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It was the nineteenth of November and his mom and dad were gone for the weekend, visiting far-flung relatives for Thanksgiving, leaving Daniel Knight to his own devices. They would be back in time for his mom to cook Thanksgiving dinner and his dad to lapse into a tryptophan-daze in front of the football games. It was a gesture, if only to him, that the “space for rent” sign he had always assumed they saw taped to his forehead was gone. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. He’d heard his dad talking in the living room when he thought Daniel couldn’t hear. “Most kids these days, they’re like Jack Merridew: give them a glass of milk and they want a chocolate cake. But he’s not like that. He has a sense of… purpose about him.” He was glad they had gone without him. He loved them both but, as an only child, he sometimes felt – though they never showed any signs of it- that he had been in their way. He was alright alone. Daniel had taken advantage of their absence to fire up the old Chevy pickup truck and go to the movies.
Living in the country had its perks and drawbacks. One of the pros was that he was only a few miles from Borden Lake and the Okeeweemee National forest. One of the cons was he had to drive twenty miles to see a movie. The nine o’clock showing was over by eleven. The night was pleasantly crisp, not cold. It seldom got cold and stayed cold in the foothills of North Carolina until around Christmastime. The sky was a hard indigo, the stars bright white and clear. He didn’t go home straightaway. He wanted to test his newfound freedom and also give himself some extra time to smoke a few more cigarettes.
The mountains around Borden Lake were crosshatched with dirt roads that, for all he knew, were highways to perdition and Oz. The only ones he knew were the ones he traveled when he and his dad pulled the old 16 foot Wellcraft over to the lake to go skiing, but he’d always been a little intrigued as to where some of the others went. Short of the lake, he just didn’t know why there would be roads all through this little section of forest. What was there to see?
He crossed the bridge over the lake and turned left onto Shaw road. A half a mile down this road, he made a right onto a dirt track that began to wind its way through the forest. When he came to the crossroads a half a mile down, instead of going straight (like they always did when he and his father came) he made a left and began climbing up into the mountains instead of descending towards the lake.
There wasn't, as he had expected, a lot to see other than black sky above him and dark forest on both sides. Streetlights even on the main highway near the lake were isolated and, in the Okeeweemee National Forest, completely wanting. His journey wasn't wholly random. At the top of one of the mountains ringing the lake, a single beacon had, for as long as he could remember, burned into the night like a lonely red eye. He could see it from his house, that one, glowing ember against the black sky and it had fascinated him from the time he was a kid. It was strange as beacons go in that it seemed to struggle mightily to get its chin above the tree line and it had never, as far as he could recall, blinked. The little towns that ringed the lake like frosting florettes from God's piping bag had more than their fair share of gum flappers, tall-talers and know-it-alls, but nobody seemed to know -or even want to know- what the beacon was. Everybody had their own theory (his own was that it was a fire tower) and it was always just assumed that somebody knew what it was. It was just one of those things that had always been a bit out of sorts. Not scary or eerie. Just off.
As various turns presented themselves, he took them semi-randomly, sometimes going left, sometimes right, but always trying to keep the beacon in sight. Maddeningly, though he seemed to be moving uphill, the signaling red light seemed always to remain just one more hill away. He wasn’t really worried about getting lost, reasoning that if he drove on these dirt roads long enough he’d eventually come out on pavement somewhere. Jesus, he wasn’t on frigging Mars.
Most of the roads were marginally scraped smooth and interspersed with intervals of teeth-chattering, corrugated straightaways and treacherous washouts, but mostly sort of pebbly dirt and gravel. On this particular stretch of road a lot of the dirt had surrendered to slabs of clay-coated granite that bullied their way to the surface, irregular, rocky teeth erupting through clay gums. The granite lay in hulking, cracked slabs that could have busted an axle or sheared off an oil pan. He had to slow down a lot and creep over these obstructions. He decided he needed to quit this particularly ornery stretch of road and he began looking for a place to turn around.
He was brought up short by an eight foot high chain link fence blocking the road. He stopped the truck and got out. Dry dust, as ubiquitous as floating spirits in a graveyard, drifted up like an ailing wraith and eddied lethargically in the headlight beams. The lamps seemed strangely hooded here, as if they just didn’t want to look any farther. Attached at about six and a half feet in height and reflecting the headlight beams with a sort of matte dullness, was a sign. The authoritarian lettering practically jumped off the metal: This is a U.S. Military Installation. No unauthorized personnel allowed. He looked a little quizzically at the sign, reaching out to touch it as if to convince himself it really was here in the middle of nowhere.
The fence itself was a solid, gateless section spanning the road. That seemed odd. Doubtless there was an entrance somewhere in the fence’s unknown perimeter, but it gave the fence the appearance of being hastily put up instead of planned out. He couldn’t really see very far down either side of the fence, but the support posts seemed to be way too far apart. Everything about the fence screamed temporary. It was unnerving, especially to a seventeen year old kid out here alone in the darkest part of the haunted mountains. Who knew? He might have been looking at something he wasn’t supposed to see. It was certainly off the beaten path and looked to have been haphazardly erected for some ad hoc purpose.
The army was known to do maneuvers quite frequently in the mountains. The sight of choppers (almost always in threes and a bare eighth of a mile in altitude) was as common as the sight of soldiers in full gear creeping through fields late at night (and fortunate not to get shot a lot of times. But the war games were usually well announced and most folks were on the lookout for them). The rail cars that clanked through town were often laden with tanks and jeeps, although, over the past few years, the military cargo had been a bit less OD. Shiny steel and white machines (clearly stenciled with that broken, black US Army lettering) that looked more like robotics, and mining equipment had made an appearance. Exotic domed structures that bore a greater than passing resemblance to igloos had rolled through town, piggybacked on the freight cars. What was uncommon and, as far as he knew, unknown, was a permanent military presence, and that’s what he seemed to have here. For the first time he wondered if there were men in full tactical gear and armed with M16’s watching him from the other side of the fence, crouched down in an unseen no-man’s-land just out of range of his headlights. Nobody knew he was here and, if somebody meant to do him harm and get away with it, they wouldn’t find a better place. That was a little alarming and it got him moving.
He nervously went back to the idling truck and got in, but not before casting a final look at the red light at the top of the mountain. Still enticingly far away, but, he thought, a little closer. He did a three point turn on the dusty road to get out of there, sparing one last look in his rear view mirror. The sign and the chain links were a demon red and receding in his taillights. He was almost positive that, at the very limit of his illumination and vision, he saw shadowy figures converge on the spot he had just vacated. Then he could see no more. Curious.
He settled in to a night of late night TV after arriving home, in no hurry to kip down for the night. He stretched out on the couch set against the wall beneath the double windows, surrounding himself, as teenagers with no adult supervision will, with chips and salsa and soda and cookies. At 1:17 am (he would never forget the exact time because, as should be automatic for all events which a person deems to be a probable one off, he looked at the clock) the heavens shouted.
Looking back on it later, he could construct it exactly as it happened. The precursor was a series of soundless pressure waves he felt building outside of his house for perhaps three seconds, piling up against each other like an accordion being compressed. There was the faintest popping in his ears that would have been easy to dismiss had nothing else happened. Then, not quite out of the blue, -KA-WHAM!
The thunderous boom smashed into the broad side of the house like the discharge from a massive air cannon, making the house quiver as if a giant had plinked it with his finger. Family photos and the digital wall clock fell to the floor, and the couch where he lay jumped and moved three inches away from the wall. The boom was as loud as a particularly heavy clap of thunder, but there was none of the portentous rumbling of thunder, or the sharp crack of lightning striking close. This was a massive, instantaneous BOOM! that rattled his teeth, like a detonation.
His first reaction was to look out the window, expecting to see flames and smoke from an explosion of some kind. He drew the curtains back and scanned the night soaked landscape. It was almost more shocking to see nothing but darkness rather than the whirling flames and smoke he had expected. The boom seemed to come from his side of the house, but he couldn’t be sure, so he decided to walk outside and look.
He traced a path around the house. After the boom, the night was eerily silent. The bugs had all gone to sleep for the winter and there was no sound save his feet cracking against the frost on the dried grass. There was nothing.
With an almost magnetic attraction, his eyes were drawn to the red beacon atop the mountain. Really no reason for it other than one oddity attracts another.
There, in the purple fabric of the night above the beacon, the sky rippled. He could see it in the way the stars wavered and their light smeared. He didn’t know how, but he knew something was coming through.
Then it was there. The night seemed to close up behind it, but the stars didn’t shine. They were blocked out by the massive, triangular shape of something in the sky. He couldn’t actually see the craft, only its shape, an isosceles triangle, with the rear forming the short-sided transom. He was oblivious to the cold as the craft moved across the sky in a stately southeast to northwest line. It made no sound, at least not as of yet, as it blotted out the stars with its ruler-straight, triangular shape.
It’s going to come right over me, he thought as he quickly extrapolated the craft’s course. He wasn’t scared (the boom had been far more startling), but fascinated as the craft moved inexorably towards him. Perspective dictated that for something that large to be traveling so slowly, it had to be at a great altitude. The craft’s outline was larger than anything he had ever seen flying at any great height, blotting out fields of stars as big as a basketball held at arm’s length. He was more dumbfounded by the astounding mass of the thing than anything else. As it approached directly overhead, he heard it for the first time, a soft, really almost inaudible, rumbling sound, like the metal wheels of old roller skates rolling over rough concrete. He felt it as much as heard it, but it wasn’t really unpleasant, actually kind of soothing to his jangled nerves. There were no lights at any of the corners, but in the direct center of the bulk of the thing, just light enough for him to concede it wasn’t imagination, a bulbous, red glow, almost like a dome, shone dimly. No, not red exactly. Orange before it turns to red, as faint as the coils on a stove top as they heat up to the point where you can just barely make them out in a darkened room. He watched the silent craft go on its unalterable way as it passed him by, likening it to an ocean liner set on cruise, chugging away on an arrow straight course, daring any iceberg to impede it. He followed the craft with his eyes as it receded to the northwest, seeming to skim the top of one of the mountain peaks. Then it was gone.
A pent up shudder gripped him, as much from the cold as anything else. He had, he reckoned, been watching the craft for a solid five to seven minutes and had gotten a really good look at it. From the point where it had emanated from the sky to the point where it was lost from sight was, he estimated, a good, fifteen to twenty miles. It wasn’t a meteor, it wasn’t the planet Venus, it wasn’t the goddamn moon. He didn’t know what it was. But the most intriguing thing was not the craft itself, but how it came to be.
He looked again at the unblinking beacon. It stared like a stone idol into the night as it had done for as long as he could remember. The sky above it was whole and unripped, the stars shining brightly and kindly as they had for billions of years. Maybe it was just coincidence that the craft had seemed to appear above the beacon. But coupled with the boom, his curious discovery of the military base, and the rippling sky, he didn’t think so. Somebody, somewhere, knew something.
He walked back inside, shivering. He hadn’t expected to be out as long as he had. He stooped to pick up the fallen pictures and the clock. Mercifully, none of the glass was cracked. He looked at the digital clock. It was still running and read 1:56. The thud on the floor must have scrambled its electronic brains because he knew he hadn’t been outside for almost forty-five minutes. Still…
He walked through the house, turning on lights. In every room which had a clock, they all read within a couple of minutes of 1:56. Rather than a frown, a puzzled look fell over his face. Maybe he’d been so rapt he’d simply lost track of time. That would explain why he was so cold.
It was too late to call anybody and ask about the boom. He was certain the 911 phones were ringing off the hook. His own call would be superfluous. Doubtless, somebody would know something by tomorrow.
He tidied up and went to bed, not surprised at all that he slept very well. What had happened wasn’t really scary. It was… amazing.
When he got up the next morning he was filled with a peculiar sense of expectation, a sensation that something was in the offing. After the momentous events of the early morning he shouldn’t have been surprised. Maybe it was the upcoming holiday, maybe it was all just a bucketload of endorphins. He couldn’t shake the feeling, and he didn’t really want to.
Despite his curiosity about the beacon, Daniel had never really looked into it. Prompted by what he had seen, he went to Google Earth to have a look. He didn’t know the actual coordinates, but he punched in a couple of addresses that were close by, figuring he could move his mouse around and dope it out when he saw it.
What he saw was what he had pretty well expected: a low-res, pixilated area in what he figured was the general vicinity of the beacon. That was good enough for him. Something was there, something that had to be hidden.
When he went into town that morning, there was a peck of talk about the boom. School was out and lots of people had heard it and called 911. Most dismissed it as a sonic boom, some joyriding sky jockey playing Top Gun with several million dollars worth of government issued equipment. The military, the Air Force specifically, naturally denied any such thing. No meth lab had exploded, no meteorite had impacted, no gas main had gone up. Nobody really knew what had happened, but the phenomenon was not unknown. They were called Skyquakes or Seneca guns and had been reported all over the world. He’d probably have to wait for the weekly county newspaper to come out to get any details. Everybody and everything was in the county scandal sheet at one time or another, for good or evil. But in all the talk about the boom, no-one mentioned the strange black triangle and Daniel began to wonder if he had, improbably, been the only one to see it. He thought about trying to obliquely mention it to some of his friends, but didn’t want to be branded a lunatic. They’d always seen him as more than a little starry-eyed, anyway. After all, it was probably just some kind of aircraft he had never seen before. That didn’t make it otherworldly. Maybe another time. It was a story he could always carry in his back pocket to pull out around a camp fire or on a date.
He got back to his house at around two that afternoon. Still plenty of daylight left, but night would fall fast. By six-thirty it would be dark.
He heard the beating of chopper blades above him and looked up to see the scorpion’s shadow of a venerable UH-1 Iroquois, known more fondly as the Huey, fall over him and race along the ground as it flew by him only a couple of hundred feet high. It circled the field next to his house and very purposely set down, less than two hundred feet away.
A man dressed in an ACU stepped out of the chopper, holding his cap against the wash of the helicopter’s blades, and walked very deliberately towards Daniel. He seemed to be in his fifties, a bit over six feet, the same height as Daniel, and with the piercing blue eyes and jutting jaw that should grace any military recruiting poster. Daniel started towards him, meeting him halfway. As a kid, it hadn’t been unusual for him and his chums to casually run upon soldiers in the field and swap them a few candy bars or cigarettes for K-rations.
The man stuck out his hand in greeting. “Hullo,” he bellowed over the roar of the chopper’s turbine engine.
Daniel shook the man’s hand. His name patch identified him as “Boykin” and his rank insignia, on the breast of his ACU and his cap, was an eagle. Colonel Boykin, then. They walked a little farther from the chopper where the whap-whap-whap from the blades wasn’t so great. He introduced himself.
“Your mom and dad home,” Boykin asked.
“Visiting relatives. What can I do for you?”
“You’re Daniel, right?”
“How do you know my name?”
Boykin allowed himself a wry smile. “Big Brother is everywhere, son. Heard you saw something strange up here last night.”
Daniel, unsurprised, replied with relaxed humor. “If you did, you’re the first one. But, yeah, I saw something.”
Daniel described for Colonel Boykin the ship and its transit.
“Sounds about right,” Boykin said. His pause was almost
almost undetectable when Daniel looked at him quizzically. “Maybe,” the Colonel said, “you’d like to see it close up.” The Colonel’s eyes strayed towards the red beacon, as Daniel knew they would.
“For real?” Daniel didn’t mean to sound so eager, but he couldn’t help it. This was the equivalent of a stranger offering him a candy cane to jump into his mobile murder lab on wheels and he was chasing it like Pugsley running down an ice cream truck. But he wasn’t a kid. He wanted to see it, to know for himself that it was real.
“You’re not going to load me up with psychotropic drugs and steal my brain, are you?”
“No, that’s the CIA does that.”
Daniel thought about it for a minute. Things were pretty boring with most of his friends out of town, no brothers or sisters around, not even any pets to take care of.
“Sure,” he said. He smiled. “What’s life without adventure?”
The flight was pleasant and not lengthy, with the towns and buildings disappearing beneath them as they flew into the wilderness. Daniel and the colonel spoke a little about the events of the previous night, but Daniel could extract no more information, especially about the boom. All he knew for certain was that he had a feeling something big was coming.
They approached the dejected red beacon that had transfixed Daniel for so long. It spired up from the wooded mountainside -a mountainside still sporting a good deal of green decoration from the copious evergreens- an ordinary, steel skeleton with nothing around it to mark it as special.
The chopper pilot spoke into his headset, but Daniel couldn’t really hear what he said. The Huey tilted, the chopper descending headlong for the ground and the grasping, impaling Pines. They stretched for the chopper as if seen through a zooming telephoto lens.
“Shit,” Daniel cried as the trees raced at breakneck speed towards him. He braced himself for a crash.
And like walking in front of a projector at school, where the film is momentarily projected onto your person, it seemed that the helicopter broke through a projection that showed plasticine colors: green like trees, and grey like rocks at curiously disturbed angles on the curves and reflective surfaces of the helicopter. Then they slipped through. Daniel looked up and saw the same projection above his head. It looked pretty weird looking at it from beneath. Everything seemed upside down.
“Holographic projection,” Boykin said, grinning. “That always shakes up the noobs.”
Before he even noticed the base hacked out of the stony bones of the mountain, before noticing the flat landing pads, helistrips, and nondescript support buildings dotting the perimeter of the base, before seeing the men and women hustling to and fro busily, he saw the ship. It sat on the white concrete of the base like an ancient monument, black as onyx and huge beyond description, seeming to soak up almost all the space on the base. Massive was the only accurate word that came to mind, and even it didn’t do the thing justice. The various vehicles and helicopters battened down near it looked like ants.
The chopper set down on a pad a hundred feet away from the ship. Its broad, black sides -at least a hundred feet high- rose up like a slumbering prehistoric monster awakening and stretching as the chopper settled down, blocking out the view of anything beyond it. Daniel looked unbelievingly down the length of the thing. He had taken a cruise to the Bahamas the summer before last and, anchored at dock, he had looked down the imposing length of the cruise ship. At almost nine hundred feet, it had been longer than the black triangle by thirty percent, but in actual mass, the Black Ship dwarfed the ocean liner. It was six hundred feet on the long sides, probably four hundred across the beam, and towered well over ten stories. Its corners were rounded and blunted and the whole thing, at least the top and sides he could see, were glass-smooth save for quite a few portholes lining the long sides of the ship. The ship was so large that the foot wide portholes looked like pinpricks. Daniel thought it would have been easier to make a cinder block fly.
“She’s quite a sight, isn’t she?”
Boykin was smiling as he spoke. Daniel swallowed hard as he stepped out of the chopper, escorted by the Colonel. As he walked towards the ship, he saw that it appeared to sit flat upon the pads, with no landing gear at all. You couldn’t have slipped a sheet of paper between the thing’s bottom and the landing pad. So it was probably VTOL. Daniel saw no identifying numbers, letters or markings on the craft. As people passed they snapped cursory salutes to the colonel that he returned, then they went about their business. The place seemed to be an amalgam of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, and was surprisingly casual. Well, maybe it was. This wasn’t standard government issue.
Daniel placed his hand against the ship’s hull. It was like standing next to a giant wall. The hull looked like black glass and it felt like glass, but also metallic at the same time. Weird, but less than uncomfortable. It was almost familiar.
“What is it?”
“Some people call it the Black Manta, others call it the TR3B.” Boykin patted the unyielding hull of the ship. “I call her ‘Daisy’.”
“‘Daisy,’” Daniel echoed. “I like it. Maybe I should have asked, what does she do?”
“Transport, mainly,” Boykin said. “Mostly between here and Mars.”
Daniel was sure he hadn’t misheard. He looked at Boykin carefully, trying to tell if he were being set up for something. Boykin stared him straight in the eye, sure, Daniel thought , that he had made exactly the impression he wanted to.
“Mars,” Daniel said. “The planet, Mars?”
“Well, I don’t mean the god. We aren’t that far along, yet.”
Daniel could think of nothing to say. Boykin seemed to be enjoying his discomfort, and decided to make it worse.
“You can go, if you want to.”
Daniel wasn’t sure if Boykin was serious, or just having some fun at the kid’s expense. He didn’t seem to be joking. Nothing about this seemed light. Boykin seemed to be deadly earnest.
The only thing Daniel could ask was how.
“Most people with at least two brain cells to rub together to make some heat know that the closest distance between two points is zero. Rather than traveling between the points, you pull the points together with an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Most people call it a wormhole, or Stargate, or Jump Gate. We can make one. We go out past 23,800 miles to get past the satellite clutter. At 1 g acceleration it takes about twenty minutes. We don't jump anywhere near the moon -wouldn't want to suck the moon away into a gravity well, would we? Once we hit the bridge, travel is almost instantaneous. Sometimes, depending on conditions, we can get negative travel time, meaning you get to Mars orbit a fraction of a second before you leave the Earth. Don’t ask me about paradoxes or how it works. It just happens. Either way, the majority of travel time is spent going to and leaving the bridge. At the end we come out 30,000 miles from Mars. Deceleration takes about the same twenty minutes.”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“It gets better. That’s just anti-grav. You know, the further you get from a large object, the less efficient anti-grav is. Once you get into interplanetary space, there’s nothing to repel against. Then it’s time to bring out the big guns. If we cancel out the Higgs Boson, we get massless drive. That’s light speed, buddy. The big C. But that’s dangerous and unstable and it makes you feel really weird. We don’t know all the long term effects yet. No, the wormholes are still the best way.”
It was kind of funny -and a little sad- to Daniel. Colonel Boykin seemed less like a guy expositing on Newtonian and quantum physics and more like a greasy-haired gearhead with oil-stained fingernails bragging to his buds about how fast his old Mopar could scream at top end with its new Edelbrock headers. Maybe he had missed his true calling.
Boykin was circling in from the edges of something, and Daniel thought he knew what it was.
“Was I,” Daniel asked, pointing skyward, “up there?”
“Yes,” Boykin answered, pinning Daniel’s eyes with his own. “Many times. Not,” he added, “my doing.”
Daniel should have been angry, but was unsurprised to find that he accepted this thunderbolt calmly. Why else would he have been the only one to see the ship? Why else would he have misplaced forty five minutes? He expected he wasn’t angry because he had known it all along. It was like his dad had said: he’d always seemed destined for more than the quiet obscurity and namelessness of a rural life.
Colonel Boykin eased into a studied reverie, a moment of reflective weakness in a lifetime of stony strength, spinning an epic tale of courageous explorers and near mythical heroes of yesteryear. His attitude softened, just a bit, as he recounted the odyssey.
“Let me tell you the what first,” he said. “Then we’ll get to the why.” Boykin’s gaze looked past Daniel, as if looking back in time. “The ‘bots went first,” he said, “in the early ’80’s, to set up the jump portal. Supplies went next and the ‘bots began building the pods…”
“…and it’s been almost forty years since humans first set foot on Mars,” he finished. “I won’t kid you. It’s been costly. At least as many, probably more, have died as have struggled to scratch out an existence. Life is hard. Harder than anything you can imagine. It's unbearably cold, and dim, and desolate and beautiful. Compared to Mars, Antarctica is a tropical paradise. It's not so much the temperature itself as the swings. On a hot, sunny day at the equator, it can be sixty or seventy degrees Fahrenheit, and the same night, in the same spot, a hundred below zero. The sun is a little smaller than the size of the full moon in the sky and the sky itself is a sort of reddish yellow with a haze of milky blue around the risen sun. It's really quite striking. On a clear, cold night, the Earth is bright blue and bigger than Venus. A Martian day is almost the same as an Earth day -about forty minutes longer- and there are seasons. You have to wear a heated radiation and pressure suit outside of the pods, and you can't stay out for long. Your bones and muscles will atrophy in the low gravity and you'll have to take vitamin D pills. A hundred other things. But the sun does shine, and there are people there -about 2000- and you can live there. There's water and oxygen -mostly manufactured from perchlorate, and not much of either, but enough- and crops that have been developed to grow in the greenhouses. Maybe one day you'll be able to come home. The plans for terraforming are in place should you not be able to come back. Maybe you'll have to build a new civilization there. Maybe you'll die there, a last, brief flare for humanity. But at least you'll have a chance. Maybe you can somehow not make the same mistakes we have.” He smiled sadly. “But I doubt it. We’re still human, aren’t we?”
The stir and rumpus of the base wasn’t enough to distract completely from the stately mountains, clean air, and hard shell of uncracked, blue sky above the hologram. Who could believe anything ill could happen here? But even at seventeen (well, almost eighteen) he knew we didn’t need a giant asteroid to end it all. China was waiting in the wings for Europe and the United States to drop from their twigs. The vast resources of Africa were first in their sights, followed by the Middle East, setting the stage for a genocide that would make the Holocaust look like a mother’s snuggles. That was if India and Pakistan didn’t incinerate them (and each other first) first. The Russians were fairly safe for the moment, but it was iffy about when and if they would let their nuclear birds fly once they were completely isolated. Ditto for Israel. Venezuela and North Korea were burning. With the Great Satan gone, the Shias and Sunnis would turn their attention to each other. Japan, if not overrun by the Chinese in retaliation for a thousand years of animosity, would relapse into feudalism. Yes, the garden was weed-blighted and diseased. Best to turn it all under and start again.
“Why me? Why now?”
“ There are people,” the colonel reflected, “grown fat and greedy -even evil- off the blood and sweat of the people they're supposed to serve. The same parasites and puppeteers that turned the world into a shithole -the same people that pay my salary- think it's their divine right to be first in line to leave when the shitstorm they created comes down. And if I let them go, they'll just turn the new world into the same shithole. I'll do whatever I can to keep that from happening.” Boykin looked up at Daniel, his eyes narrowed and steely. “This is the last trip for anybody. The last payload. 100,000 frozen embryos, plant, animal and human. Even a few Bags o' Bugs; soil bacteria. Something big is coming and it will come before they have a chance to build another bridge. Maybe I need to know someone will see the new world through innocent eyes. A thing to wonder at, not to plunder. If they want to light the nuclear candles, they can rule over ashes and glass.”
It all fell into place then. This had all the scent of a massive mutiny. Boykin was going to scuttle the base. Daniel saw it in the eyes of the base personnel, the ship’s crew. Resolute and a bit sad, as if it were a decision they knew was right, but one that came at a terrible cost. All here had a personal Rubicon that had been breached. The base was real. The ship was real. So whatever heart of darkness Colonel Boykin had stared into, must have been real, too. That was scary. Daniel would be leaving those who loved him behind to face whatever hell on earth was coming, to wonder in hurt and anguish about what had happened to him. But it was also a chance to make something better. Then something occurred to Daniel.
“You’re not going, are you?”
“Like I said.” Boykin smiled tiredly. “Last call. Your spot on the ship was mine.”
Daniel for the first time noticed that Colonel Boykin looked like a spent shell, whatever force and danger he had ever possessed now burned up.
“Lupus,” the Colonel explained. “Maybe a couple of months left. After today, maybe only a few days.”
“What about my mom and dad?”
This was the hardest part of the conversation for Boykin. “They’ll hurt for a while. Then… it will be over. For them.” His eyes seemed to cloud just a little. “For everybody.” Years of hard discipline and duty wouldn’t let him put it in kinder terms.
“You’re sure about that?”
“More sure than I want to be. Look around you, son. You have to appreciate that I’m in a position to know things that I’d like to un-know.”
“They couldn’t come with me?”
“No,” Boykin said firmly. “The jump’s not so bad, but the conditions on site, their age. It’s iffy that they would survive even a couple of days. Let them have whatever is left here.”
“And how long is that?”
Boykin shrugged. “A day. A month.”
“Years?” Daniel asked.
“No,” the colonel said slowly. “Not years. Not even one. It’s all coming apart.”
Daniel nodded. “Do I really even have a say?”
“You’ve been prepared to go. Unwillingly, true. I had no hand in that and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I’m telling you right now: you can walk away, clear. Your will is free.”
There hadn’t been many times that Daniel and his dad had gone fishing at Borden Lake, but they had been fun. He thought about that now, remembering his mom’s pensive smile and fussy horror at wearing anything besides a one-piece swim suit and his dad, smiling at him, urging him to fish or cut bait. They were good people, just a little remote. He knew he would really miss the old man and his mom if he actually went. He also knew, even as he thought it, what his answer would be.
It was dark now and the base lights were on, the hologram switched off. There would be no more need for it after tonight. The majority of the expedition had already filed into the ship and taken their seats as Daniel and Colonel Boykin stood outside by one of the entrances. Boykin had introduced Daniel to Angie, a young officer not far out of flight school. She seemed to function as a flight attendant/drill sergeant and she had smilingly affixed a “First-Time Flier” tag to Daniel’s flight suit. She would be there to ease Daniel through the transition.
Daniel looked around, taking it all in. There were lots of smiles, and hugs and tears, laughter and crying. It was a real bon voyage party -the final one- but it couldn't last long. There was one last detail. He looked back at Colonel Boykin. Daniel still wasn't convinced that someone wasn't just trying to pin a giant clown nose on him, but it seemed real.
“Am I doing the right thing?”
“I think so. Take it from a combat vet: nothing in life is guaranteed. Sometimes pain is the only way forward.”
Daniel nodded, sad, but eager, too.
“Can you get a message to my folks?”
“You can send it yourself, from the ship. But I think you’ll want to wait. You’ll know when the time is right.”
Boykin and Daniel shook hands.
“It’s a lot to swallow at once,” Boykin said. “Angie will get you through it. Good luck, Daniel. It’s been a helluva ride.”
Daniel never quite knew what to make of Boykin’s last statement, and he never got to ask him why. It was the last thing he ever said to him.
Once on board, Officer Angie strapped him into his seat, gave him an air sick bag, and listed a few cursory instructions. She really was like a flight attendant and the ship was more like an airliner than a military transport. Probably by design. Daniel noticed that the fifty odd pilgrims seated around him neither noticed him nor averted their eyes from him. He seemed to be accepted.
The intercom crackled. “Departure in two minutes. Secure all belongings and loose papers.”
Daniel looked out of the windows (no, he corrected himself, on a ship they were called portholes), hoping to see Colonel Boykin, but the open area of the base was empty. Everyone was at their station. Daniel felt a very slight rumble and the sensation one has as an elevator begins to rise. The ship might be anti-grav, but he wasn’t immune to inertia. It was a gentle pressure, but constant on his spine, one that seemed to never let him up.
And then he was above the base, looking down at its lights, seeing the tiny helicopters sitting here and there. The base looked strangely empty without the massive ship hogging up all the oxygen. They rose above the mountain, moving straight up as if on a rope. Daniel couldn't see much in the darkness -the moon, the black eye of the lake. He thought he saw the lights of his little town as they ascended, but he could never be sure.
More lights appeared as they rose into the black. Clusters and webs, interspersed with mind numbing dark. Cities in the night. Daniel could still feel the gentle acceleration as they continued to climb. He expected a course change to the horizontal but reminded himself there were no cardinal directions in space, no up or down, just distance and points. They could have jumped from anywhere.
With a suddenness that was unnerving, the light side of the planet burst into view at almost the same time Daniel felt himself become weightless. He seemed to want to float a little above his seat but was kept from it by the acceleration and his harnesses. It was a weird sort of limbo. He was kind of glad for his crew cut, otherwise his hair would have been floating around his head like Medusa’s snakes. His air sickness bag floated away, unnoticed.
The scale of the earth was unimaginable from this vantage point. A quarter of its circumference was now visible in the light, its white clouds and blue oceans whiter and bluer than he could ever have imagined. Its atmosphere looked like the breath off of an ice cube, so thin one strong wind would blow it away. Its mass and solid, three dimensions hanging in the black void was breathtaking. He thought it was probably imagination, but he fancied he could actually see the globe turning, the terminator crawling across the poles and continents.
And they continued to accelerate.
Daniel watched the agate marble, prevailingly blue and white, reveal itself fully as it shrank into the distance. Africa and the Arabian peninsula were clearly visible. It really was beautiful from space. It was no wonder God chose it for the Garden of Eden.
The passenger behind him tapped him on the shoulder. Daniel turned reluctantly, unwilling to take his eyes from the dazzling sights. Daniel had been staring pretty much straight out of the porthole, but the man behind him pointed towards the rear part of the port hole.
“Put your goggles on before you look,” he advised.
Everyone else had donned their dark goggles and Daniel, after looking around uncertainly, did so as well.
He stared out of the porthole in the direction the man indicated. There, in a way he had never expected to see it, was the sun. He knew now why he had never seen pictures of it from space. It was simply too bright to look at, a spiky, burning-magnesium white that reminded Daniel of all the pictures of the Star of Bethlehem he had ever seen. It was huge, at least a hundred times bigger and brighter than the next nearest stars. Even with no atmosphere to disperse its light, its glare washed out everything directly around it in its jarring spikes. The black seemed to mold itself to its contours, powerless to encroach on its raging fire. Daniel had to look away after just a few moments.
The intercom crackled again.
“Altitude, twenty three thousand, eight hundred miles. Two minutes to jump, folks. Strap in.”
Daniel looked out of the porthole, expecting to see that wavering space that marked the wormhole, but all was cold black. Compared to everything else, the jump itself was anticlimactic. There was a slight shudder in the craft -the rocking and rolling of the cruise ship in eight foot waves on day three of his Caribbean cruise had been worse- an intense flash of white light that, had Daniel not been wearing his goggles, would have blinded him as effectively as a flashbulb, then right back to normal, all in the space of a couple of seconds. Just like that, fifty million, or a hundred million, or a billion miles of space negated in the blink of an eye. It was a little mind boggling.
“Mars orbit in thirty, arrival and touchdown, one hour.”
And there it was. The red planet, Mars. From this distance about the size of the full moon. Again, Daniel felt that wonder at seeing its mass in three dimensions, so different from the flat, two dimensional photographs. Its carbon dioxide and water ice caps were maybe even whiter than the polar caps on Earth, but the thing that drew his attention was the Valle Marineris that stretched like a cruel slash across 1900 miles of the red and gray surface, part of it immersed in the night side.
They were drifting now, decelerating in the vacuum. The planet loomed closer, beginning to consume the porthole. There was little conversation among the travelers, and what there was of it was hushed, even though they had seen this before.
On a whim, Daniel turned to see if he could find the sun. There it was. His own warm sun. Still brighter than anything else, but smaller, far less intense, less friendly. From this distance, it seemed almost alien. He was so wrapped up in his reverie he didn’t notice Angie float down the passageway, steadying herself on seat backs, and hover by his seat.
Daniel scanned the darkness and saw one bright blue star he had never seen before. Of course he had never seen it before. He had been standing on it. It was the Earth. Officer Angie touched him on the shoulder.
Daniel turned, a little startled. Angie was smiling.
“I sent your message. Maybe one day,” she said, “we’ll all get to go back. But right now, we’ll help you through it.”
Daniel nodded, realizing for the first time the visceral punch it gave him as he noticed she didn’t say “go home”. He looked back at the forbidding planet, now filling the porthole, close enough now that he could see it turning, the wispy white clouds drifting above it. Home, he knew, was dead ahead; its luminous reds and whites, towering mountains and ocean-long canyons, its deep cold, lethal solar radiation and hair thin atmosphere now the place where he would make his way, live and work, maybe raise a family, and ultimately die.
Tears wanted to well, but it was time to put childish things away. Maybe it was a little too early, and a little too sad, to know at age seventeen (well, almost eighteen) that wherever you were when the events of a lifetime played out, that was home.
Even if home was the red, frozen barrens of Mars.
Daniel’s mom and dad had been unable to reach him for the past two days. Worried calls to neighbors and police had yielded no clues. No-one knew where he was. They hastened home, vaguely taking note of the news reports on radio and TV. There was violence in the streets, still in the cities so far, but spreading. States and nations were collapsing into bankruptcy. Wars and revolts raged across the globe. Daniel’s mom and dad knew all this in a vague, outside the normal day way, but they brushed it aside. It didn’t touch them here. All that mattered to them right now was that their only child had vanished, the only trace of him left, a cryptic text message:
I’m safe. Home is in sight. Know that I love you and I miss you and I’m sorry. I pray God will protect you in the world left behind. I hope someday to see you again. Love, Daniel.
They had put up missing posters all over town and tearfully pleaded on the television for someone -anyone- with any information, to come forward. No-one did. Unwell times were in the offing. First there was the unexplained boom, then their son turned up missing, then the red beacon atop the mountain that had burned unexplained and uninterrupted for so long no longer opened its exploring eye to the night sky. All bad omens. But they forced themselves to hold out hope.
Somebody, somewhere, knew something.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed Skyquake. Just my way of saying thanks and introducing you to my work. And, please - good, bad or indifferent- I encourage you to leave a review. I would greatly appreciate it!
I normally leave the little personal bits off of the free stuff, but in this case, I thought I’d tell a little about the story.
The Skyquake as described actually happened and I heard it. November 19, 2003. Nobody has ever given a satisfactory explanation for it (because I don’t think anybody really knows) and I wanted to do something with the memory. The black triangle, also pretty much as described, was actually seen by me one late October night in 1981. I watched it a good, long while and have, since, seen them a couple of more times. I am, at least, convinced that they are real and some kind of terrestrial aircraft. Oddly enough, I never saw them when I lived right next to Shaw Air Force base in Sumter, SC. Ditto the fence and the military base in the Uwharrie Mountains when I was about sixteen years old. It shouldn’t have been there and probably isn’t anymore.
Skyquake is just a simple little space opera, nothing real fancy. It got a little long, but a lot had to happen in those few hours. So I hope you can feel a little of the wonder that Daniel did, and free yourself from this spinning rock for a little while.
And if the mood so strikes you, please consider some of the paid titles. Good reads that cost less than a cup of bad coffee and cheap at twice the price! Much as I like to give away the freebies, it’s the paid stuff that keeps me going.
Again and always, thanks for reading. Other titles are available at my .
Some call them Seneca Guns, others call them Skyquakes, those unexplained booms from the sky. Daniel Knight heard it on November 17th. That, coupled with the mysterious black triangle and a military base where one shouldn't be would send Daniel Knight on an adventure that few humans will ever know. Skyquake, an old fashioned Space Opera. Get it now.