not move. For a second Fryer returned the stare, then stumbled back in horror. The eyes studied the white ceiling, methodically moving around.
“Stay where you are, Michelle,” he shrieked, still stumbling back on the balls of his feet.
“What is it?” she asked calmly, facing the back wall. Light clouds of nitrogen smoke were swirling around her. She took a long stride toward the coffin.
Fryer grabbed her arm. “Stay way! That guy’s alive.” He stabbed fingers at Unger’s coffin.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You sound like you were in Xanadu last night,” she said with irritation. Must have been a ploy to get her closer, she thought. She deducted one point from his hard earned two. She ignored the warning and stepped forward.
Fryer grabbed her arm and forcibly swung her around. “Look, his eyes opened. I’m not joking, don’t come near that thing. Just don’t come near it, please. I saw his eyes open. Please Michelle. Please don’t come near that thing. Please,” Fryer pleaded, sounding like looped audio.
Gardner felt the pressure of his grip. “I won’t, just let me go.”
Fryer released her arm.
They both moved ten feet away from the coffin and watched it carefully. Nitrogen smoke swirled from behind as the robotic arm stopped with the hissing and whirling and properly hid itself in the wall.
Fryer raised his hand. “Stay here and don’t move,” he said like hero, then slowly inched forward to Unger’s coffin. He glanced back at Gardner and smiled, and she nervously smiled back. For a brief moment he thought about heroic deeds and a fairy tale ending—he’d rescue her from the zombie apocalypse, become her hero, they’d have four kids and live happily ever after. Just like the fairy tale movies.
At six feet from the coffin, Fryer saw the black fabric covering Randal Unger from toe-to-neck. No movement in the coffin. Fryer carefully stepped forward. Maybe he had imagined the glowing red eyes, or maybe not. Another big step and Fryer stood still, frozen in fear. He turned to Gardner as it happened and Gardner backed against the wall.
The fabric covering Unger hurled over the coffin and Unger slowly sat upright. His face was pale, almost colorless. Unger stared directly at the sidewall and ignored Fryer. He sat motionless for a few seconds with his eyes sizzling red. Unger was completely naked and his pale body was shifting colors, becoming translucent.
“This is Michelle, call Mars Police. Call Mars Police,” Michelle said in panic. The soundfield projected from her watch notified her that there was interference and couldn’t complete the call. She tried again, “This is Michelle, call Mars Police. Emergency. Call Mars Police! Call Albert!” She slapped her watch.
Fryer yelled, “This is Kevin Fryer, call Mars Police. Emergency. Call Mars Police. Requesting assistance.” His com wouldn’t work, neither. “Fuck sakes! Call Mars Police!” Fryer stepped backward and heard Gardner mumbling curses.
Still sitting upright in the coffin, Unger turned and stared Fryer in the eyes. The glowing red eyes scared Fryer, then it stared at Gardner and back to Fryer and back to Gardner.
“Let’s get Albert,” Fryer said and grabbed her arm.
Gardner was staring in disbelief as Unger’s body was becoming translucent, enough for her to see the glassed-hallway.
“Snap out of it!” Fryer ordered.
Gardner couldn’t. She was mesmerized, oh how she was mesmerized. He pulled her hard toward the glass door and she tripped. He slid his arm around hers and they crawled along the white chamber wall while fearfully staring at Unger.
Unger was still motionless, staring at the wall. Then his eyes sparked.
“Okay,” Fryer whispered in Gardern’s ear. “I’m going to run to my office to alert Albert. Follow me if you can.”
“Just be careful,” she whispered back and patted his back.
He freed her arm and lunged for the glass door. Only fourty feet to his office across the wide hallway, then call Albert on the second floor for help. At five feet to the door, a deafening scream erupted. It was Gardner. Fryer abruptly stopped and twisted around to look at her.
A mighty blow knocked him to the ground.
He looked up and saw Randal Unger straddling his chest. His eyes glinted red.
“Run, honey! Run!” he encouraged her. He was lying on the ground staring up between Unger’s legs. Fryer looked at Gardner for the last time and prayed for her safety. He glanced up and saw Randal Unger ominously grinning downward.
The last thing Fryer remembered were the electrically charged eyes, then the lights sombrely dimmed on him.
Gardner did not run.
The coffin of Kurdick Stengel was behind Unger’s. Gardner was cupping her hands over her mouth and crying for Fryer so she did not notice Stengel creeping out of his coffin. He was naked and walked slowly and deliberately toward Gardner, who was still against the wall crying out loud. She thought about running, but there was no way she could get past that beast guarding the door.
Unger/the alien stood over Fryer’s dead body like a predator after the kill. It didn’t move. Probably waiting for Gardner to bolt through the door and meet the same fate as poor Fryer. She realized this and retreated a few steps. She turned around saw Kurdick Stengel, also with the electrically charged eyes. She dropped to her knees and screamed as loud as she could. The sound echoed through the Nitrogen Chamber and down the white hallway. But no one heard her. There was no one else on this floor. She screamed again and again and again.
Albert was too busy playing cards on the second floor. He had five nothings, but was betting big. Four of a kind, he told the gal next to him.
Gardner realized there was only one option and she had remembered it from Albert. She would temporarily freeze herself in one of the nitrogen chambers until the MP came for the bodies. Albert said that the MP would come to claim the 16 bodies. Fryer had recorded the chamber numbers—a red light flashed if the chamber was occupied. She was hoping that Albert would check for all the chambers that were not supposed to be occupied, but were, and hopefully find her. Or she’d be frozen indefinitely.
Gardner watched the aliens as she sidestepped to the panel. Unger and Stengel did not move. They stood and glared at her, analyzing her movements. As long as they wanted to watch it was fine by her. With both hands feeling the wall, she inched along it, careful not to make any abrupt movements like Fryer had. Her hands trembled as she watched them studying her like a zoo animal. She only had contempt for the monsters as she looked at Fryer’s body on the ground with his mouth open. Fryer was a deviant but he was harmless and she sometimes liked being showered with attention. She wanted to kneel down and give him a farewell kiss on the cheek.
Unger tilted his head sideways. Those eyes frightened her to death. Evil eyes. She managed to gather herself and continued her advance along the wall, using her hands as guidance. No movements from them. Amazing. She finally reached the panel, and tapped in a quick succession LOWER-OPEN-200.
A beep, a whine, a beep, then Chamber 200 smoothly glided down the wall. Her timing had to be impeccable or the chamber would shut too soon and leave her exposed. Gardner slowly dipped one foot inside through a cloud of nitrogen smoke. Then with one neat twist she flung herself into the chamber, the right leg followed last. She laid down with her arms folded across her chest in a crude X, and wiggled her body into position. She watched through the nitrogen smoke as the chamber slowly seethed shut. The chamber was too big for her tiny body without the coffin, but that was fine. She had made it. Another second and she only saw darkness, the chamber had completely sealed. Thirty more seconds and her body would be at cryogenic temperature.
She had expected to feel the chamber rise as the robotic arm lifted it to its rightful place near the top. But that did not happen.
Just as the robotic arm poked through the wall, the alien, Unger, lunged forward. The robotic punched a hole through his chest but there was no blood pouring out of it. The robotic arm gyrated wildly and hissed as it tried to pull back into the wall. It was attempting to save his life, as it was programmed to do. Unger coolly looked down at his chest, then at Stengel. Stengel stood and cockily grinned and offered no help to his wounded comrade. Unger raised both arms in the air, clenched both fists, and a brilliant fireball radiated from it. The rest of his body remained pale flesh. Then electrical sparks flared from his chest, and within seconds, the robotic arm melted and stopped gyrating. The metal turned into hot molten liquid and oozed down his legs onto the ground. The ground sizzled as Unger knocked the robotic arm hard against the side wall. He was dripping with molten metal from the robotic arm. He glanced at Stengel and cockily grinned.
They both approached chamber 200 with Michelle Gardner inside.
She never saw what happened but her intuition told her something was horribly wrong. She saw the chamber cracking with glaring light, and the hands which opened it were not human. They were large and brawny. Then the chamber door flew off and hit the side wall where it shattered. Gardner found herself looking upward at her would be alien killers.
The only features she recalled were the glowing red eyes, and the two figures standing above her had them. Everything else was different, Unger and Stengel were no longer in the room. Her eyes widened as she viciously bellowed on the top of her lungs, so loud that the sound ricocheted on the floor.
The aliens leaned their heads forward, hovering over her. She screamed again. One alien extended a hand to her face and wiggled its fingers. The tearful Gardner slapped the arm with both hands, but couldn’t even make it move. She kept smacking the arm until it changed colours, then her hand went through the arm at the elbow. She bolted up and leaped out of the chamber. The other alien seized her shoulders and violently swung her around. Then the one with the glowing arm stuck its arm through her face. The hand poked behind to the back of her skull. Her face shone brightly as she felt it mildly heating up. A neat line of sweat broke across her forehead as the arm glowed and sizzled.
She screamed repeatedly as she ran for the door.
The hand yanked her collar, and her neck wobbled and jerked.
She never had time to scream again. The arm flared with electrical sparks and her knees buckled, then she crumbled to the ground. Her head hit the white concrete and smeared the ground with blood. Her white lab coat was scorched, her eyes eerily open looking into the glaring ceiling light.
They straddled her dead body. “Run, honey. Run,” one of them mocked. The tone was slightly lower and colder than Fryer’s.
Olympus Grand Resort
THE LAST PHASE of the Olympus Grand Resort was so monumental that it would take another five years to complete. Once construction was finished it would be the largest structure on Mars in terms of area, but not in height. Whittaker Tower was the tallest structure on Mars and it would remain that way as long as Udell Whittaker was alive. The hotel resort was a complex of three thirty-six story towers, which were almost identical except for the numbered towers. An artificial lake appropriately named Adventure Lake encircled the three towers. A lush green forest surrounded Adventure Lake and the three towers. A system of flowing streams crisscrossing inside the majestic forest ensured everything looked natural. A series of wide walkways cut through the forest. It was where lovers strolled and admired Mars’s two moons: Phobos and Deimos, or Fear and Terror.
The Olympus Grand Resort had 300 shuttlepads and an underground maglev train system that fed it tourists. Despite all its magnificent sights and posh comforts, the engineering work was most admired. The whole structure was under a nano-carbon glass biosphere and every precaution had been taken so that the guests did not feel trembles during marsquakes.
The most fascinating structure of the Olympus Grand Resort complex was a secret to the public. Deep, deep beneath the maglev train system was the secret base of ELIX (Earth Legion 9). It was a complex within a complex. People had never questioned why the Olympus Grand Resort was such a gigantic construction project that was still five years from completion. That’s why it made the Olympus the perfect cover for ELIX’s base—hiding in plain sight. Only if people knew the real purpose of the Olympus Grand Resort. Deep beneath the feet of the vacationers was a secret military base that housed the fastest and most advanced fighters in the solar system. These fighters made the Mars Police patrol shuttles look like 20th century technology. Then there were the advanced weapons, all kept from the public.
Legionnaires of the 20 Earth Legions scattered throughout the solar system were sworn to secrecy, and there had been no inside leak. As far as the public was concerned, the Earth Legion did not exist. Therefore, the secret military base below the Olympus Grand Resort did not exist as far as the public was concerned.
Most guests of the Olympus Grand Resort were from Earth, some from Whittaker Resources, and the rest were well-to-do business type who came for the company of harlots who roamed Venus Bar, which was on the second floor of the Olympus Grand Resort, Tower One.
Veronica and Marilyn happened to be two of the harlots roaming Venus Bar. They sat on the barstools as though they owned the place and methodically examined the floor of Venus Bar for possible victims. They were gorgeous and dressed to the nines.
Veronica instantly saw what she liked. “Over there,” she said, pointing her long finger at table twenty.
“I don’t know, one of them is old and chubby. He might be married,” Marilyn said.
“I hope he is. I like the challenge.” Veronica gamely smiled. She sipped her Tharsis vodka and admired Adventure Lake outside. It was an awesome panorama no matter how many times she had seen it.
“It could be a father and son situation. It doesn’t look too promising,” Marilyn said.
“I bet they work for Whittaker Resources; those guys are loaded. The young one is kinda handsome. Look at that innocent face. I think he’s the shy type,” Veronica said, and they both giggled. Both were in their late twenties.
“I get the shy one,” Marilyn said with a giggle.
“Okay, you get him first, then I get him.”
“Then we both get him.”
“The last time we did that the guy almost had a heart attack and his wife found out.”
They both chuckled.
“What was that old man’s name again?” Marilyn asked. “Wine, line, hine. What was it? He just kept on going and going and going and going. Do you remember, hun?”
“Rhine, rhine. Rhine something,” Veronica said.
“Rhinehart!” Marilyn snapped.
They burst out laughing. Veronica stopped first and turned to her victim. “He’s young, handsome, and shy. That’s an irresistible combination.” She got the shy part partially right. People could be an introvert in public and an extrovert in private. It depended on the place and crowd.
You can never tell with the shy ones, Marilyn thought. “He sure is.”
“Let’s go get us some,” Veronica gamely said.
Time for victims.
They tenderly placed their drinks on the bar, pushed off their stools, and strutted to table twenty. Every guy at the nearby tables turned their heads to get a peek of the two beautiful ladies strutting down the aisle. As they passed table nineteen, the young man turned his head and admired Veronica’s legs. His girlfriend grabbed his ear and forcefully spun his head back.
“I’m sorry, honey. I was admiring at Adventure Lake,” he apologized with dreamy eyes.
“Adventure Lake is that way!” the young lady corrected and pointed in the opposite direction.
A stupid grin crossed his silly face. Caught in the act. Dirty dog.
Table twenty had three brown, leather chairs, but only two were occupied. Veronica comfortably sunk herself into the third one, as though it were her table. She sexily crossed her smooth legs.
“Hi. How are the drinks?” Veronica asked the shy one, staring luridly at him. Marilyn stood above the chubby one.
The shy one hesitated. “It’s fine,” he answered bashfully and swallowed hard.
“What’s your name?” Veronica asked, smiling gamely. She dragged her chair closer to his.
“Gust, Gust Hein,” he answered sheepishly and gulped again, trying hard to look away from the suave legs. Her seductive perfume reached his nose and he wanted to inhale her. The temperature was raising.
“And yours?” Marilyn asked the chubby one.
“Brown Arbon,” the man said flatly and returned to stir his drink, uninterested in the apparent advance.
“Do you both work for Whittaker Resources?” Marilyn asked, sounding crafty.
“Yes we do. We are Haulers,” Brown answered, sounding bored.
This one was definitely married and not interested, thought Marilyn. Neither was she. Marilyn stood and watched as Veronica worked over the young Gust Hein.
“Is it true that all employees of Whittaker Resources are paid well and work really hard?” Veronica asked, strongly emphasizing “hard.” She dragged her chair closer until her thighs rubbed against Gust’s. She ran her hand up his legs under the table out of view from Brown. The temperature zoomed passed 80 for Gust.
“It pays well but I can’t say the work is really hard,” Gust said sheepishly. He had her at “pays well.” He pretended to admire Adventure Lake but it was in vain. He crossed his legs to cover the bulge. Her fingers were playing with his privates under the table. Then she grabbed them and caressed them, and a warm tingling sensation shot up his body. The temperature reached boiling point. Her distract mode was working as planned.
She inched her lips closer to his ear and caressed it with her tongue. “You need the company of a good woman after all that time away from home, honey,” Veronica whispered playfully in his ear.
Brown was busy watching two guys arm wrestling at table twenty-nine and missed the offer.
Everything, his head, hormones, emotions, and most importantly the bulge, told him to say yes. Just say yes! He hadn’t had any in eight months. He had the opportunity when he was in Xanadu the other day, but turned it down. He touched her dirty blonde hair and sniffed the intoxicating fragrance. She was working her way down his neck, still with the commanding hold on his privates. It was a soft but commanding hold accompanied by a gentle massage.
Gust grinned stupidly at Brown, then he turned to Veronica. “Mr. Arbon, I’m married, aren’t I?”
“Happily so, son,” Brown lied for Gust. Then added sternly, “Your wife will know everything that happens here, so be careful what you get yourself into. Buddha once said ‘there are three things that cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth’. There are consequences to every action. Your wife will know, son. The truth always comes out.”
Gust shrugged and grinned stupidly at Brown.
“Maybe next time,” Veronica said and smiled prettily at Gust. She pecked his handsome flushed checks and walked off.
Marilyn and Veronica strutted back to their barstools to comb Venus Bar for their next victims.
Gust glanced back at the bar and saw Veronica looking at him. She winked at him and he turned back to Brown. He could wait because his girlfriend, Christy, was arriving on Mars soon. But things hadn’t been on good footing with Christy, so it wasn’t a guarantee. And if she found out about his Xanadu trip, he’d be shredded.
“That was close,” Gust said and wiped his forehead. “Thanks for covering for me, Mr. Brown.”
Brown laughed as he watched Gust swig his Martian Brew beer and emptied it.
“It was the right thing to do, Gust. All the little pleasures can add up to a big problem later in life. It’s a compounded effect. No one wakes up in the morning with a big problem,” Brown preached. “You know what they say, ‘a small leak can sink a great ship.’ Big problems start off as small problems or they’re the sum of small problems. Don’t tangle yourself in problems that appear to be small at first because they tend to escalate, son,” Brown advised like a doting father. He reached over the table and patted Gust on the shoulder. Brown was also a Naturalopist, of the Naturalopy philosophy.
Gust turned his attention to Adventure Lake and the dense forest outside the big picture windows. He lifted his glass to take a sip but realized it was empty. It was his fourth and he felt a buzz. Save for Gust’s secret two-day trip to the party city of Xanadu, they had spent most their spare time at the Olympus Grand Resort since their return to Mars eight days ago. They needed the crowd after eight months of isolation.
A long easy silence descended as Brown thought about his family and Gust thought about the last few days he had spent in Xanadu, a few miles from here. Xanadu was the party city of Mars—everything consensual was legal in Xanadu. Gust had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and spent two days in a Xanadu detox center. The physicians had assured him everything had been flushed out of his system.
But it wasn’t the hallucinogenics that were occupying his thoughts, but Trina the nurse was. He had met her while he was in a psychotic state in detox. Despite his state of mind, she was the most caring person he had met. She attended to his recovery even though she wasn’t his assigned nurse. Even though she knew he was in Xanadu to party and almost died from overstimulation, she did not judge him. He felt guilty thinking about Trina because his girlfriend Christy was visiting from Earth soon. Trina had contacted him several times to check on his recovery. He was perfectly fine, he had told her. Trina was compassionate and beautiful, he had never been attracted to anyone like her. The two days he had spent in her care were special to him. He remembered how she would sneak into his room, even though she wasn’t his assigned nurse, and whispered, “If I’m cramping your style, let me know.” He’d say, “Definitely not.” Then pretended he needed her help to the bathroom. She walked him to the bathroom, waited by the door, then smiled as he failed to urinate each time. Then she poked her head through the door, smiled brightly, and asked if he needed anything. Anything at all.
He would always remember her. Or was Trina all a dream, brought on by the hallucinogenic drugs? That was Xanadu, he told himself. Then the messages she had sent to follow-up on his recovery reinforced that Trina was real. Xanadu, Xanadu. Trina, Trina.
He had to be careful with the experimental drugs, otherwise he’d become a pharmy. The pharmies were another group of humans. Their previous generations had taken so much pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines that their descendants had become dependent on petrochemicals for survival. All those drugs had altered their DNA and physiology to the point that they were classified as a sub-species of Humans. The pharmies were also known as pharmaceutical zombies. They simply existed—emotionless, devoid of suffering and joy. Some of the most heinous crimes on Earth and Mars had been committed by the biomechs and pharmies. No more experiments, Gust told himself. Humans were meant to love and hate, but not maim or kill another Human.
Gust snapped out of his trance. He was perfectly fine. The drugs were out of his system, he was sure. Then he recalled what a friend, who he had partied with in Xanadu, told him about Platform II and decided to let Brown on the secret.
“You know happened to the rock we pulled in?” Gust asked.
“It’s probably in a million pieces by now,” Brown said casually.
“I have a friend who works in Platform III at WEF I and he just told me a bizarre story. He said something about aliens.”
“Aliens! Was he smoking that green stuff they’ve been importing from Earth? Or has he been to Xanadu?”
Gust smiled knowingly and leaned closer to Brown. He would never let Brown know he’d been to Xanadu. “He said they found aliens in Platform II.”
Brown looked perplexed. “Aliens? You’re being a twat. How many beers have you drank?”
“Please keep your voice down, Mr. Arbon,” Gust pleaded and shook his head. “According to my source the aliens escaped and the MPs are searching Phobos for them. Apparently, they had to shut down extraction facility one because there was damage to it.”
“Does your friend have a name?”
Brown was quiet and expected an answer, but none was coming. “Well, what’s his name?” Brown asked, a little frustrated.
“He made it clear that he didn’t want to be named as a source because he was under a non-disclosure order.”
“Maybe he’s pulling your leg. A big prank, it happens all the time on Mars. Aliens are famous here, you know. You think all those Elvis sightings in space are real?”
“He could be, but I doubt it though. You know Epson Rebus, supervisor of Platform II?”
“Not personally but I’ve heard of him. Why?” Brown asked and sipped his beer.
“According to my source, Epson Rebus and two other guys from Platform III were asked to assist Platform II. They went with a drilling laser. He said all three never came back. The next thing he knew, the entire facility was overflowing with MPs. They shut down the entire facility. Last he saw, there were over twenty six patrol shuttles at the facility.”
“Where’s your friend now?”
“They flew him back to Mars. They gave him time off until further notice.” Gust looked over at Veronica leaning against the bar in the distant. She did not catch his eyes this time.
“If what your friend said is true, then why hasn’t the MP released the news?” Brown asked and drained his Martian Brew beer. He wiped his lips dry and waited for an answer.
“I believe my friend is telling the truth. He has no reason to concoct an alien story. It’s not like he’s a science fiction writer concocting stories about Mars and aliens. The two employees who worked at Platform II were confirmed dead. They’re trying to disguise it as an industrial accident.” Gust’s face was slightly red from the four beers.
Brown looked at him weirdly. “Just take their word that it was an accident and your life will be simpler. It wouldn’t be the first, you know,” Brown blurted.
“There are lots of rumors flying around. But let’s say it was an industrial accident, why would they send in almost the entire enforcement division?”
“It was an accident and Whittaker needed some muscle, so he called his pal Rhinehart for help. Everyone knows Whittaker and Rhinehart are tight. They’re the two most powerful men on Mars. Rhinehart scratches Whittaker’s back and Whittaker scratches Rhinehart’s fat ass and barrel-belly.”
Gust paused for a moment as a waitress made her round and Brown ordered six more Martian Brews, all for himself. Gust ordered two. Venus Bar had live waiters and waitresses and not the cilbot ones at the Martian Comfort Inn.
“Eight Martian Brews for table twenty,” the waitress said into the air. Her unique voice was captured by the geofenced soundfield emitted from her watch and relayed to the main bar where another waitress picked up the orders.
“I try to distance myself from rumors, you’d be wise to do likewise, son,” Brown advised, feeling a bit woozy from the Martian Brews. “I know how much you love space and aliens, but as they say, ‘A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’. I’d keep this to myself, at least until the facts can be confirmed,” Brown quoted Churchill Winston.
Gust frowned at the suggestion. “Okay, when is our next scheduled flight to the belt?” Gust asked and thanked the attractive waitress. She squeezed by and made her way to table twenty-one. Gust watched her move. The booze was kicking in.
“About four months.”
“Our next flight is suspended indefinitely,” Gust said as the waitress was out of earshot.
“What!” Brown was shocked. He almost choked on his Martian Brew. “Who says? I have a family to feed!”
“Whittaker Resources. We weren’t supposed to know until they publicly announced it, but my friend found out first.”
“Yes, we’ll still get paid if the flight is postponed or cancelled.” Gust knew it was coming.
“Did they say why?” Brown asked, relieved he may be getting paid for sitting on his big round ass and chugging beer.
“Not yet. But don’t you think it’s shocking for Whittaker Resources to be canceling trips to the belt? That’s its moneymaker.”
“Come to think of it, it does. That is how Whittaker makes most of his money.”
“I’m taking a wild guess that they don’t want to bring back more aliens.”
“You’re scaring me, son.”
“Mr. Brown, do my a huge favor and keep this between us. We don’t want to look silly if it turns out to be a hoax.”
“You mean you don’t want to look silly. My lips are sealed, if yours are,” Brown said and did his best buttoned-lipped impression.
“My lips are tight on this.”
The waitress arrived with the eight Martian Brews and gently set them on the circular table. Brown guzzled his first before Gust could reach for his. Gust sipped slowly and swerved his chair to admire the awesome sight of Adventure Lake. The artificial lights outside were beginning to dim.
MARILYN AND VERONICA leaned against the barstools and again carefully surveyed Venus Bar. They had just figured out their next victims. It was at table sixteen where two MPs were quietly sitting. The boys in black were always used as a last resort and only for fun because they had a habit of drawing the unwanted attention of the crowd. But if they were in Venus Bar, they knew what to expect. Venus Bar, like Xanadu, had a certain reputation. To the surprise of the two ladies, the two MPs were still in full uniform.
This time Marilyn was the lead. She eased up to the two MPs and jerked her head at the ceiling, tossing her hair. “Come on, let’s go upstairs and put those cuffs to good use,” she said bluntly. No need to be subtle with the boys in black.
The two MPs stared at each other and ignored the two beautiful ladies standing before them.
“Looks like you guys need some company,” Veronica said loudly and kicked her suave legs out.
Still no response from the MPs.
Marilyn, ever the party girl, kicked another leg and put it on the table right in their faces. “How about a wild time, boys?” she asked seductively with her hands easing on her hips.
One MP gawked up, confused. “Do I have to do everything myself?” he asked in a fragmented voice, a little stuttering after each word.
Veronica and Marilyn stared at each other. “This should be fun,” Marilyn whispered to Veronica. Marilyn looked down at the MP. “You don’t have to do everything yourself, not if you don’t want to.”
Veronica funnily smiled. “You don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to. But I promise you’ll moan and groan,” Veronica said. She blew them a kiss with her red lips and slowly recoiled it in tease.
“Fuck me!” the other MP said. He was Japanese and his voice cracked.
Veronica laughed. Fuck me? Sure. “It’ll be the best fuck of your life, big boy.” She turned to Marilyn and they both laughed loudly. Amusing.
The two MPs made no effort to smile.
“Just kill me,” the other MP said, his voice was peculiar.
Again, Veronica and Marilyn exploded in laughter. Very amusing.
“We’ve came close to killing a few people. We’re that good,” Marilyn said good-humoredly. She smiled at them, but they didn’t smile back.
Veronica clenched her jaw and tightened her lips to prevent herself from bursting with laughter again. Under a minute with these guys, Veronica thought.
“Just fucking kill me,” the other MP said. His voice was crackling with electricity.
Veronica and Marilyn failed to connect the humor this time. “Look,” Marilyn said and looked down at the names on their uniforms: MICHAEL ENDER and JOHN YAMOTO.
“Michael and John,” Marilyn said seductively. “Why don’t you guys come up to our room and release some stress?”
“It must be hard work chasing the bad guys. Let us help you release some tension,” Marilyn offered.
The two MPs did not move. Veronica pulled her leg down from the table.
“We’re still waiting for an answer,” Marilyn said, a bit frustrated now.
There was no response. Ender just stared at them and they both gamely returned his stare. Suddenly, Ender’s eyes were no longer black. They glowed red. Then the ominous eyes sizzled with electrical sparks. Yamoto’s eyes also glowed red, exactly like Ender’s. Wicked eyes.
“You’re a bunch of freaks,” Marilyn cried.
“What a bunch of creeps,” Veronica added to the insult.
Veronica and Marilyn strutted back to their barstools at Venus Bar. No victims tonight.
Mars Police Docking Bay
THE MARS POLICE Docking Bay was tucked inside a gigantic mountain. A large hangar bay and a series of tunnels had been carved through the mountain to provide shelter for the shuttles. The mountain itself was in a valley, and ensconced in the mountain was the Mars Police Headquarters.
At the feet of the mountain stood the massive statue of the ancient Roman war god, Mars. He was dressed in full combat gear complete with a sandal, cloth toga, a girdle on his hip, and a wreath around his head. He held a spear with his right hand and a shield with his left hand. He was the mascot of the Mars Police and the symbol of the thriving colony, erected by Rhinehart at the pressing recommendation of Udell Whittaker. The statue was nine stories tall and towered over most miniature nano-carbon glass biospheres. Mars, the war god, was placed on a moving platform so that when the planet rotated, his spear always pointed toward Earth, the Mother Planet.
The MP had fifty Patrol Shuttles to enforce the laws of the flourishing colony, but rarely needed more than twenty. There had been hardly any crime as the Naturalopic Martians were busy enjoying their new found wealth on the colony. The pressing concern for the MP before the aliens arrived was a cult leader named Daniel Xavier, a biomech, who was aggressively recruiting followers to support his theory that there were aliens frozen in the Martian polar ice caps—in the southern and northern hemispheres. His cult believed that these aliens were the true ancestors of Humans. Daniel Xavier was public enemy number one before the aliens were found in Platform II. If Xavier wasn’t able to instil fear in the Martians, maybe the aliens would.
HIS NAME WAS Willy Winston and his cohort was Steve Gray. They were maintenance crews for the Mars Police. Their job was to inspect and maintain the shuttles before and after each flight. Whatever personal failings Rhinehart might have, he was adamant about the safety of his officers.
The speedy freight elevator door hissed open into the docking bay. Winston was carrying diagnostic tools in one hand and a sandwich in the other. He munched on the long sandwich with each step as red sauce dripped on his chest. Gray watched in humor.
“Don’t you ever stop eating?” the much younger Gray asked.
“Never,” Winston retorted with a mouthful. The sauce was trickling down his obese chin. He swallowed the load and continued, “If I did, the food companies would go broke.”
Gray shook his head and continued to walk down the snaking hallways. The Docking Bay was a large rectangular room with three metallic walls. The fourth wall, near the end, was actually the hangar door. The forcefield hanger door was over twenty yards high and a forty yards wide. It was closed at the moment.
Gray reached the docking bay first. Winston was still chewing away.
“What’s going on here?” Gray said as he looked at the vast docking bay.
Winston waddled around the corner. “Holy Fred Flintstone!” Winston grumbled. His eyes widened and he stopped chewing. “Yes, indeed. What is going on?”
“You keep saying ‘Fred Flintstone.’ Who is he?”
“You need to watch the Oldies Comedy channel.”
They glanced around the docking bay, shocked. The shuttles were usually parked along the two lengthy sidewalls in their proper numbering slots, but right now the bay was nearly empty with only ten shuttles.
“I think Rhinehart is hunting the Xavier cult,” Gray said and walked down the yellow lane.
“He must be because I have never seen that many shuttles out at the same time,” Winston said and crammed a load of sandwich down his throat.
The docking bay was usually bustling with activity. On a typical day, twenty officers were sitting on their shuttle ramps awaiting their next patrol of Mars. But there weren’t any officers here today and the only sound was Winston’s heavy breathing and chewing.
“I need to get to the bottom of this,” Gray said.
“You and me both.” Winston nodded and chomped away.
Gray eased beside the holographic wallscreen near Rhinehart’s shuttle—the biggest one in the bay. Gray motioned in front of the wallscreen and the sensors recognized his biosignatures. A face blinked into view.
“Yes. How can I assist you, Steve?” the face said.
“Lennox,” Gray said worriedly. “I know it’s none of my business, but where are all the birds? There are only ten here.”
“Only ten? Are you sure?” Lennox asked.
“My math is pretty decent. I only see ten. I kid you not. Can you look into this for us?” Gray asked.
“I’ll get right on it, Steve. Give me a few minutes,” Lennox said.
The wallscreen fizzled and went black.
Gray turned to Winston and sighed. Winston shrugged back. A few minutes later, the wallscreen flickered again and Lennox appeared.
“I just talked to Rhinehart,” Lennox announced.
“What did he say?” Gray asked eagerly.
“He said not to worry. There’s a new training program on Phobos.”
“Okay,” Gray nodded. “We were worried because no one told us anything. They gotta include us in the loop with these things. Thanks.”
“No problem. I was worried myself, too. We’ll see you at the Olympus this weekend,” Lennox said. Again, the wallscreen went black.
Gray glanced at Winston with relief. “Well, that takes care of that. A new training program on Phobos. There are only ten, so it should be quick work. Let’s get started. The secret to finishing something is getting started,” Winston happily said.
They walked to an area of the docking bay where Winston picked up his diagnostic tools. As they reached the shuttle, Gray nudged his index finger on the palm-sized IDpad. Two beeps and a light flashed, then the shuttle ramp lowered and touched the ground. Gray hiked in. Winston checked the navigational systems while Gray checked the engine, thrusters, and levbikes in the vehicle cargo hold.
“Everything looks good,” Gray reported.
“As usual. We’re the best there was, the best there is, and best there will ever be,” Winston boasted, at nothing.
They checked shuttle two and everything also looked good. Shuttle three was next—the shuttle of John Yamoto and Michael Ender. Gray pressed his finger on the IDpad and the door hissed open. He hurried in and sat in the pilot’s chair. The first thing he noticed was a burning stench. Winston waddled in and also noticed it.
“What’s that terrible smell?” Winston asked. He was turning his head, sniffing to get the source.
“Burnt food?” Gray asked.
Winston shook his head. Lucky he had finished his sandwich. “It smells weird. Maybe some of the circuits burnt out. It might be coming from the storage compartment,” Winston said and pointed to the metal door in the back.
Gray jumped off the pilot’s chair and started for the storage compartment. He yanked the door open and looked in. He didn’t see anything out of place but it was hard to ignore the burnt smell.
“Every looks in order but the smell,” Gray said.
“It could be in here,” Winston said. He opened the rifle locker and noticed the rifles were still neatly on the rack. “Let’s try their lockers.”
MICHAEL ENDER and JOHN YAMOTO were stencilled on top of the two lockers. Only those assigned to the shuttle and certain people had access to the shuttle’s personal lockers.
“We don’t have access to their lockers,” Gray reminded him.
Out of frustration, Winston stepped forward and pressed his chubby index finger on the IDpad. Beep, beep, then a small message flashed in red: ACCESS DENIED. WRONG FINGERPRINT PATTERN. NO MATCHING BIOSIGNATURE.
Winston shrugged. “Hey, I tried.”
“You think we should report this?” Gray asked as he walked down the shuttle ramp.
“Out of courtesy, we should let Michael and John know first and let them decide what to do. It’s just a smell. I’m sure nothing will come of it. They’re nice kids.”
Gray disagreed but convincingly said, “Sounds good.”
The maintenance procedures took them about three hours. After which, Gray opened the forcefield hangar door and bright sunlight rushed through and illuminated the docking bay. Another invisible shield kept the air in and Mars’s atmospheric pressure out. They sat in Rhinehart’s shuttle and watched the red and craggy mountains of Mars in the distance.
The shuttles patrolling Mars were scheduled to return in an hour.
THICK, RED WRINKLES had formed under his eyes after being awake for 24 hours. Ellis was exhausted and had to force himself to stay alert.
Dittmar Callen, the chemical division team leader for Whittaker Resources, had finished another series of tests on the four tombs. Their chemical composition still baffled him; it was unlike any material he’d ever worked with. The tombs seemed to have every property of crystal, but their atoms were a lot smaller.
“This is our finding to this point. The results could be different in the next report,” Callen said as he approached Ellis. As he came within range of the authorized geofence, the 20 page file on his wristband automatically transferred to Ellis’s holographic deskscreen.
The sound startled Ellis, who looked up and saw Callen glaring at him. “Thanks,” Ellis said, almost to himself. He was half-asleep and Callen knew it. The report was a series of graphs showing the results of the x-ray tests at each one-hour interval.
“I’m not an engineer. Please explain everything in layman’s term, and keep it brief.” Ellis rubbed both eyes.
“It means the tombs are reacting with our atmosphere. They’re getting less dense. The reaction rate is slowing down as time passes. I think our air is a major factor with what’s happening. All indicators suggest they’re not from this world.”
Ellis stood up and cracked his knuckles, stretched both arms, and shook his legs loose. He watched as Mackenzy, the MPs chemical team lead, arrived with a report of his own. Mackenzy jumped out the transport and eased up beside Ellis.
“Any good news, Mac?” Ellis asked, dragging each word.
“If I had more to work with it’d be easier,” Mackenzy said. His report was only one page on the deskscreen. “If I had to theorize, all four have died,” Mackenzy said.
Ellis sat on the table’s edge and folded his arms. “Is there a way to confirm that theory?” Ellis interrogated.
“The tombs are reacting with our oxygen in a way that’s unexpected. The four aliens might have had difficulty adjusting to the oxygen-rich environment inside this facility. They might have had difficulty adjusting to the environment in general. Every little detail counts where survival is concerned, even room temperature, lighting, and especially oxygen.”
“So your theory is that our oxygen-rich environment killed them?”
“That’s a reasonable conjecture considering what we’re witnessing with the tombs. If they’re alive I’m sure the drones and Loren and her team would’ve found evidence of it by now.”
Ellis brushed back his military hair and glanced around Platform II, which was quieter now. The MPs were bunched in groups and chatted quietly among themselves. They seemed more relaxed and speculative voices were no longer floating around.
After a long silence, Ellis said, “That agrees with what Callen’s been reporting. But I’m not ruling anything out.”
“It’s the only reasonable explanation, Don. They died the same way we would if we stepped out on Phobos without a protective suit and oxygen supply.”
“Then where are the bodies?” Ellis demanded.
“The reasonable conjecture is because they can turn invisible, they probably died while they were invisible and their molecules dissipated and mixed with the atmosphere.”
“What gives them this unique ability to turn invisible?”
“The ability to manipulate electromagnetic radiation so our eyes can’t see them—we can only see the visible spectrum of the EMR spectrum. It’s a camouflaging ability, similar to how octopuses can instantaneously change their skin pigment to blend in with the environment. This camouflaging ability is a survival technique possessed by many animals in the wild.”
“Camouflaging is also used by predators to surprise their preys,” Callen added.
“True,” Mackenzy said.
Ellis listened intently on the edge of the table. Mackenzy’s theory made sense. They had to be dead, he thought. His team had swept Phobos dozens of times and found nothing. Every meter of the moon had been scanned by the search drones. Every extraction facility inspected at least five times. No trace of the aliens. Oxygen killed them.
Ellis pushed off the edge of the table and stood upright. Mackenzy moved out of the way. Ellis stretched out one more time and yawned. His back faced Mackenzy. Standing with his hands resting on both hips, Ellis studied the platform carefully.
Finally, he turned to face Mackenzy and instructed, “Mark all four tombs and shuttle them back to headquarters.”
Mackenzy nodded his head twice, then climbed into his transport and weaved to the four tombs with several wobots in tow.
Ellis stood and watched with a thin smile. Then he eased back and sat on the big chair. He picked up the cup and forced a load of caffeinated green tea down, and exhaled. It was hot. He waited for the caffeine to kick in. He wildly shook his head back and forth.
Another transport passed in front of his desk with a female MP waving her hand at him. He waved back, then stared at the hole in the ground. It was the spot where one of the aliens had laid helplessly while a barrage of lasers hit it. Then it moved and all the firing hit the ground and made a hole. He still vividly remembered it.
He forced another load of tea down his throat, and waited for the effect. After contemplating for a long moment, he sent a message to Rhinehart on Mars. Ellis told the chief he was coming to headquarters for an update. Then he sent another message and told his wife to get ready because daddy was coming home. She’d better have a mattress strapped to her back.
Finally, it was all over. Oxygen killed them.
ELLIS WALKED BRISKLY through his condo, then slowed down as he reached the living room. He stopped momentarily and looked out the two-story windows to admire the red cliffs of Mars. They were magnificent. The entire building was surrounded with imposing images—maroon mountains and soil, tall cliffs, and an occasional shuttle silently easing past outside.
He turned from the window and saw a message on the vertical, holographic floorscreen. It was from his wife, Arlene: “Took Nick to the exposition at Biosphere Eleven. Be back at 16:00. Miss you and Love you lots.”
Despite being dead tired, his wife and son, as they always had, gave him the extra burst of energy to keep plugging along. He smiled to himself, then motioned the air with his hand, then the vertical, holographic floorscreen blinked off. He walked to the shower and undressed on the way. In the shower, he laid down and the water massaged his body uninterrupted for thirty minutes. After the shower, he slid on a bathrobe and made his way to the living room. There was another message on the floorscreen. It was from Rhinehart, who wanted Ellis to meet him at Whittaker Tower in half-hour. Thirty minutes? There goes sleep. Ellis moaned at the message, dropped himself on the sofa, and closed his eyes. The first images that appeared were the aliens. Oh yes, and those electrified eyes. He remembered how one of them had effortlessly hurdled into the air and landed on a transport and broke it. It was a menace. He had seen all sixteen of them die. He knew their names and shuttle numbers.
He jumped off the sofa and shook his head to clear the flashbacks. Then he walked into the bedroom and put on a new MP uniform. The only color was black, which suited him fine because it was his favorite color.
After he finished dressing, he eased to a desk, spoke into the air, and a holographic deskscreen appeared and he talked at it, “Message for Arlene,” he began to dictate. The words flashed on the deskscreen as he spoke. “Sweetie, I have a last meeting with Rhinehart. The training on Phobos is over and we’re going over the evaluations. I’ll be home as soon as I can. Love you and miss you, too. You and Nick are the world to me.”
He quickly read the final message. Every word on the deskscreen matched his voice, with his profile picture beside them. He didn’t want to use video because she would see his unkempt look and worry. He rubbed his temple above the deskscreen for a while, then started for the door.
Ellis was one of the few fortunate enough to have the shuttle off duty. He weaved and darted through the maze of air traffic until he passed over Biosphere Eleven where his wife and son were. He looked down from the shuttle but only saw the latticed-glass and nano-carbon frames of the biosphere from the air; he smiled down at the biosphere anyway. He then made a hard left turn and headed in the direction of Whittaker Tower. The trip would take five minutes at comfortable cruising speed.
RHINEHART WAS SITTING on the edge of Margaret’s desk when Ellis eased out the elevator. Rhinehart was pathetically attempting to attract the lovely young lady with whatever charm he had left, which was as much as the hair on his nearly bald head. He told her his age was really forty and he’d been through nine wars, encountered ten near death experiences, and had climbed the tallest mountains on Mars for fun without a protective suit. He even told her he was a Grand Master chess champion with a 2 900 ranking in his younger days. What a Director.
Rhinehart saw Ellis coming and properly stood up. Rhinehart winked at Margaret and she flashed him another bright smile. Again, he thought about divorce. Margaret turned to Ellis and shook her head in amusement, then guided them to the door. They made their way to Whittaker’s desk by the large picture windows.
When Whittaker saw the two MPs walking up, he stared up at Ellis. The boy was back. Whittaker motioned for both to sit down. Three of the most prominent people on Mars were in one room.
“I’m sorry we had to do this in person, Lieutenant,” Whittaker broke the icy silence. “Where are the tombs?”
“They’re at headquarters,” Ellis replied. He had to be play nice with Whittaker because Rhinehart was present.
Rhinehart acknowledged the fact with a nod.
“Where they’re nice and safe,” Whittaker said, then he paused and pulled out a gold cigar box from his drawer. Whittaker continued, “Callen, my chem lead, suggested that the tombs may be very valuable once their atomic structure stabilizes. He also said that the aliens are dead due to our oxygen atmosphere.”
Ellis said, “That is the theory we’re going with until it proves otherwise. As for the tombs, Callen may be exaggerating a bit in order to please you. No one knows how much they’re worth because their atomic structure is unstable.”
Whittaker drew three cigars from the box on his desk, leaned over and passed Rhinehart one, who happily accepted. Whittaker offered one to Ellis but the Lieutenant shook his head. He was a health nut, and he didn’t want to be indebted to Whittaker. Whittaker neatly twisted his cigar into the gold holder, which was glinting as he was twisting the cigar into it. Rhinehart smoked the long and thick cigar without a holder. Staring at Ellis, Whittaker coolly lit his cigar.
Ellis sat and watched the two men enjoy their cigars. Suddenly, he became uneasy and stared at the picture windows, which were opaque with nothing to see. Whittaker had blocked out the sunlight.
Suddenly, Ellis started to his feet. “I haven’t seen the wife and kids in two days,” he said.
“We’ll make this quick,” Rhinehart grunted between puffs, then hacked through a smoke cloud. He pulled Ellis down to the chair.
Rhinehart shot a private glance over to Whittaker, the private glance which Ellis was supposed to miss but caught it anyway. The air purifier was off and the room filled with smoke. Whittaker and Rhinehart sat comfortably in silence and puffed as if Ellis wasn’t there. Ellis felt uneasy.
Rhinehart finally spoke, “Where are the twenty-one bodies?”
This seemed awkward, Ellis thought. He had already told Rhinehart. After all, it was Rhinehart’s idea to temporarily freeze them at the morgue. “They’re at the Mars Mortuary like you requested.”
Rhinehart shot Whittaker another private glance on the corner of his eyes. Ellis caught this one, too.
“How did they die?” Rhinehart asked.
Very awkward, thought Ellis. “From an industrial accident like you stipulated. Are we playing a charade here?”
“Is anyone catching on to this alien story?” Rhinehart held his cigar close to his lips but did not puff.
Whittaker clamped the cigar with his lips and absorbed very word.
“If there’s a leak, it’s not coming from anyone under my command, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”
“Good. Our sixteen officers who died, who’s handling that?” Rhinehart interrogated.
“I’m sending Loren’s team tomorrow.”
“That’s not good enough. This matter needs your personal attention. I want you to do it yourself,” Rhinehart said firmly. He looked over at Whittaker and noticed Whittaker gleefully smiling.
Ellis wanted to ask why but thought better of it. He knew the two friends had hatched a plan that was going to include him whether he liked it or not.
“Lieutenant,” Rhinehart began firmly, “because of the uniqueness of this situation, things will have to be handled unconventionally. You know, not always by the book as you’re accustomed to. First, the deaths of the five Whittaker Resources employees at Platform II must be officially declared as from an industrial accident. This must be made clear to the insurance companies as there is no coverage against aliens,” Rhinehart ordered.
Ellis shook his head in disbelief. He bit his lips.
Whittaker slowly puffed on the cigar and exhaled slowly. He was enjoying it. There wasn’t an insurance clause that protected him against damage caused by aliens. Whittaker thought about turning the windows transparent and letting bright sunshine in to reflect his mood.
“Second,” Rhinehart continued, “the sixteen officers who died must also be declared as from an industrial accident. They died while trying to rescue those five employees. The details will be provided by Mr. Whittaker’s people,” Rhinehart intoned every word. “Whatever is in their report, must be in our report. There cannot be any discrepancy. The data has to match verbatim.”
“And if the insurance companies want to perform an independent autopsy and investigation?”
The gleeful smile was gone from Whittaker’s face. He glanced worriedly to Rhinehart.
“Who did I say was next in line for Director?” Rhinehart asked.
“Last I remembered it was me.”
The huge smile was back on Whittaker’s face. “It would a shame if the most qualified person didn’t get the job. You’d be the youngest Director in the agency’s history.” Whittaker grinned wickedly.
“You want me to be meticulous with the detail. So let me ask you again, what happens when the insurance companies want to do their own autopsy and investigation? They will snoop around for coverage this big.”
“You need not worry about that, Lieutenant. The details will be provided by Whittaker Resources. You just need to take care of the people under your command. And make sure those reports match, word for word.” Whittaker warned. He was still wearing that nasty grin with the cigar touching his lips.
Rhinehart added, “Don’t fry your brain trying to figure out the fucked up legal mumbo jumbo in those reports. I’d copy and paste everything. The legal lingo gave me a big headache. I don’t understand why those fucking lawyers can’t use plain language. Fuckers,”
Whittaker helped out, “The vague verbiage makes them look smart, so they can charge more per hour. Also, if the wording is confusingly ambiguous it leaves plenty of wiggle room. They spend months arguing over the interpretations of specific clauses. They like protracted cases. I’m speaking from experience.”
“Sonsofbitches!” Rhinehart blurted
“Now, let’s continue with the instructions,” Whittaker demanded.
THE YOUNG MAN walked casually to the dark security desk on the ground level of Whittaker Tower. He acted as though he were a welcome and expected guest. “I’m here to see Mr. Whittaker,” he formally announced to the two security guards.
They sternly glared at him over the counter. “Do you have an appointment with Mr. Whittaker?” one of them rudely asked.
The young man paused before replying. “I work for Mr. Whittaker,” he said in defense.
The young guard stared at him as though he were nuts. “You and about eighty thousand other people. You think you’re special or something?” the same guard asked as rudely as he could muster.
The young man twiddled his fingers on the side of the counter and moiled for an answer. “I’m new with the company and I have to ask him something regarding my flight to the belt. I heard it’s been canceled so I need to confirm it,” he said.
“So you work as a Hauler?” the same guard asked.
“As an Asteroid Retrieval Personnel,” he corrected the guard.
“It never occurred to you to call your manager and ask? Why would you need to ask Mr. Whittaker in person for that?”
“I was cruising my levbike in the area. I thought it’d be nice to see the man who pays my salary. Plus, my com’s been having problems. Lots of static in these valleys.”
The older guard stood up, sniggered, and shook his head. He opened a small portion of the desk and a flat, palm-sized IDpad came into view. “Put your finger on it, son,” he instructed.
The young man pressed his index finger on the IDpad. Two soft beeps, then the old guard glanced at his holographic deskscreen:
GUST FREDERICK HEIN, ASTEROID RETRIEVAL PERSONNEL
BORN: COLD LAKE, ALBERTA, CANADA, EARTH.
BIRTHDATE: SEPTEMBER 15, 2172.
RESOURCE DIVISION, FIRST YEAR OF EMPLOYMENT
Gust’s profile picture accompanied the file. He was smiling.
Gust pulled his hand away from the security IDpad and it automatically concealed itself.
“You don’t need to see Mr. Whittaker for that, son. Go to the thirty-second floor, that’s where you’ll know if your flight’s been canceled,” the old guard said and waved a hand to the bay of elevators on the right.
“Oh, is that where I go?” Gust asked as stupidly as he could muster. What the guard had told him was public information.
“That’s where you go, son. Next time save yourself time and call.”
“That’s good advice. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“If there’s any other way I can help, let me know,” the old guard said and sat back down.
“That’ll be good for now. Thanks again,” Gust said and walked to the elevator bay and eased in. He was by himself. “Call Soren. Voice only,” Gust requested. The geofenced soundfield projected from his wristband recognized his voice and called Soren, Gust’s party buddy at Xanadu and a fanatical fan of the RFC, Robotic Fighting Championship.
“Just checking in. Is everything a go?” Gust asked in the elevator.
Soren spoke quickly, “One last time, just to make sure we have an understanding. I get RFC front seats for five.” Only Gust could hear his voice via the targeted, geofenced soundfield.
“Yes,” Gust said urgently.
“You’re in. I want those tickets ASAP.”
“As long as you don’t resell them.”
“I’d be crazy to. Remember, if you’re caught, we never met.”
“Who are you again?”
“Just don’t do anything stupid or he’ll hunt us down. My head’s on the line.”
“I won’t. I just need a few questions answered.”
“You have about thirty minutes from now before the biomarkers disintegrate. You don’t want that stuff in your system too long. Otherwise you’ll become a biomech or pharmy.”
“We wouldn’t want that. Later, Soren.”
For five tickets to the upcoming RFC annual spectacle, Soren, Gust’s friend from the Earth days, became a willing accomplice. Soren worked in Whittaker’s security division. He had added Gust to the authorized list so Gust could access Whittaker’s floor. But to access Whittaker’s office was a tougher security barrier. Earlier, Soren had pulled Whittaker secretary’s genetic profile from her medical record. He discovered that Whittaker’s office door’s sensor used three biomarkers. With that, he and Gust were able to reconstruct her biosignatures from the zepto cellular additive printing process. It was akin to lifting fingerprints, but easier when the genetic profile was known.
Instead of requesting the 32nd floor, Gust called for the penthouse office of Udell Whittaker. Within seconds the elevator ascended forty stories. Gust glided out and innocently glanced around. Something beautiful caught his attention. It was the secretary, Margaret the babe. But she was an obstacle at the moment.
Gust walked up to her desk. “Hello, I’m here to see Mr. Whittaker,” he said as if he had an official appointment.
“Mr. Whittaker has no appointment at this time. May I ask your name?” she asked with a shiny smile. Her red lips parted and her teeth shone brilliantly.
He smiled back. “Gust Hein.”
“When did you make the appointment?” she asked and toiled with her deskscreen for the answer. No Gust Hein. But he was handsome and she liked him.
“I don’t have an appointment. I just wanted to make sure that my next flight to the belt hasn’t been postponed or canceled,” he said as honestly as he could. He already knew the flight had been suspended indefinitely.
She loved the handsome face and innocent smile, and wished that he did have an official appointment. But she had to turn him down. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to get that information on the thirty-second floor.” She waved her lovely hand to the elevators.
“Oh, that’s where I go. I’m sorry but I’m new to the company.”
“Think nothing of it,” Margaret said and flashed him that radiant smile of hers. She crossed her legs and Gust managed a small peep.
But she wasn’t done with him. She looked at Gust suspiciously. “Just wait a second, since you didn’t have an appointment with Mr. Whittaker, how did you get authorization for the elevators to come to this floor?”
Gust flashed her a crooked grin. He turned and took two steps to the elevator, then swung around and ran toward Whittaker’s door. Margaret mumbled something but was too late. She almost fainted when the auto-sensored door actually opened for Gust. How did he get authorization? Gust rushed in.
By the window sat Whittaker, Rhinehart, and Ellis. All three abruptly turned and faced him. They all thought he was a lunatic. Gust froze inside the door. His feet were standing on some of the plant vines snaking on the marble floor.
Margaret approached from behind. “I’m sorry, Mr. Whittaker, but he just ran right in.” She sneered at Gust. Suddenly he wasn’t so handsome anymore.
Whittaker glared at her from across the room. “We’ll discuss the matter later,” Whittaker said harshly, then added softly, “over candlelight.” Whittaker wasn’t scared of the intruder because Ellis was in the room.
Margaret walked out and smiled to herself.
Whittaker glanced at Rhinehart, then Ellis, and finally set his gaze on Gust. “Are you in the right place, son?” Whittaker said and his face hardened a bit. He gently set down his cigar.
Gust ignored the question. He studied the other two men and noticed they were MPs, one was the Director and the other the Lieutenant. Gust looked completely lost. Spit accumulated in his throat and he swallowed hard.
“What is your name and why are you here?” Whittaker interrogated.
Rhinehart cut in, “More important, how did you bypass the door’s authentication protocol? Who granted you permission to Mr. Whittaker’s office?”
“I’m certain no one on my side added him to the authorized list,” Whittaker added.
“My name is Gust Hein. I work for your company as an Asteroid Retrieval Personnel, Mr. Whittaker,” Gust said nervously. “As for how I managed to get on the authorization list, it’s a hobby of mine. Plus I had help.”
“We’ll need to tighten our security procedures, then,” Whittaker said. Gust looked harmless, so Whittaker didn’t feel threatened. Otherwise, he would had Ellis arrest the kid on the spot.
Whittaker added, “If you’re a Hauler, then why are you standing there? You should be at the Olympus enjoying your time off.”
Gust shrugged stupidly and continued to study the two MPs. Then he studied Whittaker, the tycoon. Not only was Whittaker the most powerful man on Mars but his son, Lazar Whittaker, a biomech, was vying for control of Mars and Earth. Rumours were swirling that Lazar Whittaker, the perfect marriage of biology and technology, had ambitions to dethrone his father. If Udell Whittaker was ruthless, Lazar Whittaker had learned well. Lazar Whittaker had been fighting for biomech equality with Naturalopists (natural humans) for a decade. Biomechs, despite their cellular superiority, were seen as unemotional and too methodical, proven to be unsuccessful visionaries and leaders. There were laws prohibiting biomechs from holding Earth Senate seats and other positions of power. Lazar Whittaker was out to change those unjust laws and prove the Naturalopists wrong. With his work at nBotics, Lazar thought he had the magic antidote. Gust had read all about Lazar’s ambitions, which was an open secret because Lazar was overt about his ambitions with selected groups. And no secret was safe when two or more people knew about it.
Gust stopped studying Whittaker as Rhinehart looked at Ellis, then nodded his head in the direction of Gust. The signal to remove the intruder from the room. Ellis slowly rose from his chair and walked over to where Gust was standing. He gently put a hand on Gust’s arm.
“Mr. Whittaker has other things he’d be rather be doing,” Ellis said. “You can be charged with trespassing and tampering with what you’ve just pulled.”
Ellis steered him to the door. Near the door Gust firmly planted his foot and shouted over Ellis’s shoulder. “I know about the aliens found in Platform II at WEF I!”
Ellis released Gust’s arm and looked at Whittaker and Rhinehart, shocked. Rhinehart and Whittaker put on convincing unknowing faces. Abruptly, Rhinehart cocked his watermelon head up and laughed hysterically. Whittaker picked up his cigar and joined in the laughter. Gust noticed Ellis wasn’t laughing for some reason.
A moment later, the laughing stopped and Whittaker’s face grew tense. “You need a good woman, son. All that time ensconced in a tugship has stirred your imagination.”
“Everyone in Platform III knows what happened. There were aliens found in Platform II. People deserve to know the truth!” Gust was on the attack this time. Then added, “Because three things that cannot be long hidden are the star, the moon, and the truth!” He had learned that Buddha quote from the beer philosopher Brown Arbon.
Where did that come from? Was this kid a philosopher? Ellis thought. While they were on the subject of truth, Ellis thought to himself, the truth shall set you free. He nervously looked over at Rhinehart for the next instruction. Rhinehart offered nothing. How did a Hauler know, the big man thought. If he knew, how many other people knew?
Gust noticed the uneasy silence between the three men. He saw Ellis’s lips tighten.
Whittaker retreated to his cool hush-hush mode and let Rhinehart takeover. “Son,” Rhinehart softly began and lumbered up with heavy breathing. “I don’t know why you conjured this fantasy about aliens, but you have a very active imagination.”
“The aliens were found in the asteroid that I hauled back! How long do you intend to keep this a secret! What if there are more of them! Then what! Do you intend to continue to keep it a secret! Eventually it’ll boil over!”
Rhinehart waddled to Gust and they stood nose-to-nose. Rhinehart, flustered, sneered at Gust. He no longer looked like a man of sixty-four with that evil sneer. “Don’t spread your alien daydreams to anyone or you’ll be jailed for inciting fear. There is no truth to what you’re saying,” Rhinehart said coldly and stabbed a crooked finger at Gust’s chest.
“Then charge me,” Gust said sharply.
Ellis shook his head in disbelief at the stubborn young man. “He didn’t mean that, sir.”
“Oh, I meant what I said. If you think I’m making this up, then charge me,” Gust dared Rhinehart.
Rhinehart fell silent. His bluff had failed miserably and he knew it. Whittaker was observing all this from his desk. It was apparent to all three that Gust wasn’t giving one inch. They needed another solution.
Whittaker stood up and said, “Why are you interested in aliens, son?”
Ellis and Rhinehart turned around to face Whittaker.
Gust shrugged and answered the question with another question. “Are you admitting there were aliens found in Platform II?”
“There were no aliens found. You may have to get a psychiatric evaluation if you keep fabricating alien stories.”
“Mr. Whittaker, whatever secrets you’re keeping will come to light. Even if you silence me, there are others who know about it. You can silence me but you can’t silence everyone forever. Remember, the star, the moon, and the truth cannot be long hidden.” Gust used whatever ammunition came to mind.
Whittaker looked at Rhinehart for direction. They both realized what Gust had said was the true. Eventually, the truth would surface because too MPs and Whittaker Resources employees already knew about it.
Finally, Whittaker said, “I can fire you and make sure you’ll never get another job again. Then the Director can arrest you and no one will know you’ve disappeared until he releases you. If he releases you. What you just did, barging in here, is a gross violation of my personal safety. Two police officers are witnesses to your transgression and trespass.” Whittaker paused and let it sink in.
Gust felt three feet shorter, and wanted to find a hole to hide in. He was now rattled. No job? In prison? Person non grata? This was getting serious.
Whittaker continued, “I’ll give you two choices.”
Gust swallowed hard. He was too nervous to speak.
Whittaker continued, “Life is about choices. I already presented you with the first choice.”
Finally Gust mustered the courage to speak to the tycoon. “The first choice is unappealing. I want to keep my job and freedom. What’s the second option?”
Whittaker exhaled deeply before admitting. “Whatever I tell you here, remains here. Is that abundantly clear to you?” Whittaker said.
Rhinehart turned to Gust with a stern face, and they were nose-to-nose again. Rhinehart knifed a finger at him. “If you leak this to anybody, Mr. Whittaker will have you fired and I will have you arrested.”
“Whatever you tell me in this room will stay in this room. I promise. I know the consequences if I break my promise.”
“Good,” Rhinehart said. “There were aliens found in the asteroid you hauled back. That is all you need to know for now.”
Whittaker motioned a hand above his desk and the picture windows turned transparent. The rays of light brilliantly pierced in and Gust watched as three cargo shuttles eased near the window. Whittaker swerved his chair and faced the window with his back to the three.
“Lieutenant, please remove him from the room,” Rhinehart grunted with a stern face.
Ellis nodded. He steered Gust to the door and led him out. “Do you know where the shuttlebay is, downstairs?” Ellis asked at the door.
“I’ve been there a few times,” Gust said. His heart slowed down.
“Good. Make sure you’re there in ten minutes. I’d hate to see what Rhinehart will do if you didn’t show up.”
“Okay, I’ll be there. Ten minutes,” Gust said, his voice a bit shaky still.
“See you there.”
Gust eased out and Ellis continued chatting with Rhinehart and Whittaker. They finished giving him instructions on how to proceed with Whittaker’s insurance scheme. Well, more scam than scheme.
THE CROWD AT Venus Bar was thick but Gust had managed to get the last table. It was table thirty, which was right next to the window overlooking Adventure Lake. The waitress immediately squeezed by and took their orders. Ellis was not a drinker and ordered freshly squeezed orange juice. He loved vitamin C. Gust, taking the opportunity to prove himself divine, ordered not one, but two asparagus juices.
“Are you the only person in your circle who knows about this?” Ellis asked. Ellis had pulled a file on the kid on the shuttle on the way here. He liked Gust’s pedigree and education.
“I got my information from a source, so I’m not the only one.”
“Who is this source?” Ellis interrogated.
“I’d rather not say for now.”
“Just to make it clear again: I can have you arrested for trespassing and hacking with what happened earlier. It’s within my discretion to deport you to Earth and permanently ban you from Mars. I’m only being nice to you because of your quote about the truth eventually coming out. I’m a firm believer in that—you can’t hide the truth, it always surfaces. Whittaker and Rhinehart are only bandaging the problem. Sooner or later someone will sell the story when the right money is offered. Rhinehart doesn’t see that angle, and the only angle Whittaker sees is the money.”
“I get what you’re saying.”
“Just remember, I can stop being nice to you anytime and deport you back to Earth.” Ellis was enjoying scaring Gust with this power trip.
Ellis had checked Gust’s background and liked what he saw. Gust’s parents worked with Earth Legion’s secret security department, but Gust hadn’t been told. They worked in the same agency as Ellis, but Ellis was part of the military branch. In addition to his Mars Police post, Ellis was also a commander in ELIX (Earth Legion 9). These secret earth legions were scattered throughout the solar system to protect earth from a possible alien invasion. In recent years, mining on several moons and planets throughout the solar system had turned up artifacts and technologies of unknown origin. But Ellis wasn’t about to tell Gust any of this information. The kid would go berserk with excitement. Plus, only those who were part of the Earth Legion knew of its existence.
“What are your vacation plans?” Ellis inquired, glaring at Gust. If only he knew his parents’ real job, Ellis thought. Ellis had met them briefly on Earth at a security conference a few months back, but he wasn’t about to tell Gust about it. All Earth Legionnaires were sworn to secrecy.
“I’ve thought about going back to Earth. I’m part of the RFC,” Gust replied.
Ellis thought to himself, RFC? As in Robotic Fighting Championship? The biggest and most spectacular annual sporting event in the solar system? This part of Gust he didn’t know about. That wasn’t in the file.
“You’re telling me you’re part of the Robotic Fighting Championship? In what capacity?” Ellis interrogated. He had watched many RFC events, but hadn’t seen Gust before.
“Why do you sound surprised?”
“It’s untypical of a Hauler.”
“What do you think I do with all that free time?”
“You tell me. What do you do with your free time as a Hauler?”
“I study artificial intelligence, specifically adaptive combat software engineering.”
Ellis was impressed. “What’s your RFC team?”
“Ram. We’re relatively new,” Gust said coolly.
“Ram?” Ellis had heard about Ram but had never seen it fight.
Ram was the budding robot-gladiator. Ram was backed by hobbyists such as Gust and not a corporation, such as nBotics. Ram was relatively unknown until his last three fights, all of them undercard fights. But Ram was quickly climbing the RFC ladder.
“Yes, Ram. I’m part of the team responsible for his adaptive combat software.”
In his few fights, Ram had been an underdog who had become a crowd favourite. The fans loved the underdog. The guy sitting across from Ellis was on the robot-gladiator’s ACS (adaptive combat software) engineering team. Interesting, Ellis thought. When you do interesting things, people find you interesting. Who would had thought it, Ellis thought. Ellis was liking the kid more. An ACS engineer in the making—self-taught, too.
“That is impressive, kid. Do you think Ram has a chance against Menace? If he gets that far,” Ellis inquired.
Menace was the undefeated robot-gladiator that was running roughshod over the RFC. Menace was the favourite to win the upcoming annual RFC event. Almost every pre-teen fan of the RFC had a hologram of Menace at home. Menace was the creation of nBotics, the artificial intelligence, robotics, and zeptobiology company owned by the biomech Lazar Whittaker, who was Udell Whittaker’s son. Gust was aware of the nBotics connection between Menace and Lazar Whittaker.
Gust said, “Menace’s signature move has been unstoppable so far. But he has weaknesses that can be exploited with the right branching logic.”
“You probably already know that Menace is backed by Lazar, Whittaker’s son?”
“Yeap. It makes us work that much harder. The next RFC is in nBotics Arena in San Franciso. He has home field advantage, as it were.”
“I’m looking forward to it; hope Ram and Menace are in the finals. Can you tweak Ram’s combat AI to specifically beat Menace?”
“Yes, but Menace’s nBotics team can play the same game. It’s a game of cat and mouse. Eventually it’s the bot’s autonomous decision making process that ultimately decides the outcome. I think Ram has better branching logic, though. Our team’s branching logic isn’t as methodical as nBotic’s. We add a bit of philosophy into our secret sauce.”
“Your work with software explains how you got into Whittaker’s office earlier,” Ellis said under his breath.
“Some of it was software hacking skill but most of it was social hacking skill. It helps to have inside help. The encryption and biosignatures cannot be broken with brute force alone.” Gust grinned.
The kid had the pedigree and the smarts. He would be an asset to ELIX (Earth Legion 9). Maybe I’ll sponsor him, Ellis thought. Time to change the subject. Ellis coolly continued, “Anyway, why are you so interested in this alien business if you have a nice gig going with the RFC?” He would keep his cards close to his heart. The kid would only be told what he needed to know.
“They’re more related than you know. Besides, all things space are hobbies of mine. Plus there’s nothing exciting to do in the next four months,” Gust said like a bored scoundrel.
Another waitress eased by and brought them the three drinks. She set them on the tabletop and quickly walked away. Ellis waited until she was out of earshot. “I hope the Director made it clear that you are to keep what was discussed earlier to yourself,” Ellis said and sipped his orange juice from the crystalline glass.
“He made it perfectly clear. I just want to get involved in the investigation.”
“You want to what!” Ellis choked on his juice.
“Get involved in the investigation. I have knowledge that could be helpful to you.”
Ellis shook his head, then glanced around to make sure no one had overheard anything. “The investigation is closed. They’re dead.”
“Dead? Did you kill them?”
“No. The prevailing theory is that oxygen killed them.”
“Wow,” Gust mumbled. “That’s too bad. Oxygen killed them, eh?”
“That’s right. That’s what our chemical team concluded.”
“Did you see them?”
“Yes, we did.”
“How did they look like?”
“Colossal. That’s all I can tell you for now.”
“So you were one of the lucky ones,” Gust said and sipped his drink. Then noticed it was empty and couldn’t believe he’d finished two asparagus juices. He comically rubbed his neck.
Ellis looked on and managed a smile. “I guess you could say that.”
Gust admired the few twinkling stars appearing early, just barely visible over the glass-domed biosphere. To satisfy Gust’s curiosity, Ellis told him about the deaths and four tombs.
“When can I see the bodies?”
The question startled Ellis. This kid was like a pitbull. Once he got a few teeth in, he kept biting. “There are no bodies.”
“What? I don’t get it.”
“Their molecules dispersed and mixed with the air.”
“Wow. Did you see that happen?”
“No one did.”
“Oh, I see.”
Gust despised people calling him “kid” but let it pass.
“Were you able to determine what star system they came from?” Gust asked.
“There are many possibilities, but their origin isn’t a priority for us right now. Why do you find all this interesting?”
“Like I said, space appeals to me in general and aliens appeal to me even more. There is a romantic curiosity there for me. During my trip to the belt I mapped a lot of star systems using my telescope. I made three notebooks, all hand drawn,” Gust proudly said.
Did he just say “romantic curiosity?” Ellis thought. He suppressed a chuckle. “I thought all Haulers did was looked at naked women?”
“Most. Not all.”
“Not you?” Ellis teased.
“I studied the stars and ACS engineering. Has anyone included the possibility that these aliens originated from our solar system?”
“Like I said, there are many possibilities but that’s the least of our concerns right now, kid.”
Gust let the “kid” pass again.
Ellis slowly stood up and said, “Look, I hope I’ve been able to satisfy your curiosity. I have to see the family now. It’s been two days. Please remember what the Director said.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“Enjoy your holiday. If I were you I would focus on the RFC gig. I’m looking forward to seeing your gladiator Ram fight. In the meantime, keep out of trouble.”
“I’ll see what I can do about the boredom issue. Thank-you for your time, Lieutenant.”
They shook hands and Ellis left. He disappeared into the Venus Bar crowd and made his way to the shuttlebay, into a VIP area of the concierge service, where he was escorted to ELIX’s (Earth Legion 9) secret base deep below the Olympus Grand Resort.
GUST’S MIND WAS racing in a dozen different directions. He was fighting internal turmoil. Things hadn’t been working out between him and Christy. The upcoming RFC event in San Franciso in a few months. The nurse, Trina, he met for two days but constantly thought about since he left the Xanadu detox centre. The aliens. His parents. The Mars Police. The aliens.
He slouched on his couch and admired the red plains of Mars through the picture windows. He was embroiled in so many things and events, but yet all alone. For some reason he recalled an adage his father told him, “What you wish for others, you’ll soon have for yourself.” Why did that specific passage randomly come up? Was it applicable to his situation? Then Trina’s beautiful face popped into his mind. There was so much pain with Christy and what his parents wanted for him and what he wanted for himself.
As he was getting lost in his thoughts, his wristband vibrated, alerting him of an incoming call. He twisted his wrist twice and a holographic handscreen appeared in front of his palm. It was his best friend, Gordon, from Earth. The message was sent about 13 minutes ago—it took messages sent from Earth anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes to reach Mars, depending on the positions of the planets as they orbited the Sun. Gordon wanted to know if Gust was coming back to Earth for the RFC event at nBotics Arena in San Franciso.
Gust spoke at the holographic handscreen, “Hey Gordie. Thanks for checking up on me. I needed that. Yeah, I should be back for RFC. Just enjoying some me-time right now. I really miss you, Jennifer, Zao, Mario, Taryn, and the rest of the gang. If anything changes, I’ll let you know. I miss you guys to death, man. Bye for now.” Gust forced a smile and sent the message. It would take another 13 minutes for Gordon to get his reply.
He admired the mountains of Mars in the distance for a while. He then walked to his closet, stretched out his arms wide, stepped into the wall, and a spacesuit automatically wrapped around his body. He walked down to the condo’s shuttlebay and hopped on his levbike. He tapped a button by his neck and a protective oxygen helmut rose from the spacesuit’s collar and covered his entire head. He was now sealed and ready to face Mars’s atmosphere.
Cruising a meter off the ground, he zoomed to Olympus Mons, the second tallest mountain in the solar system (the tallest was Rheasilvia on an asteroid named Vesta). Near Olympus Mons, Gust could see the top of the Olympus Grand Resort in the opposite direction. He sat on his levbike, floating a meter off the ground. Through his oxygen helmut, he looked up and admired the breathtaking views of Mars. It was another captivating blue sunset on Mars. The blue sunset was possible because the fine particles in the Martian atmosphere allowed blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than longer-wavelength colours. The blue sunset was just gorgeous, with half the Sun peeking through a mountain in the distance.
Although a civilian levbike had a legal height limit of one meter off ground level, Gust had retooled it to override the restriction. He took the levbike up 200 meters and followed the contours of Olympus Mons. He did that until he could no longer get Trina, the nurse, off his mind.
He zoomed down and sped to Xanadu Hospital. He stopped two blocks from the hospital and sat on his levbike for several minutes. Gust thought to himself: how is it possible that you could spend a few hours with someone and think about them constantly. Yet, spend years with someone else and rarely think of them. When someone loves you in your darkest hours, when you’re most vulnerable, when your soul is naked, that someone truly loves, without motive. It was just love. That’s how he felt about Trina. She knew little about him, only that he had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and was psychotic for a few hours. Maybe she thought he was an addict and felt sorry for him. But why keep entering his room and smiling and flirting when she wasn’t his assigned nurse? And why the follow-up calls? Had he been in psychosis and she was a dream? Hallucinogenic drugs were known to cause perception anomalies. He knew that before he experimented with them. I guess that’s why they call it Xanadu, he thought. “You’ll leave with a lifetime of memories” was its slogan.
Trina wasn’t a dream. She was real. He had felt her and feels her.
“Call Xanadu Hospital, detox ward,” Gust said, sitting on his levbike. The geofenced soundfield projected from his wristband picked up his voice and called the hospital.
“Xanadu hospital, detox ward. Sabrina speaking. How can I help you?”
“Is nurse Trina working tonight?”
“She’s off. I could leave a message. May I ask who’s calling?”
“I’ll call back. Thank-you.”
Gust twisted his wrist and the call ended. All her follow-up calls had been from the hospital, so he couldn’t call her personal com.
It can’t end now, he thought. If he couldn’t get a hold of her now, he’d give her the one thing hundreds of millions of people in the solar system wanted but couldn’t get: front row seat to the upcoming annual RFC event on Earth. He called DJ, a member of Ram’s ACS team, on Earth and made arrangements for his last RFC comp ticket to go to Trina. If she showed up, he’ll know there was a deep emotional connection when they met. The heart wants what it wants.
He stared at the bright lights of Xanadu ahead. There were thousands of people in there experimenting with all forms of pleasure. He had been one of them. You only live once, he thought. Then he spun his levbike 180 degrees and sped away.
The quick trip had released some stress, but unexpectedly added more.
THE YOUNG COUPLE sauntered romantically hand-in-hand along the walk pavement of Adventure Lake, beside the gurgling sound of rushing water of the artificial streams. Above them were the massy green trees. High above the trees was the starlit sky hanging over the biosphere’s glassed dome. They held each others’ hands gently and swung them like a pendulum as they walked. Their eyes were glued meaningfully to each other as they both smiled romantically. They were on their honeymoon. The young man complimented his lovely wife with each step, and she flushed countless times in response. What a stud.
They walked and whispered to each other until the walk pavement ended. They sat on a brown bench next to a stream and continued with the mellow talk. There was no one in sight and Adventure Lake itself could not be seen from inside the dense artificial forest. It was what the young couple had wanted. Perfect isolation.
The young quickly man grabbed for her long legs and straddled them over his thighs. She smiled and allowed it. Then he slowly slid his hand to her bra, which was peering through the sweater. With both hands, he slowly removed her bra and sweater. She allowed that too. Very slowly, he peeled her bra farther down and leaned over to kiss her. She allowed that, too. With one swift movement, he clutched her leg with one hand, and her shoulder with the other hand, and lowered her to the bench and smothered her with sloppy kisses. The attack was on. She giggled as he attacked her neck with smooches. Her legs thrashed in mid-air and she paddled them. She cupped both hands around his head.
“Aren’t you afraid someone might show up?” she asked the top of his head.
No answer. Just more wet kisses on her neck.
She giggled louder and grunted his name repeatedly. Richard! Richard! Richard! It felt good so she permitted him to continue. Her sweater was half off and her bra feel to her stomach.
Then she heard voices. “Richard, stop. Someone’s coming,” she whispered and slapped his back.
No response again. His lips were still locked around her neck and slowly making their way down her medium-sized, firm, luscious casabas.
She whispered louder this time. “Stop, Richard. Someone’s coming.”
He jerked his head up and looked into her eyes. “Baby, the only thing I hear is your heart beating for my love,” he said with a sly grin and continued with his attack. His tongue was only inches away from its intended target.
The voices got louder. People were coming. “Stop, Richard. Stop!” she protested, and pulled his head up by the hair. She pushed him away, strapped on her bra, and properly straightened her sweater. “Later,” she said and crossed her legs, looking like nothing had happened.
He did the same. “Dammit. Life’s not fair. Just when you’re about to hit the sweet spot, they take it away from you,” he cried, then heard the voices.
They sat and talked as the voices neared. Around the corner, two Mars Police officers eased out. They were wearing their familiar black MP uniforms. The young couple thought nothing of the two officers. The MPs approached the young couple and stood above them. They did not smile or say anything. The MPs were eerily stone-cold.
“Good evening,” Richard greeted them.
“Good evening, officers,” his pretty wife said and smiled at them.
No response from the MPs. One of them tilted his head sideways and methodically studied the young couple. The whole thing seemed awkward to the couple.
Their name tags announced them as MICHAEL ENDER and JOHN YAMOTO.
Michael Ender spoke with an unsteady and cracked voice, “We’ve came close to killing a few people. We’re that good.”
Richard confusedly looked over to his wife. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
Just as the young lady was about to ask what the MPs wanted, John Yamoto spoke, “Michael and John, why don’t you guys come up to our room and release some stress?”
“We were doing fine on our own. Right, babe?” Richard retorted and smiled lewdly at his babe. The babe’s name was Anne Pressly and she smiled weakly in reply. Then Richard’s face turned serious as he studied their name emblems. They were supposed to be Michael and John.
“I think you have the wrong people, officers,” Anne said cordially.
“We’re still waiting for an answer,” Ender said. His eyes began changing colors, from deep black to sparkling red.
Richard noticed the terrifying transformation. He stood up and extended his hand to Anne. She slid her arm around his and pulled herself up and stood beside him.
“I think we better be going, officers. It was nice meeting you,” Richard said nervously. He quickly walked off and dragged Anne along.
John Ender called out, “What a bunch of freaks.”
They stopped, turned around, and stared at the MPs. They noticed the eyes were glowing red with sizzling electrical eyeballs.
The MPs walked toward them.
Richard swung around and ran.
Michael Ender/the alien, raced forward and tightly grabbed Richard on his shoulder. He stopped completely and was face-to-face with Ender. Richard released Anne’s hand and whispered to her, “Run, get help! Don’t worry about me.”
Scared and dazed, Anne ran and bellowed on the top of her lungs. A few meters away, she ran into an invisible object. It was hard and knocked her to the ground. She bolted up and ran in another direction. A few more meters more and she ran into something invisible again, which knocked her to the ground again. She was terrified and had difficulty breathing.
Then the air spiraled and looped with colors of the rainbow. Then strings of lumpy flesh twisted into an outline. The invisible something appeared from thin air. The red eyes glowed.
Anne crawled backwards on her hands and feet.
It mimicked her moves and kneeled to the ground. It squatted there and observed as she screamed in fear. It seemed to take delight in her moment of horror. She kept crawling for a few more meters, then felt the water of the stream with her fingers. That was when the alien stood up and walked toward her. She screamed louder this time—the veins almost popped from her neck. Her plead for help was finally heard by tourists in the distance.
Seconds later, the screaming stopped. Anne Pressly was dead to the world. The air was coiling over her body.
Ender would kill Richard.
Instinctively, Richard lunged a fist at Ender’s chest, but something unexpected happened—his fist did not hit and bounce back. Instead, it went through the chest. Then the chest solidified with half of Richard’s arm stuck inside. He wailed in pain and desperately tried to pull it out. The harder he pulled, the harder the clumps of flesh on the chest cemented. Then the chest solidified to concrete around his forearm.
Richard lunged another fist at its face. It bounced right back. Ender/the alien grabbed the half-arm still outside and twisted it in a circle. Ender gave it another hard wrench and the arm cracked in half. Half of the arm was dangling on Ender’s chest with strings of reddish-flesh hanging loose.
Richard cried in pain. With its chest glowing green, it stepped up and struck Richard on the temple. Richard crumbled to the ground and his head bounced on a rock. He was dead.
Ender straddled the body and grinned predatory downward. His chest was decorated with Richard’s half-arm, dripping with blood. Then he looked around and smiled pompously at the surrounding air. The other alien was not in sight, but Ender could sense its presence, and that was the thing he was smiling to—his invisible buddy, the former John Yamoto, who only Ender could sense.
Eight tourists eased out from the leafy turn and saw Anne Pressly’s dead body. In unison, they all screamed and darted to the main complex. They ran like a pack of deers being chased by wolves and never looked back. One of them stumbled to the ground and shouted for help. The other six looked back, but didn’t stop to help him up. They made it to the Olympus Grand Resort’s main complex, into the arms of security guards.
Later, each tourist gave identical accounts of what they saw. They were out for a leisure walk when they came upon the body of Anne Pressly. Each tourist went on to say that they caught glimpses of two men, both wearing black, nonchalantly strolling away from the crime scene.
Visiting the Morgue
THE DEATHS OF Richard and Anne Pressly quickly reached Rhinehart. He was certain Xavier and his cult were behind the murders, but the only lead the MP had was that the two suspects wore black. Suddenly, Mars wasn’t a Naturalopist utopia anymore. When Ellis heard the news, he wanted to lead the investigation, but Rhinehart refused. Ellis had a very important matter to attend to: the completion of Whittaker’s insurance scheme, or maybe scam. Ellis had to complete the paperwork at the morgue, alone, as requested by Rhinehart and Whittaker. After the paperwork was done, Ellis hoped it was the end of this alien nightmare. Otherwise, he had to call in his ELIX crew for assistance.
Ellis parked in the morgue’s underground shuttlebay. He was in his black uniform. On his right hip was a large semi-automatic gun that fired nano-carbon bullets instead of lasers. He took the elevator to the second floor. It stopped and he glided out.
“Over here!” a voice shouted.
Who just called his name? Nobody knew he was coming here. Ellis turned right and saw Gust casually leaning against the white wall. Gust waved a hand as though they were best friends, then jogged to Ellis. Tucked under Gust’s arm were three notebooks filled with stars and planets that he had drawn during his eight month trip to and from the Asteroid Belt.
Ellis turned sour at the sight. He glanced suspiciously around the morgue’s white halls to see if anyone was around. He saw no one except Gust. That’s odd, he thought.
“What are you doing here?” Ellis asked with a touch of anger.
“I came to talk to you about the aliens.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“Some of it was software hacking but most of it was social hacking.”
Ellis shook his head and glared at him. If Gust’s parents weren’t part of the EL’s (Earth Legion) security apparatus, Ellis would had shot the kid by now.
“Your fascination with aliens will get you in trouble or killed. Stick to your RFC gig,” he advised like a father. He did not worry though, as far as anyone was concerned he was here to inspect the dead MPs. “Look, Gust, you are way out of your element. I think you’d better go. I have many things to get done. Alone. By myself.” Ellis pointed a finger to the elevator.
“Okay. But before I go, I’d like you to look at something.”
“What is it? Make it quick,” Ellis said as he walked down the eerie white hallway. That’s strange, he thought again, the place was empty.
“How long have you been here?” Ellis asked.
“Couldn’t have been more than three minutes.”
“You’re timing is that good, eh?”
“It helped that you’re punctual.” Gust reached for one notebook and opened it to a page where he had drawn Earth’s solar system (the Sol system). In the middle of the page was the sun drawn in black pencil ink. Around the sun were nine planets, also drawn in pencil—Gust considered Pluto a major planet and not a dwarf planet. Between Mars and Jupiter was the Asteroid Belt. Gust traced his finger around the neat circle of dots to point out the Asteroid Belt, then ran his finger around Mars and Phobos.
Again, Ellis surveyed the hallway and saw no one in sight. “Hurry it up.”
“You said the aliens have the ability to turn invisible, correct?”
“Yes,” Ellis said, looking around the hallway. Strange, there was still no one around.
“I have a theory on their origin,” he said and flipped the pages again.
Gust flipped the page and gazed up with a smile. “I’m guessing they’re from the Alpha Centauri system, the third brightest star in the sky,” he said and pointed his finger in the middle of the page where a planet was drawn with three suns around it.
“How did you come up with that theory?”
“It’s the nearest star system comprised of two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, which are binary stars that orbit each other. The third and closest star, Alpha Centauri C, is a ternary star. Also, the biggest star, Alpha Centauri A, is similar to our own star, the Sun, in size and brightness. But no planet has ever been detected orbiting those stars. But there might be a planet crammed between the three stars, orbiting at a very close distance. And that might explain how they could turn invisible.”
“You’ll have to explain this in terms I can understand,” Ellis said, rolling his eyes around the hallway. Is everyone partying in Xanadu?
“A sun, or a star, is a huge fireball that gives off radiation. In order for any one to survive in a system that has three stars, they must be able to adapt, somehow reflect harmful radiation and absorb what they need to survive. Of course I’m assuming that this unseen planet is orbiting very close with the three stars of Alpha Centauri, and the planet filters very little or no radiation. If we lived on a planet with three stars, we’d be cooked unless our atmosphere reflected harmful radiation from the three stars. Otherwise our body must adapt at the atomic or molecular level, such as rearranging our molecules and atoms in such a manner that it absorbs only certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. We would likely reflect gamma and x-ray radiation. I don’t know about the aliens, they could feed on gamma and x-ray radiation.”
“Three stars did you say?”
“Yep, the Alpha Centauri system has three stars—two main stars tightly orbiting each other and a third one orbiting at a distance.”
“You could probably get a good tan with three stars, eh?”
“Or cook a tasty BBQ meal.”
“But that doesn’t explain how they can turn invisible.”
“If you could reflect or absorb and manipulate electromagnetic radiation, you’d be able to turn invisible to certain observers. The color of any object depends on what color it reflects. The color that the object reflects determines what color our eyes see. It all depends on the chemical composition of the object. And our eyes can only see light in the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Those aliens could probably see radiation in all spectrums.”
Again, Ellis checked the hallway and found it strangely empty. “What you have is a theory. We have many theories of our own. If you’re smart, you’ll keep this to yourself.”
Gust pursed his lips and nodded. “I will. No one would believe me if I told them anyway. Now, where are we off to?”
Ellis was shocked at the question. This kid was a pitbull, Ellis thought. He pointed a light finger at Gust. “I’m off to do my job and you’re off to somewhere else, kid. I’ve told you this before: stick to your robot gladiator RFC gig and you’ll live long and prosper.”
Gust frowned and pleaded, “C’mon, Mr. Ellis, let me see the tombs. Are they here? Is that why you’re here?”
Ellis shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t you find it odd that we haven’t seen anyone since we’ve been here?”
“There’s more than one floor. They could be upstairs. Can I come with you to see the tombs?”
Again, Ellis shook his head. “The tombs aren’t here. Just the bodies of the twenty-one victims.”
“Then can I see the bodies?”
“You’re not scared of dead cadavers?”
“Haven’t seen any closeup before. There’s a first time for everything.”
Ellis thought about it for a few seconds. He needed the company anyway. “Look, kid, just stay close to me. If anything happens, call the MP with a code 4. Then run to the shuttle and wait for me. I parked downstairs,” Ellis said, a bit concerned.
“Roger that,” Gust said with an appreciative smile.
Ellis surveyed the white hallway and suddenly felt cold. He walked down the long hallway.
“Did you hear about those two tourists at the Olympus?” Gust asked as he walked faster to keep up.
“Yes, I did. Mars is growing too fast for its own good.”
Gust studied Ellis’s face and noticed the Lieutenant frowning. “Whoever did it is a psycho,” Gust said. Then added, “Do you think Xavier did it?”
“I’m not on the case so I don’t know the specific evidence. I’m sure with some social hacking you could find out.”
The hallway ended and split into two turns. A holographic sign ahead was marked RECORDS with an arrow pointing to the right. Ellis followed the arrow and eased around the corner.
He stopped with one foot in mid-air. His jaw dropped and his face lit up. He glared at Gust, and noticed Gust was in utter fear. Words failed them.
Ten meters in front were three dead bodies sprawling on the white floor. They laid in pools of blood. The arms of each victim were spread eagle-like on the floor with their eyes still open, looking at the ceiling. One body was curled in a crude L with cracked bones protruding from the ribs, legs, and arms. Blood was still trickling from the bodies. One of the corpses was Albert. Behind the three bodies was a deck of cards strewn wildly on the floor. All the cards were faced down except the joker with his mocking laughter. Not too far ahead, the elevator door leading to the nitrogen chamber on the third floor was smeared with blood.
Gust began walking backward. Ellis snatched his arm and pulled him back.
“Stay here,” Ellis whispered and let his arm go. “You wanted to see dead bodies. There’s a first time for everything, remember?”
Ellis stepped over Albert’s dead body and peeked inside the office. It was a wild mess with another body slouched over a chair beside the holographic deskscreen. It was a male.
Ellis moved his palm in front of his belly button. He talked down at his palm. A holographic handscreen flickered into view in front of his palm. Beep, beep, then a face appeared. It was the dispatcher at MP headquarters. Ellis did not give her a chance to speak. “Requesting one unit to the Mars Mortuary. Code 4. Ellis out.”
The face on the holographic handscreen nodded. Ellis flicked his wrist and holographic handscreen flickered out. He pulled the semi-automatic from his hip, then beckoned Gust to come with a wave of a hand. He had just called for backup and Gust heaved a sigh of relief. Gust cupped his mouth with a palm and walked to Ellis. A puddle of blood was beneath his feet.
“I think we’d better go,” Gust whispered as he looked inside the office. Then he glanced at the white walls and glass doors, which were smeared with blood.
Ellis turned to Gust, then studied the hallway. “You said you wanted to see dead bodies, remember?” Ellis reminded Gust, grinning.
Gust gulped in fear. He couldn’t stop looking at the dead bodies, they were like a train wreck. “Not like these,” Gust whispered as though the people at his feet were sleeping and he didn’t want to wake them.
Ellis carefully stepped over the second body. He stopped, suspiciously glanced around, then hopped over a puddle of blood. Then he went around the third body. Gust followed his example and managed to keep his black shoes free of blood.
“Where are we going?” Gust whispered.
Ellis stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “To the third floor.” He had been here on many occasions and knew the nitrogen chamber was on the third floor.
“Let’s wait for backup,” Gust was still whispering. He eased beside Ellis and gently yanked on his wide shoulders. “Look, I was wrong. I don’t want to see dead bodies. Let’s get out of here.”
Gust’s cheeks turned pale and Ellis saw how frightened the kid was. He could see how bad Gust was pleading with his eyes. The kid definitely wanted out. Ellis pointed his semi-automatic behind Gust and whispered as though a serial killer was standing down the hallway, “Don’t move. There are two aliens behind you. Stay still, kid. I need a clean shot.”
Gust froze. His palms were profusely sweating. He momentarily closed his eyes and prayed for his life. In one swift motion, he twisted his head back, then the body followed. Down the hallway, he saw-
There was nothing standing behind him. He stared at Ellis and flashed a silly smile, but said nothing.
Ellis grinned and walked to the cargo elevator. Gust followed close behind. As they neared the elevator door, it automatically hissed open. Ellis entered first and spoke at the elevator, “Third floor.”
Gust couldn’t believe how calm and collective Ellis was under the circumstance. Either the Lieutenant had ice for blood or wasn’t afraid of dying. Gust eased in and the door hissed shut. In the elevator were three lev platform carts, which were used to move the coffins from the second to the third floor. The lev platform carts were empty.
“I bet you the same people who killed those tourists are responsible for this,” Gust said over the elevator’s hum.
“Xavier could be responsible. He’s been brazen lately.” Ellis frowned. He lifted his semi-automatic to a shooting position as the door opened. Ellis stepped out of the elevator onto the third floor. There were coffins against the wall, other than that everything else looked in order. There wasn’t any blood or dead bodies on the floor. Ellis proceeded in half-steps, Gust reluctantly followed.
“I think we should wait for backup,” Gust whispered from behind.
Ellis went ahead as if he hadn’t heard him.
“This is unnecessary. Backup will be here soon,” Gust pleaded louder.
Ellis ignored him again and eased to Fryer’s office. He raised his semi-automatic and curled his finger around the trigger, ready to shoot at the first sign of trouble. If he was tense, Gust could not tell. This guy had nerves of steel, Gust thought. Or he was hiding it well, or insane.
Fryer’s office looked in order, so Ellis ignored it and half-stepped across the wide glass hallway. He took a few steps and studied the big holographic words NITROGEN CHAMBER on the glass wall. Within ten meters he saw through the chamber’s translucent door: more dead bodies.
There were two bodies lying on the ground. He stopped to analyze the situation. Whoever did this could still be here, he thought. The glass door to the chamber was still open. The robotic arm was busted and scattered with stringed wires snaking on the floor. Ellis half-stepped to the glass door with Gust literally hugging onto his uniform.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this.” Gust was shaking his head. “Let’s wait for backup,” he pleaded for the third time.
Ellis pointed his semi-automatic forward and stepped inside the nitrogen chamber. “You see where meddling and hacking has gotten you?” Ellis asked with a trace of humor.
Inside, Ellis hovered over Michelle Gardner’s scorched body. Blood was leaking from her head. A few meters away laid the body of Fryer. It was a clean kill with no blood. Ellis approached the body and lowered to his knees. Gust was still hugging onto his back like a baby. Ellis gently placed two fingers over Fryer’s neck and felt no pulse. He gazed up at Gust and said, “Same method of death as Platform II.”
“What do you mean?” Gust quivered.
“I’ll tell you later.”
“If there is a later. You don’t look scared.”
“Death comes to us all sooner or later. If you don’t fear death, you die only once.”
“Keep that swagger because we’ll need it.”
“Even death is not to be feared by those who have lived wisely.”
“That’s very apt, but Buddha isn’t going to save us now, okay?”
“You’re too tight, kid. The worst thing that can happen is we die.”
“That’s what I’m scared off.”
“If you die, you wouldn’t know it. So, stop worrying, kid.”
“I haven’t reached that plane of higher consciousness or that level of acceptance, okay?”
Ellis stood up and glanced suspiciously around the eerie white room. One chamber was still open with no body inside. He curled his finger around the trigger again. Just in case. He won’t be completing the work Rhinehart and Whittaker had requested. The insurance scheme had to wait.
“We should have never came up here,” Gust mumbled.
“You mean [_you _]should have never came up here. You could’ve been home right now enjoying a delicious braised duck meal.”
“I prefer duck confit or Chinese barbecued duck.”
“For the duck confit, do you prefer 60 degrees for 10 minutes, or 50 degrees for 15 minutes?”
“Sixty for ten.”
“Do you like it with a vegetable broth, kid?”
“Of course. It adds another layer of taste.”
“With what vegetables?”
“Tomato five ways.”
“Which five ways?”
“Roasted, grilled, stuffed, confit, and smoked.”
“I don’t like grilled. I find it hard to soften the centre without overcooking the skin.”
“Try a lower cooking temperature.”
“Thanks, kid. You know there are rumors that Xavier is a cannibal. If he’s responsible for this and catches you, you could be his next protein.”
Gust darted his eyes around the white walls decorated with blinking green and red lights, which were used to denote which chambers were available or occupied. His stomach churned at the sight of Gardner’s charred body on the ground.
Slowly and together, they hovered over Kevin Fryer’s body. The air suddenly crackled and fluttered with colors. Gust was perplexed and horrified. Ellis pointed his semi-automatic at the moving air, which was twisting and coiling, forming into an outline.
Then standing in front of them were Kevin Fryer and Michelle Gardner. Now there were two of each—the Fryer and Gardner dead on the floor and the two standing in front.
“No! No! I told you we should’ve waited for backup!” Gust blared, his words resonating through the lucent room.
“I got this.”
“Are you fucking crazy! You’re a nutcase! We’re as good as dead!”
Ellis pulled the trigger and hit both aliens squarely on their chests. Some bullets seared holes through them, some implanted in their bodies, and a few bounced off, just missing Ellis and Gust.
Gust clamped his hands over his ears to shield against the blaring gun fire. He ran to the back wall and watched Ellis spray the aliens with bullets.
The aliens did not move. They both stood and broadly smiled as bullets hit their chests. Ellis released the trigger and the nitrogen chamber was dead silent.
He looked over his shoulder to Gust, who was literally pressed against the back wall. Ellis waved him toward the door. Gust nodded fearfully and crawled along the wall at a snail’s pace.
The alien/Michelle Gardner, took a long step and blocked the exit. Gust stopped and froze, his cheeks quivering involuntarily. The other alien/Kevin Fryer, took three steps toward Ellis and suddenly stopped. It stood there grinning fiendishly at him. Ellis pointed the semi-automatic between its eyes with his fingers touching the trigger. It studied him with predatory eyes, then it sneered menacingly at Gust.
It/Fryer did not move forward though. Instead it tilted its head and stared at Ellis with familiarity. It knew him. He was the one barking orders at Platform II.
Kevin Fryer/it took a measured step forward.
Ellis pulled the trigger and bullets rained on Fryer, whose body jerked violently. Then he dropped to the ground.
Gardner watched as Fryer wobbled like a fish out of water, and smiled with delight. She/it was enjoying all this, watching her comrade getting injured.
Then Fryer stopped flopping on the ground and Ellis stopped firing. The bullets that had hit Fryer were implanted on his body with parts of them sticking halfway out. Ellis stepped back and watched as the bullets melted on Fryer like burning wax. Fryer’s body glowed and coiled, then solidified to flesh. Fryer/it slowly rose to a sitting position and glanced at Gardner. He gave her a haughty smile, then stood up. Then Fryer, with glowing red eyes, turned his full attention to Ellis. Gardner and Fryer took two steps forward and abruptly stopped.
Ellis raised his semi-automatic to eye level and moved it back and forth between them.
A creepy silence filled the room.
Gust very slowly eased behind Ellis. Gardner mimicked his moves. Ellis, still with the semi-automatic at eye level, reached back and felt Gust’s hand. The kid was sweating.
“Run, honey. Run,” Fryer said in a metallic voice. The exact words of the real Kevin Fryer before he died.
Ellis gingerly dragged Gust closer. “Are you still going to hack after this?” he whispered, leaning his head against Gust’s.
Gust was too tense to answer. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer and he couldn’t bring himself to speak. His three notebooks were shaking in his hand.
Then something happened to Fryer and Gardner. Their skin melted like wax on candle; clumps of glowing flesh oozed and flowed and glinted; chunks of flesh twisting and spiraling into muscles. The legs and arms expanded and the height grew over two feet. Their bodies were bulking with muscles now.
They were the most imposing presence Gust had ever seen, Rhinehart included. Gust’s stomach was tied in knots. He was mesmerized and terrified at the same time. They inched to the front wall.
“Run for the hole,” Ellis whispered.
Gust barely heard him. He was downright confused. “You mean the door?” Gust asked quietly.
“No, the hole,” Ellis whispered back.
“What hole?” Gust hissed, still baffled. The only hole in the room was the door, which was blocked.
The aliens eyed each. One broke into a deafening high-pitched scream that sounded exactly like the one Michelle Gardner had wailed before her death.
“Run through the hole.”
Gust scratched his head. “What hole? I don’t see a hole.”
Ellis moved the semi-automatic away from their heads. Click. He sprayed the glass wall with bullets. The glass shattered and crumbled. The words NITROGEN CHAMBER were no longer readable. A hole was made.
Ellis sidestepped them and charged through.
“That hole!” Gust bellowed, rushing like crazy behind. He dropped his three notebooks as he darted frantically.
They ran like Olympic sprinters to the cargo elevator. The door was open and both jumped in. They looked back and saw the two aliens blazing up. Then, the aliens shifted colors and vanished.
“Close! Close! Close!” Gust yelled at the elevator for closing too slow. “Hurry it up!”
The door clanked shut. “Shuttlebay floor,” Ellis ordered the elevator.
It was a cargo elevator so there was plenty of room for four large bodies. Ellis calculated the time the elevator door had closed and the time the aliens camouflaged. It was possible that they had made it inside. He was aware of this and so was Gust. They locked eyes as the elevator descended. Sweat trickled down Gust’s forehead and he wiped it dry with the back of his hand.
They could be in here.
The elevator reached the shuttlebay floor and hissed open. They uniformly heaved a sigh of relief.
“This way,” Ellis shouted, veering left and racing to the shuttle.
“I’m never going to hack after this!” Gust dashed right behind, puffing.
As Ellis neared the shuttle, the sensors recognized his biosignatures. He stabbed his finger on the IDpad—it was dual authentication. Before the ramp came completely down, they leaped on the moving ramp and slid in.
The ramp closed and Ellis slid into the pilot’s chair. He socked buttons and the shuttle came to life. The glassed-dome hangar door automatically opened in front. The shuttle lifted a few meters off the ground, turned, and eased out the hangar door. Ellis hovered the shuttle over the morgue.
Gust hadn’t bothered to take a seat and was still on the shuttle’s cabin floor.
“You still like aliens, kid?” Ellis asked, checking his navigational holoscreens.
“Yes, now that I’m still alive,” Gust huffed, staring blankly at the gray shuttle roof.
Ellis tapped another button and the face of the dispatcher blinked on the holographic screen. “Is backup on the way?” Ellis asked.
“They should be there momentarily,” she said.
“How many units did you send?”
“One, as you requested. Twelve officers.”
“Right. Send another unit with EMR detectors of every spectrum.” He gestured and the holographic screen flickered off. He radioed the arriving shuttles and ordered them not to land.
Ellis had the shuttle scan the morgue below. It picked up the thermal radiation of the four dead on the second floor and two on the third floor. That was it, no other thermal radiation. He shook his head in bewilderment. He was sure the aliens were down there, but the shuttle’s detectors couldn’t get a fix on them.
Gust pushed off the floor and sat in the co-pilot’s chair. He stared aimlessly at Mars’s sky. “They died and dissipated into our air. Couldn’t survive the oxygen environment, eh?” Gust said sarcastically.
Ellis looked at him and managed a smile. “Hey, I just know what those chem guys tell me.” He was beginning to see Gust as nosy little brother. Not the cocky kid who had rudely interrupted his meeting with Rhinehart and Whittaker. And definitely not the kid who finished two asparagus juices at the Olympus Grand Resort.
“Are you going back down?” Gust asked.
“There’s a good chance of that.”
“Glad I don’t have to. Those guys are scary,” Gust said, facing Ellis. He closed his eyes and listened to the rhythmic hum of the engine and relaxed a little. He was safe now.
“How can they change shapes?” Ellis asked.
Gust sat more upright in the chair. “They may have the ability to alter their atomic or molecular structure. It’s the only way I can think of.”
“What about the way they spoke? It sounded like ‘Run, honey. Run.’”
“They must had heard the words from someone. Maybe one of their victims.”
“You have a theory as to how they could imitate voices, genius?”
“Since EMR can exist as particles or as light waves and I think these Alpha Centaurians can manipulate light waves, then it’s reasonable to assume they can also manipulate sound waves. Every time they hear a voice, all they have to do is record and recall the right frequencies and wavelengths of those sounds.”
Ellis gazed at the stars and thought about his wife and son. He radioed them and used the old standby of more training and evaluation. Gust flashed a huge smile when he heard it. Then Ellis called Rhinehart to inform him of what had just happened at the Mars Mortuary.
By the time he finished updating Rhinehart, the first unit arrived. The two shuttles hovered above the Mars Mortuary for several minutes before the third patrol shuttle arrived.
Ellis logged on to the Mars Zoning Board’s mainframe and downloaded the morgue’s blueprint. He studied it on the big holographic wallscreen while Gust waited. Ellis learned that the morgue had five floors. The fourth and fifth floors were administration. The ground floor contained mostly equipment and storage compartments. The second floor was used for the initial processing, where hearts, brains, and other internal organs were removed. And on the third floor was the nitrogen chamber, where the aliens were. Beneath the building was the shuttlebay, and beneath the shuttlebay was the underground segment of the maglev train system.
Ellis looked to Gust with concern as he finished the blueprint. The morgue building was connected to the underground segment of the maglev train system. And the train system was connected to almost every business tower, industrial facility, and biosphere on Mars. Gust had used the same maglev train system to get to the morgue.
“How smart do you think they are?” Ellis asked in a low voice.
Gust sat up straight. “Sophisticatedly, brutally, cleverly, dangerously smart.”
“Then we have a major problem,” Ellis said.
“What problem? There are twenty-five of you and two of them.”
Ellis twiddled his fingers and thought about all possibilities, then he turned and saw the two patrol shuttles hovering outside the window. The pilots waved to him and he waved back.
Ellis racked his mind for ideas. One was to blow the mortuary up since there was a slim chance anyone was still alive, but then he thought about the chain explosion and dismissed the idea.
“I’ve got it,” Ellis finally mumbled under his breath.
“Got what?”Gust asked.
Ellis left it unanswered and radioed headquarters and requested more infrared detectors. Then he radioed the two shuttles and transferred the morgue’s blueprint to them. He called Rhinehart and asked him to cancel all maglev train routes near the morgue. The morgue had to be isolated. If the aliens wanted to escape, they would pay a heavy price. Or die trying.
TEN MINUTES LATER, three shuttles uniformly landed and Ellis stepped out first. Gust was still sick to his stomach and remained aboard. The MPs emptied the shuttles and carried out Ellis’s plan. Infrared and motion detectors and 3D cameras were placed below, above, and in the middle of every conceivable entrance and exit. After the task was completed the shuttles took off again and waited in the air.
For the next hour, Ellis and Gust monitored the readings on the shuttle. There was no movement at the morgue. The six dead bodies were not collected.
Ellis and Gust watched monotonous space and the shuttles out the window. The shuttle’s engine was humming rhythmically.
“My three notebooks are still down there, you know,” Gust added to the silence.
Gust at MP Headquarters
THE DIMLY LIT room had five cozy chairs and one of them was occupied by an obese man. He was behind the black desk with three holographic deskscreens beside each other. The latest search updates were rolling down each deskscreen. His face was stern as he sat and thought in silence in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows at MP headquarters. Ellis had updated him on the morgue situation. Rhinehart wasn’t sure whether he liked the fact that two aliens were trapped at the morgue (perfect place for them to die) or that they had made it to Mars.
Although the MP did not know where the aliens originated, Ellis, with Gust’s theory, gave them the Alpha Centaurians moniker. No one had a clue as to why they were killing everyone they came in contact with.
Rhinehart was waiting for Ellis to arrive at the proper time. He had two appointments this morning, the first was with Ellis.
Five minutes later, Ellis arrived. Rhinehart turned and faced him. “What is he doing here!” Rhinehart thundered, pointing a finger at Gust.
“He’s here to provide assistance. We need all the help we can get,” Ellis said, looking at Gust.
“Our resources and talents are so woefully inadequate that we need the assistance of a teenager?” Rhinehart shouted. Although Gust was twenty-two years old, he could pass for a teenager with his youthful face.
Gust felt uneasy and looked to the windows and saw a cargo shuttle ease by.
Ellis helped out, “Sometimes it helps to get another perspective. It’s another narrative to the events,” Ellis calmly said.
“Leave the room for a second,” Rhinehart grunted at Gust, pointing to the door.
Gust glanced over at Ellis for an answer and Ellis nodded. Gust obediently left the room and the door automatically closed behind him.
When Ellis and Rhinehart were alone, Rhinehart started the tirade. He told Ellis he was enraged seeing Gust again, especially after the kid had barged into Whittaker’s office. Then Rhinehart demanded to know how Gust got involved in all this. Ellis told him that Gust was visiting a dead acquaintance at the mortuary when the aliens appeared. He ran out of bullets and Gust saved his life. Rhinehart ate every word. However, Ellis did not tell Rhinehart that Gust’s parents were in the Earth Legion’s (EL) security division.
“Bring him back in,” Rhinehart grunted at last.
Ellis walked to the door, it opened, and he motioned Gust back in.
“Thank-you for saving the Lieutenant’s life, son. My gratitude is beyond words,” Rhinehart said to Gust, pointing at Ellis.
Gust stared at Ellis, confused. He saw Ellis laugh with his eyes and got the picture. “It was my obligation, sir. Anyone could had done it,” Gust said humbly. He looked at Ellis and they shared the joke in silence. They sat opposite Rhinehart.
“What are your thoughts on all this, son? I’m gravely concerned that Mars isn’t the utopia people have come to expect,” Rhinehart said, loosening a bit.
“I think the murders of the two tourists at the Olympus Grand Resort and those at the morgue are connected,” Gust offered.
“Oh, how so?” Rhinehart interrogated.
“I think all four aliens have made it to Mars. Two of them killed the tourists at the Olympus and the other two killed the morgue workers.”
Rhinehart listened intently. There was something very blunt about the kid that Rhinehart began to like. Ellis left all the talking to Rhinehart because it made the big man feel comfortably in charge.
Rhinehart looked over at Ellis. “Don, what do you make of what he just said?”
“I think he may be right. We need to find out how they did it. They’re like a surprise birthday party with their unnatural abilities.”
“When it rains, it pours,” Rhinehart grimly said. “If this keeps up there’s going to be a thunderstorm coming. We have limited resources and manpower. We can’t chase every theory. Choose the one you think is the most viable and run with it, Don.”
“Thanks again for the vote of confidence, sir.” Their violence was matched only by their cunningness, Ellis thought. It’s just a matter of figuring out their MO (method of operation).
Punctual as usual, Dale Mackenzy walked through the door. He was Rhinehart’s second appointment for the morning. Rhinehart waved the door open and Mackenzy walked in. He sat in the chair next to Gust. Ellis quickly introduced Gust to Mackenzy.
Gust was delighted to see Mackenzy was wearing a red suit. He knew red was the color of the MP’s chemical team. Originally, the MP’s Chemical Division was established to fine/punish companies that dumped illegal toxins on Mars’s soil. But when they codified heavy jail terms for dumping, companies ceased the practice and the chemical division ended up helping those companies with their experiments and new projects.
Mackenzy transferred his files, from his wristband, to Rhinehart’s holographic deskscreen. He half-smiled at Gust. “The tests for the tombs are done,” Mackenzy proudly announced.
“And?” Ellis asked.
“The tombs are made of a carbon-based substance, much like diamond, now that they’ve been lengthily exposed to oxygen. They are arranged in a three-dimensional lattice. Each atom is linked to four other atoms, exactly like a carbon atom arrangement in diamond. The longer they’re exposed to air, their atomic property becomes more diamond-like. In short, the tombs have all the characteristics of diamond, but with a few caveats. Right now their refractive index is still slightly higher than diamond’s. The speed of light is also traveling slower in the tombs, as expected when light travels from air to diamond. The x-ray patterns of the tombs are beginning to conform with the x-ray patterns exhibited by diamond.”
Gust listened and absorbed every word. Since diamond’s index of refraction was 2.42, Gust reasoned the refraction index of the tombs was 2.47 or higher.
Gust asked, “Are the x-ray diffraction patterns similar to natural diamond or artificial diamond?”
Who the heck was this kid? Mackenzy asked himself. He looked over to Rhinehart for approval, and Rhinehart nodded.
“The x-ray diffraction patterns are similar to artificial diamond. Based on their dense structure, my theory is that the civilization who constructed them are far more technologically advanced than our own,” Mackenzy answered.
An advanced alien civilization, Gust thought. If they constructed four tombs, they could had constructed thousands or millions.
Rhinehart chimed in, “So there’s a possibility we’re under attack?”
“I wouldn’t go that far yet, sir,” Mackenzy said. “This could be a burial ceremony. Some of our ancestors used to put the dead on boats and sent them out to sea. Some dumped the bodies into the sea. These aliens could be nomads who roamed the galaxy and used asteroids to bury their dead. Similar to how humans bury our dead in soil.”
“But those people stayed dead. They didn’t come back to life like these guys.”
“The theory I just presented is one of many, sir. We may never know the truth about them.”
All four thought about this possibility. How could they find the truth? What if the truth was hidden in plain sight? Three things cannot be long hidden: The moon, the Sun, and the Truth.
Ellis finally changed the subject. “What about the infrared data from Platform II?”
Mackenzy answered, “Their thermal radiation in Platform II is ten times greater than ours. However, the number varied depending on their state. More thermal radiation registered when they were invisible to us. Less thermal radiation registered when they were visible. I’m deducing they require a high amount of energy to turn invisible.”
“All this science is educational. Right now we need to focus on how they got off Phobos. And particularly how they came back to life. When you bury a dead thing, it shouldn’t come back to life. At least not from what I know.” Rhinehart grunted.
“Well, they can re-arrange their atomic or molecular structure, correct?” Gust asked no one in particular.
“As far as we know,” Mackenzy answered.
Ellis nodded yes.
“What if they have the ability to freeze all biological activities down to the atomic level. Then no radiation is given off, at least not any that could be picked up by the detectors. That may explain why the MP never picked up any radiation in Platform II. It could also explain why radiation is not being picked up at the morgue. They’re at the morgue but are biologically inactive, sort of in hibernation.”
Mackenzy stared at Gust, somewhat impressed. “I gotta give it to you. No one had thought about that possibility.”
Gust looked up and smiled a “thanks for the compliment” at Mackenzy. Then he went back to staring innocently at the floor, loving every second of it.
Rhinehart joined in the praise, “How does a Hauler know so much about science? I thought all they did was look at pornographic pictures the entire trip?”
Ellis and Mackenzy grinned in amusement.
“Back to the first priority,” Rhinehart continued, “how did they get off Phobos without being detected? Our net was wide.”
Gust offered, “I’m guessing they came back as Mars Police officers. I would check the flight data of every shuttle that went to Phobos.”
Ellis nodded slowly. “That’s a good starting point. Let’s run with that one.”
“Then get with it,” Rhinehart grunted.
Mackenzy, Ellis, and Gust slowly rose. Rhinehart slouched back and watched as the three made their way to the door. Just as Gust was near the door, Rhinehart grunted something and Gust turned around to face the Director.
Rhinehart grunted, “Thanks again for saving his life, son.”
Gust almost cracked with laughter. “Think nothing of it, sir. He would had done the same for me. I know it.”
“Let’s go, kid. I have something to show you that’ll make you drool.”
Mackenzy was last out and the door automatically closed behind him. Mackenzy went back to his laboratory to prepare more experiments. Rhinehart went back to read Mackenzy’s report on the holographic deskscreens.
ELLIS NUDGED HIS index finger on the small IDpad against the wall. The light flashed green and the door hissed open. Ever since the aliens had made it to Mars, dual authentication (biosignatures and fingerprint ID) was enforced in certain areas. Gust walked into Ellis’s office and noticed the furniture was minimalistic—just a desk and four chairs. Simple, clean, and minimalistic.
However, what grabbed his attention were the three milbots (military robots) and one anibot (animal robot) against the right wall. The three milbots were over 7 feet tall and the anibot was an exact replica of a black jaguar. All four bots were powered down. Gust guessed they were advanced zeptobots, or maybe the rumoured yoctobots—one generation ahead of anything currently available. These were designated class M robots—milbots with military grade software. Ellis could tell Gust was dazzled.
Ellis broke the silence and pointed at the three milbots. “Those are my three Gs. That’s Gunner, Gard, and Gander.” Then Ellis lowered his hand and pointed to the black anibot jaguar. “And that’s Cygnus. My pet jaguar. He’s a walking short range radar. You’re not the only one with bot toys, kid.”
Gunner had a huge turret-style gun in one hand and a humongous rifle strapped on his back. Gard had a four feet tall shield in one hand a machine gun in the other. Gander’s only weapon was a marksman’s rifle; he was a walking telescope, satellite, and detector, capable of seeing through objects and walls.
“Do you like ‘em?” Ellis asked, already knowing the answer.
“Do I ever.”
“You think your Ram could take them on?”
“Ram isn’t programmed for weapons combat, but in a brawl I like Ram’s odds against any bot, including your 3Gs.”
“These are made by nBotics. They’re state of the art.”
“Their branching logic is too methodical for my liking. We have artists, philosophers, and martial artists on our adaptive combat software engineering team. nBotics’s ACS team is a group of scientists and engineers. We allow a margin of error in our branching logic. It’s more akin to how humans make decisions. Whereby nBotics’s team leans on the methodical decision process of machines. It’s a diametrically different approach. That’s not to say our way is better. We’ll know when Menace meets Ram, if that happens.”
“Do you have any comp tickets available for the next RFC?” Ellis asked. “Tickets are hard to come by.”
“Are you flying back to Earth? It’s in San Francisco.”
“If I had tickets.”
“I wish you had asked earlier. I had to give five to someone.”
“Someone who helped you with the social hacking side of things?”
“Of course no comment. How else did you get into Whittaker’s office without inside help.”
“I’ll see what I can do about the tickets.”
“That’d be nice. I only saved your life. That must be worth something.”
Admiring Ellis’s 3Gs, Gust changed the subject. “Why are they powered down? Why aren’t you using them?” Gust asked, still staring at the three milbots. Gunner was a badass with his permanent scowl.
“When the time is right. Unlike Earth, there are strict guidelines for using milbots on Mars. Remember the last time milbots were used on Mars?”
“A couple of civilians died, followed by public outcry. Who could forget that. Can you power them up?” Gust pleaded.
“Another time, kid. I have something else to show you.”
Wow, thought Gust. Gunner, Gard, Gander, and Cygnus. He admired the three milbots and one anibot for a long time.
THEY WALKED DOWN the hallway to the holding room. As Ellis approached, the sensors picked up his biosignatures; he pressed his finger on the IDpad, and the door automatically opened. The room was empty except for two tombs in the corner. Ellis walked in first. Gust’s eyes widened as he saw the tombs.
“I thought there were four?” Gust asked, approaching the tombs.
“There were, but Whittaker has possession of the other two. He managed to work something out with the Director.”
“What’s Mr. Whittaker going to do with the other two?”
“I’m guessing he wants his people to replicate them, make more of them. Whatever his plans are, there are billions of dollars involved. It’s not something we need to worry about at the moment. Only focus on what we can control. That’s the imperative. I’ve never understood why some people want to make more money for the sake of making money. When you die, money doesn’t die with you. It’s like a sickness with people of Whittaker’s ilk.”
Gust walked up to the tombs and ran his hand around the humanoid contouring on the inside. He felt exhilarated.
“It didn’t always look like that,” Ellis said, leaning against the white wall.
“How’d it look before?”
“It was told extremely shiny. It could have made you blind if you looked at it too long. It’s lost a lot of that brightness.”
“It must have reacted with oxygen,” Gust said softly. He studied the contours on the inside and understood why the aliens were huge.
“What do these six characters mean?” Gust poked his fingers inside the deep alien characters, tracing his hand to the imprint.
“We don’t know but two of the characters look familiar. Don’t they, kid?”
“One is a Greek Alpha character and the second one looks like an inverted triangle. Are the first four characters the same on all four?”
Ellis pushed off the wall. “Yep, the first four letters of all four tombs are identical for some unknown reason.”
“What about the last two characters?”
“The last two characters are different. They may be numbers or names used for identification. Like Gust and Donald.” Ellis smiled.
Gust studied the tombs’ characters closely. He could had sworn he’d seen them before. Had he seen them in a RFC event, on one of the robot-gladiators? Perhaps Menace. Maybe those hallucinogenic drugs from Xanadu were still in his system. Unable to pinpoint his vague recall, Gust finally said, “Cool. Cool and weird. I’ve never seen anything like this before, not even in science fiction books about aliens. And I’ve read a lot of them.”
“Neither have I, kid. A lot of us haven’t.”
The door hissed open and Mackenzy walked in with two more reds. They smiled at Gust and quickly introduced themselves as Amber and Serena.
“Sorry, Gust. I know how much you love aliens and all but we have to run more tests,” Mackenzy said, nearing the tombs.
“No problem. I was getting bored of them, anyway,” Gust lied.
Mackenzy and Serena started the lev platform cart and glided the two tombs out the door. Gust watched until they disappeared from view.
“Don’t let your bubbles burst, kid. I have something else to show you,” Ellis said and steered Gust out the door.
“All right! I feel like it’s my birthday. What is it?”
“It’s a surprise. You’ll like it.”
“I love surprises, especially when it’s not my birthday!”
They walked down the hallway and Gust studied every MP who walked by. There were a bunch of them hustling in the hallway with wobots in tow. They came to a room with opaque glass doors. Again, Ellis nudged his index finger on the IDpad and the door seethed open.
“Pick a seat.” Ellis pointed around the room. The dimly lit room looked exactly like a small movie theater with a huge holographic screen, when it was activated, in the front. They were alone.
Gust sat in the closest seat. Ellis sat beside him and spoke into the air. The soundfield projected from his wristband picked up his voice signature and relayed it to the MP’s mainframe, which controlled the wallscreen in the room.
There was a brief silence. Then the huge holographic screen flickered on. It was the harrowing battle at Platform II in 3D. Ellis had analyzed it a dozen times, now it was Gust’s turn.
The large holoscreen was split into four sections, each showing different angles of the battle at Platform II. The top left showed John Lawrence, the MP’s chem man, nervously approaching something invisible. Lawrence’s hands were shaking as he walked in measured steps. Gust didn’t understand why, then it became clear as he saw the Alpha Centaurians appearing from the air on the screen. The bulging muscles and red-glowing eyes frightened him. It was exactly like the monsters he saw at the morgue. On the screen, one Alpha Centaurian picked up the helpless Lawrence and violently tossed him to his death. At that moment, Gust jerked in his seat. He looked over at Ellis and noticed the MP was coolly calm.
“Where were you at that moment?” Gust asked over the noise.
“Right behind him,” Ellis said, eyes glued to the screen.
“Where were the other two aliens at that time?” Gust asked over the cussing and rapid movements of MPs on the 3D screen.
“I don’t know. We only saw two. That’s one of the many missing pieces of the puzzle.”
On the screen, one Alpha Centaurian leaped into the air and landed on a transport, which flipped and cracked in pieces. Gust watched intently and made mental notes of the action. A few segments later, the lower portion of the screen showed one Alpha Centaurian falling to the ground. The knot of black surrounded it and nailed it with streaming lasers, then it camouflaged. But the firing from the MP was hitting something between the ground and themselves. Gust knew the fire was hitting the camouflaged Alpha Centaurian.
They sat and watched the entire battle. Then the holoscreen flickered off.
“Why do you think the deaths at the Olympus Grand Resort are related to the Alpha Centaurians?” Ellis wearily asked as they walked out of the viewing room.
Gust felt important as he walked beside the second in command down the hallway at MP headquarters. He rubbed his eyes to adjust to the bright light of the hallway.
“It’s a bit of common sense and intuition. Mars doesn’t have that many murders, then suddenly a rash of them. I don’t think the timing is a coincidence. I believe all four aliens have made it to Mars. Two at the morgue and the other two killed the couple at the Olympus Grand Resort.”
“Assuming you’re right, that there are four aliens, why would they separate? Why didn’t they stay in a pack?” Ellis asked. He already had his suspicions but wanted a second opinion.
“Again, my guess is that the separation was either premeditated or unavoidable amidst the chaos.”
They moved against the wall and let two MPs pass down the hallway. The MPs were wandering aimlessly around the hallway, smoked-eyed and absent minded, roaming without an intended destination. Their name tags declared them to be MICHAEL ENDER and JOHN YAMOTO. They never smiled.
“What are your thoughts on the footage at Platform II?” Ellis asked as they walked again.
“Downright scary. Imagine millions or billions of their kind. How would we stop them?”
Ellis forced a smile. “They do have a knack for killing, and we’re the prey.”
Unaware to Ellis and Gust, Ender and Yamoto casually turned and followed. The two Alpha Centaurians stared at Ellis’s back with familiarity. They had met somewhere before. It was at Platform II. The Alpha Centaurians suspiciously surveyed the hallway and saw it empty. They changed colors and camouflaged themselves. The air was shifting.
Ellis and Gust walked along the hallway and took a left to the elevator. It opened and both eased in. There were four bodies inside, but only two were visible.
“Do you have the suspects’ description at the Olympus?” Gust asked.
“Only that they wore black. Not much to go on.”
“Black as in Mars Police officer black?” Gust asked.
“I haven’t thought of it that way. The report said the witnesses saw the suspects from behind, partially obscured by foliage.”
“There is a good chance that they made it back to Mars as MP officers. I’d contact the witnesses again. Where are we going?”
This kid thinks like I do, Ellis thought. “Downstairs to the main monitoring room to see how the two beasts are doing at the morgue.”
The elevator door opened and Ellis led Gust down a short hallway. They came to a door, which recognized Ellis’s biosignatures, and automatically hissed open. The large room was hectic—people hustling, holoscreens scattered all over, lights flashing on the wallscreens, and MPs studying the data on the holoscreens. On the front wall were ten giant wallscreens with video feeds, provided by drones, of the tunnels around the morgue.
Ellis approached a female MP sitting at one of the many deskscreens. “Any sign of them at the morgue?” Ellis asked.
“Nothing yet, Lieutenant,” she answered, looking up at Ellis and the young man standing beside him. She thought about asking who the heck Gust was, but let it pass since he was with Ellis. She sipped her coffee and watched the holographic deskscreen.
“Have the shuttles or drones picked up anything?” Ellis interrupted, looking downward.
“Nada, Lieutenant. It’s been quiet so far,” she replied.
“Anything new at the Olympus?” Ellis asked.
She shook her head. “Our aerial drones haven’t detected anything, sir.”
Ellis and Gust studied the tunnels on the wallscreens for awhile. It was an eerie sight. The MPs were aware that the Alpha Centaurians could set the alarm off any moment.
The female operator felt something warm quickly touching her shoulder. She thought Ellis had brushed her shoulder.
“That’s odd,” she mumbled to herself.
“You still like aliens, kid?” Ellis asked, turning to Gust.
“They make my heart sing. La la oh wah.”
She thought the hand was caressing her face, pinching skin here and there. Or was she imagining things? It had been a long day drenched with coffee.
UDELL WHITTAKER SANK comfortably in his tall chair and stared at the opaque window. He rested his chin on one palm and patiently waited. He wasn’t smoking a cigar, but was lightly tapping his fingers on the chair’s armrest. He was waiting for Dittmar Callen to arrive with the news, which he hoped would be good with all his greedy heart.
Margaret walked him to the door and Callen walked in importantly. Whittaker swung his chair around and faced Callen, who flashed a million dollar smile at the tycoon. Then Callen’s smile disappeared when he saw Whittaker’s son, Lazar, lurking in the corner. Standing beside Lazar was his massive cyborg bodyguard Nix, who was never more than a few seconds away from Lazar.
Nix was a cyborg and Lazar was a biomech, both species were frowned upon by the Naturalopists (natural humans). Mars was founded by Naturalopists for Naturalopists, but other species were slowly making inroads on Mars, like they had on Earth. The biomechs, cyborgs, and pharmies (pharmaceutical zombies) had a way of encroaching on Naturalopist utopia. The Naturalopists viewed the biomechs, pharmies, and cyborgs as detached from Nature—disconnected from natural evolution. The biomechs and cyborgs, vying for immortality, had become more machine than human, and the pharmies had become a hodgepodge of artificial chemicals that were biochemically incompatible with natural evolution.
Udell Whittaker didn’t like what his son had become but Lazar was his blood, or whatever blood was left in Lazar was his blood. Lazar had had too many cellular and genetic enhancements—biomechs required zepto injections to maintain their cellular superiority. But the desire to better Nature came with a price. To the Naturalopists, if there were a way to better Nature, Nature would had found it. The last century had taught Lazar Whittaker nothing about humanity. In his pursuit for power and acceptance, Lazar believed technology could enhance the essence of humanity. As Udell Whittaker’s son, Lazar was privy to undisclosed information, some of them top secret. This information came from Whittaker’s secret contracts with government and industry.
Lazar was biologically near perfect, down to the zepto molecules and cells. He was a biomech and his physiology was custom designed to the atomic level. Nix was all human from the waist up but from the waist down he was all machine. Only Lazar and Nix himself knew how Nix lost his legs, but they would never tell. There were long-running rumours in small circles that Lazar Whittaker and the cult leader Xavier, both biomechs, were cannibals. Those rumours had never been proven and believed to be started by Naturalopists, who were suspicious of the biomechs. The Naturalopists viewed the biomechs, although physiologically near perfect, as emotionally disconnected and stunted. Joy and suffering were seen by Naturalopists as part of the human experience, but the biomechs suppressed those experiences.
Lazar Whittaker and his cyborg bodyguard Nix stood stoically in the corner.
Whittaker waved a hand to one of the chairs and Callen sat down. Whittaker glared at Callen. “What have you found, Callen?” Whittaker interrogated.
Lazar and Nix studied Callen carefully as Callen was about to speak. Callen was uneasy but didn’t care because he was here to see Udell and not Lazar, or that massive half-machine Nix.
Callen paused and looked deep into Whittaker’s eyes, knowing the answer would please his boss. “They are,” Callen said.
An immense smile crossed Whittaker’s face. He was trying hard to hide it, but the news was too marvellous. Whittaker slapped the marble desk with one palm and his smile got broader. The tombs were diamond.
“Are you absolutely certain?”
Callen nodded a yes and sank smugly in his chair. Big bonus coming up, he thought. “They’re diamond, sir.”
Whittaker motioned a hand above his desk and the opaque window turned transparent. Sunlight rushed in and illuminated the room. The heavy air traffic outside came in view with shuttles of all sorts easing out the window. Whittaker sat in silence and savored the news. What a wonderful day, he thought.
“Did the MP get the same result?” Whittaker interrogated.
“I can’t say for certain because we don’t have their test results, but they should have.”
“Let no one hear of this. The future of Whittaker Resources depends on it.”
“I understand, sir. It’s on a need-to-know basis,” Callen assured him. Callen stood up and left. He didn’t like Lazar and hated Nix, so he didn’t bother to say goodbye to his future boss.
The voyeurs, Lazar and Nix, were still standing stoically in the corner. The future of Whittaker Resources does indeed depend on these aliens, Lazar thought. Udell was a Naturalopist and wasn’t sure if he had made the right choice to genetically repair his son after Lazar’s childhood accident. Lazar had to be genetically repaired otherwise he would had died after the accident, and Whittaker didn’t want his first born to die at the time. After being genetically repaired, Lazar noticed the advantages he had over the Naturalopists. Then he decided, of his free will, to genetically enhance himself, thus becoming a biomech. Like all biomechs, Lazar was intellectually and physically superior but emotionally stunted. Biomechs were the perfect physiological specimen, but that came with a cost. But Lazar had never viewed losing humanity as a toll but an advantage.
Whittaker turned to the perfectly toned Lazar and asked “What are your feelings about this situation?”
“I have many, father. The money, the aliens, the Martians, or the MP?” Lazar deadpanned, his voice monotonous.
“What came to your mind first, Lazar?”
“The aliens, father.”
“Why is that?”
“With the exception of god and religion, aliens have always been a fascinating subject throughout the ages. They are objects of fear and terror, and awe.” There was an ominous tone in Lazar’s even voice.
“Interesting,” Whittaker said, studying his biomech son. “What about you Nix?”
“Lazar’s opinion is my opinion. His thoughts are my thoughts,” the cyborg said flatly. He was Lazar’s most loyal servant.
“Very well. Why did you come here, Lazar?” Whittaker asked his son. He’d stopped calling him son long ago. However, Udell Whittaker knew that his empire would be safe with his biomech son.
“To learn from you, father,” Lazar said precisely.
Despite the emotional disconnect between father and son, Udell Whittaker knew that his empire would be safe in his biomech son’s hands. However, Udell Whittaker had no idea of his son’s schemes, ambitions, and dual agendas. The biomechs were forbidden to hold political office and Lazar wanted to fully repeal that unjust and archaic law—his vision was to overturn all unjust laws against the biomechs, cyborgs, and even pharmies. He had used his father’s powerbase as a springboard, and the company he founded, nBotics, to further his ambition of making the biomechs the ruling class. nBotics was heavily invested in artificial intelligence, robotics, and especially zeptobiology (the field of molecular and cellular enhancement using technologies on the zepto and yocto scales). There were rumours swirling in the scientific community that Lazar had already heavily invested in adaptive genetic engineering (or real-time gene adaptation).
What disturbed Udell Whittaker most were the persistent rumours that Lazar was secretly funding Xavier’s expedition to find aliens in the Martian polar ice caps. As if Whittaker didn’t have enough alien problems of his own.
IN HIS OFFICE, Ellis sat on the edge of his chair with his face buried in both palms. He gathered all his strength, crouched forward, and reached for the water cup. He swirled the cup and watched as the water spiralled. He was exhausted and hungry. He had spent the last two days glued to the holographic deskscreens and wallscreens, pondering on every possible outcome at the morgue. There hadn’t been any movement.
The door was open, as usual when Ellis was in, and Loren poked her head through. She knocked lightly and Ellis motioned her in. She did not have an appointment.
“We have a problem with two officers,” Loren reported, sitting down. She looked strikingly cute with the black uniform hugging her body.
“Who are they and what problem?” Ellis asked calmly.
“Michael Ender and John Yamoto. They’ve missed their shifts. They were last seen at the Olympus and headquarters, here.”
“Have you taken this up with them?”
“I haven’t been able to track them down.”
Ellis distinctly remembered seeing Ender and Yamoto walking together down the hallway. “Where are they now?” he asked.
“No one knows. I’ve called their homes and but no luck. I was told they’ve been acting strange.”
“When did they start acting strange?”
“After our return from Phobos.”
“Gust and I saw them near the briefing room just yesterday. They seemed normal then.”
“They kept uttering ‘just kill me’ and ‘just fucking kill me.’ I find that odd.”
“Have you discussed this with Rhinehart?”
“Not yet. I wanted your thoughts on it first.”
“Good call. Have you contacted their friends and families?”
“I checked their files. Ender and Yamoto are both single. They don’t have immediate family on Mars. They met through training and are apparently close. They even requested the same shifts, patrols, and assignments.”
“You’ve done your homework.”
“It’s my job.”
“Is their shuttle in the docking bay?”
“When is their next scheduled patrol?”
“Have someone wait for them in the docking bay. If I have time, we’ll look into it together.”
“Okay. Any other suggestion?”
“Nothing for now. Find Ender and Yamoto and see what they’re up to. Be careful how you approach them. They could be the friends from Platform II we’re looking for.”
“Roger that. Finding them is on the top of my list.” Loren stood up and silently walked out.
Ellis turned his attention to the wallscreen, which was showing live videos of the tunnels leading to the morgue. The screen was split in two sections—the left showed dozens of officers pointing their rifles down the dimly lit tunnel and the right showed the dark exit. With a motion of his hand or voice command, he could watch any of the six exits at the morgue.
He had been brave with the first two encounters with the aliens. He wasn’t sure about the third time if it became necessary. Finally, he turned the wallscreen off and plodded upstairs to meet Rhinehart. He was five minutes late.
RHINEHART, AS USUAL, was slouched on the big chair in his office. Dale Mackenzy was already in the room talking with the big man. Ellis eased to a chair and made no excuse for being late.
“I take it you’ve been monitoring the situation at the morgue?” Rhinehart interrogated.
“It’s been quiet there so far. We’re in limbo,” Ellis said.
“Tell me what you have brewing in that melon of yours, Don,” Rhinehart requested with Mackenzy looking on.
“First, we need to retrieve the bodies from the morgue.”
“That’s the best plan you’ve managed, Don?”
“My brain is at half capacity right now. It’s the only one I can think of that’ll accomplish what you want.”
Rhinehart frowned. “What did we teach you in training?”
“Always have a contingency plan.”
“What’s your plan B then?”
“If they’re still there, we’ll blow them up.”
“And you think that’ll work? Do you mean blow them up, or blow the morgue up, or both?”
“Blow them up.”
“How do you blow them up without destroying the place? It’s not registering with me. I can’t visualize that as a possibility. You blow them up and you blow up the morgue because they’re in the morgue.”
“Leave that to me, sir. I have brain fog right now. I’ll come up with something after I get some rest.”
“Whatever you think will work, by all means carry out the plan. But I want to hear it first, and keep me updated,” Rhinehart grunted at last.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence again, sir.”
“You’re my Lieutenant for a reason. But don’t let my trust run thin.”
ELLIS ARRIVED AT the tunnel closest to the morgue. The tunnel was dark with muggy air that made it hard to breathe. It was crowded with equipment, wobots, weapons, and dozens of officers. A handful of MPs clustered around him and listened intently to his instructions. He picked twenty-four officers, two units, which he thought were most suited for the task. This time, each MP had automatic rifles that fired nano-carbon bullets instead of lasers. Each MP also had four precision grenades half the size of tennis balls on their belts.
They surged to a huge metal door and came upon a fingerprint/numeric IDpad. The building maintenance company had provided the MPs access to every door and operating procedures to everything inside. Ellis quickly pressed 4-2-0 on the IDpad and the heavy door rumbled opened. The MPs swarmed in with Ellis near the front.
They ran through each room with eyes fixed on their infrared detectors. Nothing on the main floor. On the second floor, Ellis used a different elevator than the one he and Gust had used the first time. This time he used the one in the loading bay that led to the second floor. The first unit and Ellis swung around the corner and were horrified at what they saw. There was dried blood on the walls. There were three dead bodies and cards strewn wildly on the ground, just like Ellis had remembered. As he neared the bodies he noticed something frightening different about them: their skin had been peeled off and every internal organ was exposed with bones protruding out. Their eyes were hanging out from their sockets, and reddish strings of flesh dangling.
One MP cupped his hand over his mouth and almost vomited.
“You can’t go back now,” Ellis said.
“I just need a few seconds to recover,” the man said hoarsely, turning pale.
Ellis put his arm around the MP’s shoulder for comfort and patted him on the back twice for encouragement. The young MP pulled himself together and followed Ellis to the elevator. The MPs rapidly shoved the lev platform carts in the elevator onto the corridor and bolted inside. Just as the door clanged shut, Ellis saw the second unit rounding the corner. He gestured instructions with his hand.
They stormed the third floor but couldn’t detect any sign of the aliens. The floor was exactly as Ellis had remembered except for the two bodies. The bodies of Gardner and Fryer were lying in the same position, but their skins had also been peeled from their bodies. It was a grotesque sight with strings of flesh hanging limply from the bodies.
Ellis looked at the hole in the glass wall, which he had created earlier, and nervously smiled to himself. That hole! He looked to the elevator and saw another unit surging out. Loren approached him for instructions.
“Search the fourth and fifth floors,” Ellis instructed.
Loren nodded and hurried back to the elevator with her unit. It shut and they were gone.
Four officers in the nitrogen chamber room carefully moved the dead bodies of Fryer and Gardner aside. Other officers cleared the robotic arm debris and brushed the glass fragments into a neat pile. Ellis ordered the wobots (worker robots) to remove the bodies from the chambers.
At his feet were three notebooks. He picked them up from the ground and quickly flipped through the pages. The notebooks belonged to Gust. Ellis grinned as he saw a doodle of a face with an upward arching smile in one of the pages.
Another unit arrived with more wobots to remove the coffins. The wobots dutifully lowered each chamber while ignoring the surrounding activities. They began transferring the chambers, still intact, to the shuttles waiting below. Unlike cilbots, wobots were servile. If they couldn’t perform a task for any reason, they either powered down or waited for new instructions.
Ellis nervously paced the hallway as he watched the wobots do their work. Everywhere he turned, he saw MPs with rifles. The whole building was brimming with MPs and wobots. Ellis bit his nails and watched the chambers being removed and glided to the freight elevator. Finally, the end-hallway elevator opened and Loren darted out with her unit in tow. Ellis stopped pacing.
Loren ran straight up to him with a grave face. “There’s nothing up there.” She breathed heavily and unevenly.
“Did you check the vents?”
“Our spider drones have scoured everywhere. There’s no sign of them.”
Ellis frowned. He recalled what Gust had theorized earlier: the Alpha Centaurians could hibernate and not give off any thermal radiation. He rubbed his temples.
“Our instruments are telling me one thing but my instinct is telling me another. They’re still here, I know it.” He glanced suspiciously around the floor.
“There’s nothing on the fourth or fifth floor. They might’ve evaded our detection system again.”
Ellis hesitated and surveyed the wobots loading the caskets into the elevators. “Get all the bodies out of here first. That’s our first priority. It’s what Rhinehart wants. Those beasts will get what’s coming to them.”
Loren nodded and scurried off. She gathered a handful of wobots and finished removing the caskets off the nitrogen chamber walls. The third floor was now packed with wobots and MPs streaming back and forth.
Ellis walked to Fryer’s office and sat down. The holographic deskscreen was left on with the face of Randal Unger smiling for some peculiar reason. He pulled up some files Fryer had been working on. The pictures of his sixteen officers appeared along with five of Whittaker’s employees. A few minutes later, magically, the files declared that all twenty-one had died in an industrial accident in Platform II, WEF I. He looked at the other deskscreen and saw that the nitrogen chambers had been occupied from 1 to 181.
Before the arrival of twenty-one bodies from Phobos, only chambers 1 through 160 were occupied. Michelle Gardner had intended to use chambers 161 to 181 as a temporary resting place for the twenty-one who had died on Phobos. She had finished loading all the bodies up to chamber 179, only with Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel remaining. Michelle Gardner never finished loading chambers 180 and 181.
Ellis checked the files repeatedly, and was satisfied. It made sense, Chambers 1 through 160 were occupied before the arrival of twenty-one bodies. When the twenty-one arrived, Gardner loaded all twenty-one into the chambers. It added up, chambers 1 to 181 should all be filled, and they were. So the information on the deskscreen led Ellis to believe.
He sat and scanned several files to pass time. Some of the deaths scared him. Three workers had their skulls crushed by a cilbot (civilian robot), a female chemist was found dead with two missing eyes, a tourist died when his oxygen tank malfunctioned, and an eighty year man died during a religious ceremony, which was attributed to Xavier. Then he sent all the files to the autopsy unit at MP headquarters.
A few minutes later, Loren poked her head through the glass door again. “All 181 are loaded. Just waiting for your word,” she said.
It made sense, there should be a 181 bodies, and there were. Ellis thought nothing of it, computers don’t lie.
“I hope there aren’t anymore surprises,” Ellis said, preoccupied with the deskscreen. Finally, he got up and made mental notes of the office for the last time with Loren watching closely. He picked up Gust’s three precious notebooks and stuffed them under his arm. As he walked out of Fryer’s office, twelve officers clustered around and escorted him to the elevator.
The elevator door opened and Ellis eased in with the entourage. He turned and studied the white floors for the final time. One hundred and eighty-one bodies had been retrieved, computers don’t lie.
The elevator quickly whirred to the second floor. Ellis was the first out and he walked passed the spot where Albert’s dead body had been lying. There were no more blood stains, the walls were white, and everything looked orderly.
Ellis stopped at the big metal door and turned to Loren. “Search this place one more time. Then evacuate everyone. Leave enough spider drones behind to monitor every floor.”
Loren nodded and hurried back to her duty.
THE DOOR OPENED with a soft hum and Ellis walked in with high-spirits. Nick, his son, bear hugged him around the legs. Ellis reached down and lifted Nick to chest level. Nick swung his legs wildly in the air and kissed his father on the cheeks. He had not seen his father in two days.
“Did you miss me, Nick?”
“I missed you, too. Where’s mommy?” Ellis asked, gently setting Nick to the ground.
“She’s making supper. She said she misses you so muuchhhhh,” Nick drawled.
Ellis took Nick’s hand and they walked to the kitchen together.
Arlene was preparing vegetables with old-fashioned utensils. She was making Sweet Potato and Walnut Chicken Roulade with White Wine Jus. As a Naturalopist, she refused to use the high-tech kitchen gadgets, which often killed essential nutrients, thus lack of flavour. Absorbed in culinary delight, she missed Ellis sneaking up behind with Nick in hand for the surprise attack. Ellis crouched up slowly and wrapped his hand around her eyes. She stopped cutting and a pleasant smile crossed her face. She raised her hand and touched the arm around her.
“Guess who?” Ellis whispered in her ear.
She stroked his arm and did not answer. Nick stepped forward and wrapped himself around her legs.
“What am I being arrested for this time?” she asked playfully.
Ellis leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “For having such gorgeous legs.”
“I didn’t know that was a crime.”
“It is in this home.”
“Why don’t you handcuff me to the sofa and punish me to the maximum extent of the law?” she asked, still smiling and stroking his arm.
“Maybe the bed posts. They’re more secure,” Ellis said, pressing his cheek against hers.
“How much is bail?” She played along.
“No bail. Just hard time.”
“How many years?”
“Everyday for a lifetime without the possibility of parole.”
“Just for having gorgeous legs?” And yes, they were gorgeous. Long, slender, smooth. Smooth. Smooth.
“Yep. Just for having killer legs.” He angled down and kissed her neck, then worked his way up her cheek again.
“A lifetime? Just for the legs?”
“You heard me. A lifetime.”
“Maybe I can get time off for good behavior.” She turned around and they violently kissed for a long moment.
Nick covered his eyes with both hands. It was the most disgusting thing, Nick thought. Two people exchanging saliva.
“Go play in the bedroom, Nick,” Ellis pleaded with a mouthful.
Nick happily obliged and ran to his bedroom to play with his Galaxy Warriors toys.
They let go for a moment and faced each other, staring deeply into each others’ eyes. “You’ve been working awfully hard the last few days,” she said, gently stroking his face.
“Training, training, and more training. Rhinehart is obsessed with it,” he said and stole a quick kiss.
“Are you sure it has nothing to do with Xavier? Rumour has it he found aliens in the polar ice caps.”
Ellis was tired of hearing about Xavier. “He’s been saying that for years. It has nothing to do with the lunatic, as far as I know.”
“Good. When is this training over?”
“Soon, I hope.”
“You don’t sound sure. Don’t they give the second in command a schedule?” she asked, some of the romance went out of her voice.
“It should be over by next week.”
“You promise?” She traced her finger around his upper lip.
“I almost promise,” he said with a sly grin. He lifted her and carried her to the dining table. He gently set her on his knees and looked passionately at her for a long moment.
“I heard about the two tourists at the Olympus. That is disturbing,” Arlene said sympathetically.
“That was just terrible. I wish I had been there to do something about it.”
“I heard they were on their honeymoon,” she said and kissed the tip of his nose.
He shook his head slowly. “Just heart wrenching. They were young and had the world ahead of them. I couldn’t imagine that happening to anyone I love. Their families must be devastated.”
She crouched up and kissed him on his forehead and noticed the heavy, red wrinkles below his eyes, and his body odor. Ten minutes ago he was at the morgue.
“Are you on the case?” she asked.
He was so tired that he almost told her about the aliens. “I’m not but Rhinehart has put some very talented people on it.”
“I hope they catch the perpetrators soon. Mars doesn’t need people of that nature,” Arlene said in a caring voice.
“We definitely don’t, Sweetie. But crimes of this nature tend to accompany big cities.”
She sat on his knee and they groped for awhile. Suddenly, a sound of something hitting the floor stopped their wet kisses. It was more of a loud thud, like the stomping of feet. Ellis gently pulled Arlene away and turned around. He nervously stood up and looked in the direction of the living room.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, thinking it was only Nick.
“Nothing, Sweetie. Please stay here while I see Nick,” he said frigidly.
“Is anything a matter? You look pale.”
He stopped and glanced back at her. “Everything is fine, Sweetie. I just to see what Nick is up to,” he said as nonchalantly as he could muster.
The way Ellis was nervously moving toward the living room worried Arlene. She slowly rose and closely followed. He motioned a hand in objection. “Please stay in the kitchen, Sweetie.”
She ignored his request and followed. She eased up and placed a hand on his back and felt a slight tremble. She was now very concerned. Had he brought his work home again? She grabbed his arm and swung him around just as he was reaching for his semi-automatic gun.
“Don, what is the matter with you? There is no one here but the three of us,” she said with a touch of anger.
He gave her a sidelong glance, but his attention was still on the living room.
“Did you hear that thumping sound?” he whispered secretly.
“Yes, it was Nick. He’s in the bedroom playing with his toys. You told him to go, remember?”
Ellis turned and kissed her left cheek. “Yes, I forgot,” he said in his best calm voice.
Arlene folded her arms across her chest and frowned. “I think all this work is getting to you. They’re trying to kill you. You need time off to relieve the stress. You look so worn out. Can you ask for a day or two off?”
He stared in the direction of the living room before answering. “I’ll get time off, just not this week.”
“You’re going to become scattered brain if you keep working at this pace.” An angry frown developed between her eyes, but quickly disappeared. She touched his face with both hands, looked down, and noticed his hand was resting near the gun beside his hip.
“Mr. Ellis, are you still with me? Are you still going to handcuff me and take me into custody?” she said with a bright smile.
Another thumping sound came from the living room, exactly like the last.
He pushed a palm at her. “Stay here,” he said and walked quickly toward the living room. He took a few steps and swiftly turned the corner. He stood and mechanically looked around the room.
Suddenly, he saw a silhouette moving and pointed his semi-automatic at it. The elongated shadow was casting on the floor and wrinkling up the wall, and moving toward him.
And there he was! It was him. No mistake. The movement. The body.
Tender, loving eyes. Nick was carrying his spaceship toys and alien creatures. Ellis put up both hands and beckoned Nick to come. Nick ran and crashed into his father’s legs. Ellis picked him up and kissed him.
“I thought daddy told you to go to the bedroom,” Ellis said warmly, lifting Nick high into the air and swinging him back and forth.
“I forget some of my spaceships in the living room,” Nick said.
Ellis stopped swinging.
Arlene came around the corner and smiled at what she saw. “There’s your thumping sound,” she said, easing up.
All three hugged and exchanged quick kisses. Then Ellis set Nick down. “Do you have all your spaceships now?”
Nick nodded and answered, “Yes daddy.”
Ellis kissed Nick’s forehead. “Good. Now go play in the bedroom so mommy and daddy can finish supper. Okay?”
Nick ran to his bedroom and played his Galaxy Warriors toys. A few seconds later, Ellis and Arlene heard a loud rattling sound originating from Nick’s bedroom. They thought nothing of it.
Ellis swept Arlene off her feet and carried her to the brown sofa, then he gently set her down. They exchanged long, wet kisses. The type of kiss with wet tongues wiggling and squirming inside.
A few seconds later Nick heard the walls tremble and the ground shake.
Ellis did not use the cuffs.
West Wing, MP Headquarters
ALL ONE HUNDRED and eighty-one bodies that had been removed from the Nitrogen Chamber at the morgue, at Rhinehart’s request, were flown back to MP Headquarters for further examination and safekeeping. The second floor hallway at MP headquarters was littered with coffins and wobots. The first hundred and sixty-six bodies, including five of Whittaker’s employees, had been verified.
The autopsy room was white with wide nano-carbon glass doors. The workers wore long, white lab coats and had that sickly look on their faces. They had never seen anything this nauseating before. Six bodies with their skins removed were in the corner.
“In all my years, I have never seen anything this grotesque. When a person is dead, they’re dead. Peeling off their skin doesn’t make them more dead,” the woman said, waving her finger at the six former morgue employees. Who would remove the skin from dead people? She kept asking herself. Xavier and his religious numbskulls? Whoever did it was not human, she concluded.
“Neither have I and I have been doing this for over 30 years,” the man said, shaking his head mildly.
“I wish those assistants would hurry and remove those bodies or I’m going to vomit.” She looked at the six bodies and felt a chill shooting up her spine.
“Avoid looking in that direction. Concentrate on your work and everything will be fine,” he encouraged.
“I’m trying, but they’re so close I can feel them.”
“Then stand where I’m standing with your back to them. That way you won’t have to look in that direction,” he said.
She walked around one of the coffins and stood with her back against the six skinless bodies.
“You feel better, Karen?” he asked.
She inhaled deeply and slowly. “Yes, Leon.”
“Good. It’s time to do our people. This shouldn’t take long, all the deaths were from the industrial accident on Phobos,” Leon said, slipping on the translucent surgical gloves.
“That’s what we’ve been told,” Karen said doubtfully. “There’s been a string of deaths this week. Don’t you find that odd? Our people on Phobos, Whittaker’s employees on Phobos, the couple at the Olympus, the employees of the Mars morgue. There’s something wacky happening that Rhinehart is hiding from us.”
Leon, the medical examiner, nodded affably. “I feel the same way, but then I’m just a minion with a job to do. For the time being, let’s not jump to conclusions, Karen.”
At the door, three young assistants strode in to remove the six skinless bodies in the corner.
“It’s about time,” Karen grunted, relieved.
“Sorry for being late. We had to make room in hallway. It’s crowded out there,” one assistant said. Women, always terrified of skinless, dead people.
Leon continued the work with a bored look on his face. He dictated the information of the bodies into his holographic handscreen, projected from his watch. Karen slid open the coffin of John Lawrence, the chem man, whose face was still slightly frozen from the nitrogen chamber. The next coffin was of another chem man, and so was the third one. They were the three reds who had died at Platform II during the initial contact. The names of the second and third chem men were Robert Turin and Matthew Berkeley.
The assistants came in again and quietly glided the coffins of John Lawrence, Robert Turin, and Matthew Berkeley out. Only thirteen more bodies to go, all MPs.
The fourth and fifth coffins were from the enforcement division of the MP with no IDs. Leon skid the fourth coffin partially open and immediately looked over to Karen, utterly confused.
“What!” Leon screamed, stepping back from the coffin.
Karen cupped her mouth with both hands and retreated three long steps.
It was the face of John Lawrence. The first coffin contained John Lawrence and so did the fourth.
“Should we be expecting twins?” Karen said with her mouth open.
“Frank! Bring them back! I think we have a problem here,” Leon pleaded, as he darted to the hallway.
“What’s the problem, Leon?” Frank shouted back.
“Bring those back here. I’ll show you!” Leon yelled, waving his hands.
Frank, the lead assistant, reversed the lev platform cart and steered the coffins back. Inside the room, he put the three coffins next to Leon.
“Put them by the fourth,” Leon instructed.
Frank glided the first and fourth coffins beside each other and the other assistant opened coffin one. Now the first and fourth coffins were opened.
The five of them stood with perplexed looks as they stared at the uncanny scene. There were two John Lawrences. They looked like identical twins—dead identical twins. All five didn’t know what to make of it.
“Looks like we have twins, people,” one assistant said nervously.
Leon was bewildered. “I wasn’t expecting twins. Were you, Karen?”
“No one told me about twins,” Karen said in a low voice. She glared down at the two bodies of John Lawrence in their coffins. She could’ve sworn they were identical twins.
All five people gathered in a broken circle and frowned at the John Lawrence twins. Leon eased behind the fifth coffin and slowly slithered it open.
“What are you doing?” Karen whispered to him.
“Checking if the other coffins also have twins,” Leon said nervously. He looked at the assistant and grinned, then he slithered the fifth coffin open and looked inside.
“Anything wrong?” Frank, the lead assistant, asked. He glanced over at Karen and saw her turning pale.
“We’ll soon find out,” Leon replied.
The room was momentarily filled with a ghostly silence.
Leon stepped forward with a determined face. “Open the second coffin,” he ordered the nearest assistant.
Lucky assistant number one quickly slid the second coffin open and skipped back at what he saw. The bodies of the fifth and second coffins were exactly alike. They were that of Robert Turin, the chem man who died at the hands of the aliens in Platform II. Now there were two Robert Turins before them. No one had told them about the Alpha Centaurians.
“Can someone please tell me what game we’re playing here?” the third assistant demanded.
“This has to be a joke, right guys?” Frank said and chuckled nervously, expecting the other two assistants to join in the chuckle.
The third assistant cleared his throat. “Is this twin thing a new biomech design? The suspense is killing me.”
“Open the third coffin,” Karen ordered, already knowing that Matthew Berkeley was inside.
One assistant shoved the top off the coffin and it dropped to the ground. As expected, the third coffin contained Matthew Berkeley. He had been identified earlier. Leon breathed deeply and looked over to Karen. She knew what he was going to do next and acknowledged it with a nod.
Leon eased beside the sixth coffin and pushed it open. It was the face of an MP and not of Matthew Berkeley. All five heaved a sigh of relief. There was no twin of Matthew Berkeley. Whew!
“For a moment I thought I was going to see doubles for the rest of the shift,” one assistant joked.
They all smiled nervously. The twins of John Lawrence and Robert Turin were still lying motionless beside them.
“What do we do next?” one assistant asked, leaning hazardously against the double of John Lawrence.
Leon turned to Karen for suggestions. “Open the remaining ten to see if there are more twins,” Karen said.
The three assistants nodded. They slithered the remaining ten coffins open and inspected the dead faces.
“No more twins. Thank-God,” Frank said. He leaned dangerously on the coffin of Turin’s double.
Leon sighed heavily. “What now? We can’t continue until this mess is cleared up. We have duplicates we know nothing about,” Leon said helplessly.
“Where’s Ellis? He’s not answering his com. He needs to know about this,” Karen suggested.
“He’s upstairs in the briefing room,” assistant number one offered. “I can get him if you want.”
“I’d appreciate that, Scott,” Leon said. “Let him know what we found down here.”
“I will,” Scott, lucky assistant number one with the long sideburns, said and walked off. His two unlucky assistants remained behind.
Just as Scott eased into the elevator, something happened to the doubles of John Lawrence and Robert Turin. Their body slowly changed colors. Red. Green. Blue. All colors of the rainbow. Then the dead eyes opened.
The workers watched in horror, mouths dropping to the ground in perfect unison. Together and fearfully, they inched away from the coffins to the glass wall in the back. John Lawrence and Robert Turin were coming alive.
SOMEHOW THE TWO MPs found their way to MP Headquarters. They walked aimlessly throughout the hallways and sneered at every passing face. Their name tags declared them to be MICHAEL ENDER and JOHN YAMOTO. They saw a group of fellow MPs and closely followed. The group crossed the hallway and eased into a large, dim-lit room. Ender and Yamoto waited, then followed them into the briefing room.
THE BRIEFING ROOM on the third floor was occupied by fourteen MP officers (one unit) in black uniforms. At the front of the room was Ellis going over some plans. Sitting beside him was a young lad, Gust Hein, the only person in the room not wearing black. Ender and Yamoto stood at the back of the room. They surveyed the room and methodically studied the faces. Then they saw something familiar. It was the speaker. Ellis stopped speaking when he saw John Yamoto and Michael Ender in the back. He turned to Loren and they exchanged concerned looks.
“Where have you guys been?” Ellis demanded from the front of the room.
Loren jumped off her chair and walked to Ender and Yamoto, who were standing coolly against the back wall as if they owned the place.
“Where have you two been?” Loren demanded irritably.
Ellis walked to where Ender and Yamoto were standing. “What is wrong with you two?” he demanded, annoyed.
Nothing. Ender and Yamoto glared at each other and smirked. There was nothing to indicate anything was physically wrong with them.
“Look, Mike and John,” Loren said. “We’ve been worried sick about you guys. Why were you MIA?”
No answer again. They looked downward at Loren as though she were a caged animal, rolling their eyes methodically over her entire face.
Ellis stepped forward and dangerously seized Yamoto on both shoulders. He shook them as if expecting some coins to fall out. Yamoto remained calm, with predatory eyes.
Finally, Ender/alien spoke, “I think you have the wrong people, officers.” The voice sounded exactly like the real Michael Ender. Then his eyes glowed red, but no sparks.
Ellis, his eyes widening and his eyebrows rising, slowly released Yamoto. He turned his attention to Ender and noticed Ender was grinning defiantly. Gust, sitting near the front, stood and walked to the back, where the exit was. Ellis eased his hand to his hip, where the semi-automatic was.
Suddenly, “Good evening, officers,” Yamoto said with a menacing grin.
“Run, get help. Don’t worry about me,” Ender added. His voice was feminine, identical to Anne Pressly’s.
Before anyone could speak, Yamoto turned to Ender and whispered, “We were doing fine on our own. Right, babe?” And the two aliens shared a grin.
“I think we better be going, officers. It was nice meeting you,” Ender injected. His voice sounded like Richard Pressly’s.
Ellis grabbed his semi-automatic and pointed it squarely at the head of Ender and the other thirteen MPs, Loren and her unit, in the room followed his example. Suddenly, there were fourteen guns pointing at Ender and Yamoto. Gust quietly eased to the door and watched the action from there.
The aliens stood leaning against the wall with grins across their faces. All the MPs, except Ellis, moved away from Ender and Yamoto.
“No one do anything rash, wait for them to make the first move,” Ellis ordered.
The MPs curled their fingers around the triggers.
Gust was in the line of danger and Ellis waved him out the room. “My meddling and love for aliens could be the death of me,” Gust mumbled to himself. He tip-toed out of the room and waited down the hallway.
“Are they? Are-“ an MP beside Ellis stuttered.
“These are the beasts. Up close and personal.”
There was a long moment of anticipation. No one knew how what to do. They waited for Ellis’s order.
Ender and Yamoto were still leaning cooly against the wall with the defiant grins.
ON THE SECOND floor, about the same time Ender and Yamoto were about to move on the third floor, Karen, Leon, and the two assistants backed away from the coffins and watched as Lawrence and Turin mutated before their eyes. The aliens sat upright and studied the four humans. Their eyes swept across the white room while they changed shapes. Leon and his coworkers just gaped at the lumps of flesh glowing, twisting, and coiling into larger humanoids. The arms and legs were expanding before their eyes.
“Call MP. Code 4. Code 4!” Karen cried. Her wristband com wouldn’t work. There was too much short range EMR interference. “Someone get help!” Karen cried again, trembling at the hands. Women, always terrified of killer aliens.
Someone would get help, except two coffins were blocking the path to the hallway.
After a few seconds, the human forms of Lawrence and Turin were unrecognizable. Their bodies were now gigantic and with muscles protruding all over. Their eyes glowed red and they climbed gracefully out of the coffins and stood with clenched fists, with an air of cockiness. All four MP employees huddled around each other, safety in numbers, as if for protection. As if.
“Scott better hurry,” an assistant said weakly. He grabbed Leon’s white lab coat and held on.
ON THE THIRD floor, the eyes of Ender of Yamoto glowed red, then the sparks followed. They cocked their heads in the air and laughed hysterically for some unknown reason. Suddenly, both stopped laughing and glared at Ellis. They had recognized something familiar in the building. They stared at each other to acknowledge the fact. That something familiar was on the second floor. No one else in the room could sense it, only them. It was force at a distance that they felt. Both smiled satisfactory at Ellis.
SCOTT, LUCKY ASSISTANT number one with the long sideburns from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Earth, eased out the elevator onto the third floor. He whistled with the steps, as if taking a Sunday walk in a magical forest. Was he in for a surprise.
Scott casually, still whistling, turned the corner, then hollered on the top of his lungs, “Motherfucker!” And his sideburns almost flew off his face.
There were two giant, hairless, unclothed, brawny humanoids darting down the hallway. Four glowing eyes were flashing red sparks, looking into his own. The aliens were being pursued by an MP unit with semi-automatics waving in the air. Ellis led the chase group, and behind the pack was Gust.
“Get out of the way!” Loren bellowed, waving her semi-automatic as she dashed down the corridor.
Scott, who had problems with his high school algebra exam, froze and his heart pounded like a jackhammer. He rubbed his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was real. It was. There were two colossal humanoids being hunted by an MP unit, and they were racing straight at him. Scott darted to the nearest available room and vaulted in. He laid on the floor and breathed deeply, then crawled to the door, poked his head in the hallway and watched as the horde sped by.
“Hey! What’s going on!” Scott yelled at the passing Gust.
“Don’t ever hack! And mind your own business!” Gust yelled back and darted away with the group.
Scott dropped to the floor and stared blankly at the ceiling. Don’t ever hack? And mind your own business?
The two Alpha Centaurians jumped in the elevator. The door shut and the elevator descended to the second floor.
Ellis and his unit crammed into the other elevator. Gust was last. They drew in their shoulders and bunched for the ride. On the second floor, the elevator opened and the MPs rushed out. Gust was last out and whipped his head in all directions.
“There they are!” one MP yelled and pointed down the hallway with her semi-automatic.
There was a mad scramble as the wobots were ordered to clear the hallway.
The aliens were deliberately running to the autopsy room. Still, no fire. The MPs gathered around the doorway of the autopsy room and everyone froze at what they saw. There were four aliens in the room, standing beside each other and grinning boldly. United at last.
In the corner of the room were four people tensely huddled in a group, shaking at the legs, hands, face, and every other bodily part. Sweat was trickling down their faces.
“Don’t move. Whatever you do, don’t move! Wait for my instruction,” Ellis shouted at the four babies in the corner.
They shook their heads in unison, then froze. Ellis signalled three MPs to enter the room.
“Okay, now move slowly against the wall. But don’t make any abrupt movements,” Ellis instructed the autopsy workers.
One Alpha Centaurian stepped forward and muttered, “Don’t move. Whatever you do, don’t move!” It was trying hard to imitate his voice.
The four babies stared at Ellis with horror-stricken faces.
“Just ignore them, keep going,” Ellis encouraged.
The aliens stood motionless, rolling their eyes mechanically around the room, studying each face.
Then the same alien said, “Okay, now move slowly against the wall. But don’t make any abrupt movements.” It was still attempting to imitate Ellis’s voice.
Ellis twisted to the elevator door and saw another MP unit surging out. He pushed a hand at them, the signal to stop.
The four autopsy employees were only three meters from the nearest MP. Only three meters to safety, Leon told himself. He continued his crawl against the wall with beads of sweat trickling down his shiny forehead. His palms and groin area were wet. Leon gaped at the four gigantic aliens, mesmerized. But they ignored him; they were focused on Ellis.
The same alien moved up and muttered, “Just ignore them, keep going.” This time its voice was identical to Ellis’s.
Finally, Leon and the gang made it to safety. All four ran to the elevator and never looked back. Scott with the bushy sideburns, who had to take his calculus exam twice, was waiting.
Ellis motioned to the MP unit near the elevator to advance. Within seconds the autopsy room was surrounded by MPs in black. He motioned to Gust to move away from the room.
The heavy show of force did not faze the aliens. They were still motionless, but no longer grinning. Ten more MPs crept into the room and properly took their positions. Ellis put up a fist. And Click. Click. Click. Click…
The glass was gone. The back wall was gone. The aliens were gone.
“Block all the holes!” Ellis boomed.
The MPs blocked every hole made by the hail of bullets. There weren’t enough officers, so a few meters of space was unplugged. The room was now a wreck with glass and concrete wildly strewn all over the floor. Nothing was moving. No air shifting, no red eyes. Nothing.
Then four MPs blocking the entrance were knocked flat on their backs by something invisible. They quickly jumped up and cussed loudly at the four creatures they couldn’t see. Every gun and rifle turned and fired down the hallway. The air ignited with multicolor sparks. Red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta. Judging from the colorful glittering air, the bullets had found their targets.
The group gave chase. They dashed down the hallway and saw no one around, then continued with the firing. The air was popping with colors of the rainbow.
The aliens took a right with the MPs in tow. The hallway led to a dead end with a large window. The sky of Mars was dark outside the window.
Ellis raised a hand. “Stop!”
The firing stopped. The footsteps stopped. The hallway was suddenly quiet.
He turned and saw Gust turning the corner. Gust saw the group and stopped, backed off, positioned himself behind the turn, and watched the action from there.
“On three,” Ellis said.
Every MP squatted on their knees and aimed their guns and rifles at the four camouflaged humanoids ahead. Three. Two. One. Click. Click. Click. Click…
Gust dropped down and plugged his ears with both hands.
The air ignited like firecrackers in the night. Ellis smiled to himself as he kept his happy finger on the trigger. He knew that they were badly hurting. The hallway was now a fireworks showcase.
Another MP unit turned the corner. The firing was intense as the new unit joined the hunt. For a fleeting moment, the firing was so intense that four crude glowing outlines of the aliens intermittently flashed into view. Only moments now, thought Ellis.
Without warning the window smashed open. The aliens had hurdled through it. It was their only escape and they took it.
The firing ceased. The blaring siren sounded. The computer’s voice blasted over the speakers. WARNING: PRESSURE BREACH . EVACUATE ALL PERSONNEL FROM THE WEST WING. EVACUATE ALL PERSONNEL FROM THE WEST WING. PRESSURE BREACH. TWENTY SECONDS TO EMERGENCY SHUT DOWN. WARNING.
In twenty seconds the west wing would be cut off. It was everyone for themself. The hostile air whipped through the hallway and everyone scrambled to their feet and dashed back to safety. Gust was already gone.
The hallway was swarming with black uniforms. Ellis guided his officers and was last in the pack. They ran down the long white hallway and noticed the huge metal door clanging close. Gust was standing on the other side shouting words of encouragement. The first MP arrived with ten seconds to spare. The huge metal door continued closing at a snail’s pace, but it was closing and the group needed to get in.
“C’mon, Don!” Gust shouted, waving wildly. Ellis was running with his hands viciously pumping beside his hips.
Another meter and the door would completely seal so not even air could penetrate it. Ellis ran like crazy. Another half-meter, he twisted his body sideways and barely squeezed through. Something was wrong. His semi-automatic was on the other side, he reached his hand over and yanked it.
The door clanged shut.
The breathing in the corridor was loud and labored. Everyone dropped their weapons to the ground. Scott, with the long sideburns who overslept his biology final, came around the corner and shook his head.
Gust approached Ellis and patted him on the back.
“You still like aliens, kid?” Ellis panted.
“Can’t get enough of them.”
Ghoulish Find, MP Headquarters
LEON, KAREN, SCOTT with the prehistoric Elvis lamb-chops, and two other assistants had spent ten minutes describing to Ellis and Rhinehart what had happened down in the autopsy room before a group of MPs stormed the door. Leon did most of the talking since everyone else was afraid to speak in front of Rhinehart’s intimidating presence. Leon said that they were happily doing their work until they came upon the twins of John Lawrence and Robert Turin. Then Leon said he sent Scott with the long sideburns to notify Ellis and the next thing they knew, the twins of Lawrence and Turin were changing colors and mutating to huge aliens. That was when one of his assistants wet his pants, Leon said. Just seconds after that, he saw, quoting, “Two of the biggest, freaking monsters run through door.” Then there were four aliens standing in the autopsy room. Leon emphasized that he was calm and poised during the fiasco. If it hadn’t been for him, he stressed, the other three would had never made it out alive. His co-workers had a good chuckle at that. After the interrogation Leon stayed behind and chatted with Rhinehart. Soon they agreed that bald men made the best lovers.
WILLY WINSTON, NO sandwich this time, waddled behind the two MPs down the corridor leading to the docking bay. Gust was a few steps behind.
“Did you notice anything unusual about shuttle three during maintenance?” Ellis asked, slowing a bit to match old man Winston’s leisurely pace.
“It had missed every scheduled patrol,” Winston informed.
“Anything unusual about the other shuttles?” Ellis asked.
“Not that I’ve noticed but you might want to check with my partner, Steve Gray, when he returns tomorrow. He might have noticed things I missed. I’m not as sharp as I used to be.”
Ellis looked over to Loren, then back at Gust. The four took a sharp corner into the docking bay. It was empty except for four parked shuttles with a few MPs waiting for their next patrols. All available shuttles and officers were out hunting the four alien fugitives. Some weren’t even told about the aliens, only that they were searching for something and they’ll know it when they see it.
Ellis walked to shuttle three and nudged his index finger on the palm-sized IDpad. The shuttle ramp dropped to the ground and Ellis ducked in.
“When was the last time you inspected this shuttle?” Ellis asked, turning to Winston.
“After it returned from Phobos. It hasn’t been used since. Steve and I did the last scheduled maintenance on it.”
Ellis nodded and slid into the pilot’s chair. He tapped the panels and the holoscreens came to life. The lights blinked and he expertly manipulated the controls.
“Check the navigational records,” Ellis instructed Loren. “Don’t touch those!” he shouted at Gust. “They’re not toys.”
Gust jerked his hand from the co-pilot controls, smiling boyishly at Ellis.
Loren turned to Ellis and said, “The last known flight was from Phobos. If they used this shuttle, they didn’t have to do much. It was on autopilot.”
“So that’s how two of them got off Phobos,” Gust mumbled to himself. No one heard him.
Ellis noticed nothing had been tampered with.
“If you’re doing investigative work, the last time I was here, Steve and I noticed a peculiar smell in the storage compartment. You might want to look into it,” Winston suggested.
Ellis focused intently on the content of the glowing holoscreens. “We’ll get to that. I find it odd that nothing in this shuttle was of interest to them, unless they regard our technology as primitive.”
Gust stood up and peered over Ellis’s shoulder. “Maybe they didn’t want to leave evidence.”
“Or they didn’t know how to use the technology,” Loren offered.
“That’s a lot of maybes,” Ellis muttered. He stood up and made his way to the storage compartment in the back.
The other three followed. Ellis yanked the metal door open, and an odor of burnt flesh wafted out. All four pinched their noses. Ellis studied the compartment and saw nothing out of place. The rifles were still on their racks. He stepped forward and nudged his finger on the IDpad for Ender’s personal locker. A beep, then the locker seethed open.
Ellis stepped back and uttered, “Oh man.”
Michael Ender’s charred body dropped beside his feet. The face was burnt beyond recognition. Ellis shook his head in disgust as the other three clamped their hands over their mouths. Gust looked away. Then Ellis gestured his hand for them to move back. He was about to open John Yamoto’s locker. He stood to the side and nudged his finger on the IDpad. A beep, then it hissed open.
Yamoto’s body dropped to the metal floor. His face wasn’t as badly burnt as Ender’s. He was barely recognizable.
“This is Ellis, requesting medics,” Ellis said. The geofenced soundfield projected from his wristband verified his voice and called the medics.
Winston, with heavy breathing, jogged out the shuttle. Ellis pointed a finger at the door and Gust and Loren walked out the shuttle.
A few minutes later, Ellis walked down the slanting ramp with a frown. He waved to dismiss Winston, who waddled from the docking bay.
“They used this shuttle to get off Phobos,” Ellis said.
“We have our work cut out for us. Everything they’ve done has involved meticulous planning,” Loren said with disgust.
Ellis eased beside them, shaking his head and rubbing his temple. “I think I know what happened now,” Ellis said. “When I gave you the instruction to takeoff from Platform II, we only saw two in the platform. The other two were camouflaged and made their way to the shuttlepad where they hijacked Ender and Yamoto’s shuttle.”
“Why Ender and Yamoto’s in particular?” Gust asked.
Loren paused for a moment and recounted the events at Platform II. “It was random. Their shuttle was the nearest. They could had chosen any shuttle, but it was more convenient to hijack the closest one.”
“Do you remember detecting anything at the time?” Ellis asked her.
Loren stroked her chin and looked at the floor. “It was too chaotic at the time. I was worried about getting the birds airborne, per your command.”
“So they boarded the shuttle, slaughtered two officers, took their form, and made their way here?” Gust asked to make sure.
“That’s what happened, kid. Ender and Yamoto had already set the autopilot for Mars. These shuttles are programmed with docking procedures,” Ellis said.
“They got lucky then. Maybe I gave them too much credit,” Loren said.
“You were right, more intelligence than luck. It was meticulously planned. Two of them distracted us in Platform II while the other two escaped. That wasn’t luck,” Ellis said. “It was carefully planned and executed. They knew exactly what they were doing. They knew in advance that we would send help to to Platform II. That was the only way they could’ve pulled it off.”
They turned around and saw four medics rushing frantically out the elevator. The medics ran to the shuttle and removed the bodies of Ender and Yamoto.
“Do an autopsy on them,” Ellis requested as the medics passed.
The lead medic nodded. Ellis watched as the medics glided his two dead officers away on a lev platform cart.
Loren waited until the medics were out of earshot. “How did the other two get to Mars? Did they use the same shuttle?” Loren asked.
Ellis offered, “They wouldn’t have had time. By the time our shuttles were airborne the other two were still in the platform.”
“How did the other two end up at the morgue?” Loren asked.
“Leave that to me. Gust and I will solve that riddle.”
Just as Ellis finished, Ty Maxwell walked up. He spoke quickly, “We haven’t spotted anything. The birds are making another round as we speak.”
Ellis shook his head as he looked over to Gust and Loren. “We can’t afford anymore deaths, or the lid on this alien thing will explode. It could be an exodus in the making.”
Maxwell continued with his report, “We’ve searched every building and biosphere on Mars. The aerial and spider drones haven’t reported anything. There is no sign of them.”
Ellis rubbed his temple. “We need to double our effort. This is now an open chess game. We’re either one move ahead or one move behind. So far we’ve been one move behind and losing. If they’re clever, we need to be sinisterly clever.” He turned to Loren, “I want you to lead the search effort, Diane. I’ll be upstairs if you need me. Keep me updated at all times, to the smallest detail.”
“Roger that,” she said.
Ellis crossed weakly to the elevator and up to his office, where he would monitor the situation on the large holographic wallscreens. Gust was behind.
Loren and Maxwell eased to their shuttle and continued the hunt.
Uncovering a Mystery, Platform II
THE MARS POLICE officers stationed at the Mars Mortuary had been reassigned to search at varying locations on the Red Planet. The spider drones had searched every nook and cranny of every building, while the aerial drones and shuttles intensified the search in the air. The rovers and levbikes had scoured the ground. Every building, tunnel, and biosphere had been thoroughly searched. There was no sign of the aliens.
Ellis slouched on the chair in his office and focused intently on the large holographic wallscreen, which was divided into four sections, each one with a different search location around Mars. On his holographic deskscreens, updates from patrol shuttles, drones, rovers, levbikes, and ground groups were scrolling down.
Gust sat opposite and paid little attention to the pictures on the wallscreen. He was still mesmerized by Ellis’s 3Gs of Gunner, Gard, and Gander. He badly wanted Ellis to power them up and use them.
Ellis was trying hard to figure out how the aliens had evaded detection. He had studied the MP Headquarters’s blueprint after the debacle on the second floor. The west wing window that the Alpha Centaurians had jumped to their escape led to nowhere in particular.
“Where do you think they’re hiding, kid?” Ellis asked quietly.
Gust swivelled his chair and faced the Lieutenant. “Nothing is registering right now. If they’re still alive, it means they can survive in Mars’s atmospheric pressure. Plus you hit them pretty good. They’ll be hard, if not nearly impossible to kill with the weapons that have been used.”
Ellis smiled. Yes, he had hurt them. The colored sparks in the air. Red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta, crackling on the west wing. It was them getting ripped by his bullets. Ellis frowned and concentrated on the deskscreens again. Nothing important was being reported at the moment.
Five minutes later, Scott with the long sideburns who snoozed through most of his physics class, poked his head through the door. Ellis waved him in. Scott walked across the room and sat beside Gust. The file on Scott’s watch, once he was within the authorized geofence, automatically transferred to Ellis’s deskscreen. The file automatically appeared on one of Ellis’s holographic deskscreens.
“Leon and Karen wanted you to read this preliminary report. The final report should be done by tomorrow,” Scott said and looked at the file on the deskscreen. His sideburns were still moist with perspiration from the melee in the autopsy room earlier.
“Thank-you,” Ellis said.
“They want to know when the west wing will get fixed.”
“That’ll have to wait for now. It’s not imperative,” Ellis said with a weak smile. He skimmed the first page and noticed it was an autopsy report of the morgue workers.
“You might want to look at the third and tenth pages,” Scott suggested.
Ellis looked away from the deskscreen and stared at Scott. “What’s on the third page?”
“The lady, I think her name was Michelle Gardner, who worked at the Mars Mortuary and some guy who worked for Whittaker Resources died the same way: electrical shock.”
Gust shuddered and tensed up.
Scott continued, “Leon and Karen doubt that everyone died from an industrial accident. The wounds are inconsistent with our findings. One of our officers, Michael Ender, died the same way as one of the morgue employees. His body was burnt to that point we could barely recognize—”
“You don’t need to be so graphic. What’s on page ten?”
“The guy who worked for Whittaker Resources, whose body was also burnt, and his co-worker are missing.”
“Elaborate on that,” Ellis requested.
“Like I said, their bodies are missing. They’re not in the autopsy room. No one knows where they are.”
Ellis quickly flipped his fingers in front of the holoscreen and the report flipped to page ten. “Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel are missing,” Ellis mumbled under his breath. He stared across the table at Scott. “Are you sure Whittaker’s people don’t have the bodies?”
“We contacted them and they said they don’t know where they are, either. There were supposed to be five bodies from Whittaker Resources. We only received three and no one has a clue where the other two are.”
“I’m pretty sure we retrieved all one hundred and eighty-one from the morgue. Have they checked with the morgue people?” Ellis asked.
“And they said they’ve rechecked the chambers. Those two bodies are missing for some strange reason. Randal and Kurdick did you say?” Scott asked.
Ellis looked down to make sure. “Yes, Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel, employees of Whittaker Resources. They worked at Platform II on Phobos, Whittaker extraction facility one.”
“Well, they’re missing and Whittaker Resources wants them back. They need the bodies for the funerals. Their families are coming from Earth for the service.”
“Are there more bodies missing?”
“Only those two.”
Ellis hesitated and recalled the file he had downloaded from Kevin Fryer’s deskscreen at the morgue. Then he remembered something peculiar, but couldn’t narrow it down. He had downloaded the file to MP’s mainframe, so it should still be there. Ellis spoke at the holographic deskscreen and requested all files with the keywords, “Kevin Fryer, Mars Mortuary, Whittaker Resources, Randal Unger, Kurdick Stengel.” Two short beeps, then Fryer’s report flashed on his deskscreen.
“What are you doing?” Gust asked.
“Something you’re very good at: loading files.” Ellis grinned.
Gust grinned back. Ellis studied the deskscreen with his eyes rolling up and down, and bingo! The magic numbers appeared.
“Eureka!” Ellis said.
Gust rushed over and peeked over Ellis’s shoulder.
“Thanks for the update. Tell Leon and Karen they did a superb job. Also tell them we’ll get the west wing fixed by the end of the week.”
“No problem,” Scott said, walking out.
“What are you looking for?” Gust asked, staring at the figures on the deskscreen.
“I’ve just figured out how those other two beasts escaped Phobos,” Ellis said, eyes glued to the deskscreen.
“How? With this death report?” Gust asked, perplexed.
Ellis pointed to the magic number with his finger. “What does this read?”
“One hundred and eighty-one. What’s the significance of that number?” Gust asked, confused.
“You’ll soon find out,” Ellis smiled to himself.
“I don’t get it. Why is one hundred and eighty-one important?”
“Listen, kid, your theory about them being able to remain dormant at the biological level may be right. Just look at those beautiful numbers,” Ellis said and waved a dramatic hand across the deskscreen.
Gust looked confused. He stared down at Ellis. “Can you elaborate on that? I don’t understand how this death report is related to what you’ve just—”
“It totally relates, kid. The report says 160 bodies were in the chambers. We told them to expect 21 more, at which point the chambers should be occupied up to 181. And 181 chambers were occupied, and we did retrieve 181.”
Gust was lost. “If you expected 181 bodies, and you retrieved 181, then I don’t see the puzzle missing any piece.”
“What about the doubles of Robert Turin and John Lawrence? Minus Lawrence and Turin’s doubles, there should have been only 179 bodies. But we still recovered 181.”
“Who are Lawrence and Turin?”
“The beasts who slipped our security at the morgue by disguising themselves as John Lawrence and Robert Turin—the two reds who died in Platform II. Apparently, they knew the operating procedures of the chambers. When we shuttled all the bodies from the morgue back to headquarters, they were part of that group. We brought them back here, just like we brought the first two beasts to Mars without knowing it. Everything has been happening in plain sight, under our noses.”
“That is brilliant on another level,” Gust said.
“Diabolically brilliant, too much for my liking. They would’ve had to plan that far in advance, before we first set foot on Platform II. They had time to scope out the facility before we arrived.”
Gust sat on the edge of the black table and swung his left foot. He quickly caught on to Ellis’s train of thought. “Are you suggesting that the other two escaped Phobos by disguising themselves as employees of Whittaker Resources?”
“You’re catching on. They disguised themselves as Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel in Platform II. Then we shuttled their coffins back to morgue. They were probably in hibernation once they were disguised and that explains why we never got any reading. Once we shuttled them back to Mars, the people at the morgue took them to the chambers. That explains how they ended up in the nitrogen chamber at the morgue.”
“Then where are the real bodies of Unger and Stengel?” Gust frowned.
Ellis thought about it. “Go to the docking bay and wait for me.”
“Where are we going?”
“Have you ever been to Phobos, kid?”
“Its spaceport but never on the ground.” Gust was all pumped up. Phobos and Deimos, panic and fear, terror and dread, or fear and terror.
“You’re about to. We’re going to Phobos to do some backtracking and investigative work.”
“All right!” Gust nodded, crossed to the door, and went down to the shuttlebay.
Ellis spoke at the air, “Hail Loren.”
Beep, beep, and Loren’s face flickered on one of the deskscreens. She was on her shuttle.
“I’m heading to Phobos,” Ellis informed her.
“What do you hope to find there?”
“Just chasing a hunch.”
“Let me know what you find. And be careful.”
“I will and I will. Ellis out.”
Ellis sat alone in his office for a few minutes. Despite their imposing physique, the Alpha Centaurians also had the brain to go with their brawn. The distraction in Platform II had been meticulously planned and executed. Two Alpha Centaurians had kept his team distracted for the other two to escape. Brilliant on another level.
IN THE SHUTTLE docking bay, Ellis jabbed a finger at his shuttle’s IDpad. The ramp opened downward and both ducked in. Ellis dropped on the pilot’s chair.
“This is Ellis: autopilot to Phobos, Whittaker Extraction Facility One, Platform II; maximum speed,” Ellis instructed the computer. That was all he had to do. The computer’s sensors recognized his biosignatures and voice pattern and would do the rest. They would arrive on Phobos in about ten minutes, which was tediously slow compared to his ELIX (Earth Legion 9) Antila class fighter, which was a secret to the public. The continuous UFO sightings were not alien spaceships but advanced Earth Legion fighters.
The shuttle slowly lifted off the ground, dipped left in mid-air, and accelerated out the forcefield hangar door. It soared passed the statue of Mars, the Roman god, then zoomed on its preset course. The sky was light blue and the yellowish-orange sun was slowly dropping in the horizon. Gust closed his eyes and relaxed.
Ellis turned and watched the handsome kid mumbling something under his breath. “How did Ender and Yamoto know their two buddies were in the autopsy room? Do they have x-ray eyes or something?” Ellis interrupted the silence.
Gust opened his eyes. “I’m guessing they possess the ability to detect electrical discharges or fields, similar to a shark’s electroreceptors. They can’t see or hear their preys, but sharks can spot their preys by electrical signals. For the sharks and other electrical fishes, it’s called electroreception—the ability to detect electrical fields underwater. These aliens can mimic voices by manipulating signals, or waves, according to frequency and amplitude. Of course, sound waves are mechanical waves. They also have the ability to manipulate light waves and that’s what allows them to camouflage, or turn invisible, at least invisible to human eyes because we can only see the visible spectrum of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. All they have to do is mimic the frequency and amplitude.”
“How do they communicate with each other?”
“When we use our coms for wireless communication, we’re using the EMR spectrum, mostly radio waves, but we need external devices for that. However, we can use our ears to hear sound, a mechanical wave, without external devices. The ability to hear sound waves is wired into our natural system. Similarly, their ability to use and manipulate the EMR spectrum is probably built into them, so they don’t need devices like we do. They can generate different electrical signals, each signal is a word according to frequency and amplitude. When their eyes glow red it probably means they’re aggressive. And that’s when the killing starts. All these electrical receptors are natural to them, much like our five senses.”
“Still, how did Ender and Yamoto know their two buddies were in the autopsy room?” Ellis asked again.
“We can see or hear at certain distances. They probably picked up the electromagnetic radiation signatures of their friends at a certain distance.”
Ellis paused, the kid had answered everything he needed to know, and more. “Ever considered getting another job besides a Hauler?”
Gust grinned his sly grin. “Yes. I think the MPs could use a brilliant kid like myself. But seriously, I have too much on my plate. The RFC, my parents, girlfriend dilemma, aliens. I don’t want to get overwhelmed. Come to think of it, I did take the job to clear my head. You know, midlife crisis.”
“I’m a mature soul.”
“I’m not sure about your soul, yet. But your mind is quite mature.”
“Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It was meant to be.” Ellis smiled, amused. He glanced out his port window and watched monotonous space. The shuttle’s engine was humming softly.
ELLIS’S SHUTTLE LANDED at Whittaker Exaction Facility One on Phobos. Ellis crept out first and was about to introduce himself.
“I know who you are, Lieutenant,” the man said. Almost everyone knew the second command of the Mars Police.
“I’m here to see Dittmar Callen, the chemical team lead.”
The man’s face lit up. “Is he in trouble?” he asked fearfully.
“No. I just need to ask him a few questions.”
“His com is in no-disturb mode right now. I’ll let him know.” The new employee at Platform II jumped on the blue transport to fetch Callen.
Five minutes later, Callen swerved around the corner in a transport. For a slight moment it looked like the transport vehicle was going to topple over from his sharp steering. Callen parked it right beside Ellis, leaped out, and stood between the two. “Good to see you again,” Callen said and they firmly shook hands.
“Same goes. I need a favor from you.”
“What is it?”
“It concerns two employees, Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel. They used to work at this platform.”
“I heard about them. Have you found their bodies?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh, what would you like to know?”
Ellis paused and looked at Gust. “We think their bodies are hidden somewhere in this platform.”
Callen turned pale as he was concerned about this. “I thought this place had been thoroughly inspected before it was turned over to us.”
“We might have missed a few spots in our haste. Plus our spider drones are programmed not to interfere with the environment, so they might have missed a few spots. Can you help us?”
“Any way I can. Who’s he?” Callen asked, jerking a chin at Gust.
“My little helper.” Ellis smiled at Gust.
“Take this transport and I’ll use the one over there.” Callen walked to the transport parked against the wall.
Ellis hopped into the driver’s side with Gust on the passenger side. They waited for Callen to lead the way. Callen led them down a twisting tunnel, which was no longer packed with MPs and wobots.
Callen knew his tunnels and took a short cut to Platform II. Ellis noticed the platform was clean and no longer had rock fragments, bodies, or tombs strewn on the ground. Although the platform, which was usually rolling with asteroid rocks, was stationary, two workers sat behind the controls, in the same spots where Unger and Stengel once sat when they first discovered the shiny slab that turned out to be the four alien tombs.
Callen jumped out of his transport and waved Ellis to a table. Ellis’s makeshift command post had been dismantled.
“Where would you like to begin the search?” Callen asked, sitting down.
Ellis shrugged. “The pipes, small compartments, chemical storage tanks, equipment lockers. Any place big enough to fit a body or two.”
Gust shuddered at how casually Ellis had said “any place big enough to fit a body or two.”
Callen stood up. “There are air vents in some of the pipes. If someone wanted to dump something quick, they’d be an ideal place. Let’s start there.” He walked to his transport and quickly drove to the far end of the platform into a semi-lit tunnel.
Ellis and Gust closely followed on the blue transport. Callen led them deeper into a shadowy tunnel with circular pipes bulging out from the craggy walls. Callen stopped where the pipes began and jumped out. There was a succession of opened pipe vents with light smoke fumes oozing out. Wearing a protective mask, Callen pulled open the first vent, and peered inside. He did this for each, looking for Unger and Stengel.
“Nothing here that I can see,” Callen shouted with his head in the last vent.
Ellis eased to the vent and examined it for himself. He shielded his face from the swirling smoke fumes. Ellis ducked his head in and swung it back and forth.
“Where next?” Callen asked.
“You choose,” Ellis replied.
“That would be the waste storage tanks.”
“Lead the way.”
Callen leaped back in his transport and led them down another tunnel, which was semi-lit with light shadows silhouetting the ground.
Callen stopped the transport and walked to a locked room with a big metal door. He pressed his finger on the small IDpad, and the door seethed open. The room was poorly lit with a single lighting fixture on the high ceiling. Two cylindrical storage tanks were marked with CORROSIVE SUBSTANCE: KEEP AWAY on the front. Below the fluorescent wordings was the symbol for danger: two crossing bones in a crude X over a skeletal face.
Both tanks were closed with two large cords running behind each tank. A single metal stairway led up the tanks.
“Can we see what’s inside?” Ellis asked.
“That’s why we’re here, aren’t we? Let me open them for you.” Callen moved to the sidewall and nudged his index finger on the IDpad. The top of the storage tanks lifted slowly. They waited until it was entirely open.
Ellis climbed the stairway first, Gust second. Callen leaned beside the IDpad and anxiously waited. Ellis leaned on the metal railing of the first storage tank and noticed it was cold. He stepped on the walkway and stared downward at the first tank and saw only the reddish-brown chemical solution. He leaned over to the next tank and looked down, expecting to find nothing but forced himself to look away.
Ellis pushed a hand at Gust. “Stay down there.”
Gust ignored the warning, stepped onto the walkway, and looked down. He, too, immediately looked away, and was practically sprinting down the stairs.
Floating in the reddish-brown solution were two bodies. The faces were turned toward the shadowed ceiling. The eyes were open and looked as though they were alert and alive. The hands were floating freely on the sides of the bodies. The skins had been peeled off their bodies. The veins were protruding from the flesh.
Callen eased near the stairway and stuttered, “Are they, uh, are—”
“They’re Unger and Stengel. We’ve found them,” Ellis answered. “Stay down there. You don’t want to see this,” Ellis said grimly, pushing a hand at Callen as he saw Callen taking a step up the stairway.
Callen backed down. “You sure?”
“They’re the only two missing.” Ellis walked slowly down the stairway. Once down, he stood in silence for a long moment to collect his thoughts. “Did Unger and Stengel have access to this room?” Ellis asked Callen.
“It’s mostly used by our wobots, but everyone working at this platform has access to this room. It’s a quick chemical waste disposal. We drain the content into the pipes.”
Ellis stared at Gust and soberly shook his head. “No matter how smart we think they are, we’ve been underestimating them,” Ellis said.
“Are you talking about the aliens?” Callen asked.
Ellis shook his head. What aliens? “Is there a way to find out who used this room last?”
“There is. The access data is recorded since ID is required to access this room.”
“How soon can you retrieve the record?” Ellis asked.
Callen snapped his fingers. “In seconds. I just need to access our mainframe. I can’t do it with my com because in-person authorization is required.”
“Please get it to me ASAP. Leave the bodies where they are. My people will take care of them.”
“Roger that. Everything will remain as is.” Dittmar nodded and disappeared into the tunnel. He spun the transport and hurried back to the IT room near Platform II to retrieve the requested information.
Ellis took a few minutes to contemplate. Then he and Gust eased into the transport. Ellis drove like a madman down the snaking turns of the tunnels. When they got to Platform II, Ellis and Gust sat and watched the platform loaded with asteroid chunks.
“Where did you say these guys were from again, kid?”
“The Alpha Centauri star system in the Alpha Centaurus constellation. The constellation is about 2.2 light years away. But the star system itself is 4.4 light years away. It’s the nearest star system to our own Sun. No planet has ever been found in the system. I’m only theorizing that these guys are from an undiscovered planet of the Alpha Centauri system.”
“That means they’ve been floating in space for about 4.4 years?”
Gust smiled at this. He folded his arm across his chest intelligently. “No. Alpha Centauri A and B, the main stars, are 4.4 light years away, and Alpha Centauri C, which orbits both of the main stars, is about 4.27 light years away. Asteroids are extremely heavy and move at a snail’s pace in space. It probably took these guys millions of years to make it to the Asteroid Belt. They were probably adrift for eternity and unaware of it. That’s assuming they somewhere got sucked into our Sun’s gravitational pull and drifted to the Asteroid Belt. Or a nomadic alien race might have dumped them intentionally. The civilization from which they came from may not exist anymore. Remember, the system is about 4.4 light years away, and nothing can travel as fast as light in vacuum. Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Ellis teased.
“That’s right. Mr. Einstein said it, I didn’t. Nothing can go as fast as light in vacuum.”
“You came pretty close to it at the morgue. Do you think the tombs were meant to be found?”
“We can look at that question from many angles. Are they galactic warriors? Are they a nomadic race that’s in another galaxy right now? Are they criminals? Are they misunderstood? Are they immortal? Are they the only ones left from their race?”
“Where do you come up with these theories, kid?” Ellis asked with a teasing smile.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“What is it, kid?”
“Stop calling me ‘kid’.”
They pushed off the transport as they saw Callen speeding up. Callen stopped inches in front of them and jumped out.
“The last person who used that room was Randal Unger,” Callen notified.
Ellis, shaking his head, glanced at Gust. “What I suspected. They killed Unger and Stengel and used their ID to access the room. They threw the bodies in the tank and disguised themselves as Unger and Stengel, and played dead. Now, we know why the faked bodies of Unger and Stengel were not originally found in Platform II with the other bodies. We put the alien bodies of Unger and Stengel into the coffins and flew them back to Mars. It all happened under our noses. We’re behind the eight ball and have a lot of catching up to do, kid.”
Biosphere 10, Mars
MARS’S SOIL WAS rich in heavy elements such as iron, magnesium, and sulfur so it was nearly impossible to grow vegetation outdoors. The atmosphere was high in carbon dioxide and argon, too harsh to sustain life without protective shelter. The temperature deviated greatly depending on the position of the planet’s orbit around the Sun. It dropped to -100 celsius near the Martian Equator at night and reached 25 celsius when Mars was at perihelion with the Sun—closest to the star during its orbit. There were 687 days on Mars or 1.88 Earth year and each day was approximately 24.7 hours, not much different from Earth. Currently, Mars was at perihelion with the Sun and the temperature was hovering above 20C.
Dawn broke beautifully with bright sunlight piercing through the nano-carbon glass roof of Biosphere Ten. The latticed trusses of the biosphere shimmered brilliantly under the relentless glow of the morning sun. The young green plants lay vast upon acres and acres in the biosphere’s enormous greenhouse.
Mrs. and Mr. Herbert have worked in the greenhouse for twenty years. They had seeded and nurtured these plants from seed to maturity. It was becoming their life’s work and they knew every meter of the vast greenhouse. The air conditioning of the biosphere was humming in the background as the sweet elderly couple worked.
“Another glorious day to be alive, honey,” Mr. Herbert said to his ancient wife. He looked up at the biosphere’s canopied roof and admired the yellowish-orange fireball. He squinted and shielded his eyes with a hand.
“Enjoy it while it’s here. It’ll soon be gone, dear,” his wife said and smiled. She was on her knees digging and inserting seeds into the soil. She did it the old-fashioned way with a handheld dipper. No wobots for these Naturalopists. “Come and give me a hand, old man. I’m beginning to wear out,” she said.
“Yes boss.” Mr. Herbert dutifully leaned over and kissed her cheek, then helped her with the seeds.
They scooped soil and inserted seeds, scooped soil and inserted seeds. Then Mr. Herbert crawled off a few meters and worked another area. To show Mrs. Herbert he still had the beastly qualities that he had used to woo her, he swiped the soil with his gardening spade. He hit something solid and thought it was a metal scrap. He took another swipe at the ground and hit the metal-like object again. He turned to his wife with a puzzled look.
“What have you done now? You’re always getting yourself into one mess or another,” she asked, tucking seeds into the soil.
“Come and have a look at this,” Mr. Herbert said, waving his hands.
She wiped the sweat from her eyebrows and crawled a few meters to where he was kneeling.
“There’s something in the ground.”
“Well, dig it up and see what it is.”
“Yes, ‘boss’? Don’t think I’ve forgotten about your poker losses last month. That money could have brought our grandchildren two-way tickets to Mars.”
“For the hundredth time, I’m sorry boss. I’m an idiot. Please forgive me.”
Mrs. Herbert sneered and took the opportunity to ‘remind’ him. “How are some men so moronic to let a small deck of cards determine their fate. You have no control over random events. You have no control over what cards you’ll get. You don’t know what cards the other players have. It’s like throwing your money away. ‘Poker takes a day to learn but a lifetime to master’. Do you know how stupid you sound every time you say that? Of course it takes a lifetime to master! Because everything is random. You can’t master random events, you silly man. Do you think you’re so unique that you can master random events? You’re a silly, silly man. What do you want me to tell our grandchildren? That their grandfather is a gambling degenerate? The next time you get the idiotic compulsion to gamble—”
“I hear you, dear! That was the first time I played in over five years! Now stop beating me up. I’ll make it up to you! Now, let’s see what’s in the ground.”
They picked up two large spades and dug deeper into the object beneath the soil. Then a little portion of that something peeked through the ground, revealing itself. It looked like human flesh. They hurled the spades away and scooped up soil with their hands. They tossed the soil aside.
“Please don’t let this be a person,” Mrs. Herbert pleaded in her grandmotherly voice.
They dug faster until the object was unearthed. It was humanoid. Its eyes were closed. It was easily over seven feet tall with muscles protruding all over its body. It was hairless, naked, with no sex organ. The Herberts only saw one body, but there were four of them side-by-side in the soil. They crawled on their knees away from the body and shook their heads in astonishment. They had never seen anything like it.
“Is it human?” she asked.
“It’s too big to be human.”
The alien was still motionless, glowing in various parts of its body where it had been hit by Ellis and his team.
“We need to call the Mars Police or notify Cindy immediately.” Mr. Herbert was sweating profusely; his hair plastered to his forehead. He wiped the beads of sweat off his face before continuing.
Cindy was the administrator of Biosphere Ten. She was in the biosphere’s main quarter doing busybody work, like most administrators.
“Why do you think it’s changing colors?” Mrs. Herbert asked.
Mr. Herbert didn’t know and didn’t care. “Let’s go, darling.”
Staring at the glowing body, they stood up together and wiped dirt off their uniforms. Mr. Herbert draped his arm around her waist and steered her to the main door. The metal door led to a hallway, which led to the working and living quarters of the biosphere. A few meters from the door, he stopped and pressed a finger on the fingerprint/numeric IDpad on the wall. The door hissed open, but they did not enter. Instead, they looked back to where the body of the alien was and saw something unnatural.
“How is that happening? Are you seeing what I’m seeing, darling?” Mr. Herbert mumbled to his wife of forty years.
Mrs. Herbert froze in disbelief. “I see it but I don’t believe it, honey.”
In the greenhouse, the young plants separated into an open path, opening and closing, as though a person was walking and parting them. Something was thrusting the plants aside, something invisible, and it was heading straight for them. The trail of parting plants was opening and closing, getting closer, and closer.
Mr. Herbert smartly shuffled to the door and pulled his wife along. “I think we best be going,” he said, pulling her inside.
The large, gray door wheezed shut and they were safe. They stood in silence with terrified looks. Mr. Herbert pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face dry. His wife did the same.
Then a loud clanging sound hit the door. Something was banging and trying to enter forcefully. But whoever it was, Mr. Herbert wasn’t going to let them in.
“We need to let Cindy know right away,” he said urgently.
The door clanged again. The alien on the other side was trying to wrestle the door open.
The ancient couple held each others’ hands and briskly walked down the hallway to Cindy’s office. The automatic door hissed open as they came within its authorized geofence. Cindy had left it unlocked. She was sitting behind her holographic deskscreen reading the news from Earth and giggling to herself: some guy claimed he saw Elvis eating a burger on one of Mars’s spaceports. Cindy turned her attention away from the holographic deskscreen and stared at the shaky old couple.
“Is there anything a matter? You look frightened,” she asked, concerned.
Mr. Herbert looked over at Mrs. Herbert and managed to collect himself. “There’s someone or some monster in the meadow,” he said.
Cindy slowly rose from her chair and walked up to the elderly couple and noticed the sweat trickling down Mr. Herbert’s forehead. “It could be the maintenance crew or the scientists gathering data,” Cindy said politely.
He shook his head in disagreement, but spoke gently. “If we told you what we saw, you wouldn’t believe us.”
“Of course I would believe you. I’m listening,” Cindy said.
“There is a dead body, not a human, but a monster, one that is glowing in the field.”
A glowing monster? Cindy thought. Cindy frowned and almost shook her head. They were getting old at seventy-five, she thought.
Mr. Herbert continued, “It turned invisible, too.”
“It’s trying to break in as we speak,” Mrs. Herbert added.
“Can you take me to it?” Cindy asked innocently.
He glanced wearily to his loving wife, and saw her cracking a weak smile. The same smile he had adored for the last forty years.
“Only if you don’t let it in,” Mr. Herbert said.
“Take me to it. Please.” Cindy led the way down the corridor, slowing her steps so the Herberts could keep up. The main door was visible from this distance. But there was no more banging. They stood in front of the door with Cindy frowning at the gray metal. The Alpha Centaurians were eagerly waiting on the other side.
“Please don’t open the door. It’s on the other side,” Mr. Herbert pleaded.
“It’s been a long day for everyone, Mr. Herbert,” Cindy said smartly. She was going to open the door with or without his approval to see this glowing alien that could turn invisible.
“Please listen to Richard, Cindy. We are telling you the truth. There is a monster on the other side. We both saw it,” Mrs. Herbert pleaded.
“What if it’s a friendly monster?” Cindy asked sarcastically, losing her patience. She took another step closer to the IDpad. Just a touch of her index finger on the miniature panel and the door would open. She took another step to the panel.
“Please listen to Richard,” Mrs. Herbert pleaded again.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Mrs. Herbert. I promise you,” Cindy assured her with an annoyed face. She raised her hand to the panel, inches away from pressing it. She glided her finger in front of the IDpad and tilted it to get the index finger in proper position for the sensor to recognize her unique print. Another twist of her finger and the door would open. The aliens were waiting on the other side. Cindy pressed her finger on—
“Move away from that!” a strong feminine voice roared, running down the bright corridor in a black uniform.
Cindy jerked her finger from the IDpad and dropped it beside her hip. All three whipped around and looked down the corridor. It was an MP with black hair. The young and beautiful Diane Loren was charging at them with a small army of MPs with rifles in tow. Loren stopped in front of Cindy and inhaled deeply to catch her breath.
“What’s going on here?” Cindy demanded bitchy-like.
“Please move away from the door,” Loren gasped, as the MPs surrounded the door.
“Not unless you explain why you’re here with this gang of yours,” Cindy demanded with that bitchy voice of hers.
“Just move away from the door and I’ll explain everything later. This is police matters.”
“I think we should listen to the young lady, Cindy,” Mr. Herbert added helpfully. The couple stepped away from the door and crossed to the other side of the corridor.
Cindy reluctantly did what she was told with a pout on her narrow lips. Loren eased to where she was standing.
“Is anyone in the greenhouse?” Loren asked no one in particular.
“According to them,” Cindy said and gestured to the Herberts. “There is a glowing monster that can turn invisible in there.”
Loren looked back and forth at the Herberts. “Is that true?” Loren asked, already believing them.
The Herberts nodded in unison.
“That’s all we need to know. Please follow Officer Brick. He’ll escort you out of here. Stay away from here until further notice.”
Loren watched as the three biosphere employees disappeared. She looked down the corridor and saw Ellis and Gust darting toward her.
“Are they here?” Ellis panted as he neared. He stopped in front of her and breathed heavily.
“They are. On the other side,” Loren said and pointed at the gray door surrounded with MPs. She told Ellis what the Herberts had told her. Gust listened intently.
“Did anyone get hurt?” Ellis asked.
“No one. It’s just us and them and the killer eyes.”
Ellis studied his officers barricading the door. They seemed anxious, as though looking for a fight.
“Why didn’t our drones and detectors pick up anything?” Ellis asked.
Loren shrugged helplessly, then added, “I suspected they were here. I went on a hunch. Earlier, several people reported paranormal activities in the area. I triangulated the eyewitness data and narrowed it down to this biosphere.”
“Then our drones and shuttle detectors are of little use,” Ellis mumbled.
“The bodies were buried in soil, correct?” Gust asked Loren.
“Correct,” Loren said, but didn’t know what Gust had in mind.
“Soil is non-conductive. It made them difficult to detect.”
“I see,” Loren said.
Ellis walked to the door. An MP eased out of the way and let him pass. He crouched down and examined the door with his hand, gliding it up and down. It was hard and warm. He jumped to his feet, glanced down the corridor and saw another group of MPs surging in.
“You stay behind,” Ellis ordered Gust.
“Why? I can take care of myself,” Gust defended himself.
“Listen to me and you’ll live longer, kid. Are the shuttles in position?” Ellis asked Loren.
Loren eased near the door beside him. “Yes.”
“Everyone equipped with infrareds?”
“Everyone except for Gust and yourself.”
“Good. Gust is staying put, aren’t you, kid?”
“Of course. I’m not going anywhere. I like it in here.”
“Stick with me, Diane.”
“Ty, you’re the leader of the main group,” Loren instructed. She crossed to where Maxwell was squatting and gave instructions. Maxwell nodded and she returned to Ellis, who was barking orders. Loren eased to the IDpad and punched in 1-4-0; two metallic clicks, then the door hissed open. Cindy had given her access.
Bright sunlight rushed in and illuminated the corridor. It was like another world looking at the greenhouse beyond the metal door. It was captivating with small trees and plants in all directions and sunlight reflecting off the wet foliage. They stood in silence and admired the enthralling, magnificent view. They stared up at the high, crisscrossing trusses of the biosphere. The sun was at its apex, its glistening rays piercing down on the greenhouse. Everyone briefly admired the view.
“Remember what they did to our people. They killed indiscriminately and showed no mercy. They should expect no mercy. Now, let’s go hunting.” Ellis ordered, breaking the silence.
Then waves upon waves of MPs surged into the biosphere’s gigantic greenhouse. Once inside, they split into groups.
As the door seethed shut, Gust twisted his body sideways and squeezed through.
“I thought I told you to stay behind!” Ellis shouted.
“I know you did,” Gust grinned his boyish grin.
“Why don’t you listen! It’s frustrating. I keep telling you to do things for your own good and you never listen! Why is that! You’ll live longer if you listen to me.”
“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years,” Gust quoted Abraham Lincoln.
Ellis let the kid in on the hunt. “That fond of aliens, huh?”
“Love them more than beef-mushroom stroganoff on homemade herbed pasta.”
The greenhouse was swarming with MPs with rifles raised to chest level. Ellis, Loren, and Gust stayed together. Their area was along the wall dangling with plant vines. They inched along while watching Loren’s handheld infrared detector.
The adventurous Gust moved farther away from the two MPs, jostling his way through six feet plants.
“Don’t get lost in that jungle, kid,” Ellis warned. “You’re not a cat with nine lives.”
Gust snickered. It’s impossible to get lost, he told himself. He knew every star and constellation in the sky, so he wasn’t about to get lost in a biosphere. Nothing to it. Staying close to the contours of the metal wall, Gust boldly moved ahead. He glanced back and between the plants, he saw Loren frowning at her handheld detector. Gust moved ahead still, a little to his left. He encountered more thick plants and damp soil. His shoes soaked up some of the dark brown stuff. He elbowed his way through another flock of six feet green plants. Then he tripped on something solid and stumbled face first to the ground.
And there it was!
His face was pressed against its face. He was on top of an alien with his chest against its chest. At closeup, the muscular face was leathery with crisscrossing lines. The eyes were tightly shut. Gust stopped breathing momentarily, his eyes widened and his heart pounded hard. He was staring at the muscular face with admiring awe and horror at the same time.
He was face-to-face with the thing. He slowly, very slowly, rolled off the steely body and stood up. Carefully, he backed off in tiny steps and admired it between the plants. He looked around fearfully and saw no one around.
Still admiring it, mesmerized and terrified, he elbowed his way silently between the young trees and plants. The branches and leaves snapped and lashed his shoulders. Then he froze. Through the leaves, he saw the fleshy body changing colors. Gust gulped hard and cleared his throat. He wondered if it knew he was watching it. Probably not, or else he’d be dead already. He wondered where the other three were. For some strange reason, he hoped they weren’t dead.
After thirty seconds, he had had enough of the freak show. His curiosity was satisified. He wanted to rejoin Ellis and Loren. Letting the branches go, he slowly turned around. And there it was!
It was standing inches in front of him, grinning and staring predatory downward at him.
“Help! Help!” Gust screamed on the top of his lungs.
“Gust? Gust! Where are you?” a voice bellowed from somewhere.
“Over here!” He bulldozed and weaved his way through the thick plants until he hit something, then, “Help! Help!”
Another one was waiting for him between the thick plants. It was grinning menacingly. Gust twisted right and, “Help! Help! I need help! Someone help me! They’re here!”
Another one was grimacing with delight in front of him. The pompous grin before the kill. All four were accounted for. As he ran, Gust glanced over his shoulder at his would-be killers. He saw none. Only the snapping of branches and leaves. Then, smack, he ran into something solid and dropped to the ground. He laid with his face in the dirt and, on a glowing white background, he saw images of Trina, his parents, Brown Arbon, Ellis, Ram, Christy, and his friends on Earth. He was about to leave them, he thought. Everything he’d done in the past flashed before him. It was the final farewell to this physical world, then unto the Hereafter.
Blood drained from his pale, terrified face.
He slowly lifted his dirty face from the soil and peeked up. He saw what looked like two angels standing in the radiant light. He was in panic mode and couldn’t make out their features, but they were grinning. It was time to die. Maybe he had already died and the figures standing over him were angels guiding him to heaven. As a Naturalopist, he didn’t believe in heaven but it was a comforting thought. He should had listened to Ellis and stayed behind. He would had lived longer.
One of the angels extended an arm down at him. “Listen to me and you’ll live longer, kid,” Ellis said. Loren was right beside him shaking her head.
Gust dropped his face back in the soil and his heart slowed down. Then he grabbed the helping hand and Ellis pulled him off the ground. “All four are here,” Gust said, brushing dirt off his clothes and face.
“We’re only reading three. They’re over there,” Loren said, pointing a finger deep into the trees.
“The other one is regenerating itself, that’s why there’s no reading. It’s over there,” Gust said and pointed at the injured alien on the ground.
“Take us there,” Ellis ordered. He swung around and saw a small battalion of MPs behind him. He gave them the signal.
The hunt was on. The MPs split into smaller groups and surged ahead. The first group came within meters of the alien and fired wildly. The bullets bent the plants and neatly trimmed off the branches and leaves.
One alien gave a bassy, earsplitting scream. The sound boomed off every wall and the crisscrossing trusses of the biosphere. Within seconds, the plants which the Herberts had seeded and nurtured were shot down and stomped on. The biosphere’s greenhouse was a deforestation in progress. The pursuit led the MPs round and round the biosphere with unbroken streams of fire resonating in the immense complex. Many of them were having fun. The three fleeing aliens changed colors where the bullets hit them. The MPs were relentless in their firing.
Gust led Ellis and Loren to the alien on the ground. The chase group was on the other side of the biosphere and the heavy gun fire was almost out of earshot.
“I came face-to-face with that thing,” Gust proudly said, standing above the wounded alien.
It was still glowing.
“Is that your new friend, kid?” Ellis asked sarcastically. He pulled a precision grenade from his belt.
Gust quickly interrupted, “You’re not going to kill it, er, are you?”
Ellis flashed a nasty little smile at the alien on the ground. “Don’t worry, kid. There are three more to play with.”
The sound of rifle fire was coming their way. Then a deafening howl from one of the aliens.
“Let’s capture it for the sake of science,” Gust said defensively.
“Whatever you decide to do, do it quick,” Loren said and scowled at her infrared detector, which was beginning to glow with dark spots.
On the ground, the gigantic legs twitched. It was coming to life.
Ellis tossed the grenade up and down a few times, and caught it each time. He hadn’t activated the pin.
“Make it quick. It’s coming alive,” Loren pleaded.
On the ground, sparks crackled on its body. Ellis motioned for Gust and Loren to move back. Then he walked far away from the Alpha Centaurian and stood alongside Gust. Without warning, Ellis recoiled his arm like a baseball pitcher, then swung and released the grenade at the proper moment. The grenade flew straight at the alien’s chest on the ground. Time slowed to a halt as the grenade flipped through the air. Just as the grenade was about to hit its chest—
It was gone. Invisible. Nothing on the ground. The grenade blew a hole in the ground and a fireball erupted 20 feet into the air. Dirt, branches, and leaves flew in all directions.
“Fuck me!” Ellis croaked and kicked the dirt.
Loren checked her detector. “Over there!” She pulled the trigger and kept her happy finger on it. Ellis did likewise.
Gust ducked behind them and watched the air come to life with vivid sparks. Trees snapped to the ground and branches sliced off under the intense fire. The air popped and crackled with colors of the rainbow, then the alien appeared in its flesh form. It coolly stood with its back to the three.
Ellis and Loren continued firing, but the alien was absorbing every bullet—the bullets were melting on its body, oozing down its back, and fizzling onto the ground. It cocked its head back and faced them, grinning. Then it turned around, planted its foot firmly in the soil and grinded it a few times, like a bull about to charge.
The firing stopped, then time came to a grinding halt amid the chaos. Everything was happening in slow motion.
Instinctively, Ellis pulled out another grenade and hurled it at the alien. The grenade violently exploded, hitting the alien on its chest. An exploding fireball burst from its body. The fireball faded and the alien was still standing there, grinning. It had adapted.
Then another boisterous scream emanated from behind them. It was from one of the aliens being pursued. The group was getting closer.
The alien stepped forward and Gust stepped back. “Let’s run for it,” Gust shouted over the roaring gun fire.
Then it glared at Gust with the glowing eyes and spoke, “What a bunch of creeps.” The voice was of Veronica, the lady at Venus Bar.
Gust realized this was his third encounter with this particular alien. Once at Venus Bar, another in the briefing room at MP headquarters, and now.
Then, “Why don’t you guys come up to our room and release some stress?” it said. The exact words of Marilyn at Venus Bar.
Then no one moved. A path of fallen trees had been cut between them and the alien. The ground was littered with plants.
“We’ll never make it. The main door’s too far,” Loren whispered.
Ellis shoved his semi-automatic in his holster. “How many grenades do you have”
“Three,” Loren whispered back.
“Hand me all three.”
She reached for her black holster and handed him three grenades. Ellis wrapped them in his fist.
It was methodically studying them with predatory eyes, tilting its head back and forth. Then it glared at Ellis and grinned. It knew him. They had met on several occasions. Ellis eased to the wall that separated the greenhouse from the biosphere’s main quarter. Still glaring at Ellis, it mimed his moves. They finally made it to the wall. Gust grabbed Ellis’s uniform with both hands like a horrified child, almost hugging the MP.
“Run through the hole,” Ellis whispered.
“What hole?” Loren asked. The only hole was the main door, and that was far, far away; too far to be seen at this distance and angle.
No one answered her.
“What hole are you talking about?” she muttered, utterly confused.
Ellis and Gust smiled at each other.
It was still mimicking their movements.
“Run through the hole,” Ellis repeated.
“I don’t see any hole!”
Gust smiled knowingly.
Again, she stared at the thick, gray wall and saw no hole. She scratched her head. “What hole?”
Without warning, Ellis pitched the three grenades and blew a hole in the wall. Metal fragments burst into the air and smoke bellowed all around. The corridors of the biosphere came into view.
“That hole!” Loren yelled, darting through like crazy. She threw her detector and it bounced somewhere behind.
The three frantically ran down the white corridor. Ellis yanked out his semi-automatic and fired blindly behind, hitting nothing but air. The long corridor split into two paths. They took a left. Invisible footsteps were reverberating down the hallway and closing in. It was in pursuit.
The secondary doors of the corridor automatically clanked open as they approached. Then it clanged close. Ellis dropped to his knees and pulled the small panel on the sidewall open. It was the circuits controlling the door. He pulled the trigger and put it out of working order. Smoke rose from the panel and the lights stopped blinking. Now there was only one entrance to the main complex.
“You two stay here,” Ellis ordered.
“Where are you going?” Gust and Loren asked, their voices overlapping.
“To blow out the other entrance.” He sped down the corridor to the adjacent one. He veered right and saw the metal door slowly opening.
The alien was coming through. Without waiting to reach the door’s sensor panel, Ellis, dashing like crazy, aimed and fired. He hit the target perfectly. The cover flew off and smoke bellowed, followed by sparks. He stopped in the middle of the corridor and stared at the door. There was an opening and a hand reached in from the other side. The hand was muscular and glowing with multicolor. It was attempting to wrestle the door open. Ellis eased closer until he stood inches from the half-hand poking through the door. At closeup he noticed the flesh part of the alien was leathery, scaly, like a reptile’s. There were leathery lines criss-crossing like a jigsaw puzzle with deep indents.
He snarled at it, and almost felt sorry for what he was about to do.
“Caught with your hand in the cookie jar, huh?” Ellis grinned at the glowing hand. He took a few steps back and pumped a round of bullets into it.
The leathery hand jerked back and a deafening scream erupted, echoing off every wall and floor in the biosphere’s main complex.
Gust and Loren, far down the corridor, heard it and shook their heads.
Ellis froze and waited for its next move. He kept the black semi-automatic at chest level and focused intently on the door.
Then an eye, glowing with sparks, poked through the narrow slit. It stared directly at him, never blinking once. “Where have you guys been?” it asked.
He immediately went pale and stepped from the door. The voice sounded exactly like his voice. The words had been uttered by him in the briefing room. Michael Ender and John Yamoto were present at the time.
It spoke again, “Run, get help. Don’t worry about me.” The voice sounded identical to Richard Pressly’s. It spoke yet again, “Caught with your hand in the cookie jar, huh?” It was his voice. Exactly.
These guys learn fast, Ellis thought. He stepped up and jammed the rifle through the opening and pumped another round. He could see its beefy hands wildly jerking and glowing.
The hand pulled back and the firing ceased.
“I’ll be back,” it promised, sounding like John Yamoto.
Then it was gone.
Ellis ran back to Gust and Loren. “Follow me,” he ordered, walking quickly and turning down the corridor.
“Where are we going? We’re stuck here,” Gust yelled.
“Upstairs to the observation deck.”
“For what? We might as well stay here and wait for the main group,” Gust said and looked to Loren. They shrugged, then jogged to catch up with Ellis.
He led them to an emergency stairway and up to the third floor, the tourist observation deck. But Biosphere Ten was closed to tourists today. Ellis leaned against the large viewing windows of the posh, but empty restaurant overlooking the expansive greenhouse below. The once splendid and imposing view was now in ruins. It was quiet where they stood. All the madness of the hunt below was shielded by the large, sound proof picture windows.
“It’s worse than a train wreck down there!” Ellis slapped the window.
“I hope they make it,” Loren murmured.
Gust shook his in head amazement. “So do I. Their uncanny ability to quickly adapt will pose a danger for the group.”
Below them, in the greenhouse, in the distance, was a group of MPs wildly chasing and shooting at nothing. From this high vantage point, the three could see the plants and trees being perforated by the invisible aliens. The greenhouse was quickly being deforested, plants were trampled and littered on the ground. Then they saw the fourth alien dashing from the main complex toward the chase group. The visible loner bulldozed its way through the thick plants, leaving a trail behind.
“Unbelievable!” Loren pounded her fist on the ledge. She was concerned that the lone alien darting to the group would ambush the MPs.
“Their infrareds should pick it up,” Ellis assured her.
“No! They keeping besting us!” Loren shouted in disgust, pounding the observation deck’s ledge again.
The lone Alpha Centaurian disappeared from sight, only the movement of foliage indicated its presence. It was heading directly for the chase group from behind.
“How is the group getting inside?” Gust asked.
Ellis turned to face him, then he faced Loren. “How many entrances are there?” Ellis asked with a stupid look on his face, remembering he’d just sealed off two entrances.
“Two and you’ve closed them both,” Loren said.
Ellis rubbed his temple. “Oopps. That was foolish on another level.”
Gust said, “But it saved our lives.”
“Know anything about circuitry and wiring , kid?”
“Yes. Learned it while reading those pornographic pictures on the eight month trip, remember?”
Ellis smiled at the kid. “I was kidding about that. Blame Rhinehart, kid.”
“I suppose you want me to get the doors working again?”
“Can you try, kid?”
“If you stop calling me kid.”
“Okay, kid. Just make it quick.”
The three darted down to the main and secondary doors and Gust expertly manipulated the sensory circuitry. They tested his skillful work by walking back and forth through the doors, which opened and closed like they had never been broken.
Ellis whipped around and saw another MP unit surging down the corridor. More manpower for the hunt.
TY MAXWELL GALLANTLY led the hunt group in the greenhouse. There was a chorus of ya-hoos and hee-haws as the MPs scampered through the green fields. There had been no resistance from the aliens up to this point. The MPs had given the aliens little time to adapt. They were badly wounded and the MPs knew it. There didn’t seem to be an escape route out of the biosphere.
The four aliens were now united and led the MPs to the edge of the biosphere. Only a few meters beyond the nano-carbon glass wall and support beams was Mars’s harsh environment. The aliens stopped and stood a few meters from the glass wall. They looked at the small army of MPs surging up and then to the maroon soil outside the biosphere.
The ya-hoos and hee-haws stopped.
“Oh no, Ahh no. This can’t be good,” Maxwell stopped and muttered to himself. He was at the west wing when they had leaped out the window and breached the safeguards. Maxwell raised a fist high in the air. The signal for a full retreat.
All firing ceased.
“Back to the complex!” he shouted on the top of his lungs. He spun around and ran behind the group. Ten seconds later, he was near the front running for his life.
The MPs trampled and flattened what remained of the plants the Herberts had nurtured. As they reached halfway to the main complex, a large portion of the biosphere’s wall violently erupted.
The Alpha Centaurians had jumped to safety once again. The harsh environment of Mars that was hostile to humans was their ally and refuge.
A gigantic segment of the biosphere’s safeguard glass exploded powerfully and shards flew in every direction. Mars’s harsh atmosphere whipped in, uprooting plants and sucking them out. Then two MPs were whisked off their feet and sucked out along with the airborne plants. No one bothered to look back. It was everyone for themself again.
The earsplitting sound of the warning siren blasted through the biosphere. The emergency system activated and spewed water in all directions. More plants were sucked from their roots and flew out the biosphere. The MPs were barely able to maintain their balance while moving forward, every step required a tremendous amount of effort. They were moving in slow, jerky motions. Then a group of MPs were swept off their feet and carried off into the hostile atmosphere outside.
Maxwell barely made it to the main complex. The safety corridors were in sight, but he did not run to them. He stooped inside the main entrance and waited for the remaining MPs. He felt the strong gust where he sat, but not strong enough to force his movement. He looked down the corridor and noticed a huge hole in the wall. “What idiot did that?” he asked himself.
The secondary door, a bit farther down the corridor, clanged open. Gust, Loren, and Ellis were standing on the other side, waving their hands and shouting for Maxwell to come. Maxwell pushed a hand at them in refusal. He hunched lower and waited for the rest of the group. They were his responsibility when Loren had assigned him as the lead. He knew Ellis and Loren would had done the same. He poked his head into the ravaged greenhouse and watched his officers running for their lives, powerless to intervene. Another thirty seconds and the majority of them made it. Maxwell dashed down to the secondary corridor to safety. He released his semi-automatic and dropped to his knees. He took long, heavy, labored breaths as Loren looked on.
“How many did we lose?” Ellis asked.
Maxwell shrugged. He was spent.
Loren walked up and down the corridor and counted the MPs.
“There are forty-five,” she quickly reported.
Maxwell looked soberly at Ellis, then Loren. “We lost seven,” he panted. He moved to the gray wall and sat heavily against it.
“How many birds do we have up there?” Ellis asked Loren.
“Two. They and the drones are tracking them as we speak.”
Ellis turned to Gust, who was leaning against the wall. “Any theories, kid?” Ellis asked.
Gust moved away from the wall. “They’ll find a quiet place to evade detection and regenerate.”
“There is no way they’ll win another battle. I’m going to take it to them from now on,” Ellis promised.
THE CHEM LEAD for the Mars Police, Dale Mackenzy, rushed into the room with a frown on his face. The photographs on his wristband were transferred to the nearby holoscreen as he came within the authorized distance. He sat down importantly and looked at the photographs on the holographic deskscreen. Gust sat quietly across, focusing intently on the wallscreen, which was broadcasting the latest search updates.
“What’s this?” Ellis asked, looking away from the wallscreen to the deskscreen.
“Something out of left field. Rhinehart wanted you to see them,” Mackenzy proudly said.
Ellis wearily studied the photos on the deskscreen. “Where were these taken?”
“Near Biosphere Ten by one of our aerial drones and satellites.”
Ellis carefully examined the aerial photographs. It was Biosphere Ten, surrounded by the maroon Martian soil. Then the word W-H-I-T-T-A-K-E-R was scrawled on one side of Biosphere Ten; surrounding W-H-I-T-T-A-K-E-R were some indecipherable letters.
Gust turned his attention to the photographs on the holographic deskscreen.
“Who did this?” Ellis asked.
Mackenzy crossed his legs. “We believe the aliens did it. We examined the soil around those letters and the radiation decay matched theirs.”
Gust fingered the incoherent letters. “Any idea what those letters mean?”
“We have no idea. They look somewhat familiar to ancient Greek. Maybe you can help.”
Gust shook his head. “Sorry, ancient language is not my specialty.” There was something allusive about these letters and the ones on the tombs. Had he seen them before? Perhaps at a RFC event? He couldn’t pinpoint it, so he let it pass.
Ellis pinched his fingers and the photos enlarged on the deskscreen. It was a perfect 50K 3D image. “Why Whittaker?” Ellis asked.
Gust thought about the question for a moment. “They probably know that Mr. Whittaker is an important person. They may be thinking he’s their ticket out.”
“I see two different angles here. Do they want to negotiate with him or use him as a bargaining chip?” Mackenzy asked.
Ellis chimed in, “I don’t think Mr. Whittaker is in a negotiating mood after what happened to WEF I. They shut down his facility and killed five of his employees.”
“Despite that and all the people who have died, Whittaker’s main concern is the tombs. That’s outrageous and irresponsible if you ask me,” Mackenzie chimed in. “Just pure greed, beyond comprehension.”
Gust moved to the edge of his seat. “I still think this murder spree could the result of a misunderstanding,” Gust said defensively. Ellis had used the same defense against Whittaker. The killings were a misunderstanding, we need to capture them. Although Gust had many theories, he often offered the one that favoured their capture. He had come up with a new theory, but thought it might be eccentric so he would keep it to himself, for now.
“Good point, kid. Tell that to parents of the young couple at the Olympus Grand Resort and the families of our deceased officers. Don’t let your affection for aliens go to your head and obscure the facts,” Ellis lectured.
“Any hope I had of a friendly alien invasion ended after they peeled the skins off of the people at the morgue,” Mackenzy put in.
“Should we hand Whittaker over to them?” Ellis half-joked.
“I say do it and let them take the skin off his back, like he’s done to the Martians for years. Hee, hee,” Mackenzy said and smirked.
Everyone in the room smirked. The engineer had a sense of humor, Ellis thought. It was lame, but he had it.
Gust stopped smirking first when he remembered that Whittaker was still his employer. “When did they do that?” Gust asked Mackenzy.
“Within the last 48 hours.”
Ellis turned his attention to the huge holographic wallscreen. It was still broadcasting the ongoing hunt. “Does Whittaker know these pictures exist?”
“Not yet. Rhinehart wanted to tell Whittaker himself.”
“What did the Director say when he saw them?”
“He asked me to inform you about them and wanted to keep it quiet.”
“Why didn’t he discuss it with me?”
“He’s elsewhere at the moment.”
A short silence filled the room as everyone watched the photos on the deskscreen.
“I have something else that may be of interest to you both.”
“What is it?” Ellis asked.
Gust looked on in anticipation. He loved surprises.
Mackenzy said, “After examining the bodies at the morgue, we may have a way of detecting the aliens no matter what form or state they’re in.”
“A fixed radiation signature?” Gust asked.
“Yes, and something else,” Mackenzy said.
Ellis sat upright in his chair and listened intently. “What’s the something else?”
“We’re currently examining all the EMR data from the shuttles, aerial drones, spider drones, and handheld detectors. I think a common pattern is emerging.”
“What’s the theory?” Gust asked excitedly.
“Like I said, we may soon have a sure way to detect them.”
“How long will this take?” Ellis interrogated.
“Two days at the most. The data is being correlated at the Steve Jobs Clustering Centre. Our best people are on it as we speak.”
“Let me know the exact moment you know,” Ellis said eagerly.
Mackenzy nodded, stood up, and left the room quietly.
Ellis made a motion with his fingers and the holographic wallscreen changed to the live videos of Mars’s surface. MPs in white protective suits, backed by rovers and levbikes, were scouring the ground. They were also backed by shuttles hovering above. So far they hadn’t found anything.
“It makes little sense that with all their power and intelligence, all they do is kill,” Gust broke the silence. “Are we missing something?”
“My job is to capture or kill them, kid. You can play the philosopher or scientist if you want. I don’t have that luxury.”
“What if they can adapt to any type of force?” Gust inquired.
“We have surprises of our own, kid. They’re not the only ones who are smart. We can blow them to atoms if need be.”
“I would strongly advise against it.”
“What would you strongly advise against, kid?” Ellis turned his chair to face Gust.
“Against blowing them up.”
“Explain yourself, kid.”
“After what I witnessed at Biosphere Ten, explosives may be catastrophic. They’re balls of energy, a ticking time bomb.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, kid.” Ellis turned his chair back to the wallscreen. There was a large battalion of MPs heading down a dark tunnel, holding their infrared detectors.
“How much do you love aliens, kid?”
“So much that I want to see one captured and studied,” Gust said, looking up innocently.
WHITTAKER GENTLY TAPPED a button on his marble table and the large picture windows turned transparent. The beaming sun rays streamed through and illuminated the room. He slouched back in his cozy chair and watched the heavy afternoon air traffic. The bright orange engine glows of cargo and passenger shuttles weren’t far from the panoramic windows. On the holographic deskscreen in front of him were the exact three photos Ellis had seen minutes earlier. The first time Whittaker saw them, he managed a crooked grin and shook his head incredulously.
Rhinehart sat quietly and watched the back of Whittaker’s chair, concerned. He clasped both hands together in front of his fat belly.
“It’s something we can handle, Udy. We haven’t used our big guns yet. Don’t worry about it,” Rhinehart assured the tycoon.
Nothing from Whittaker
“Look, Eleanor and the girls are coming next week. You can spend time with them and forget this alien mayhem.”
“I’d rather face a bear market,” Whittaker finally said, and slowly swivelled his big chair to face big Rhinehart. He frowned at the Director of the Mars Police.
“Udy, these aliens don’t know what you look like. They scribbled your name because they saw it on the shuttles and buildings. It’s hard to be on Mars and not see your name. Wasn’t that what you wanted?”
The magnate wanted to punch the photos on the deskscreen. “Whatever it is they want, they’re not getting it from me.”
Rhinehart faintly shook his head and smirked. “You have my personal guarantee that they won’t come within a mile of you.”
Whittaker thinly smiled and ran his hands slowly back and forth on the table. “I’ve lost a lot of money because of these aliens. As long as I’m alive, I can make more money. But now it’s getting personal, Will. I answer to my shareholders, not these freaks of nature.”
“You still have the two tombs. They should provide some compensation until we figure something out. You also have Margaret and Alicia.”
“It’s not a good time to talk about women. No one knows exactly how much those tombs are worth, yet. What did I do to deserve this? Do you know how many jobs I’ve created for the Martians? Why me? Despite all the jobs I provided, I’m misunderstood and vilified.”
“This was what you wanted three decades ago. You wanted to surpass your father. Fame and fortune have a price.”
“I can understand being disliked, but being vilified—that I cannot come to terms with. It’s as if an occult hand was responsible for my recent misery.”
Rhinehart tried a different approach. “Goddamn, Udy, the motive is obvious. They’re envious of you.”
Whittaker looked perplexed. “What are you talking about, Will? Why would they be envious of me?”
A lusty old-man’s grin crossed Rhinehart’s wrinkled lips. “Goddamn! The reason is obvious. Don’t you see? You have babes like Margaret and Alicia. Those aliens are envious. I know they are.”
Whittaker chuckled lightly. “You kill me, Will. You really kill me, you know that? However, this is no time to be talking about young babes. Those aliens are gonna kill me.”
“If Margaret and Alicia don’t kill you first.”
“Damn you. You’re killing me.”
“I bet you say that to Margaret and Alicia every night, heh? Or do they say that to you?”
Whittaker broke into unrestrained laughter. “Damn you, Will! Damn you. Now you’re really killing me.”
“I knew I could make you laugh.”
“You little fucker!”
“You’re a big fucker! A big, greedy fucker!”
“Fuck you, Will! You’re fat fucker!”
“You use money for toilet paper!”
“You eat children!”
“Fuck the aliens!”
“Yeah. Fuck the aliens. Fuck ‘em all!”
They cocked their heads and roared with laughter. Whittaker managed to pull a cigar from of the drawer and hurled it across the table at Rhinehart. It hit the Director right in his round, gleaming, bald spot.
ELLIS CASUALLY WALKED across the living room and noticed the home was oddly empty. He stopped momentarily and admired Mars’s red cliffs outside the large picture windows. He eased to the kitchen and saw no one. Arlene had not mentioned that she was going out.
“Honey? Nick?” he called loudly.
No answer. He loosened his belt and set it on the stone floor beside some of Nick’s Galaxy Warriors toys.
“Arlene? Nick? Big daddy’s home!”
Still no reply. He crossed the room and checked the deskscreen, hoping Arlene had left a message. There was nothing on it. He went to the sofa and dropped on it and closed his eyes. The red glowing eyes. The Herculean physique. The deafening screams. They were forced into his memory.
Then he heard a sniveling voice from the general direction of Nick’s bedroom. He bolted off the sofa and stood upright. Instinctively, he bent down and grabbed his MP holster belt off the ground. Silently, he drew his semi-automatic.
“Nick? Is that you?”
The sniveling noise grew louder. It was Nick’s voice, Ellis concluded. The voice was sobbing now. Ellis eased toward the bedroom with the black semi-automatic brushing his hip. “Nick? It’s daddy, everything’s going to be okay. Where’s mommy?”
The crying got louder.
“Nick, daddy is coming in, okay?” his voice was trembling a bit.
Then a shriek erupted.
Gun first, Ellis darted into the bedroom. He saw Nick hunched in the corner hugging his knees, shaking with fear. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and tears dribbled down his pale face. Ellis set his semi-automatic down and wiped the sweat beads off Nick’s forehead.
“What happened, son?” he asked gravely.
Nick shook incessantly. He looked like he had seen a ghost.
Ellis pulled him to his chest and brushed his son’s hair in assurance. “Everything is okay, Nick. Where’s mommy?” Ellis kissed the top of Nick’s head.
Nick sobbed loudly as his body shook.
Ellis pulled him away from his chest and kissed him on his forehead again. “Where is mommy? Is she in her bedroom?” Ellis picked him up.
Whatever Nick had seen, he was too terrified to answer. His face was drained of blood, and his lips shivered involuntarily. Ellis knelt down until his eyes met Nick’s. “Was anyone here, Nick?” he slowly and clearly asked.
Nick wiped his eyes dry with his shirt sleeve and bravely nodded a yes. Someone had been here. But who?
“Who was here? Tell daddy who was here earlier.”
“You were here earlier, daddy.” Nick snivelled.
Ellis shook his head slowly. “No, Nick, who was here before me?”
“You were, daddy. You were here with mommy and you left. Then—” He broke down and cried outright.
Ellis pulled Nick to his chest. With his other arm, he grabbed the gun. “And what, Nick? Daddy was here earlier, then what happened?”
Nick sobbed and had difficulty breathing. “Then you said something that made mommy mad and she slapped you. She told me to go to the bedroom and…” Nick couldn’t finish. He put both hands to his eyes and cried uncontrollably.
Ellis looked suspiciously around the bedroom. He walked to the hallway and checked both directions—one leading to the living room and the other to his bedroom. He stood there, frozen, and let Nick recover from whatever trauma he had faced. Then he went back and knelt before Nick again.
Nick was sitting on the edge of his bed this time.
“Are you okay now?”
The son slowly nodded a feeble yes.
“That’s good, Nick.” Ellis sat beside Nick and draped his arm around his tiny shoulders. “Mommy told you to go to the bedroom and then what happened?”
Nick courageously composed himself and stared his daddy in the eyes. There were no more tears falling. “Then I came back and you were gone. Then I saw…” He broke down and cried again, but managed to finish between cries, “Then I saw a big monster standing in front of mommy. The monster was changing colors and his eyes were red.”
Ellis froze in horror. He was going to blow up these aliens into a million pieces and dump those pieces on an asteroid where they belonged.
“Stay here, son. Daddy will be back.” He ran to his bedroom with the semi-automatic in hand. He violently kicked the door open and froze under the entrance.
She was home. Arlene was lying on the floor, motionless, hands sprawled over her head. Her legs were curled up to her chest in a fetal position. He rushed over and knelt on both knees before her. From what he could see, her skin was pale and there were no burns on it or anything akin to what he had seen at the morgue. Her hair was thrown over her face, barely making her features distinguishable. Nevertheless, it was his beautiful wife. He gently pressed a finger on her neck. There was a strong pulse. She was still alive. He smiled and sighed in relief. He inched his head closer and kissed her cheek.
“This is Ellis. Call MP medic.” He said to the air. The geofenced soundfield in his wristband recognized his voice and called the medic. “It’s a matter of life and death. I need assistance ASAP.” Before the operator could say anything, Ellis ended the call.
He brushed the messy almond hair back to one side of her face. Then a grating sound in the hallway scared him. Gripping the semi-automatic tightly, Ellis whipped his head around, and saw—it was only Nick, who ran up and wrapped his hands around Ellis’s shoulders. There was a moment of silence as father and son looked at Arlene. Ellis was doing his best to hold back the tears. The aliens did not scare him but the welfare of his wife and child did.
Ellis lightly pecked Nick on the cheeks. “What did you do after you saw the monster standing in front of mommy?” Ellis asked, trying not to let his voice crack.
Nick wasn’t crying anymore. “I ran back to my room and waited.”
Ellis stared at his son. “What did you wait for?”
Nick spoke slowly, “I waited for you to come back.”
“Did daddy come back?”
“You just came back, daddy. It took you so long.”
Ellis shook his head grimly. They had sent Whittaker a message by scrawling his name on the soil. Were they sending him a message with a visit? He was the only person who had encountered all four, face-to-face, on several occasions. The first encounter was at Platform II, then at the morgue, then in the briefing room at headquarters, then in the MP autopsy room, then in Biosphere Ten. They were diabolically intelligent, he concluded.
On the ground, Arlene’s two fingers flinched, and her thump curled up. Her fingers opened and closed, opened and closed into a fist. Then her left arm moved slightly, followed by a painful groan.
Ellis saw the movements. “Go to back to your bedroom, Nick. Stay there. Don’t go anywhere until you see me,” Ellis said urgently.
Nick did what he was told. Ellis curled his finger around the trigger and watched his wife intently. He moved a few steps away from her.
Arlene was still groaning. Her body turned over slowly, inch by inch by inch, until she faced the ceiling. She was moaning something incoherent.
The first thoughts were the glowing eyes and the lumps of flesh twisting into another person. He was sure the body on the ground was not his wife. Why would they let her live? This was a trap they had set up for him and she was the bait. The second in command had to pay the price for hunting the most feared killing machines the solar system had known.
On the ground, Arlene was trying to say something. She muttered incoherently until the words made sense. “Is that you, honey?”
It was her voice, he thought, but they were able to imitate voices. He wanted to shoot her and save his son’s life. They could replicate sound waves, he could her Gust saying, they could manipulate mechanical and light waves. They could turn invisible, or camouflage. They could mimic voices. They had mastered electromagnetic radiation.
“Don, is that you, honey?” the wounded voice on the floor asked again. He didn’t know if anything needed to be said. He stood and stupidly looked down at his wife with his semi-automatic pointing at her. Why would they let her live? Were the other three around the corner?
“Is that you, honey?” the voice was more demanding this time.
He tensed up. His heart slowed. Two rows of sweat trickled down his cheeks. He needed to know. He needed to save his son. He needed to save his wife. He needed to save himself. Ellis held back tears.
“Please speak to me, honey. If it’s you, I know what’s going on. They were here.”
Any moment now the body could morph into a monster and kill him.
Arlene’s body rolled slightly. “Was it something I did, honey?”
There was no doubt it was Arlene’s voice. His fingers were trembling. He needed to know. He could shoot her and find out. He had known her since they were teenagers. It had taken him a month for the first kiss and a year to bed her. And a hundred disagreements and fights along the way; all coming down to this.
Shoot her and find out.
Arlene sniffled. “Why are you acting like this, Don? Please help me. If it’s you this time, let me know.”
His knees were weak. He couldn’t breath. His palm was wet around the semi-automatic. Where were the other three? He could hear his heart pounding against his chest.
Another small roll. “Honey, what is the matter with you?”
That line. He had used it on her last time.
He closed his eyes, and put his finger on the trigger.
“Don, what is the matter with you?”
A tear trickled out of his closed eyes and hit the ground. His son. He needed to know. But how?
“Don, is that you? Please help me, honey.”
“Yes, it’s me, Jennifer.”
Jennifer? Who was she?
He cleared his throat, and expected the worst. Nick was still in the other room.
She managed to open her eyes and peeked at him. “Jennifer?” she whispered weakly. Who was Jennifer? “Have you been unfaithful, honey?” she stuttered the words, but managed a weak smile.
“I’ve always been faithful to you, Arlene.”
She knew her name was Arlene and not Jennifer. He exhaled so hard that his chest dropped. He stepped forward and dropped to his knees before her and gently caressed her hair and kissed her eyes, which were trickling with tears.
“I saw them, honey, whatever they are. It was you at first but they changed. Is Nick safe?” she cried.
He lightly pressed his cheek against hers. “He’s safe, Sweetie. He’s in his bedroom.”
She sighed frailly. “I’m so happy you two are safe,” she sobbed.
“So am I, Beautiful. You two have always been the world to me.” He set his gun down. They will pay for all they’ve done, he promised himself. This was now personal. If it meant using the 20,000 Legionnaires of Earth Legion 9, he would go right to the top with Malen and make it happen.
The door chimed and Ellis jumped to his feet and answered it. He gestured to the bedroom and six MP medics rushed in that direction. They glided Arlene out on a lev stretcher. They assured the Lieutenant she would fine in no time.
He walked briskly to the deskscreen in the living room. “Call Dale Mackenzy, MP.”
The face of the chem man filled the holoscreen. “Yes, Don.”
“Are you done with the research?” Ellis demanded.
“Another hour or two.”
“I needed it yesterday!”
“Our best people are on it. We can’t rush this. The data has to be correct. Is there anything wrong? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost, Don.”
“There’s something very wrong. Get on it!”
“We’ll double our efforts for you.”
Ellis beat the desk with his fist. The deskscreen fizzled and flickered off. He looked outside the window at the red cliffs of Mars. They will pay for what they did to his family, he promised again. The option of capturing them was off the table.
DITTMAR CALLEN LUMBERED out of the elevator and a stunning brunette greeted him with a warm smile. It was Margaret. She asked him to wait while Whittaker finished a business call with a group of investors from Earth. Callen deliberately sat in the chair in front of her and stole glances at her silky legs whenever possible—about a hundred and twenty or so during the two minute wait. Each time she caught him, he smirked as though his hands were caught in the cookie jar and his face reddened. An engineer was forbidden to look at silky, smooth legs!
Finally a green light flashed on her deskscreen and she guided him inside. Being the good-hearted, highly intelligent, and friendly gentleman Callen was, he let her go first. What an engineer.
The panoramic windows in Whittaker’s office were transparent. The room was bright with natural sunlight permeating from the outside. Air traffic was slow this afternoon. Whittaker motioned the engineer to have a seat and Callen sat on the farthest chair across the tycoon.
Whittaker wasted no time. “I assume you have good news for me, Callen.”
Callen almost choked. He looked at Whittaker like a child about to get reprimanded.
“Well?” Whittaker said. “I’m listening.”
Callen studied his shaking legs. “I don’t think they have any value, sir.”
Whittaker moved to the edge of his seat and intently glared at the chem man, which almost put a hole in Callen’s eyes. “The tombs are diamond, aren’t they? Last I heard, diamond is very valuable.”
“Mr. Whittaker,” Callen stuttered and paused for a long time.
“Why are your legs shaking?” Whittaker interrogated.
“I’m a bit nervous. That’s all, sir.” Then his hands began trembling. He looked for a cave to hide in, saw the fish tank and thought about diving in.
“What are you nervous about? And why are your hands shaking now?”
Callen gulped. He inhaled and exhaled deeply before speaking. “The tombs aren’t diamond anymore. They’re less dense the longer they’re exposed to our air. Their index of refraction is now less than diamond’s. We don’t know how to stop the deterioration.”
Whittaker thought about jumping over the desk and wringing Callen’s neck.
“There’s something else, sir. The small triangular pieces with the alien inscriptions have an index of infraction that is consistent with diamond. They haven’t deteriorated.”
“How big are these triangular pieces?”
Callen spread his hands about ten inches apart. “About that big, sir.”
“How wide are they?” Whittaker interrogated.
Callen spread his hands roughly four inches apart. “That wide.”
“They’re worth little to me.”
“Those two pieces are worth at least three hundred million, Mr. Whittaker.” Artificial diamond had brought down the price of natural diamond.
“When you deal in billions, a few hundred million is insignificant, son.” Whittaker extended a hand forward and tapped a button on his desk and the big windows became opaque. The posh room dimmed and blocked the sunlight from penetrating. Callen could hardly make out Whittaker’s face, only a silhouette of the great man.
There was a moment of silence as Whittaker eyed Callen in the semi-dark. “What about the two tombs in the MP’s possession?” Whittaker asked.
“You mean if they’re deteriorating?”
“What else could I mean, you bonehead! Are they?”
“If those tombs are the same as same ours, then they should be, Mr. Whittaker.”
“It’s crucial that I find out, Callen. There’s a lot at stake. Where do you think I get the money to pay for your salary? Money doesn’t fall from the Sun.”
“They have to be, sir. The only difference between our tombs and theirs is the inscription on each one.”
“What do the inscriptions mean?”
“They’re alien writings. We’re trying to decipher them, but we need the other two tombs to complete the puzzle.”
A puzzle? Are these Alpha Centaurians playing Wheel of Fortune?
A brief silence. There was more bad news coming from Callen. “There’s one more thing, Mr. Whittaker,” Callen said in the semi-dark.
Whittaker grunted audibly. “Give me more good news, Callen.”
“Actually, it’s not good news, sir,” Callen said sheepishly.
“I know it’s not good news, you dumbass! I see they didn’t teach you sarcasm in chemical engineering.”
Lucky for Callen he couldn’t see the tycoon’s entire face because Whittaker was scowling fiercely at him in the semi-dark.
Callen cleared his throat quietly. “The insurance companies have been asking questions that I don’t have the answers to, sir.”
There was no response. Whittaker waved a hand in the semi-dark. Callen barely found his way out the room. After he passed Margaret’s desk, Callen sprinted down the emergency stairway. All forty of flights of it.
Leaving a Trail
ELLIS HAD TOLD what happened at his home to only one person, and that was Gust. The hospital had informed him that Arlene would be fine with no long-term damage. She had a fight with a household appliance and lost, thus residues of electrical currents through her body. That was the official story as far as the medics were concerned.
In Rhinehart’s office, Ellis and Gust sat opposite the Director. The big man was softly drumming his overblown belly and savoring Brazilian coffee from Earth. Despite the woes, Ellis and Gust looked on in amusement. Ah, oh, ahhh, delectable coffee, Rhinehart complimented at least a dozen times.
Gust and Ellis studied the holographic wallscreen while Rhinehart savoured his Brazilian coffee from Earth.
Rhinehart sipped and grunted, “Ah, oh, ahhh, delectable coffee. It’s full bodied and deliciously aromatic. That brightened up my day. How do they grow it this good? Is it the organic compost? Or the hybridized beans? It’s outrageously tasty. The aroma is delightful.”
At last, the man they had been waiting for dashed through the door. As Mackenzy came within the authorized geofence, the file on his wristband automatically transferred to Rhinehart’s holoscreen. The content of the file flickered on Rhinehart’s holographic deskscreen.
Mackenzy inhaled and exhaled deeply to catch his breath. Gust studied the deskscreen.
“We’ve got them,” Mackenzy announced proudly, panting a little. “We have a concrete way of detecting them regardless of what state or form they’re in.”
Ellis eyed Mackenzy. “Even when they’re hibernating?”
“Even when they’re hibernating. The reading is faint depending on the state, but it’s recognizable and distinct.”
Gust read the report and almost slapped himself silly for not having thought of it first.
“Is this a magic bullet sort of thing?” Rhinehart asked skeptically.
“Iridium!” Gust blurted and slapped his forehead.
“Huh?” Rhinehart grumbled stupidly, setting down his precious Brazilian coffee.
Mackenzy glanced over at Gust and nodded. He explained the data with gleaming eyes. “That’s correct. Iridium is an element found mostly in terrestrial rocks, such as the ones Whittaker hauls back from the Asteroid Belt. However, there are some traces of iridium in sedimentary rocks, but most of it originates from extraterrestrial sources in space, such as asteroids. When meteors disintegrate there are also traces of the iridium element. Evidently, our four friends are leaving traces of iridium wherever they go.”
Ellis leaned closer to the deskscreen. “This sounds promising. Keep going,” Ellis requested.
Mackenzy crossed his legs importantly, as though he were the smartest man in the universe at the moment. Rhinehart’s forehead was shinning in anticipation. Mackenzy spoke importantly and intelligently, “These iridium readings have been confirmed at Biosphere Ten, our autopsy room, the morgue, and Platform II on Phobos. That’s their signature.”
Ellis was grinning as Mackenzy spoke. “Can we adjust our detectors to track their radiation signature?”
Mackenzy smiled at this. “That’s the beauty of all this. Only minor modifications are needed. We can also make adjustments to our shuttles and search drones. Diane suggested we do shuttle three first in memory of Ender and Yamoto.”
Silence descended as they let Ender and Yamoto sink in.
“Since we now have a fixed signature, can we use our search and destroy drones?” Rhinehart asked.
“I wouldn’t recommend it at this time. The sensors on our SAD drones can’t adapt in real-time. They’ll be thrown in loops when these aliens change their physical form or EMR signature. The collateral damage could be massive if our SAD drones’ targeting system receives mixed signals. Not to mention the friendly fire.”
“We still haven’t found a way around that?”
“Not yet. Our SAD drones are most effective with fixed markers. But these aliens are unpredictable with their camouflaging ability. This could leave our drones with the impression of multiple targets.”
“Okay, our SAD drones are sidelined for now.” Rhinehart reached for the organic Brazilian coffee and sipped, then set it down and turned his attention to Ellis. “So now we know how to find them. The problem remains—what to do when we find them?”
Ellis thought about the question for a few seconds, then confidently answered, “Leave that to me, sir.”
“I always do. That’s why I promoted you.”
“Well, kid, looks like your four friends are running out of places to hide.”
“Looks like it. Maybe the killings can stop now.” Gust wasn’t sure, he wanted one captured to study it.
There was silence as Rhinehart sampled the priceless coffee from Earth. He finished it in one mighty swig and burped. “Ah, oh, ahhh, delectable coffee. Are you going to tell us your plan, Don? Or should I savour more of this fine coffee and we’ll play the guessing game?”
Just as Ellis was about to speak, Dale Mackenzy’s assistant from downstairs walked through the opened door. As the assistant was within range, the file on his watch automatically transferred to Rhinehart’s holoscreen.
“It’s all there, Dale,” The assistant said.
Mackenzy said thank-you and the assistant left.
“What was that about?” Rhinehart demanded from across the table.
Mackenzy studied the new file on the deskscreen. It took him a few seconds to digest everything while everyone watched. After he finished, Mackenzy shook his head. “This was unanticipated, but the tombs are no longer diamond. They’re becoming malleable. There’s something else unexpected. Two triangular pieces from the tombs are not liquifying. They have some sort of alien inscription on them. When the two pieces connected, it looked like a sentence. I’m not sure what they mean, but we’ll have to check with the two pieces in Whittaker’s possession.”
Rhinehart grunted, “I want to know why these guys were put in the asteroid in the first place. And who put them there. How long they’ve been there. Where they came from. How they died. How they came back to live. What those inscriptions mean. How long they’ve been in space. How they can turn invisible. Why they’re killing. What makes them tick. Are there more of them? I want to know it all.”
Ellis gestured a chin to Gust and said, “Kid, here, thinks they can’t be killed because of their ability to rearrange and alter their atoms, molecules, and cells.”
“Immortality,” Mackenzy whispered.
Gust said, “They could be criminals, bounty hunters, warriors, nomads, prisoners, the possibilities are endless. Take your pick.”
They glanced outside the large windows and saw two passenger shuttles and a cargo shuttle ease by. Then the huge holographic wallscreen on the left flickered to life and Loren’s face appeared. Everyone turned to face her.
“What is it?” Rhinehart grunted.
“Our search drones have found our four friends,” she said, and looked out at Ellis on the wallscreen.
Ellis and Gust bolted to their feet and approached the wallscreen. “Where?” Ellis asked eagerly.
“In an underground tunnel. I’ve got them on my feed right now,” she said, tapping at something beside her.
“When did you find them?” Ellis asked.
“Just seconds ago. They’re in hibernation, but emitting Iridium,” Loren said and looked away from the wallscreen.
“What’s the tunnel number?” Ellis asked anxiously.
“They’re moving between tunnels 230 and 231.”
“How many birds are up there?” Ellis asked.
“Twelve, but mine is the only one monitoring this lovely scene,” Loren said. Her partner, Ty Maxwell, came into view and smiled.
Ellis rubbed his temple and thought of Arlene and Nick. “Diane, keep an eye on them. Copy the feed to the Director’s desk.”
Loren nodded and hit some buttons on her shuttle. Then Rhinehart’s holographic wallscreen sizzled with static, then the video of a dark tunnel appeared. Ellis and Gust sat back down and focused on the wallscreen like zombies.
On the huge wallscreen were four blurred bodies of the Alpha Centaurians lying in the tunnel side-by-side in mummified positions. They were glowing a bit. The room was suddenly quiet. Rhinehart sat upright on his seat and leaned forward; Mackenzy did likewise. No one spoke for minutes.
“Are they ever going to move?” Mackenzy finally asked, almost to himself.
Gust looked over at Ellis. “It looks like they’re regenerating. You must have wounded them at the biosphere.”
Ellis thought about his wife and son while he glared at the aliens on the wallscreen. Tunnel 231. Tunnel 231. That sounded familiar. He’d been there before. That was where he had hunted Xavier and his cult and forced them into hiding. He knew the tunnel well. This was going to work out perfect, he told himself. He already had a plan.
“I’m going to monitor this in my office,” Ellis said quickly. He eased past the wallscreen and walked out.
Gust rose, smiled at Mackenzy and Rhinehart, then followed Ellis out.
“YOU LIKE WATCHING aliens, kid?” Ellis asked, sitting on the chair in his office.
“Can’t enough of them.” Gust at opposite across the table, watching the four aliens on the holographic wallscreen. They were still motionless, but glowing.
Ellis needed a little more time to finalize his plan so he hoped they’d remain dormant. He turned away from the wallscreen and said to his desk: “Call Mars Zoning Board.” A picture of an operator at the Mars Zoning Board blinked on the holographic deskscreen.
“How can I help you, Lieutenant?” the friendly voice asked.
Gust turned away from the wallscreen. “What are you doing?”
Ellis put his index finger to his lips. Hush, hush. He spoke to the operator, “We need the blueprint of Tunnel 231.”
The female operator already knew who he was. There were several beeps then the blueprint of Tunnel 231 appeared on Ellis’s deskscreen. “Is there anything else I can assist you with, Lieutenant?” the operator asked politely.
“That is all for now. Thank-you.” Ellis touched the map’s holographic icon on his deskscreen and flicked it. The blueprint of Tunnel 231 was transferred to the left holographic wallscreen. The right wallscreen was displaying the Alpha Centaurians.
“What are you doing?” Gust asked again.
“I’ve got a plan, kid.”
“You mind telling me what it is?”
“Your four friends aren’t the only ones full of surprises,” Ellis said as he studied the blueprint of the tunnel on the wallscreen.
Tunnel 231 was majority owned by Nakishewata & Yomiguishygata Construction, a French firm, of course. The minority owner was Whittaker Resources. Ellis studied the blueprint carefully as Gust looked on. The tunnel’s construction was incomplete. He needed permission from Whittaker Resources to carry out his plan.
“Call Udell Whittaker,” Ellis said to the deskscreen.
Margaret’s beautiful face blinked on his deskscreen. Gust heard the warm voice, rushed over, and stared into the deskscreen with dreamy eyes. He wanted to apologize for the previous intrusion.
“This is Lieutenant Ellis of the Mars Police. Is Mr. Whittaker available?” Ellis requested.
Margaret smiled warmly. She knew who Ellis was and didn’t waste any time. Whittaker’s face appeared on the Ellis’s holographic deskscreen. “What a pleasant surprise, Lieutenant. I didn’t expect to hear from you.” Whittaker said plainly, still sitting in the semi-dark after Callen had told him the tombs weren’t diamond.
Ellis leaned into the deskscreen as he spoke, “We need your help in securing permission to use one of the tunnels where the aliens are hiding. We also need material assistance.”
Whittaker looked skeptical. “What kind of material assistance? And where is Rhinehart? He’d better not be avoiding me again.”
“We should discuss this in person. The Director will be at the meeting,” Ellis cajoled, using Rhinehart as the bait.
Whittaker moved away from the deskscreen temporarily. “Of course, at your earliest convenience, Lieutenant. I’m just as eager as you to see this to an end.”
“We’ll be there in twenty minutes,” Ellis said and the deskscreen blanked out. He inhaled deeply and turned his attention to one of the wallscreens. The four aliens in Tunnel 231 were still in mummified positions on the wallscreen.
“Are you going to let me in on the plan?” Gust pleaded.
“Like I said, your four friends aren’t the only ones full of surprises. I’ll give you a hint though, the plan requires a crazy amount of explosives. That’s why we need Whittaker’s help.”
Gust looked alarmed. “Explosives could be dangerous. Those guys could be ticking atomic time bombs. I thought we discussed this before.”
“I’ll take the risk, even if Mars is obliterated,” Ellis said as seriously as he could muster.
Gust shook his head. “You’re willing to risk blowing up half of Mars? If there’s a chain explosion, it’ll be catastrophic. Everything will revert back to pre-terra forming.”
Ellis smiled at the kid, amused. His plan was to blow them up. He inched closer to Gust and patted him on the shoulder. “Call it comeuppance or karma, but there will be fireworks, kid.”
“Think of them as walking atomic bombs. Maybe that’ll change your mind.”
“I’m going to light up Mars like a Summer Solstice celebration. You’ll love the fireworks show, kid.”
Gust shook his head again. “I’m sure Rhinehart and Whittaker will enjoy it when half of Mars is incinerated.”
Ellis was about to say something when a his wristband vibrated. It was a unique vibration signal alerting him to an urgent and secret incoming call. Only one person could set off that alert on Ellis’s com. It was Malen, co-founding member of the Earth Legions. Malen had personally recruited Ellis into ELIX (Earth Legion 9) and promoted him to commander.
“Kid, please leave the room for a few minutes, until I get you,” Ellis casually requested.
“Why?” Gust asked.
“Because I asked you nicely. I need to take care of something. Please leave the room and wait outside until I get you.”
“Is that Rhinehart or Whittaker you need to talk to? If it’s about the aliens, I want to be in on the call.”
“Kid, please leave.”
Gust sat still and looked at Ellis in a stare down.
“Kid, for the last time, please leave the room for a few minutes,” Ellis requested nicely.
“No. If it’s about the aliens, I want to be in on the call.”
Ellis jumped to his feet. He couldn’t keep Malen waiting. He glared down at Gust. “After all I’ve done for you!” Ellis ran to the door, it opened, and he went in the hallway to search for privacy. Although, his com’s targeted soundfield would had prevented Gust from hearing the conversation, Earth Legion protocol required that he be alone when taking calls of this urgency.
Gust waited in the room by himself. What was that about? It must be ultra important, thought Gust. Gust waited for several minutes.
After five minutes, the door opened and Ellis stormed in. He was livid. He walked within a yard of Gust, stood over him, and pointed a finger at Gust’s nose. “You have a problem with authority!”
“No I don’t. I have a problem with aliens.”
“What’s wrong with you! I simply asked you to leave the room so I could take a call!”
“What was so important that you couldn’t take it in here? Was it about the aliens?”
“Never mind! This is my office! My room! Who the hell do you think you are! If it weren’t for your pa—” Ellis almost let it slip. He finished the sentence in his mind: If it weren’t for your parents, you’d be in jail by now!
“If it weren’t for my sunny par-sonality? So you’re not going to tell me what that was about? I thought we were partners.”
“We’re not partners! You’re not even a Mars Police officer.”
“I could be an honorary one.”
“The next time you disobey my command, you’re cut off from this alien action! If you listen to me, you’ll live longer. You think you know everything, and people like that die quickly.”
“So, you’re not going to tell me who you spoke with? Remember, three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”
Ellis took a few steps away from Gust and looked at the wallscreen. “You’re lucky I don’t have time for your immature sense of entitlement!”
On the wallscreen, one of the Alpha Centaurians twitched and crouched slowly to a sitting position. It stared methodically down at its three wounded comrades. Then it slowly stood upright, and rolled its eyes up and down the murky tunnel. It turned its body sideways as if stretching after being drunk with sleep. The other three were still in mummified positions on the ground.
Gust jumped to the wallscreen and stood inches from it. “That is a work of art,” he mumbled in admiration, his face shone as it meshed with the light from the holoscreen. He extended an arm and touched the alien on the wallscreen, tracing his hand to its movement. It stopped pacing and stood directly over its three comrades. Without warning, it spun its head and looked at Gust. Gust, surprised, leaped back and yanked his hand from the holographic wallscreen. He heard Ellis chuckling in the background.
Ellis walked to his chair and sat down. He took several deep breaths and calmed himself. He closed his eyes took several seconds to meditate. After a few minutes of watching the aliens, he calmed down and had no desire to wring Gust’s neck. Malen had wanted him to do the nearly impossible with one of the aliens.
“I think it likes you,” Ellis said with a grin, folding his arms over his chest.
Gust gaped back, turning red. “Me or the skin on my body,” he blurted, breathing deeply.
“Look, it’s still looking at you. It think it likes you.” Ellis managed a smile, pointing a chin at the screen. It was no longer looking at Gust but seemed to be looking at Ellis through the wallscreen. Then another alien crouched to sitting position, then another one. Finally three were sitting in the dark tunnel, with one standing up, who was pacing again.
Gust moved as far away from the wallscreen as possible. He leaned on the side wall and intently watched the aliens. “Look at the size of those freaking guys. They’re humongous,” Gust said in awe.
Down in Rhinehart’s office, Mackenzy blurted, “Look at the size of those freaking guys. They’re humongous.”
On Ellis’s wallscreen all four aliens were standing and cooly pacing the tunnel now. They had regenerated and were ready to hunt again.
There was a chime and Ellis reached over and split the wallscreen split into two sections. The right side was the aliens and the left side was the face of Loren.
“Yes, Diane,” Ellis said, facing the wallscreen.
Loren was shaking her head in bewilderment. “Are you watching the live feed?”
“We sure are, in 3D living colour. Gust here is loving every second of it. Aren’t you, kid?” Ellis turned to Gust and smiled. Gust nodded sheepishly.
“What next?” She was curious.
“I’ve got a plan. Keep tracking them until you hear from me. I should be thirty minutes.”
Loren nodded. “Roger that.”
On the wallscreen, all four aliens stopped pacing and glared out at Ellis and Gust, as though they were aware of being watched.
Gust winced and looked away from the wallscreen. Ellis stood calmly and glared back at the aliens.
“They make a good foursome.”
“Four perfect killing machines,” Gust said.
“What a shame, all that power used for a destructive purpose.”
They watched the aliens on the wallscreen for two more minutes, mesmerized. Aliens in 50K 3D.
Finally Ellis said, “We have a meeting with your boss, kid.” He walked to the door with Gust behind, who was gawking over his shoulder at the aliens on the wallscreen as he walked out of Ellis’s office.
THE TWO CHEM men, Dale Mackenzy and Dittmar Callen, stood and listened intently to the conversation between Ellis and Whittaker. Gust stood beside Ellis and watched the shuttles whizzing outside the three story windows.
“The plan sounds dangerously risky, Lieutenant,” Whittaker protested. “We have no qualms with supplying the explosives but the amount you’re requesting is excessive. It could blow Mars back to the Stone Age.”
“I understand the risk, sir.”
Callen added, “If that much explosive is detonated in the tunnels, it’s guaranteed to take out several buildings and biospheres. That’s the estimated minimum damage.”
“Just as well. I want them in a million pieces.”
Callen and Mackenzy shook their heads. Ellis ignored them. “Mr. Whittaker, I need several of your engineers, the explosives I’ve requested, and the permission of Nakishewata & Yomiguishygata Construction. I really don’t have time to discuss the finer details if you don’t want your facilities damaged again, or your life threatened.”
“Yes, that French firm. I’m a large shareholder in the company, you know. I’ll see to it that you get what you’re requesting. Now, if you would only reconsider the advice of these two fine engineers.”
“With all due respect, sir, I’ve carefully thought out the plan. We don’t have time go over every detail. I have been tasked to rid the aliens, so leave it to me on how to do it. You have my word that there’ll no destruction to any structure and your property.”
How will that be possible? Mackenzy and Callen thought privately. There was a long pause as Whittaker started a slow burn. Callen rubbed his arm and his shirt sleeve slid up. Gust noticed a tattoo etched deep in Callen’s arm just above the elbow. The tattoo was a four-sided star, each side a distinct triangle. Callen stared suspiciously at Gust, and the kid looked away, startled but afraid to say anything.
They all waited for Whittaker’s final approval. Finally, the tycoon caved in. “Lieutenant, if Rhinehart trusts you, I trust you. Do whatever you feel is necessary to bring Mars back to the peace and vibrancy it enjoyed before these aliens arrived.”
“Thank-you, sir. Gentlemen, this meeting has concluded,” Ellis said like a boss.
They filed out of the room and left the tycoon sitting in the semi-dark. As they walked into the reception area, there was Rhinehart by Margaret’s desk trying to woo her with his past heroics. What a Director.
ABOUT TWO HUNDRED MPs were either barricading or inside Tunnel 231, which was flooded with spotlights. The entrance of the tunnel was lined with holographic wallscreens showing live feeds of the aliens. The wobots and the gigantic robotic arms and cranes, hissing and whirling, were dutifully digging a crater and inserting the explosives in place.
High above the tunnel were four shuttles, led by Loren’s, monitoring the situation.
Ellis sat on a foldaway chair with a spotlight shining in his face. Gust sat beside him. Ellis stared at the four aliens on one of the wallscreens. They were no longer pacing but back in mummified positions on the ground.
“The box is in place, Don,” one MP yelled.
Ellis, still staring at the wallscreen, gave a thumps up behind his back.
Mackenzy and Callen approached from behind. Mackenzy spoke, “The box is ready and the explosives are in place. Everything should be finished within thirty minutes. I hope you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, Mars is kaput.”
Ellis looked up. “Mackenzy, you’ve been instructed to do your part. That is all you need to know. Your trust is appreciated.” Ellis was the only one who knew the entire plan. He didn’t trust everyone, especially when the lives of his wife and son were at stake. As a commander of ELIX (Earth Legion 9), he had been trained to compartmentalize information to safeguard against leaks. And as an ELIX commander, he knew many more alien secrets that couldn’t be leaked.
“You’ll want to look at this map,” Callen said from behind.
Ellis missed every word. Gust nudged an elbow at him. “Callen wants you to look at something. And you thought I liked aliens. Geez.” Gust shot Callen a suspicious look.
“What was that, kid?” Ellis asked, staring hypnotically at the wallscreen. He found these aliens fascinating.
“Please have a look at this map you requested,” Callen repeated. The map provided by Nakishewata & Yomiguishygata Construction was on the holographic wallscreen projected from Callen’s watch.
Ellis veered around slowly and faced Callen and Mackenzy. He squatted beside the map and studied it.
Mackenzy arched down and fingered a particular marking. “You might want to take this route,” Mackenzy suggested and traced his finger along one route that led to the mouth of the tunnel, where a huge metal box had been inserted into the crater earlier.
“That way it is,” Ellis said.
“Oh, oh. You’re gonna want to see this,” Callen urgently said and pointed to a wallscreen.
On the wallscreen behind, all four aliens jumped to their feet and paced coolly down the tunnel. One ran its hand along the tunnel wall, feeling it experimentally to determine its matter.
“Those guys are huge. Just enormously huge,” Mackenzy grunted.
“You should see them close up like I did,” Gust said.
“You saw them close up?” Mackenzy asked with excitement.
“I sure did. I was face-to-face with one of them,” Gust said proudly.
“That must have been something, huh?”
“It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Gust said.
On the wallscreen, the Alpha Centaurians broke into a run and headed straight for the mouth of the tunnel. The trap was incomplete.
Ellis jumped up, angrily kicked the floor, and mumbled cusses. The adjacent wallscreen blinked and Loren came into view. “Did you see that?”
“Just lovely. Add impeccable timing to their repertoire,” Ellis said. He kicked the ground and Loren’s face blinked off. “Seal off all the doors leading to the entrance!” Ellis yelled urgently, whipping his head to the chem men.
Mackenzy jumped to a nearby deskscreen and hailed the Mars Zoning Board. “Seal off all doors to tunnel 231,” Mackenzy ordered the operator.
“Done!” the operator said. Mackenzy had expected this.
They watched the wallscreen as the four aliens continued to dash down the tunnel. Their strides were athletic and graceful, as if they didn’t require effort to move at that blazing speed. Their legs and chests were bulging with thick muscles. They were heading right to the group. Two boisterous thuds exploded as the doors clanged shut, followed by four thunderous, earsplitting screams. Every MP froze and stared down the semi-dark tunnel, even the wobots froze at the deafening sound.
“I think they’re pissed,” Gust said.
“That’s the understatement of the week, kid,” Ellis said sarcastically. “You’ve seen them pissed. Now you’re about to see me pissed.”
“After observing them for awhile, there’s something that’s been nagging me. I wanted to tell you earlier but thought you’d think I was insane. I think this is a good time as any.”
“If it has anything to do with your girl problems, I can’t help you, kid.”
“It’s not about girls. I adhere to the space jock’s AOG code.”
“Space jock’s AOG code?”
“Aliens Over Girls.”
“That’s funny. If it’s related to the aliens, let’s hear it. Make it quick.”
“Well, we regularly send ships to the asteroid belt, right?”
“Those tombs were found in the asteroid belt, right?”
“Right. What are you getting at, kid?”
“Everything we know about these aliens isn’t beyond our technology.”
“What are you getting at, kid?”
“If you fuse a milbot with a biomech, what would it look like?”
“With the wrong AI for a brain, an extremely intelligent monster.”
“Are these aliens powerful?”
“Are they intelligent?”
“Intelligent on the diabolical side. Diabolically intelligent. Evil, but intelligent.” Ellis had to pause to let it sink in. “What happened to your Alpha Centaurian theory?”
“It’s still a theory that has merit. But it’s not the only one.”
“What are you alluding to, kid?”
“I’m just saying that their technology isn’t as advanced as we’ve been led to believe. I’ve thought this over quit a bit. We have all the individual technological pieces to create these aliens.”
“Really? So if you combine a milbot with biomech, you would get these monsters?”
“With the wrong AI and branching logic, yes.”
“So we should create a few monsters of our own to fight them?”
“That’s not what I’m getting at.”
“Then what are you getting at, kid? Understand I’m not a scientist, so you’ll have to spell everything out for me. Also, look around you, does it look like I have time for a theoretical symposium?”
Gust noticed people coming within earshot. “You know how I love aliens and come up with the craziest theories. I won’t waste anymore of your time. Do you what you have to do.”
“You’re a tease, Gust. Let’s get back to the matter at hand then.”
For the next five minutes, they sat and watched as the Alpha Centaurians dashed wildly back and forth down Tunnel 231, running into a thick metal wall at each end. Then they’d bang the doors and tried to break through. If this kept up, Ellis wasn’t sure he’d be able to carry out his plan. Ellis glanced at his wristband and frowned, a little concerned now.
THE TRAP WAS finished five minutes ahead of schedule. The crater was now a metal room with a sensored door. Ellis, Mackenzy, and Callen stood and barked evacuation instructions. Within thirty minutes, Tunnel 231 was nearly empty. Loren had landed her shuttle and picked up Gust. Ellis remained behind with twelve, a unit, of the MP’s bravest officers.
“All the best, guys,” Mackenzy called, waving a hand at the chase group huddled around Ellis.
“Yeah, good luck,” Callen shouted. He and Mackenzy faded slowly into the adjacent tunnel, to safety.
On one of the wallscreens in front of the group, Gust, now in Loren’s shuttle above, appeared and spoke, “All the best to everyone,” he wished the chase group.
Ellis turned away from the group and stared at the wallscreen. “Thanks, kid. Don’t cause trouble up there. Do what Diane tells you to do. She isn’t as nice as me. Okay?”
Gust smiled on the wallscreen. “I won’t. She’s prettier than you, though.”
Loren came into view and pecked his cheek.
Ellis laughed. “See you in about ten minutes, kid,” Ellis said confidently.
Gust saluted over the wallscreen.
“But in case I don’t make it back, your three notebooks are in my office. I like the doodle of the smiling face.”
Gust smiled weakly. “I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
The holographic wallscreen fizzled with static and blanked out. The image of the four imposing aliens reappeared, kicking and banging the metal door. Ellis’s chase group looked confident and ready to go. Most of them had been at Biosphere Ten and the west wing near the autopsy room. He looked at his twelve finest, and inhaled deeply and cleared his throat.
“Any objection? Good. Let’s finish early and get a good night’s sleep.” Ellis grinned at the chase group.
“Look what just popped up, Don,” a female MP said, motioning her chin at the wallscreen.
Ellis turned and stared at the wallscreen in dismay. The four massive aliens were gone. Instead, the physical forms of John Yamoto, Michael Ender, Michelle Gardner, and Kevin Fryer, were on the wallscreen. They looked exactly like the originals. Their eyes stared sympathetically out the wallscreen, as if asking for mercy.
Ellis was intrigued by all this. “It’s too late for that. You should have thought about the consequences earlier.” He paused to admire their physique. Then ordered, “Turn it off.” The wallscreen flickered off. “That’s better,” Ellis said coolly. “Let’s go hunting. We have a score to settle with those beasts. Don’t give mercy and don’t expect any.” Ellis began walking down the shadowy tunnel with the unit in tow, turned left, and came upon a tall door.
“Open door,” he spoke at the air. The targeted soundfield projected from his wristband recognized his voice and relayed it to Loren’s shuttle and the Mars Zoning Board. Earlier, he had been authorized to access everything in the complex.
The metal door rumbled and opened vertically. The chase group ducked in before it was completely raised.
“Close door,” Ellis ordered again and breathed deeply.
The chase group was approaching the section of the tunnel where the aliens were. Ellis was about to give the instruction to release them. He shot individual glances at his twelve brave officers. They nodded slowly and nervously in response.
“Unleash the beasts,” Ellis ordered.
They held their breaths as the metal door clanged open. But there was nothing on the other side that they could see. They sat and waited in silence for another minute.
A voice crackled in Ellis’s ear. The voice was projected from the geofenced soundfield on his wristband. Only he could hear the targeted soundfield. It was Loren. “They’re not moving, Don. They’re standing beneath the doorway hoping to get crushed by the looks of it.”
Ellis shook his head. He was hoping the aliens would rush the group. That was his Plan A. Maybe they had recognized the trap.
“We’ll wait two more minutes.”
The group patiently waited.
Mackenzy spoke this time, “They’re still not moving, Don. They probably know you’re up to something.”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” Ellis said. “Plan B it is.”
Plan B was to come from behind Tunnel 230 and chase them to the mouth of Tunnel 231, to where the trap was. The group trudged down Tunnel 230 and came upon another high metal door.
“Open door,” Ellis said at the air. The soundfield and sensors recognized his preauthorized voice again and relayed it for approval.
They lined up a few meters from the door. It slowly, ever slowly clanged up, inch by inch, by eternal inch, then a portion of Tunnel 231 came in view.
On Loren’s shuttle, Gust held his breath and hoped for the safety of the group.
The door finally opened. Fifty meters away were four towering creatures. They whipped around and sneered at the group. Then their eyes glowed red, sizzling with electrical sparks. All four aliens appeared to be eyeing Ellis. They knew him.
One alien, probably the rascal of the group, stepped forward and shouted down the tunnel, “I think you have the wrong people, officers.” The voice was identical to Anne Pressly’s.
The MPs all froze, waiting for Ellis’s lead.
Without warning, the four aliens broke into a sprint, heading at the group. There was no gun fire yet.
“Now!” Ellis hollered.
Each MP pulled a precision grenade from their holster belts and tossed them in unison at the ground ahead. Dirt and concrete blew into the air and smoke billowed everywhere. The semi-dark tunnel became clouded. Then the vicious firing began, MPs pulling on triggers, shooting straight ahead. The air sparked to life like discharging firecrackers, setting the tunnel ablaze.
“I can’t see fuck all!” an MP bellowed.
Ellis, dragging on the trigger, lunged ahead like a lunatic. He hit something and the air ignited. “Charge!” he shouted over the rattling of bullets. “You die fighting for what you believe!”
At first, the group exchanged perplexed looks and thought he was insane. Charge? Fighting for what you believe? Where did that come from at a moment like this? Spurred on by Ellis’s enthusiasm, they obeyed and charged ahead, firing wildly. The firecrackered silhouettes retreated down Tunnel 231 under the relentless attack.
The air fluttered and popped and four aliens appeared ahead. One of them, still madly dashing down the tunnel, twisted around and gave the group the middle finger. Ellis returned the friendly gesture and tossed a grenade to reinforce the friendship. Under the relentless attack of precision grenades and nano-carbon bullets, the alien retreated into the mouth of Tunnel 231.
An opened door awaited them.
They raced down the wide, dark tunnel with bullets hitting their backs and precision grenades exploding. Another fifty meters down and they came upon a door in front of a metal room. The Alpha Centaurians dashed past the door and into the room with insolent grins on their faces. Once inside the room, they stopped in the centre. The trap was perfectly set up. They froze and swept their eyes wildly around the metal room. The metal floor, roof, and walls scared them. They twisted around and saw that the MPs had stopped chasing and were no where to be seen. They were intelligent and knew something was amiss.
The door was the only escape and they lunged for it.
The door clanged shut.
The floor dropped beneath their feet.
They were now floating inside the room—floating helplessly, arms and legs kicking viciously in mid-air. Their eyes rolled across methodically, toiling for an escape. They shifted colors and turned invisible, thinking it would help in some way. It didn’t. So they remained airborne helplessly, clawing at nothing. There was no escaping from for the well engineered room. Nothing they did would help, it was zero gravity they were dealing with.
Suddenly four bassy, deafening screams erupted. Almost every MP in the vicinity heard the screams. The screams lasted for ten seconds and echoed off every wall in the tunnel.
“RUN! GET BACK! Run!” Ellis howled. The MPs sprinted back to the entrance of Tunnel 230. The door was already open and waiting. “Close door 230! Close door 230!” Ellis panted.
The metal door dropped ever slowly. The MP unit ran through and dropped to the floor, gasping for air. There was a clanking sound as the door completely closed.
Tunnel 231 was gone.
“Now, Diane,” Ellis panted.
ON LOREN’S SHUTTLE, Gust jumped off his seat and pressed his face against the port window. There was nothing to see but the starry sky of Mars.
Out of nowhere, a rocket with trailing orange glow darted diagonally through the sky. Gust slapped the shuttle window and cheered. The rocket climbed higher and higher and higher into Mars’s thin atmosphere.
“He’s done it, Diane!” Gust yelled, all pumped up.
Loren leaped off her pilot’s chair and watched the rocket continue its ascent, on its way beyond Mars’s orbit.
A voice came over the deskscreen, but no picture. “Did you like that, kid?”
“Original. Very creative. And stop calling me kid.”
“Okay, kid.” The voice went dead.
They all stared up at the starry sky as the rocket climbed higher—its trailing orange glow decorating the dark sky.
There was an unspoken silence of sadness and a little regret. Had they let the chance of capturing the aliens slip away? Ellis would had allowed their capture if the lives of his wife and son weren’t at stake. He wasn’t going to risk their lives for a science project.
No one spoke for a long time. They admired the sky with reflective eyes.
TWO MINUTES LATER, Ellis sat against the tunnel wall with an immense grin across his face. The twelve MPs thought he was a serial killer wearing that wicked grin. He couldn’t wipe it off for some reason. Then he kissed his wristband and coolly instructed, “Now, Diane.” He was still grinning.
SEVEN HUNDRED KILOMETERS over the nearest shuttle, beyond Mars’s orbit, a violent explosion erupted, lighting up the night sky with a brilliant exploding fireball. Pieces of the rocket detonated in every direction.
Then Mars’s night sky was silent again.
The Biomech Lazar
THREE DAYS LATER, in Ellis’s MP office, Gust was still spellbound by Ellis’s 3Gs of Gunner, Gard, and Gander; and of course the anibot Cygnus, the black jaguar. The milbots were still powered down but they still looked imposing, just as the Alpha Centaurians had.
“Please power them up. Just this one time. Please,” Gust pleaded.
“Not now. What are your plans, kid?”
Gust felt deflated. “I’m heading back to Earth for the RFC at nBotics Arena in San Franciso. I have this wild branching logic algorithm I’d like to program into Ram.”
“That’s a good plan. Make sure to spend time with your parents.” Gust’s parents, Ellis thought, the ones who secretly worked as security analysts for Earth Legion. He wondered what they had told Gust they did for a living.
“Of course.” Then Gust thought to himself, Christy or Trina? Christy or Trina? That decision could wait because of the space jock’s AOG code (Aliens Over Girls).
“I have a few more things to show you before you go.” Just as Ellis finished, on cue, the holographic deskscreen flickered on. It was Loren. She looked distraught.
“Don, you’re not going to believe this.” She was panicked.
“Nothing surprises me anymore. Let’s hear it, Diane.”
“A Whittaker Resources mining outpost on Mercury reported they’ve found several alien tombs.”
Gust was stunned. Ellis froze. The metals and minerals extracted at Whittaker’s mining operation on Mercury were for the shipyards. Those shuttle, fighter, and tugship builders weren’t going to be happy. What else could go wrong for Whittaker?
Loren continued, “That’s not all, Don. Xavier and his cult have also claimed they’ve found dozens of alien tombs in the northern polar ice cap, in the Valles Marineris Region.”
Up until now the biomech Xavier and his religious nuts had subsisted on the areas around the Martian aquifers—the free-flowing waters on Mars—and the polar ice caps. Now, he’d made a major alien discovery. Ellis was disturbed. Gust just stared blankly at Ellis. Alien tombs on Mars? Now alien tombs on the planet Mercury? And alien tombs on Mars’s northern polar ice cap? What about the southern polar ice cap? Was there an alien invasion in the making?
Ellis and Gust stared at each other for a long time. Then they stared at Loren on the holoscreen.
Loren continued, “Xavier threatened that there’ll be a catastrophic event if his demands aren’t met.”
“And what are his demands this time?”
“It’s a long list. He said to proceed judiciously because he’s learned how to communicate with the aliens.”
When it rains, it pours. Staring at the deskscreen, Ellis was terrified. His mind was racing. Now he understood why his mentor Malen had created the secret Earth Legion several decades ago. There were 20 legions spread throughout the solar system in secret bases. Each Legion had 20,000 legionnaires, picked from the best military and police recruits on Earth and Mars. The Earth Legion was created to 1) defend the solar system from possible alien invasions, 2) in times of war between the species, defend Naturalopists from biomechs, cyborgs, robots, pharmies, and what Naturalopists considered other non-natural humans. Four decades earlier, in 2154, telescopes and satellites in the Oort Cloud had detected artificial radio wave broadcasts originating from several exoplanets. Thus the secret establishment of the 20 Earth Legions.
When Ellis was recruited as a commander of ELIX (Earth Legion 9), he never thought he would had to defend the solar system from otherworldly beings. By the looks of it, an alien invasion was coming.
There was more. Loren hadn’t finished with the bad news, or good news depending on whose perspective. Loren continued, “I think it’s best that you tell Rhinehart this: Whittaker is dead.”
Ellis was shocked. His eyebrows jumped. “Udell or Lazar?” Ellis asked to make sure.
“The father, Udell Whittaker.”
Wow, Ellis thought. Gust was motionless, stunned, shocked.
“Do we know how he died?” Ellis asked.
“Xavier claimed responsibility.”
Ellis thought to himself: why would anyone kill the wealthiest man on Mars and one of the wealthiest in the solar system and claim responsibility? Was Xavier crazy? Yes. But that’s another level of crazy to kill Udell Whittaker and admit it. Everyone knew Udell Whittaker and William Rhinehart were the best of friends. Now Xavier was about to bear the brunt of the Mars Police.
“Are you still there, Don?” Loren asked.
“I’m still here, but my mind is a frazzled mess right now. I’m not sure if I’m awake or dreaming. It’s surreal. Let me get back to you, Diane. I need time to digest everything.”
Finally, Gust looked at the milbots Gunner, Gard, Gander, and Cygnus. He looked over to Ellis and gamely said, “You’re going need those guys now.”
FOUR DAYS LATER, Ellis was at his desk mulling over last week’s extraordinary chain of events. Gust was sitting across from him. They watched the holographic deskscreens in silence, each with the same line of thought. They had found and killed four aliens; Whittaker’s mining operation on Mercury had found more aliens; Xavier, the biomech cult leader, had found alien tombs buried in the northern Martian polar ice cap. Then to top it off Xavier had killed Whittaker. The Mars Police wasn’t equipped to handle caseloads of these magnitude. I may need the help of my ELIX legionnaires, he thought.
As Ellis meditated on his options, Gust couldn’t stop admiring Gunner, Gard, Gander, and Cygnus in the corner. Then they heard heavy footsteps approaching from the hallway. These extremely weighty footsteps were familiar to Ellis. Was there an army coming? Gust thought. Ellis and Gust looked at each other, then the door.
Standing outside the door were the biomechs Lazar Whittaker and his massive cyborg bodyguard Nix. Behind them were three gigantic milbots (military robots). Each milbot was over 7 feet tall. I don’t remember this appointment, Ellis thought to himself. Without being invited in, Lazar and his entourage eased into Ellis’s office.
Ellis and Gust stood and faced Lazar and Nix. From the corner of their eyes, they could see the menacing milbots towering behind Lazar and Nix. Twelve Mars Police officers entered the room and made a semi-circle around Lazar and his entourage.
“Power them down. You know they’re illegal,” Ellis demanded, glaring at Lazar. It was illegal for civilians to possess milbots, and even illegal to have robots on Mars unless licensed. Mars wasn’t as liberal as Earth when it came to robots. Mars was supposed to be a haven for Naturalopists, not biomechs, cyborgs, pharmies, or AI bots. But their haven was slowly being encroached upon. Again.
“He’s been cleared by the DED to use them,” One MP offered. DED was the Department of Earth Defense, which also had jurisdiction on Mars. The MP continued, “The bots are for the purpose of security.”
“Thank-you, officer,” Lazar said in his monotone voice. Lazar took several steps forward until he was in front of Ellis. The whole room watched in silence. It was tense. Even Lazar’s gigantic milbots were motionless.
“I’m sure you can appreciate my need for them after what happened to my father,” Lazar said.
Ellis studied Lazar’s cellular enhanced face. Every part of the biomech had been cellularly enhanced. He had the body and endurance of a marathon runner, the strength of a body builder, and the logic of a machine.
Ellis said nothing. Gust looked over at the massive cyborg Nix. He couldn’t have known Nix was a cyborg if he hadn’t been told.
Lazar turned his head slowly and looked in the corner at Ellis’s 3Gs: Gunner, Gard, Gander, and Cygnus the black jaguar anibot. Then Lazar turned his head around to his three milbots and proudly introduced them to the room, “This is Pistol, this is Blazer, and this is Scout. I see Gunner, Gard, and Gander are quiet. All six were built by our nBotics team. They are, shall we say, ‘brothers.’ You could say that all six were cut from the same sheet.”
And the same branching logic, thought Gust.
Again, Ellis wasn’t impressed with Lazar. He studied Lazar, then asked, “Why are you are, Lazar?”
“I’m here to let you know that if there’s anything I can do to assist in bringing my father’s murderer to justice, I will do it. Anything. I understand the cult leader Xavier has claimed responsibility for my father’s murder,” Lazar said in his calm, cold, even voice.
Ellis looked at his MPs, turned to Lazar, and curtly said, “Leave that to us. That’s our job. Not yours.”
Lazar bowed very slowly, as to make sure the whole room took notice of his feigned submission. “As you wish, Lieutenant.”
Again, Ellis wasn’t impressed. He looked at the cyborg Nix, then at Lazar again. “Don’t bring him or them here next time,” Ellis warned, pointing at the cyborg Nix and the towering milbots. “And make sure you have an appointment the next time you’re here.”
Lazar bowed his head slightly, “Duly noted, Lieutenant. I sincerely apologize for the intrusion.”
“Now, I’m sincerely asking you to leave my office and our headquarters.”
“As you wish, Lieutenant.” Lazar paused, eyeing Ellis, then looked over to the cyborg Nix. Lazar turned around and slowly walked to the door. The twelve MPs carefully watched him and the milbots as they left.
Nix sped up and walked in front to guard Lazar. The three towering milbots guarded the rear as Lazar walked out of Ellis’s office. Ellis gestured to the MP unit and they escorted Lazar and his entourage out of MP Headquarters.
When everyone was out of eyesight, Ellis and Gust sat back down.
“What was that all about?” Gust asked.
“Daddy’s little boy showing off his toys and exerting his power. Look at me, I just inherited half of Mars. Rich boy syndrome.”
Gust looked at the corner to Ellis’s milbots of Gunner, Gard, Gander, and Cygnus. He said, “You’re going to really need those guys now.”
“How’s your adaptive combat software engineering skill, kid?”
“It’s getting there. My branching logic is unorthodox and unpredictable. That’s why Ram’s been quickly moving up the RFC ladder.”
“Good. I need your help reprogramming my 3Gs. I don’t trust Lazar and his company nBotics, or any biomech for that matter. You can’t trust a private corporation to do public service work.”
“You don’t know him that well. Why would you make that assessment?”
“I know enough. He’s dangerous because of who he is and doubly dangerous because who his father was. If you think his father was greedy and calculating, you haven’t seen Lazar operate. He’s a biomech out to prove his superiority. I have always felt something was off with Lazar. It’s my intuition. He’s governed by logic and not conscience. People who lack emotion are capable of the most heinous acts. I know that for a fact from the files I’ve worked on. And when those psychopaths are in positions of power, expect tyranny.”
Gust thought about that for a few seconds. Lately, the biomechs had been overt with their demands for equality. Gust finally said, “I don’t know Lazar well enough to evaluate his character.”
“You will. Mark my words, kid. What we have here is a sociopath and a psychopath in the making. All the unspeakable crimes the biomechs have committed on Earth will soon find their way to Mars if Lazar has his way. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Ellis quoted Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “We have a running file on Lazar at ELIX.”
Did I let that slip? Ellis asked himself. He kept quiet, hoping Gust would let it pass.
“What’s elix?” Gust pressed.
“Did I say ELIX?”
“Yes, you did. You’ve piqued my interest. What’s elix?”
Ellis had to lie. “It’s a profiling system for persons of interest that we use here, at Mars Police. Here.”
“I see. Can I read Lazar’s file?”
“Maybe. If you help reprogram my 3Gs, I’ll think hard about it.”
“I’ll think hard about reprogramming Gunner, Gard, and Gander.”
“Okay, if you reprogram my 3Gs, I’ll let you read Lazar’s file”.
“That’s sound like deal. You’ll like our ACS team. They’re crazier than me.”
“We have a deal, kid.”
“Stop calling me ‘kid’.”
“Roger that, kid.”
Upcoming Sequels to Future Dark: Aliens
Book Two, Future Dark: Biomechs
Book Three, Future Dark: Naturalopists
Book Four, Future Dark: Apocalypse
Book Five, Future Dark: Regenesis
Book Six, Future Dark: Cosmic Designers
Images courtesy of NASA, www.nasa.gov , and www.wikipedia.org
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Future Dark: Aliens
Copyright © 2015 by Trung Nguyen
All rights reserved
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Published in 2015 by
“I liked this novel a lot...The plot of this novel is its strongest element...The author can put together a very strong plot, with plenty of twists and turns, and a good ending. There are some very suspenseful moments, and levels of tension are created which at their best evoke the sensations of a fine horror story. And the author, by and large, appears to have done his/her homework. The novel also has sociological touches which work well, especially its view of futuristic mega-capitalism. The venality, blindness, and excess of Udell Whittaker and his flunkeys is very believable, and adds depth to the story. The manner of day to day life, both in space and on the ‘colonies' of Mars seems well-researched and is often fascinating to the lay reader…” — Writers Guild of Alberta The war of the species has begun. In the Year 2194, four tombs are discovered encased in an asteroid in a mining facility on Phobos, one of Mars’s two moons. As the Martians soon find, these tombs contain the bodies of four aliens… Visit the future of Earth’s multi-humanoid society of Naturalopists (natural humans), biomechs (biological-mechanical beings) , cyborgs (part machine-part human), milbots (military robots), cilbots (military robots), anibots (animal robots), and wobots (worker robots).