Read the first 14
chapters of SECOND EDEN
below. But first, check
out these interesting questions probed in
Science magazine feature article,
"125 Questions: Things We Don't Know," polled
scientists on what daunting but intriguing
questions remained for modern science to answer.
Here are a few that
Second Eden addresses:
Is there--or was
there--life elsewhere in the solar system?
The search for life--past or present--on other
planetary bodies now drives NASA's planetary
exploration program, which focuses on Mars,
where water abounded when life might have first
What caused mass
A huge impact did in the dinosaurs, but the
search for other catastrophic triggers of
extinction has had no luck so far. If more
subtle or stealthy culprits are to blame, they
will take considerably longer to find.
gave rise to modern human behavior?
Did Homo sapiens acquire abstract
thought, language, and art gradually or in a
cultural "big bang," which in Europe occurred
about 40,000 years ago? Data from Africa, where
our species arose, may hold the key to the
What are human
races, and how did they develop?
Anthropologists have long argued that race lacks
biological reality. But our genetic makeup does
vary with geographic origin and as such raises
political and ethical as well as scientific
As you read, don't be fooled by what at first
seems like a story with a religious bent--it is
not religious. Don't be put off by Molly's
virginity--it's important to the plot-- nor by
the term Judgment Day, which in the book's
context means something more akin to a
"watershed" event, or turning point in human
Second Eden is, however, about the
ultimate truth regarding Human Nature, our
history and a novel take on what may lie ahead.
The story has many characters whose roles and
significance are not at first apparent. Trust
me! The book is very carefully written and every
character and every scene has a meaning that is
revealed at crucial turning points.
As one of the
initial editors wrote: "I'm amazed
that the ending is resolved as neatly as it is;
there are so many different people and threads
to tie up. It's a satisfying ending
though, and I especially appreciate that the
author takes time to show the ending in fully
developed scenes rather than trying to hurry
through a narrative that just tells us what
happens. Seeing Peter and Molly meet Bo, then
Abel and Kopi, followed by Peter's ultimate
'graduation' was far preferable to
Read many more intriguing questions answered
by Second Eden here...
Or begin the story now...
Carlton W. Austin
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or
transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or
otherwise, without written permission from the
"The destiny of mankind is not decided by
material computation. When great causes are on the move
in the world...we learn that we are spirits, not
animals, and that something is going on in space and
time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like
it or not, spells duty."
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We approach a condition in which
we shall be amoral without the capacity
to perceive it and degraded without
the means to measure our descent.
Any sufficiently advanced technology
is indistinguishable from magic.
This is a book about
Washington, D.C. The near future . . .
Peter MacKenzie knew Bo Randall would try to kill
him. Wouldn’t he do the same if their situations
were reversed? They were both warriors, after all.
The only question now was, did Bo, who sat beside
him, stage-side at the Good ‘n’ Plenty, already
know? Already have a plan? So far there were no
certain indications, but for the fact that they were
here, at Bo’s urgent request.
Peter leaned back on his stool and fished another
five-dollar bill from his jeans. As he did, he
glanced at Bo, straining to detect any inkling of
his hidden intentions. He knew Bo all too well—his
explosive temper, quick as a struck match. And now
he was sure that Bo knew about him and Beth. Why
else would he have insisted they get together right
away? And why here, at a seedy Georgetown strip
joint? On Christmas Eve? Something was up, and it
had stalked the recesses of his mind for the hour or
so they’d talked and toasted and bought each other
lap dances and reminisced about their days together
as “Black Aces” in the elite VF-41 squadron aboard
the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. He’d flown
his F-14 Tomcat fighter to the edge and back again
and again, mostly as Bo’s wingman, in the third
Persian Gulf War against the Saudis and later
against the Chinese in the Taiwan Straits. He
remembered how they’d been in and out of scuffles
then, both on deck and in the air. Invincible.
Inseparable. Like brothers. Not after tonight,
he thought. Yeah, he’ll try to kill
me, all right. Like she just did.
He rubbed his cheek, which still smarted, and winked
at the lap dancer. Only moments before she’d slapped
him hard against his face. He felt the marks of her
studded ring outlined in pain at the corner of his
grin, just next to a sensitive scar from a past
encounter with another young woman of equally
unsavory disposition. Now she ignored him, gliding
to the other side of the stage, her lissome form
caressing the dance pole like a scowling serpent.
He leaned slightly forward. “So, tell me again, Bo.
What’s this Areopagus gig all about?”
“Just a cargo run,
really,” Bo said. “We’ll pick up the probe right
after it injects into Earth orbit near the end of
June. Should be back to Canaveral around the Fourth
of July, give or take. But the freight goes right
over there.” He pointed over his shoulder. “To
Goddard and Herr Professor Miles Lavisch, The Most
High and God Almighty Arrogant Prick I’ve ever
Peter laughed. “Intimate
“No, all my
friends are pricks.” Bo’s eyebrow went up. “Let’s
just say I know him enough not to like him. Met him
when we toured Goddard. He’ll be in charge of the
“Neat trick, that. The Mars shot, I mean.” And truly
he thought it was: Shoot a probe to Mars, have it
land, pick up soil samples, then fly itself back
home. He felt his body tense. “There’s something
I’ve got to tell you—”
Bo took a slug of beer. "Areopagus
pick up where the Vikings left off in
seventy-six. Nothing else we’ve done since has been
as good. Not the Global Surveyor. Not the Odyssey. Not
Spirit or the any of the
Rovers. Oh, we got nice pictures, all right. But
only actual soil samples will tell us for sure if
there’s life on Mars—or ever was. What did you want
to tell me?”
“Ahh, it’s not important,” Peter lied, hoping he
wasn’t losing his nerve. He didn’t know where the
words came from, but somehow there they were,
falling on his ears in his own voice: “When’s the
baby due?” He forced himself to look Bo in the
Bo stared at him for what seemed an eternity.
“July. Right after the mission. Funny you ask. Beth
thinks that getting married and having some kids is
just what you need.”
“What?” Peter felt sweat trickle down the back of
“Look how happy it made ol’ George Bailey, there,”
Bo said, inclining his head in the direction of a TV
that hung behind the bar, where It’s a Wonderful
Life played silently in the background.
“Kids?” Peter snarled insincerely. “Hell, they’re
the reason ‘Ol George’ tried to kill himself
in the first place! He’d of been better off if
Clarence the angel hadn’t saved him.”
“Nothing changes your perspective like kids, Pete.”
Bo slapped Peter’s thigh hard. “Nothing makes you
want your wife more, want to protect her.... Know
what I mean?”
“Why would I?” He cringed and felt suddenly weak,
suddenly unwarriorlike, as he glanced down into the
white foam of his beer, noticing how the bubbles
kept popping away, like the ticking of a clock. “You
know what I’ve always said about women—”
“ ‘If they didn’t have a pussy, men would never talk
to them.’ Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before.”
Then Peter thought of Beth—and all the others. A
stab of guilt surprised him, caused his stomach to
knot fiercely. “You know, the guy who wrote that
book was right. Men really are from Mars.
Women may as well be a different species.”
Bo shook his head and looked up. “Mars? Venus?
Damned if I know. Or care. What I do know is, I
couldn’t live without Beth and the kids.”
“Speaking of our fair alien friends.” Peter rubbed
the scar on his chin, which still smarted, and
nodded his head toward the stage, where his dancer
was making her way back toward them. Earlier she’d
brushed her taut breast against his cheek, lolling
her nipple on his upper lip, just beneath his nose,
her hair falling on his face as she nibbled his
ear. She smelled of lilacs. He’d rewarded her
appropriately enough, or so he thought. Now he
couldn’t resist one further taunt and waggled his
finger for her to approach, but her glare turned
meaner. She gave him the finger and jerked her head
away, her body following quickly to face the
“Let’s get out of here,” Bo said. “I think you’ve
worn out our welcome.”
Peter zipped his brown leather flight jacket and
pushed open the door with his shoulder. A gust of
snow-laced wind cooled his still stinging face. He
looked up at the full moon, which broke in and out
of racing clouds, causing everything to flicker
weirdly. Walking fast along the slushy sidewalk, he
tried to maintain his well-studied, cocksure
swagger, tried to muster his courage, and stayed
just far enough ahead of Bo so as not to have to
look at him. His stomach floated curiously about;
it was a queasiness he’d not felt since having
pre-launch jitters before a combat mission. And the
more he thought about it, the more he didn’t want
this to be his last mission. “Could you believe the
tits on that babe?” he said finally, forcing a grin
as he glanced back at Bo.
“Tucking a five-spot in her Gee-string is one
thing,” Bo laughed, catching up to him. “But you’re
not supposed to touch her there, remember?” He
popped a mint in his mouth. “Want one?”
“Don’t have any Cracker Jacks, do you?” Peter
managed to keep Bo in his peripheral vision.
“You and your Cracker Jacks,” Bo snorted. “It’s a
wonder you’ve still got teeth, boy!” He ran his hand
over his balding head, brushing the snow from the
horseshoe-shaped rim of hair that circled his skull
from sideburn to sideburn before putting on a black,
wool-knit stocking cap. His eyebrows bent closer,
darkening his already tanned face. “It was good
seeing you again, Pete.”
“Yeah. Same here. Guess
it’ll be the last time....” The words caught in his
throat. “For a while, I meant. Till after your
“Probably so…. I’ll be in Houston right up to
They walked faster now, bobbing and weaving through
harried crowds of pedestrians loaded with
last-minute Christmas gifts, faces bent down against
snow that came in blustery squalls. Revelers in the
restaurants and bars that lined the sidewalks sang
fractured, besotted versions of carols; laughter
poured from every open door. But as they turned the
corner, the holiday sounds quieted.
For a moment Peter thought they were alone. But
then, halfway down the block, he spotted a lone
figure wearing a Santa hat and ringing a bell.
Beside him a small donation pail hung beneath a
tripod. It seemed an odd place to set up shop if you
wanted much in the way of donations. He stopped,
picked up a handful of snow and made a ball. The
ragged scar on his chin tingled, began to itch, as
it had an uncanny way of doing whenever there was
about to be trouble. He brushed the frozen ball
against the old wound. Now was the time to come
clean, to tell Bo the truth, but again he
hesitated. “You know, I wish I’d gone to NASA when
Bo shrugged. “What? Intelligence work can’t be that
“Well, piloting CEVs—”
“Yeah, Crew Exploration Vehicles. That’s what we
call the new space shuttles, which is still all they
are—shuttles. Anyway, it’s not as sexy as tooling
around in an armed Tomcat; I can tell you that—and
it’s more dangerous. Wanna tell me what’s eating
Peter threw his snowball at a passing cab, the icy
sphere gliding harmlessly past the rear bumper. How
could he have missed such an easy target? As he
watched the cab’s taillights recede, something in
their red aura caught his eye. Ahead, three men had
circled the bellringer. One grabbed the handle to
the money pail, but Santa would not give it up.
They spun around each other like kids playing London
Bridges until the other two thugs tackled him,
bringing him down into the street, pounding him with
their fists and what looked like a length of pipe.
“Hey! Let him go!” Without further thought, he
charged after them.
The attackers looked up but didn’t stop. There was
a bright orange flash. A loud pop! Like a
bursting party balloon. The impact slammed the
bellringer to the ground, and the shooter yanked the
money pail free. As he did, his gun fired again,
wildly, knocking out the street lamp.
Peter had seen the flashes a seeming eternity before
the shots boomed in his ears. Everything had slowed
down. He felt his legs uncontrollably back peddle,
but he couldn’t stop. He slid into the lamppost.
Close to the gunman. Only steps away. He watched as
if in a dream while the gunman turned with a smooth,
almost casual motion, and pointed the pistol’s dark
barrel at him.
Click!...Click! Click! Click!
The man flung the weapon at a storefront, shattering
the glass. Flying shards stung Peter’s cheek,
snapping his paralysis. He bolted after them.
Slipping in the accumulating snow, he chased the
thugs to the end of the block, where they ran
without stopping through traffic across M Street,
then down the steep hill toward K Street, deftly
using their shoes like skis as they slid into the
shadows beneath the Whitehurst Freeway overpass.
Just before they disappeared, one of them dropped
Deciding that three against one in the darkness was
too great a risk, Peter skidded to a stop where a
glint of gold shone through a thin veil of snow. He
dug out what looked to him to be something like an
“Those bastards! For a few stinkin’ bucks and
this?” He looked around to find the streets,
which moments before had been crowded with blaring
horns, blinking lights and scurrying pedestrians,
strangely deserted and silent. He trudged back up
the hill, panting clouds of steam, where Bo was
pulling the wounded man out of the street. Without
the streetlight it was dark, but then, with an
explosion of light, the moon broke through and he
could see the bellringer’s long blond hair was
matted with blood, which surged through a tattered
hole in his greatcoat, dribbling onto the virgin
snow in dusky pools.
Bo hoisted the man to a sitting position on the
curb. “What’s your name, fellow?”
“Apollyon,” the bellringer said with the air of a
stunned animal. “I’m an angel.”
“Sure, Clarence,” Peter said derisively, thinking of
Bo’s earlier comment, “and I’m George Bailey.” He
nodded his head toward Bo. “This here’s Ernie, the
“You mock me? I’m
Apollyon!” the man
insisted. “Don’t you know it’s time?”
“What?” Peter decided not to try to talk logic.
“Look, we’ve got to get you to a hospital. You’re
bleeding pretty badly.” He looked at the dark,
accumulating pools of blood and thought the man
would never make it.
“Ohhh…” the bellringer groaned. A strong gust of
wind swirled into a mini tornado, sprinkling his
blond hair with snowflakes that glittered like
sequins in the moonlight. Then he began to shudder.
He heaved and bucked, as if having a seizure, before
quieting down. “Peter!” he blurted, grabbing his
Peter felt the blood go out of his face. “How’d he
know my name?” He looked at Bo, who stared back,
glassy-eyed and silent.
“To everything there is a season. A time to be
born, a time to die. A time—” The bellringer
coughed. “I’m cold.”
Peter took off his flight jacket and draped it over
the wounded man.
“And death and hell delivered up the dead, which
were in them: and they were judged every man
according to his works. Don’t you remember? Help me,
“Who are you?” Bo demanded, his voice a mixture of
anger and fear.
“Got your cell phone, Bo?”
“No, damnit, it’s in the car.”
“Well, go call nine one one.”
“No! Wait!” the bellringer gasped. “You think I’m
crazy, but you’re wrong.”
Peter knelt beside the man, holding his head up.
Then he caught the man’s sorrowful eyes. For a split
second he thought he was losing his mind as strange
images flashed before him, images of mayhem, chaos,
death. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but
had to look away.
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the
first heaven and the first earth were passed away.”
The bellringer seemed to be in a trancelike state
for just a moment, far away, but then he was all too
present. “But it won’t be like you think it will,”
he said with a queer grin.
“What the hell’s he saying, Bo?”
“He thinks he’s Apollyon. One of the angels in the
Bible. In Revelation.”
“You, Beauregard Randall,” the bellringer choked,
his head shaking, “you will begin it. You will find
our chalice.” Then he turned his head. His eyes grew
luminous with moonlight. “And you, Peter MacKenzie,
you will witness the end as you drink the last
measure of its bittersweet portion. For I have seen
“He’s nuts,” Bo said, voice rattling. His face shone
a spectral white from the cold and the snow that
mounded on the ridges of his cheeks.
They tried to move the man up against the wall, but
the bellringer winced. “My wing!” he complained.
“You’re hurting my wing....” His voice trailed off
to a mere whisper.
“Okay, Clarence,” Peter soothed, and tilted his head
toward the street where an ambulance had just pulled
up. A man wearing a police uniform got out.
“He’s shot,” Bo told the man. “Talking crazy too.
Must’ve wandered away from a mental hospital or
“Yeah, a real nutcase,” Peter heard himself say
uneasily as he reached for his jacket.
But the bellringer yanked it back, “Look to the
moon! Look to the moon!” Then he laughed weirdly and
began to sing: “When the moon hits your eye like a
big pizza pie, that’s the ennnd….”
“Burt the cop is here to help you,” Bo said, picking
up on the Christmas-story charade.
“We’ll take him,” the police officer replied,
handing Peter his jacket. A second uniformed man
joined him. They quickly lifted the bellringer onto
a gurney, jumped in the ambulance, and sped away
without any lights.
Peter shivered, and he knew it wasn’t just from the
cold. “Something’s wrong here. They didn’t even
“How’d they even get here?” Bo said. “I never
“Someone must have seen what happened.” Peter looked
around, but the streets were still vacant and dark.
“Let’s get out of here,” Bo said through chattering
They walked on towards their cars, parked several
blocks away, hunched over in silence against the
driving snow, which seemed to reappear in spurts
every time the moon went away.
Peter glanced at Bo, who, clothes now completely
whitened with snow, reminded him of an altar boy, a
ghost—or an angel. “That guy really spooked me.” He
bent over and scooped up enough snow for another
“Come on, Pete. ‘My wing,’ for Christ’s sake?
Remember Y2K? A bust. Nothin’s gonna happen.
Nothing like that anyway—“
He fingered the snowball absently, waiting for a
target. “That’s what they said about Titanic,
‘Nothin’s gonna happen’... That’s what we all
thought about terrorism, too. Not here, not on our
front porch. That was before New York postcards
without the World Trade Centers.”
don’t belong in Intelligence
work,” Bo said with a laugh that seemed to have a
bitter edge. “Besides we do know he wasn’t really Clarence.”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“Clarence didn’t have his wings, remember?”
“Very funny. But how’d he know our names? And what
was that stuff about you and me and the beginning
and the end and all that?”
Bo drew the front of his coat collar up around his
throat and said nothing.
“And besides, you’re forgetting the end of the
movie,” Peter said archly. “Clarence did win
his wings.” With all the commotion, he’d almost
forgotten his planned confession. He decided if Bo
did nothing, he’d let it ride for now. He’d had
enough excitement for one night. He felt wet with
sweat. Still, his hands were cold and he almost
couldn’t get his key into the door. He took off his
leather flight jacket and was about to fling it into
the car when he noticed something odd. “Hey, look at
this.” He held up the satin lining.
Bo picked a small white feather off the inside of
the jacket Peter had just used to warm the wounded
bellringer. “Maybe he was Clarence after
all,” he chuckled.
Fingers numb from the cold, Peter took the slender
plume from Bo. A shiver shook his hand. Suddenly a
raw gust of wind snatched the feather into the
The space CEV
Discovery II, in high Earth orbit...23:30 Hours,
“Jesus, i’—” a
crackle of transient static garbled Bo Randall’s
transmission, then “—‘s here!”
Floating lazily in
the blackness of space near the aft end of the Discovery II’s cargo bay, Bo could just make out
the surprised expression on Carla Pascal’s face as
her lips formed the words.
“What did you say?”
she asked in her post-feminist take-charge way.
“’Jesus is here’? Maybe you can get him to fix that
snare for you, ’cause we’re gonna need it in about
Bo shook his head,
slightly annoyed at his smart-aleck mission
specialist’s tone. “What I meant was, it’s here,
it’s early, and it looks to be about five klicks too
high and a couple back. We’ll have to reposition to
capture it.” He pointed back over his shoulder where
the ship had just traced its invisible path six
hundred and twenty-five miles above a nearly
cloudless, cornflower blue Pacific and where the Areopagus now lay silently against a
star-studded field of black. “Grapple’s fixed now,
anyway. I’m heading in.”
As he clambered
along the sill of the cargo bay, heading for the
airlock in the forward bulkhead, Earth rose over the
edge of the bay door, completely filling his visual
field. Its stark beauty nearly took his breath
away. It appeared so close he felt he could reach
out and touch it. With no intervening atmosphere in
space, everything at a distance looked closer and
clearer. For an instant, he dreamily forgot what he
was doing. His foot slipped on the frozen edge of
the sill, causing him to float into a sharp-edged
bolt before he could recover his balance. That’s
all I need, he thought. Rip my suit and
have my blood boil away. In his mind’s eye he
saw Beth at the door hearing the news. “We regret to
inform you....” I wonder if she’d care?
the vision of Earth pulled him back out of himself.
He looked homeward again, spellbound. Below, the
blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico met the yellow
margins of the Yucatan Peninsula with stark relief.
A brilliant white cloud deck covered half its
length. Farther down he saw the deep greens of the
Amazon rainforest, with its stunning array of life,
now partially obscured by the smoke from hundreds of
fires, intentionally set by jungle nomads, which
would eventually destroy thousands of square miles
of precious habitat, eating away at the planet’s
irreplaceable core of life.
Watching the smoke
drift in waves and curls across the continent, he
was reminded again just how thin the atmosphere
looked from up here, how thin it really was. He
remembered an article he’d read concerning a
six-mile-diameter asteroid that had collided with
the Earth near a small Mexican town somewhere just
down below. What was its name? Chixulub? Yeah.
Mayan for “tail of the Devil,” or so he remembered.
According to the article, this event, some 65
million years ago, had signaled the end for half the
species on Earth—including the dinosaurs.
He wondered how
long it would be before another, perhaps larger,
asteroid came to rip that thin atmosphere—our world,
our lives—away. He thought how easy it would be for
the Earth to become like the moon. It was just a
matter of time. But this was the pristine present,
and he would not spoil it with embarrassment over
some stray vocalization. He hit the mute switch on
“Mighty moon,” he
then said aloud. The moon, half bathed in the sun’s
yellow glow, craters clearly visible, testifying to
thousands of battles with giant asteroids and comets
over the eons, glowered back at him. “Yeah, old
fella, it would be all too easy for us all to go the
way of the dinosaurs and have the Earth end up like
you, a lifeless, lonely chunk of space rock.” He
thought of Beth again—and Peter—and was glad he
hadn’t confronted them about the affair. Somehow his
family, bound together, even if imperfectly, was
paramount to him now, as was, inexplicably,
forgiveness. Guess we all have our dark side.
Just like the moon.
For he knew, as
most people outside NASA didn’t, that except for
data from the Clementine probe in 1994,
little was known about the dark side
of the moon. Because of its peculiar orbit, which
caused it to rotate three hundred and sixty degrees
in the same amount of time it took to orbit the
Earth, one side of the moon—the dark side—forever
lay hidden from the Earth’s prying eyes.
“At least Mars has
an atmosphere,” he said absently, “and maybe life.
That’s what the Areopagus should tell us—if
we can just get it aboard in one piece.” With one
last look back at Earth, then the moon and then the
Areopagus, which hovered above him like a sullen
witness, he headed for the airlock.
“Well, our Martian
package is safely in the vault,” Bo said with
relief, as he floated up through the inter-deck
access portal to the main deck.
“Party time,” Carla
Pascal said. She winked and did a half somersault,
catching an errant penlight that drifted aimlessly
about the cabin before stabilizing herself on the
back of the pilot’s seat. She brushed a wisp of
blond hair off her tanned face. The just-visible
crow’s feet around her bunny-blue eyes deepened in a
smile. “Boss, anybody ever tell you that you look
like the guy who used to play Captain Piccard on
Bo gave a
halfhearted laugh and winked back, not failing to
notice how nicely her cobalt blue mission suit
highlighted her slender waist and dainty breasts. If
it weren’t for Beth, he’d often thought... “No, he
Seinfeld?” Mission Specialist Bill Quincy
countered. “More like a Kramer and George
combination. But you’re right about the hair.” His
close-cropped reddish beard contrasted sharply with
his brown crew cut, which rimmed his baby-moon face
like a halo.
“You mean Kramer
without the Osama bin Laden nose, don’t you?”
co-pilot Max Hudson added, smiling.
“All right, all
right,” Bo relented. “Have your fun at the old
man’s expense.” Then he looked at Max. “What’s the
status, Number One?”
Captain,” Max saluted and continued. “All’s well and
buttoned down at the helm.”
“I always wondered
how Data’s link measured,” Carla joked. “C’mon,
Captain Jean Luke, let’s celebrate—”
blackness engulfed them. Bo had never experienced a
complete power failure. He couldn’t even think how
it was possible. There were no alarms, no flashing
lights. The only sounds were the whirring of gyros
and electric motors as they spun down, bleeding off
rpms, on their way to a useless mechanical death.
failures ain’t supposed to be possible,” Max Hudson
said, his voice strained but even. “What’s goin’
something you see every day,” Bo affirmed, directing
his voice toward where he thought Max should be.
“Right now I can’t
see anything,” Carla stammered.
“And to answer your
question,” Bo said with determined calmness, even as
a trickle of sweat made its way down his back, “I
don’t know. Any ideas? Carla? Bill? Anything to do
with the special hookups to the sample cases?”
“Don’t think so,”
Bill answered. “But I do know this, without
power to suck this dirty air through the lithium
“We could use the
portable oxygen units...and the suits,” Carla
“Yeah, right,” Bill
argued. “But this isn’t Alien, and you aren’t
Rippley. And without power we’re just four space
“Road kills? That’s
quaint.” Bo forced a small chuckle. “Hit by what? A
space gremlin? There’s always an explanation. We’ve
just got to find it—and pronto!”
“Bo’s right,” Max
said. “We’ve all just got to calm down. Think this
Carla declared too loudly, as if they’d all been
removed to a distance because of the darkness. “Even
the flashlight doesn’t work! Can anyone explain
Bo could hear her
rapidly click the small penlight switch on and off,
on and off. “Let’s get back to protocol. Start the
“With no light,
it’s going to be tough,” Max complained.
“We’ll have to do
it by feel,” Bo ordered, a little annoyed at Max’s
whining. “As for explanations, they’ll just have to
wait. Let’s get started, shall we?” Then something
drew his attention to the windows, where moments
before he’d marveled at the spectacular view of the
Arabian Peninsula outside. Slowly, he drifted toward
the cockpit side window. “My God! Where’d the Earth
Like a silent bolt
of lightning, a searing blue radiance exploded into
the orbiter, momentarily blinding him. Reflexively
he jerked back, covering his eyes, which screeched
Then it began.
“Hear it?” Carla
Bo felt the sound
before he heard it. Starting low on the frequency
scale, the warbling vibration rumbled through his
internal organs like gas, and then shifted several
octaves higher, to a more piercing frequency, then
lower again. It was a queer, living sound with an
eerie intelligence about it. It investigated,
probed, and searched; it stole innermost secrets and
all sense of control. For an instant, he thought
he’d lose consciousness, but then—abruptly—there was
silence...and light. “Is everyone okay?” he
asked hopefully, but thinking it unlikely.
With a flurry of
hands, they patted themselves down, as if to make
sure all the parts were still there.
“What the hell’s
that?” Carla cried, pointing to the starboard
Bo had noticed
movement outside the window an instant before Carla
spoke. It pulled his head as if on a string up
against the glass. There it was! Moving deliberately
and unhurriedly off into the distance, devoid of
exterior lights or discernible markings, a hulking
metallic shape, which moments before had totally
eclipsed their view of Earth, was now clearly
outlined against the canvas of the placid blue
ocean. Familiar with at least the rumors of any new
aerospace technology, he knew instantly this was a
craft of alien origin. My God! They do exist!
He was instantly glad he’d only thought it, not
This is mission
control, over! Discovery! This is Houston, do
you read?” The frantic calls repeated.
Somehow Bo hadn’t
even noticed the power was back. Mission control
wanted to know why they had been incommunicado for
the better part of a quarter-hour. It couldn’t
have been that long!
“Houston, this is
Commander Bo Randall aboard Discovery.”
He paused, intentionally deepening his voice,
fully aware that what he was about to say could very
easily be misconstrued, could very easily end his
career. “We—that is, the entire crew—have just made
Miles Lavisch sat
in his office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
in Greenbelt, Maryland, picked up the front section
of the Washington Post, and reached for his
“Damnit! Where the
hell are they?”
He threw the
newspaper to the floor and, for the third time this
day, frisked himself in vain. No glasses.
Resigned, he decided to use his pearl-handled
magnifying glass that his own mother had used for
needlepoint in her declining years, which he kept in
his desk for occasions just such as this. He
retrieved it from his top drawer along with a
hand‑wrapped Cuban Partagas double‑corona cigar from
a plain brown box, nestled secretly in the far
corner. Biting off the tip, he savored the bitter
tobacco taste for a moment before spitting the
residue on the floor. With the care of a surgeon, he
dipped the corner of his handkerchief into his tea,
then gently wiped down the brown tobacco-leaf
wrapping of the big cigar. The tea, he’d found,
imparted an added hint of piquant flavoring to his
favorite smoke. He reached for the Bunsen burner he
kept going at all times to heat his tea water and
light his tobacco. Using its pale blue flame, he
caused the cigar’s tip to glow bright orange before
mouthing the tip and puffing gales of silver-blue
smoke across the room.
he spread the newspaper across his desk. He’d just
begun reading through the magnifier when a
front‑page headline caught his eye:
DIRECTOR TO TESTIFY AT DISCOVERY II INQUEST
Today CIA Director Carl Snow will explain to a
special Senate investigative committee why he
ordered the spacecraft Discovery II to land
at Edwards AFB instead of at Cape Canaveral as
scheduled and why the crew was quarantined until
their deaths in a mysterious fire just hours later.
“I want to know why the CIA was involved in a NASA
flight that had no defense‑related mission,” said
Michael Tomlinson, Senate minority leader and
The spacecraft’s objective was to retrieve the Mars
probe Areopagus, which had returned to Earth
after a two‑year journey.
Also at issue are unconfirmed reports that
Discovery II’s Commander, Beauregard “Bo”
Randall, had reported sighting a UFO just before the
disputed change of landing orders. Admiral Snow has
denied any knowledge of these reports and the
existence of Majestic Twelve, a rumored UFO research
group of which he is said to be a member.
A former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman and
decorated veteran of three wars, Admiral Snow has
often been mentioned as a probable presidential
candidate . . .
Miles grumbled. “Just what we need, another Bill
Clinton. But then, maybe Snow will tell us what the meaning of is is.”
Just then his
office door creaked opened. He looked up to see his
reading glasses dangling from a hand that snaked
inside, soon followed by his daughter Molly’s
smiling face. Her smile, however, quickly faded as
she wagged her finger at his cigar.
“You don’t mention
the cigar, I won’t call you gimp,” he said, crushing
the butt into an ashtray. He planted a fatherly kiss
on her cheek, as she tucked the glasses into the
breast pocket of his tweed jacket. “Where’d you
“In the hallway.”
“Well, well,” he
said with mild annoyance, “to what do I owe this
Molly picked up his
newspaper and quickly began to rifle through it.
“Uncle Malcolm said it was time I paid you a visit.”
“Don’t mess up my
paper! And Malcolm should mind his own business.
I’m surprised AJ didn’t talk you out of it.”
may be my best friend, but she doesn’t set my social
schedule. Besides, I think she’s rather fond of
you.” Molly kept flipping through the paper.
What are you
looking for, anyway?” He reached for his cigar,
held its tip over the Bunsen burner’s flame.
”Comics,” she said
flatly. “Blondie, to be specific. I’m not surprised
you don’t remember?”
didn’t even know they were still around.”
“Because you don’t
read comics.” She bobbed her head from side to side,
leafing through page after page, a delighted look on
her fresh freckled face. “I’m a diehard Blondie
lover. She’s a rock. She’s never changed. Not in
more than fifty years. And even by today’s
standards, she’s all woman.”
“So long as it’s
not Dagwood you admire,” he said, exhaling a torrent
of smoke. “I don’t suppose you have time for a
tour?” She looked sternly at his cigar, but he
stared her down. He wouldn’t be cowed by her,
especially not on his own turf.
“Can we?” she
asked, waving the smoke away from her face. “The way
I was treated in the lobby, you’d have thought I was
with al Qaeda. Why the tight security?”
procedures: BL‑four protocol. And, yes, we can. It’s
still my lab.”
“Long as I don’t
have to salute you.”
Miles shrugged, got
up and headed for a side door, waggling his finger
for her to follow. “Tight security might be a pain
in the ass, but it’s necessary. A Martian microbe
newly introduced to the human population would be
“I know. Like
Native Americans and smallpox. Or Polynesians and
“A lot of people
vehemently opposed this project for that very
reason,” he said. “They wanted a manned probe to do
the experiments on Mars while we observed the
“I thought that’s
what you always wanted,” Molly said.
“At first, I did.
Because no containment protocol is perfect. But
economics won out. Sending men is too expensive.”
Molly asked, shaking her head slowly. “Depends what
you think the human race is worth, I suppose.”
”To be honest,”
Miles admitted, “I’m glad as hell it worked out this
way. Otherwise I’d have died waiting.”
“Oh, come on, Dad.”
He felt her touch
his shoulder and pulled away. It made him feel an
uncertain discomfort. And in her little-girl green
eyes he saw sadness—and the ever-present fear.
Still, he could recall no remorse—and felt none now.
He led her down the
hallway, her high-heels echoing smartly in an
off-beat rhythm against the old but highly polished
green and muted-gray vinyl tile floor, through a
series of windowless doors, which, every so often,
broke the boring expanse of sterile white walls.
Finally, he reached the changing room of the
pre-containment area, which was adjacent to the main
containment area where the rock samples from Mars
were stored, and shouldered the door open.
“Here,” he said,
handing her a disposable sterile lab coat, cap and
booties, the kind used in hospitals for patients in
quarantine, “get into these.” He began dressing
himself. “Need any help?”
reddened. “No, I’m fine. Really.”
An automatic set of
doors shushed open. A familiar rush of air told him
the area was under the normal negative pressure
required to keep alien microbes from escaping.
Molly knocked on
the containment lab’s transparent enclosure.
Plexiglas. But you knew that. Inside is sterilized
and completely robotic. Everything’s operated from
the control room.” He pointed at an elevated
platform enclosed in another wall of Plexiglas that
looked like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
”If someone wants
to work with a sample,” he said, stepping in front
of her, “a conveyor moves the containers to
specific experimental stations, where automated
protocols can be performed.” He swept his arm
around the entire inner perimeter, pointing at the
individual stations. Beside each one, special
gloves protruded through the Plexiglas, so a worker
could manipulate the samples without venturing
inside the tightly controlled room.
“Are those the
actual sample cases?” Molly asked, inclining her
head toward two shiny stainless‑steel boxes in the
“Those are them,”
he said with sweet self-satisfaction. “The one
that’s about a meter square is the surface‑sample
container. It’s supposed to have the larger pieces.
The box that’s about half as big has one hundred
forty‑four separate compartments, each with a sample
taken from about eighteen inches below the surface,
every ten degrees of arc, four samples per arc, at
half‑meter intervals, starting at the base of the
She shook her
head. “Seems like a long way to go for so little.”
“Not if we find
what we’re looking for.”
“And have you?”
“Not yet. We got
the samples from the West Coast just yesterday.
Then there was a little excitement when the larger
box was dropped off the back of the delivery truck.”
He saw the shock in her wide green eyes. “Our
paleontologist, Paul Blalock, was responsible for
that little fiasco. Luckily nothing came undone.”
He guided her through another steel door, which set
off a symphony of animal chatter.
Mars?” Molly asked, pointing at cages in a smaller
room at the far end of the lab.
“If that was a
joke, it was pretty lame,” he said derisively. “No,
there’s a communicating air shaft to the area with
the samples you just saw. The macaques, chimps, and
smaller mammals—rabbits and such—are being exposed
to—” He shrugged, palms up. “Who knows what?”
control room, they had a commanding view of the
entire automated laboratory area. He drew up a
couple of swivel chairs. “We can get out of these
things,” he said, doffing his cap and booties.
“Really don’t need the damned things anyway, since
we’re not going into the main containment area. Not
for now at least.”
Molly ditched her
sterile clothes and sat down with her left leg
stretched out, her hands clasped together, resting
on her lap. “What’s the paleontologist for, anyway?”
Miles knew he made
his daughter nervous, and not without reason. He
liked it that way. He looked at the no-smoking sign
and began fumbling around the desk drawers in search
of one of the many half-smoked cigars he kept hidden
around the lab, but found none. “A very vocal
minority in the scientific community thinks the
probabilities favor past life rather than current
life on Mars, so we had to be prepared to look for
fossil remains. At the last minute Blalock was
“I thought you
handpicked the team.”
“I did. All except
him.” Finding a loose pack of matches, he tore off
one and began to chew on it. “He’s trained to find
small fossilized pieces of bones or teeth and
such—stuff we’d overlook. What he can find in a
pile of dirt really is amazing. Too bad I hate his
“As a heart attack,
Molly frowned. “I
wish you wouldn’t put it like that. Given your own
snorted, took out some pictures showing the surface
of Mars taken from space and spread them on the
desk. “See here? Mars Odyssey took these. And
the British spacecraft Express took these.”
He ran his finger over an area with lighter
formations that looked just like dry riverbeds.
“Those are clearly erosion patterns. And here, look
here. That would have made great ocean-front
property—a few hundred million years ago.”
Mars did have water in the past?”
“Still does,” he said confidently. “No doubt about
it. A series of rover vehicles proved it over the
past few years. Because of that, we fully expect to
find microbial life in our samples, at the very
thought the last Mars Lander—what was it called?”
“There have been a lot of them.” He spit out a lump
of masticated match. “The Pathfinder and
Sojourner probes a few years back. And not too
long ago the Spirit, the Opportunity, and others. But they didn’t have any life
experiments on board. The last one that did was the
British Beagle 2, and it failed to work after
landing. No, only our Vikings, back in the
seventies, had the right experiments on board.”
“I thought they
didn’t find anything,” Molly said.
He shook his head.
“That’s what most people think. But in fact, the
evidence for life was quite strong, just not
“Like that rock
from Antarctica a while back?”
He watched her
twist the locket that hung from a long gold chain
around her neck, just like her mother used to. It
was an irritating habit. He exhaled loudly. “We have
to be sure. This time we will be.”
Around them an
array of video screens and monitor lights blinked
furiously, like a Christmas display gone wild;
digital readouts, toggle switches, dials and buttons
encircled the room in colorful belts. An atmosphere
of pure technology. And he inhaled it like oxygen.
He gestured with a broad sweep of his hand. “What do
“I call it Fortress
Lavisch,” he said proudly. “We’re making history
“No doubt about
that.” Molly rubbed her arms as if she were cold.
“Want to be a part
of it? It’s the best gift I could ever give you.
Something to tell your grandchildren about.” He
snorted a laugh. “Well...maybe not.”
Molly looked away.
He noticed the back of her neck turn red and smiled
with silent satisfaction.
“I‑I’m still not—”
“Stupid girl! I see
you haven’t changed.”
“I won’t ask you
again. And stop that stuttering! It’s annoying.”
She swung around in
the chair so fast he thought she would lunge at him,
but she just glared, almost as if in a state of
catatonia. What he saw now was new to him. Not fear,
not even just anger. This was hate.
Molly’s whole body
shook as she spoke. “Wha-Wha-Why do you al-al—?”
“Calm down,” he
said, cutting off the stutter. He hated the sound of
it. “Your mother never knew what she caused by
“That was when I
was seven,” Molly said icily. “I didn’t start
stuttering until much later. And you know why—”
“Not that again! I
never touched you—not in that way. Goddamned
psychobabblists gave you that idea. Never should’ve
She seemed to
struggle to puff out the words. “Y-You did-did more
“Oh, get a grip. No
one ever believed that—no one’s going to.” A
chirping warning tone sounded. A red light blinked
on the console just below a small TV monitor that
showed three men in sterile garments walking briskly
down the brightly lit corridor. A moment later they
entered the control room.
began, “uh, Doctor Molly Lavisch, I’d like
you to meet Doctor James Haverhills, Kim Lee, and
Doctor Paul Blalock. Gentlemen, my daughter.”
“It’s a pleasure to
meet you,” Molly said, offering her hand with what
seemed near-complete composure.
calmed herself, Miles continued the introductions.
“Doctor Haverhills is the team mineralogist. Paul,
here, is the gentleman I mentioned earlier, the one
“It was an
accident,” Paul Blalock said dismissively, extending
his hand to Molly. “Pleasure’s all mine, Molly.”
Miles glared at
Blalock, before moving on with the introductions.
“Kim, here, is our chief technical wizard. He
operates the scanning electron microscope, the X‑ray
crystallography gear, the robotics—”
else around here that moves, blinks, or whistles,”
rocked from one leg to the other, putting his hands
in and out of his pockets like a nervous groom.
“Miles,” he said, looking at Molly, “if it’s all
right with you, I’d like to go ahead and open the
first case. It’s next, according to the protocol.”
“By all means,
“I’ll help you,”
“Are they going
inside?” Molly asked.
Miles saw Blalock
open his mouth to answer, but quickly cut him off.
“No, we keep the inside of the main room as near as
possible to the real Martian atmosphere—the same
pressure and the same temperature. Except for the
Blalock sliced into
his oration. “All experiments are automated, Molly.
If we find a life form, we’ll grow more of it, then
do animal tests before we risk human exposure.”
Miles felt a
squeezing sensation grip his chest. “Well, daughter,
how would you like to be among the first humans to
view rocks from the Red Planet?”
Her eyes lit up.
“Of course, but—”
“Jim,” Miles said,
trying to toughen his tone. “Are you and Kim ready?”
“Chafing at the
bit,” Haverhills answered.
Miles turned to
Blalock and tried hard not to smile. “Paul, I’m
afraid you’re the odd man out today.”
“What do you
“I mean you’ll stay
in the control room,” Miles said firmly.
“I will not!”
Blalock moved toward the containment area.
against the too-tight collar of his shirt, Miles
blocked the door.
“I really should be
commanded, while he did his best to stare down the
“It’s all right,
Miles,” Haverhills said. “Paul can go. I’ll
recheck the baseline readings on the animals. We’ll
see if there’s any reaction.”
“All right then,”
Miles relented, stepping aside.
Lee quickly punched
a series of buttons, actuating a chain of electrical
signals that released all the latches on the largest
“Where are the
other team members?” Molly asked. “I would think
everyone would want to be here for this.”
Miles made hard
fists and never took his eyes off the sample case.
“We are the team. Fewer people, smaller risk
of exposure. You’re here only because it’s my
lab and you’re my daughter.” He glanced
quickly left and right, at Blalock and Lee.
Lee worked deftly
with the controls, and one by one the Martian rocks
emerged from the case. The rocks were from the size
of pebbles to fist‑size pieces, mostly rust brown or
“Look!” Lee blurted
excitedly. “There’s the greenish tinge from the
Viking pictures! The colors that changed over
”Yeah,” Miles said,
unconsciously trying to rub away a twinge of pain in
his chest. “The ones we thought might indicate some
life process. Looks similar to our lichens.”
“This is weird,”
Lee said. “I can’t seem to—” He appeared to struggle
to position the robot arms and hands, seemed to find
it difficult to get a grip on something inside the
large steel case. “Got it now! This one’s heavy.”
“Gauge says almost
three kilos,” Blalock reported.
Looking again at
the sample box, Miles surveyed the emerging treasure
with delight, but he was stunned when Kim lifted out
a bluish‑black rock about the size of a basketball.
Slightly oblong, with a slick, shiny, glasslike
appearance, it was unlike anything else in the case.
Suddenly Molly’s cell phone sounded, screeching
“Have to go?” Miles
said, half hoping she would say no; he needed her as
buffer to keep him from strangling Blalock.
Molly shook her
head. She squinted at the message window. “That’s
weird—says I’ve got a text message, but it’s just a
jumble of letters and numbers. Never done that
“Why don’t you just
shut it off then?” Miles growled.
“Looks very much
like obsidian,” Lee nodded toward the sample case,
his hands a flurry of activity, twisting dials and
flipping switches. “Volcanic glass.”
Miles turned to
Blalock. “Not unexpected. Wouldn’t you say, Paul?”
sideways but said nothing.
“Wonder why it’s so
totally different from the others?” Lee said.
finally said, “since it came from the same area.”
“A real wing-nut,”
Haverhills joked. “Can’t wait to break into that
twenty‑nine pieces,” Blalock said flatly.
“Good!” Miles said,
“Dad, I’ve really
got to be going—”
“All right, all
right,” he grumbled, not wanting to be pulled out of
the moment. “I’ll walk you out.”
“Just to the
Blalock said with a wink.
Miles jammed his
clenched fists into the pockets of his lab coat.
for upsetting you. Let’s not fight, okay?”
His heart double
beat at the thought of her, so young, so many years
seem like the research type,” Molly remarked
casually as they walked along.
“I’m going to get
rid of that bastard, one way or another.”
“Oh, don’t let him
upset you. It’s not worth it.” She arched her red
brow. “Remember your heart?”
“Don’t mother me.”
He kissed the air near her cheek, then turned and
hurried back toward the lab.
“Thanks for the
tour,” Molly called after him.
He didn’t bother to
turn around, only waved his hand in the air. He
walked quickly. His lab coat fluttered in his wake,
his mind aflame with questions, not only about the
Martian samples but also about how he could rid
himself of Blalock.
He doesn’t look
Molly thought as she watched her father round the
corner. The elevator doors swished open. She stepped
in, pressed the button for lobby, and waited for the
cranky World War Two-era lift to respond. The doors
clattered closed. Echoing with the closing door, a
chill rattled through her. Was it the ugly memories
that being in her father’s presence always evoked?
Or was it her genuine concern for his health. She
had to admit her heart was stretched in both
Before she knew it,
the elevator doors banged open, and she headed
swiftly for the bright sunshine beyond the glass
doors when she heard the guard call.
“You’ve got to sign
out, Miss Lavisch.”
She turned quickly,
too eager to leave behind the bad feelings, and
bumped into a man solid enough that she bounced off
“Excuse me!” she
said. “I should watch where I’m going.”
“Oh, but I’d
rather watch where you’re going.” He thrust out his
hand. “Peter MacKenzie,” he said with a canny
Pleased to meet you.” Her face flushed hot, but she
managed to take his large, warm hand before glancing
away. Still, in that sliver of a glance, she’d felt
something elemental pass between them, and its
magnetism drew her back to his delicious smile. His
black hair, sprinkled with light gray around the
ears, turned up into a slight cowlick in the front.
A shadow of a beard was flecked with red and gray.
And those hazel eyes, which seemed full of stories,
spoke silently to her on some unconscious level. She
realized she was staring and gave her head a tiny
“Believe it or not,
you’re just who I was looking for. Or, rather, your
father is. Professor Miles Lavisch is your father, isn’t he?”
“Yes. But why?”
”You heard about
“I saw the papers.”
“The commander was
my best friend.”
“I’m sorry. My
father knew some of them too.”
“I think there’s
something fishy about how he and the others died,”
Peter said. “I thought your father might be able to
help. But Genghis Khan over there wouldn’t let me up
to see him.”
“What makes you
think something’s fishy?”
“They were diverted
to Edwards. Bo—my friend—always said that if they
were ever diverted to Edwards for no apparent
reason, like weather or mechanical problems, it
meant they’d seen something. Something with possible
national defense implications.”
“A UFO?” she
“It was part of
their flight plan,” he said flatly. “But dying
“I’m sorry I can’t
help you right now. I’m late for a meeting.”
tomorrow?” Peter handed her two tickets.
“Tickets to a
flying circus. It’s called Cilly’s Aerial Carnival.
At Bealeton, not far from Fredericksburg. You know
“Yes, I’ve been
“Come watch me fly.
It’s a good show. Bring a friend.”
She was just about
to say yes when the elevator doors opened and an
ashen-faced Haverhills stumbled out. There was blood
on his white lab coat.
“Call nine one
one!” Haverhills shouted to the guard in the lobby
as he fell up against the wall.
Molly asked, startled by the trembling man’s
“I don’t know,”
Haverhills said, his voice shaking. “Kim’s just
MacKenzie behind, she followed Haverhills up the
four flights of stairs to the lab, where Miles met
them at the entrance to the control center.
“Good thing we
caught you,” Miles said. “Something’s wrong with
As she passed
through the inner doors, her cell phone again went
wild. “Crazy thing,” she said and handed the
warbling device to her father before kneeling at
“Tell me!” Miles
commanded Blalock. “What did you do?”
perfectly fine. Then boom! He collapsed.” Blalock
appeared bewildered, but managed to support the
man’s head as blood spewed from his nose in
powerful, rhythmic surges. Already the front of his
lab coat was drenched with blood.
“There’s got to be
more to it than that, Paul,” Miles growled.
“I’m telling you,”
Blalock repeated. “I don’t know. He was trying to
put the black rock back into the case, and he
collapsed without a word.”
The cell phone
continued with its weird, shrill noises, which grew
louder and more erratic as Miles moved closer to the
containment area wall, near the black rock. “How do
you shut this damned thing—?” Dropping the bleating
device to the floor, he stomped it into silence.
“Where were you, Jim?”
“In the animal
She’d just begun
her examination when the man began to shake, and
blood gushed from his nose and eyes and ears. She
didn’t have a clue as to why, but it was clear the
man was near death. “M-My G-God!” she blurted.
“D-D-Did he fall? Or h-hit his head?” She took a
deep breath, held it, trying to stave off the
tremors in her speech.
She brushed her
hands through Lee’s hair a section at a time,
looking for evidence of a blow. She pulled his
eyelids open. Both pupils were widely dilated. She
waved her hand in front of his eyes. “Pupils
something, Paul,” Miles accused. “Now tell us what
“Just what I said,
Haverhills suggested in a quavering voice.
Haverhills looked nearly as bad as Lee—and
her father. “Onset was too sudden for any
infectious agent,” she said, exhaling hard against
her palate as she spoke to smooth out the words.
“Looks like trauma.” She glanced at her father, then
stopped convulsing; blood stopped spurting and
instead flowed like a river. She gently lowered
Lee’s head onto her folded jacket.
Her father stared
at her, red-faced. “Well?”
She knew that
daunting, demanding tone all too well. She looked
at her bloodied hands, then up to meet her father’s
glare. “I‑I g-guess we’ll have to wait for the
ELMER P. CILLY’S
AERIAL CARNIVAL, Bealeton, Virginia...
stood with hands on hips and watched the lemon
yellow Stearman PT‑17 biplane bounce and jiggle over
the uneven turf, wings rocking jauntily, engine
barking and popping, until it rolled to a breezy
stop in front of her.
As soon as the
plane’s engine stopped, her friend, Allison Jamison,
AJ for short, stood unsteadily in the front cockpit,
fiddling with the parachute harness, grinning
stoically, her blue eyes like cutouts of the perfect
blue of the sky above, her blond hair lifting in the
wind from the dying propeller. She gave Molly a
thumbs‑up, and then triumphantly displayed a little
white airsick bag, which appeared to have been used,
before clambering with halting steps onto the wing.
The stunt pilot’s
helper, a sturdy teenager with a small gold earring
and his shorts showing behind his sagging jeans,
reached up and helped her down onto the dry July
grass, where as soon as he let go of her arm, she
“Let me help you,”
Molly called, moving toward her. But Peter
MacKenzie, who jumped out of the rear cockpit right
behind AJ, pulled her to her feet and with obvious
relish, brushed the dust off the backside of her
khaki riding pants with slow, deliberate strokes.
her friend panted, “that’s the most fun I’ve had—”
She rocked unsteadily, wiped her sweating face with
the back of her hand.
Please don’t say,
With my pants on,
Molly said to
Molly,” AJ beamed.
“How ‘bout a loop
and a roll?” Peter said, not taking his eyes off
“No thanks,” Molly
said sternly, tightening her arms, which she'd
cordoned across her breasts. “I’m sick just thinking
about it. Besides, someone’s got to drive home.”
“Oh, my!” AJ
wobbled, bracing herself on the man.
Molly noticed she
went out of her way to rub her breast against
Peter’s arm, and she thought she detected more than
mere pleasure in Peter’s face as well.
“Sure you’re going
to be okay?” Peter asked.
“Yes, Peter,” AJ
said compliantly. “Thank you.”
Molly marveled as
AJ worked her womanly way. She smiled up at the man,
batted her eyes saucily, her lips in a pouty,
star-struck smile. What Molly couldn’t figure was
why she felt the need; AJ never had a problem luring
men. What she was doing was like dumping sugar on
Frosted Flakes. Molly sputtered a laugh.
“He’s a great stunt
“Airshow pilot,” he
corrected. “We fly planned maneuvers. Stunts imply
Molly wanted to go
with him, but didn’t think her stomach could take
it. But before she could speak, his attention had
already passed back to AJ.
“Want to go again?”
he asked, grinning like a prankster.
AJ hesitated, then
spouted bravely: “To the moon, as long as you are
flying. But could we rest awhile first?”
Peter chuckled and
shook his head. A wisp of his almost blue-black hair
curled limply onto his forehead. “Jimmy, why don’t
you take Miss Jamison to the first‑aid station so
she can lie down?”
“Oh, no,” AJ said,
again laughing gaily. “I’m all right. And call me
AJ.” She rubbed his arm. He put his arm around her
waist. “Anyway,” she added, “my friend here is a
“I know,” he said.
“We’ve met, remember?” A sprinkling of oil outlined
the pilot’s hazel eyes where his goggles had been.
He wiped the residue from his forehead with the
sleeve of his shirt and looked at AJ. “My solo act
is up next, so I’ve got to change planes. Why don’t
you two meet me afterwards by the big hangar? I’ll
buy you a drink, and we can have that talk, all
“Sounds great,” AJ
gushed, as he winked at her and trudged off.
For a moment, Molly
stared at her friend, frozen in amazement. She had
to admit, AJ’s appeal for men was obvious. Her
plaid Western shirt had ruffles, studs, and
embroidery; she wore it with flare, unbuttoned to
reveal more than a hint of cleavage. Molly glanced
down at her own conservative white collarless
blouse, jeans that maybe were a bit too baggy, and
sneakers that weren’t all the rage. The fact that
she was only four-eleven didn’t help. AJ had a
model’s statuesque frame. Then she thought,
Everyone tells me I’ve got Bette Davis eyes? But
were her eyes even green? That for a
redhead she was pretty? Isn’t that what Glen had
said? What does that mean, “for a redhead”? She stepped back and felt the all too familiar jar
her short right leg made against her pelvis,
reminding her of her limp, slight though it was, the
result of a freak case of childhood polio from bad
vaccine. What was worse, because of Peter MacKenzie,
she sensed another looming contest with her
childhood friend that she feared she wouldn’t win.
“Cute, isn’t he?”
AJ said with a cock of her head, as they headed for
the carnival midway.
And I’m a blond unicorn. Some doctor, too, laughing
at the wretched ill.” She wiped her still damp brow
with a pink handkerchief that had little brown horse
heads along its border.
“Maybe it serves
you right,” Molly said, feeling a bit of resentment.
“For introducing me to Glen.”
“That prick,” AJ
said, rolling her eyes. “Not telling you he was
married. Damnit, girl, every time I try to get you
“Go ahead. Live
your Sex and the City life. It’s not who I
am. A man’s marital status is no trivial detail to
“Oh, and what makes
your hymen so holy? Remember, Good girls go to
heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” She
opened her arms in a display like a strutting bird
and cackled. “Really, Molly, you should—”
She drew her finger
across her throat and arched her eyebrows. She hated
how AJ always knew what buttons to push. “Let’s just
say you and I have different tastes when it comes to
men and leave it at that.”
“Speaking of men,
how’re Frick and Frack?”
“Your father and
your uncle Malcolm?”
“Oh, they’re fine.
Uncle Malcolm’s still teaching comparative religion
at Hopkins. Sweet as ever.”
“And your father?”
She felt her face
burn, and swallowed hard when she thought of him,
standing there over Lee’s lifeless body, the way he
used to stand over her—”Just saw him in his lab at
Goddard yesterday. It was very strange. One of his
lab technicians died while I was there.”
“When I tell people
you’ve got killer looks, I’m only kidding, ya know.
Molly had to raise
her voice to be heard over the heavy‑metal music
blaring from the carnival rides as they drew near.
“Don’t know. It was crazy. One minute the guy was
the picture of health—young too. The next, he was
unconscious and streaming blood from ever orifice.
Then he was dead.”
disposed of her airsick bag in the first trash
receptacle they passed. “What’s this Mars project
the first soil samples brought back from Mars.”
AJ looked confused.
“The Mars probe?
Don’t you read the papers?
“Not if I can help
Molly urged with exasperation.
supposed to mean?”
Greek and it means final judgment. That’s the name
of the spacecraft. Let’s get a hot dog and some
“Food? Ugh!” AJ
fluttered her hanky about her green-tinged face like
a butterfly about to land on a leaf and put her hand
over her mouth. “God, girl, what’s with you and hot
said, with more than a twinge of satisfaction.
The crowds seemed
to suddenly thicken. Concessionaires with greedy
eyes barked their husky‑throated come‑ons. Children
and adults alike screamed with delight from the
Ferris wheel behind the big hangar and the Madmouse
and the Octopus rides, as overhead Peter’s airplane
twisted through the clear summer air, painting
figures with a stream of bluish‑white smoke that now
settled over the field like a pungent fog.
Molly glanced up as
Peter’s plane passed low and fast before pulling up
sharply in front of the crowd. She followed its
upward arc, squinting into a fierce summer sun and
wishing she hadn’t forgotten her sunglasses and
sunscreen. Her fair skin would be bright pink by
the end of the day, with a few dozen extra freckles.
Just what she needed.
As they made their
way along the midway, a small boy with a candy apple
in one hand and a mound of cotton candy in the other
raced by. A little girl of about the same age in
hot pursuit misjudged her turn and banged into Molly
with a thump, spun off, then kept running without
uttering a word. She watched them disappear into the
crowd and sighed.
AJ shook her head.
“I know, Molly. But to breed rug rats, first you
need a man. Oh! Looky here, old gal.” She pointed
to a tentlike kiosk in the space between two large
oaks that seemed to pop up from nowhere. Its brown
sides were accented with wide, blood red vertical
stripes bordered with smaller gold ones. An
ice‑cream‑cone roof supported a long, golden minaret
with three bulbs at mid-length, reminiscent of a
Turkish mosque. A banner across the entrance read:
Madame Lilah Blackwell—Gypsy Princess. Futures
Foretold, Mysteries Unveiled, Life Readings. Good
Fun. Only $5.
“Just what we
need,” Molly said with little enthusiasm.
“Indeed it is,” AJ
affirmed. “A little levity. She’ll tell you that
you’ll meet the man of your dreams, and I’ll find
out how I’m going to avoid losing my farm to the
Abruptly the deep
purple flap of a door flew open. Like an
apparition, a slight, colorfully attired woman
appeared. She looked directly at Molly. Her piercing
eyes were fathomless, lightless hollows that
nonetheless held a strange
and powerful intelligence, which seemed to suck the
very air out of her. She suddenly felt faint.
“Come in, please,”
the slender woman said.
“Let’s go Mol. This
sounds like a blast.”
“You wait!” the
tiny woman ordered, stepping in front of AJ.
Molly shrugged a
smile and went inside, warming to the idea of a
harmless lark with a good crystal ball and, as AJ
had said, a little levity.
At first blinded by
the dark interior, she stumbled in until the Gypsy
took her arm. With improving sight, she marveled at
the array of occult effects: a small ebony table,
intricately inlaid with ivory figures of animals,
nymphs, serpents, and strange glyphs. On the table,
beside a deck of tarot cards, sat a sculpted crystal
human skull. A few paces away, a Ouija board leaned
against the wall.
“Sit,” the Gypsy
said, pointing to a purple pillow with gold
stitching beside the stub-legged, black table.
Molly watched as
the Gypsy approached a narrow altar against the
wall, where she lit two spires of incense that sent
up tiny sparks, and along with them, the comforting
aroma that reminded her of church when she was a
little girl. The Gypsy’s gaze lingered over a faded
oval portrait of Christ, which hung beside a picture
of Satan’s Temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
She made the sign of the cross and mumbled a prayer.
When the Gypsy
turned toward her, a gold talisman slung about her
neck on a long gold chain amidst a bundle of
colorful scarves caught Molly’s eye. It looked like
an Egyptian ankh with a splayed extremity. She
loved jewelry, collected it, had even made some for
friends, though she herself wore only a single gold
locket; and she could not recall ever having seen
anything quite like it. The Gypsy fingered it
lovingly, presently sitting on a pillow across from
“We won’t need
these,” the dark-eyed woman said, and with one
startling sweep of her arm, she cleared the table.
“Those are mere props for the uninitiated, not for
those whose souls speak freely about destiny and
purpose. Give me your hand, Molly.”
jerked her hand away. “How did you know my name?”
The Gypsy eased
back, one corner of her mouth drawn up in
contrition. A candle in the corner of the room
reflected in her large, emphatic eyes. “Your friend
said it, no? Cast aside your doubts and
suspicions. I want to help you.”
“I wasn’t aware I
needed any help.”
“We all need help
from time to time. Hear my words. Individual lives
intersect for a reason. Our world is randomness, but
it wasn’t chance that brought you here. And you need
my guidance. Now, give me your hand.”
offered her hand, palm up. Before she knew it, the
Gypsy pulled it to her breast, enfolding it within
her own flesh. Again, Molly’s breath left her, as
what seemed an energetic, living fluid surged up her
arm, filled her chest, and spread throughout her
body. She was both warmed and frightened by it.
“Who? What are you—?”
“You are sad now,”
the Gypsy declared. “You have lost a lover, no?”
A blush spread like
wildfire across Molly’s cheeks and forehead. “You
tell me,” she challenged.
The Gypsy’s eyebrow
lifted. “So suspicious! Do not respond as you think
your father would.”
Molly tried to pull
away but could not.
“Relax, my dear.
Relax.” The Gypsy’s words flowed slowly, sweetly,
like cool molasses, all the while holding Molly’s
gaze—and her hand—firmly. “Fighting is no good. I
see love and a family as your heart’s desire, but
you must forget Glen. He—“
Molly gasped, her
pounding heart fluttered. “How—?” She tried to get
up, but the Gypsy pulled her down.
“Love in this world
is but a faint trick of the eye. The world itself a
shadowland. Many are fooled. There is another for
you, but you must wait. Patience is the token that
buys your journey.” The Gypsy’s eyes dropped. “But
your journey is fraught with danger.”
shudder reverberated through her body as the Gypsy
released her grip, dropping her hand. Her black eyes
“Your heart is too
big for this life, my sweet one. And soon you will
pass from it—”
It was as if she’d taken a physical blow. The room
seemed to swirl. She felt faint and braced herself
from falling over. But the voice rose again.
“Passing will not
be easy, but your death is only one whimper among
the wailings of a world in rebirth. Trust your own
heart and your own will, for soon you will be reborn
with the Earth. But first—“
Abruptly, a radiant
burst of sun cleared the darkness. AJ jerked Molly
to her feet and began dragging her toward the light.
“I heard what the little bitch said.”
“Molly, you must
listen to me,” the Gypsy begged, dropping for just a
moment the haunting accent and pointing to the
picture of Satan’s Temptation of Eve. “A new Eden is
upon us. And you are the new Eve! Yes,
“No, no more!” AJ
shouted. “She won’t hear anymore.”
stumbled toward the doorway, AJ both holding her up
and pushing her.
“Listen to me!” the
Gypsy cried out. “Your father—”
“Shut up, you
AJ picked up the
crystal skull and raised her arm as if to throw it,
but Molly grabbed her wrist. Compelled by she knew
not what, she heard herself ask, “What about my
The words ran
together, blurred by the returning accent. She
thought she heard: “Tell him bellancarla say beware
. . ..”
“Are you all
right?” AJ asked as they cleared the door.
Outside, in the
bright light of the July sun, Molly’s panting
breaths subsided. She felt silly, as if the whole
incident was but a vulgar fabrication of her
imagination. “Whew! That was one good act.” Then
she coughed a small, hesitant cough, testing to see
if the strange warmth was still there. It was not.
She noticed AJ looked a bit unglued too.
“Of course it was!”
AJ said with quivering voice. “Just an act, I
mean.” Her hand trembled as she lit a cigarette.
“You know what’s
“As scared as I
was—still am—I didn’t stutter.” An unexpected
laugh erupted from her, as if from a stranger. “But
why do I still feel so spooked?”
“Come on, you’re a
scientist. No one can tell the future.”
“I know, I know,”
she said without a bit of conviction. “It’s just
that...well, she didn’t seem quite, quite—”
With a feeling of
anxious excitement, Miles entered the outer chamber
of the containment area where only yesterday Lee had
Vishnu Chandra, was already at work. East Indian,
with characteristic raven hair, well oiled and
neatly combed, his eyes were black as polished
obsidian. His complexion, a talcum white, seemed
not to match his other features. He was tall, over
six feet, and he moved with the grace of a giraffe.
All in all, Chandra presented a striking figure.
couldn’t shake the feeling there was something
peculiar about him, and he thought it singularly odd
that NASA headquarters had so quickly found someone
with the requisite security clearances. But eager as
he was to get on with the experiments, he never
bothered to question the appointment. After all,
Chandra was only a technician. Albeit one with
apparent good credentials.
Chandra’s papers, he was most recently attached to
Army research at Fort Detrick, Maryland, with
USAMRIID, the armed forces premier biological
warfare research center, which was now, by its own
public relations propaganda, primarily devoted to
cancer research, though Miles knew better. Their
cover was partly blown when the news broke that the
anthrax terrorist attack used a strain of the
microbe called Ames, which, it turned out, had been
developed at USAMRIID.
“We’ll get the
large rock out first,” Miles told Chandra.
“Sterilize it. Then put it through the MRI.”
“Then the gas
“If you find
cavities.” As Miles watched the technician operate
the robotic arms with the same easy professionalism
as Lee, he felt a profound sense of relief. There
would be no further delays. Progress would come
quickly. Martian life, he was confident, would be
confirmed within the samples, though not likely in
the big black rock. That’s why he wanted its
analysis out of the way. So they could proceed to
the mother load he knew lay in the other sample
Beep! Beep! Beep!
Chandra’s cell phone went wild, emitting an
intermittent high-pitched screeching noise along
with a series of undulating beeps and warbles.
“I see you’ve got
one of those cursed things too,” Miles snipped. But
then it hit him. “Curious. The same thing happened
twice yesterday. As soon as we opened that sample
“Look at this,
Professor.” Chandra handed him the cell phone.
Miles looked at the
flashing display. “Same as yesterday. A constantly
streaming alphanumeric string. What do you make of
“A coded message?”
Miles knew if there were any electromagnetic
emanations from the rock, the metal case would block
it. “Put the lid back down.”
Chandra closed the
lid, the cell phone stopped, and its message screen
“By God,” Miles
rejoiced, “a signal is coming from that rock.
Prepare it for scan immediately.”
Miles felt a shiver
of excitement. It was as if he were standing on the
shore of eternity waiting for the mast of some
ghostly ship of destiny to pierce the horizon. And,
oh, how he longed to greet it. But, as always, there
was the wait, the interminable wait. Seconds seemed
like hours before the images began to emerge.
Miles exclaimed through teeth clenching the remnants
of a long extinguished cigar. “Just unbelievable!”
“In the beginning,”
Chandra said in a barely audible, almost reverent
If he’d heard
Chandra right, Miles thought the remark surpassingly
peculiar. “What’s that, Mister Chandra?”
“I said, ‘It’s just
the beginning,’ Professor.”
What a weirdo.
“Well, what do you see?”
“I see just what
you see, Professor, a small, rectangular object,
most certainly not naturally occurring.”
Well past midnight,
Miles ordered Chandra to use the diamond-blade
circular saw for the last cut into the obsidian
mantle, which accidentally grazed the box’s face,
causing the saw to whine and buck before stopping
completely, its blade turned to a powdery pile of
Miles ran his
finger over the saw’s blade, which was worn smooth.
“I’ll be damned. Harder than diamonds.” He examined
the box. Unbelievably, it was unscarred, not even
the tiniest scratch. He glanced at Chandra, whose
expression betrayed more horror than amazement.
“What’s the matter,
The man shook his
head. “Nothing,” he spouted in a razor-thin voice.
“Hmmm.” With gloved
hand, Miles freed the object from its obsidian
carapace, quickly surveying it from every possible
angle. “Just a little box of some sort.”
“I’d have said
alabaster,” Miles ventured, “before the saw. Can’t
be, though. It’s way too light. Only half a pound,
I’d guess.” He continued to study the box, holding
it out at arm’s length, cursing himself silently for
losing his glasses again. With the sleeve of his
coat, he rubbed away the patina of dust from the
face of the box. “What’s this?” he joked. “A stop
“An eye,” Chandra
said, pointing to the softly blinking red light.
“An eye, huh?”
Miles held the box as far away as he could, but his
arms just weren’t long enough. “What do you make of
these marks? Here, you take a look. Must’ve left my
glasses back in the control room.” He handed the
object to Chandra. “Maybe some kind of
Chandra didn’t so much hold the box as caress it,
his long, slender fingers gently stroking the
smooth, white surface with its delicate inlays of
precious stones and elaborate gold designs.
Miles needed a
smoke. Impatiently, he drummed his finger on the
table. “Well? Describe what you see.”
design on the face is a modified ankh—its lower
extremity being bifurcated. Of course the eye is the
most conspicuous feature. The markings are certainly
of a language, resembling, as you say,
hieroglyphics—but not hieroglyphics. I can detect
no seam. But we’ll check it under magnification.”
“If it is
some kind of container?” Miles snatched the box
away. “God! Are we stupid? We didn’t try shaking
“Guess you never
celebrated Christmas,” Miles said derisively,
shaking the box like a child testing a gift.
“Something’s in there; I can feel it. Can we use the
“If it will fit the
his expression a mixture of shock and mystification.
“Well,” Miles said
impatiently. “Get on with it!”
For thirty long
minutes Miles paced the hallway, his mind whirring,
while Chandra set up the scanning electron beam
microscope. A million questions had to be answered.
What to do about storing the box securely? Whom to
tell? And when? And another crucial question: Whom
could he bring in for the language analysis? No,
that one was easy. Roscha Venable, his old MIT
roommate and one-time linguist at Columbia. Roscha
had since moved back to town and now was special
consultant to the National Security Agency on
matters of cryptology. He was the only possible
choice. Roscha, you old fart—
“I’ve got it!”
Chandra’s cry echoed through the lab like a
commandment. “A seam!”
Miles looked at the
clock on the wall. It was 4:15
A.M. For the
first time he felt fatigue.
“Judging from the
way it reacted to the diamond saw,” Chandra said, “I
doubt we could break it open without destroying
whatever is inside.”
“So, we’d better
figure out how it’s supposed to be opened. Got any
“The workmanship is
so extraordinary.... I doubt very much if it is a
simple mechanical device. The seam itself is no more
than a few angstroms across. And there is the
question of the beacon, its power source and—”
“Yes, yes,” Miles
grumbled. “Evidently whatever’s in there was
valuable enough to warrant putting a homing device
in the box. So you can bet it has a pretty
sophisticated locking mechanism.”
“If not something
“What?” Miles asked
incredulously. “Booby trap? Possible, I suppose. But
the question is...” He stared at the eye in the
circlet atop the ankh. Its hypnotic soft red light
winked rhythmically, in unison with the beacon’s
transmission. At about the same rate as the human
heart, he thought, feeling the throbbing pain in
“Could be pressure
points, Professor. Or something keyed to the
magnetic field around the living fingers—”
Miles snorted with contempt. “You’re assuming that
the intelligent life that made this box also had
human anatomy, including fingers? That’s a large
leap, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so,”
Chandra admitted. “How about sound, then?”
For some reason,
Miles saw images from the old War of the Worlds
movie flash before his mind’s eye, pictures of Gene
Barry running in fright as the Martian monsters
emerged from their spacecraft. “But it is also
possible that our aliens communicated in ways other
than sound, telepathically, perhaps.”
Chandra said, curiously lifting an eyebrow, “they
could have been more advanced than humans.”
very different anatomically, too,” Miles asserted,
now thinking of the aliens in the movie Independence Day,
all buglike and grotesque.
“No, we’re looking at a problem of electromagnetics...some
coded frequency pattern, probably in the same range
as the beacon. If true, we may never open it. Hell,
we can encrypt unbreakable codes even with our
meager technology.” He couldn’t suppress a yawn. “I
must be getting old.” He thought how in his youth he
could go without sleep for days, especially when in
the thrall of some intriguing problem, such as this
most certainly was. Reluctantly, he succumbed to
the exigencies of fatigue. “Mr. Chandra, I think
it’s time to call it a night.”
“I’d like to stay
with it, Professor, if you have no objection.”
“All right, then,”
Miles relented and started for his office, but he
stopped suddenly, turning to his lab technician with
a purposely-arched brow and his most intimidating
scowl. “You will call me before you do
anything with the box?”
Professor! Wake up!” Chandra shook Miles’s chair.
“I’ve done it. I’ve opened the box.”
excited phrasing, his delivery was really quite
calm. This made it all the more difficult for Miles
to determine if he was awake or dreaming. Slowly his
eyes began to focus. He looked at his watch: 6:40
a. m.. He’d
been asleep only a short time.
“You say you opened
the box? But how?” He looked at Chandra, who was
putting the Bunsen burner under some water. “How,
Chandra? Forget the damn tea—I want to know how?”
For he’d really believed that there would be no
nondestructive way to get inside the box.
Professor. I was setting up the equipment to
display the waveform so I could begin to analyze it.
I had the recorder hooked up to it, along with a
signal generator. In testing the set-up, I
inadvertently recorded the homing signal’s waveform
inverted. When I rebroadcast it to the box, the eye
stopped winking—and the box opened about a
quickly twisted the explanation this way and that,
testing the veracity of his technician. “Makes
sense, I guess. Uh huh.... Whenever the box was
closed, the homing beacon was on and the locking
mechanism was engaged. Turn off the beacon remotely
and the box— Did you look inside?”
“No, Professor. I knew you would want to be
smiled and pushed the cigar box toward Chandra.
“No, thank you,
“I think I’ll have
that tea now, if you don’t mind.”
Miles leaned over
and got a light off the Bunsen burner, letting the
acrid smoke rise up the back of his throat and out
through his nose. His body tingled with a sensation
of imminent fulfillment. Such was the culmination of
longing, not for the sexual, not for any mere animal
appetite, not for anything so mundane, but for
something uniquely human: the longing for
revelation, for enlightenment, for understanding. He
wanted to savor the mood, prolong it, for always the
possibility of disappointment loomed: An empty box.
No, he would wait a few more minutes, sip his tea
and finish his smoke.
But after that
fleeting thought he could resist the pull of
curiosity no longer. He butted his cigar. “Let’s go
have a look.
The box sat like a
bejeweled clam under a sterile hood just the other
side of the wall from the animal cages in the
containment area. As soon as Miles picked up the
box the monkeys went berserk, rattling their cages,
cringing, screaming and making an ungodly racket as
they raced back and forth in their wire cells.
“Shut up!” he
yelled and threw a Petri dish against the wall. He
edged up the top of the little box about half an
inch and nearly fell off his chair as an intense
white light flooded out from the inside of the box.
“This thing must have an incredible power source.”
Ever so slowly, he raised the top the rest of the
way. Then he began to chuckle softly. “No alien life
form here. It’s just a book!”
“Not just a
book,” Chandra said, a subtle but unmistakable edge
to his voice. “Obviously a book of some import,
probably of religious significance—”
Miles shook his
head in disgust. “Well, of course it is!” Lifting
the diminutive book out of its cradle, he placed it
on a black felt display cloth Chandra had somehow
provided. “The cover material looks and feels like
leather. Same design on the cover as the one on the
box, a modified ankh with eye. Though this one’s not
winking.” He gingerly opened the book, not knowing
if the pages would simply collapse into a fine
powder of long-deteriorated material.
“Good! The pages
are intact,” Chandra said excitedly.
fingers, Miles gingerly leafed through the book,
page by page. “Not surprisingly, the language is the
same as that on the box. Pages feel like vellum.”
Soon he lost patience and using his thumb flipped
quickly through the entire text. “Too bad, no
pictures! That would have made things interesting,
eh, Mr. Chandra?”
Something fell from
between the pages.
Miles wondered, as he picked up a piece of fine,
silklike white cloth with borders that repeated the
ankh design. A brown stain ran nearly its entire
length, which he estimated to be about ten inches
long. “A bookmark, perhaps? What do you think? So
far you haven’t said much.”
dreamy-eyed as he beheld the book. “I think it’s
“Perhaps a prayer
Suddenly the lab’s
door-open warning sounded. Miles checked the
monitor. Blalock was coming.
“What’s he doing
here so early?” Miles wondered out loud.
“What about the
book?” Chandra asked.
For some reason,
Chandra seemed as reluctant as he to reveal the
find. “Vishnu,” he said, feeling the familiarity of
a first name was more appropriate for a prospective
ally. “I think for the time being—”
“I’ll hide it,”
Chandra whispered. “You stall him.”
Miles met Blalock
just outside his office by the control center.
said with surprise. “You’re here early.”
“You, too,” he said
calmly. “Glad to see you’re so dedicated.”
smirked. “I thought we’d get into that black rock
today, and I didn’t want to miss it.”
Well...because of Lee… I thought we’d better wait.
Until the autopsy results, to be on the safe side.”
“Yes. Today I
wanted you to attend a meeting at NASA headquarters
on my behalf.” He started moving toward the door as
he spoke. “You’d better hurry; the meeting starts at
nine thirty. You know what traffic’s like this time
of day. Just check with Larry Blumenthal when you
As soon as
Blalock was gone, he went back to his office and
Miles Lavisch sat
outside the administrator’s office at NASA
headquarters in Washington, D.C., luxuriating in
visions of himself accepting awards and accolades,
for surely this would be the crowning glory of his
already illustrious career. The world was always
waiting to be astounded, and certainly he would not
disappoint them. Indeed, not only had there been
life on Mars but intelligent life. He’d made up his
mind about one thing: Only he would be the messenger
of that seminal news. He basked in a glorious
reverie, imagining himself at the White House. It
was a small, informal gathering. Champagne and
caviar being served on White House sterling; violins
and a piano playing softly in the eves; he was about
to shake the President’s hand...
“Only a moment
more, Professor Lavisch,” the secretary said, her
gray-streaked brown hair tied up in a bun with a
yellow pencil piercing it like a toothpick through
So what if Larry
Blumenthal was his boss and NASA’s chief
administrator. To Miles, he was just another
glorified paper shuffler and politico, and he didn’t
like to be kept waiting by anyone. Especially now,
only twenty-four hours after discovering the book,
for there was far too much to be done.
sliding from side to side on the slick maroon
leather sofa, shuffling through the usual array of
out-of-date magazines. He saw the no smoking sign.
This will get some action. He took out a
long, walnut-brown Partagas and with his thumb,
flicked a white-tipped kitchen match to life.
“No! No! No!”
the secretary said, shaking her head and pointing to
the sign on her desk, which she tapped
woodpeckerlike with a gnarly finger.
Miles rolled his
eyes and grunted but kept the match burning near the
tip of the cigar. “I won’t, if you’ll tell him I’m
tired of waiting.”
Professor. He has someone with him.”
“Try him again,
damnit!” Jumping to his feet, Miles poked the
burning match in her face to hold her at bay as he
maneuvered around her desk toward the oak double
doors that led to Blumenthal’s office.
I won’t be threatened like this. As soon as
Before he could
grab the polished brass handle, the doors swung
“Sorry to have kept
you waiting, Miles.” Larry Blumenthal smiled meekly.
His face, accented with two hooded, puffy eyes, was
drained of color. “Please come in.”
“You know how much
work we have, Larry. What’s this all about?”
“I know, Miles, I
know. This won’t take long.” He pointed to the man
who sat at the small elliptical conference table in
Miles could see
that the man, even though seated, was large, both
tall and heftily built, but well proportioned. His
blondish-white hair was neatly trimmed and combed.
His florid face shown like a beacon, with spider-web
veins crisscrossing his cheeks and the bridge of his
nose, which separated two deep-set, searching eyes.
A black double-breasted suit and a regimental-stripe
tie, which vertically divided a luminescent white
shirt, fit him like the crisp lines of a manikin. On
his right hand was a Naval Academy graduation ring.
began, “I’d like you to meet Admiral Carl Snow. He’s
“Of the CIA,” Miles
interrupted. He switched his unlit cigar to his
other hand. “I haven’t been living on the moon the
last few years.”
“I dare say, no one
has,” Blumenthal countered glumly, plopping down
next to Snow.
flattered by the high-powered delegation, Miles
extended his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Director
But the admiral,
without standing or offering his hand in return,
just nodded and pointed to a chair....
Madras sat in his
hotel room wondering why Pheras had not gotten back
to him. He wondered if he’d mistakenly used his
alias, Vishnu Chandra, when he’d left his message.
He was so fatigued. He stared at his communicator,
which lay on the coarse orange and beige blanket on
the bed next to where he sat, and tried to will it
to life. Nearly thirty-six hours had passed since
the discovery of the Covenant, since his urgent call
to his superior. He needed approval for his next
move, and surely time was short before his cover was
blown. He was not used to pretending he was someone
he was not, and certainly not used to taking
someone’s life. Yes, it was necessary, he assured
himself, but this assignment made him uncomfortable,
and the guilt pressed in on him like a dull weight.
chirped to life. Lunging for it, he knocked it to
the floor, then, in his eagerness, he kicked it
under the bed just as he bent to pick it up. Vainly,
he fished for it in darkness. It seemed to him as if
some impudent force was toying with him, taunting
him, egging on a growing frustration. Finally his
fingers met the cool, black device, which he quickly
squeezed, overly hard so as not to let it escape
again, as if it were a menacing animal that had to
“Pheras! Thank the
Lord,” he said breathlessly. “I was beginning to
think—well, it doesn’t matter. I’ve located the
when the beacon’s signal was confirmed I dared not
Merely the sound of
Pheras’s voice reassured him. His faith renewed, he
spoke now with greater confidence, if not greater
joy. “The last copy is now accounted for.”
“Tell me about the
man Lee. Your message said you’d had to cause his
“Yes. He had six
months at best as it was. A fulminating cerebral
aneurysm. He wasn’t due for replacement, anyway.”
“I see.... Then you
have the Covenant?”
“Well, no. I
“You must get it!”
He detected in
Pheras’s voice an unmistakable—and
unprecedented—impatience, unbefitting his usually
“If they should
manage to decipher it—”
Madras could feel
the rebuke. “For all practical purposes, yes! Given
the short time frame.”
“Just the same,”
Pheras continued, “if they did decipher it—however
remote that possibility might be—our job would be
all the more difficult. Get it now!”
“At all costs?”
“Be guided by your
heart, Madras, but not blinded by it. You know what
is at stake, as well as I. What about our
“Her name is Molly
Lavisch. She knows nothing yet. But indications are
her father will draw her in.”
remember, if she is to be our Eve, she must face the
coming challenges alone. What is the man’s name?”
He paused for a moment, uncertain if he should
pursue his thought, for some things, he knew, would
always be a mystery. Nevertheless, haltingly, the
question coalesced, and then poured forth. “Her
virginity. Is it really so important?”
yes,” Pheras replied. “If for no other reason than
because it is of great importance to her. Remember,
Madras, the weight of a challenge is set by the
candidate who selects it. She chose this course some
great while ago, though even she may not remember
when or why.”
history—and his—it will be very difficult for her.”
“It’s not the least
of the hardships she’ll confront,” Pheras declared.
“Beyond that, well, any individual outcome is never
certain. Now, get our Covenant and hurry home. For
time is short, and I need you here.”
“I’ll get it
tonight,” Madras said with renewed hope.
“I know,” Pheras
said. “The man named Lee. Let us hope no more
killing will be necessary.”
It was well past
midnight when Miles pulled into his reserved parking
space at Goddard. “What the hell is he doing here?” He
was surprised to see Vishnu Chandra’s ragtag Volkswagen
Beetle. Racing through the double doors, he rudely
flashed his badge to the guard without returning a
gracious “Good evening” and hopped the elevator to the
lab. He skipped the sterile gear and went straight to
the control room. Where is he?
Not in the alcove lab,
either. Nor the central containment area. Finally he
went to the sterile hood, where earlier they had left
the book. Gone! His knees weakened. Could
Chandra have known that he’d planned to—? Impossible.
Frantically, he went
from door to door, even the men’s room—nothing. Maybe
Chandra had taken the book, leaving his car as a
diversion; perhaps he had an accomplice. But why? Money?
Chandra didn’t seem money motivated. But Miles couldn’t
be sure. Almost as an afterthought he opened the door to
the cold room.
“What in God’s name are
you doing, Vishnu?”
“Professor! You nearly
stopped my heart.”
“You didn’t answer my
“I was on my way—”
”Professor, you didn’t
think?” Chandra squirmed, exhaled a cloud of steam into
the cold air. “I was on my way home from a late movie
when it occurred to me that perhaps it would be better
to keep the book in the cold room, just in case we
inadvertently contaminated the pages. Some microbes
might find the material appetizing—we still don’t know
what it’s made of...”
Miles strained a
stare. He could sense Chandra was up to something.
shoulders seemed to relax, as if his body could no
longer contain the tension. He slumped into his chair.
“Honestly, Miles, I thought you would welcome my
A thin fog developed as
they talked. Cold began to seep into Miles’s
consciousness. Something wasn’t quite kosher, yet he
couldn’t disagree with Chandra’s reasoning. Besides,
this might fit in nicely with his plans, because the
cold room had no cameras. “Let’s get out of here,” he
said in a deliberately conciliatory tone. “It’s too
cold.” The little red eye winked as the door slammed
“While I’m not
unappreciative of your initiative, Mr. Chandra,” Miles
said, “in the future you will consult me before
executing any such plans. Anyway, as I told you, Admiral
Snow’s men will be taking over the project in a few
days. Until they do, it’s best not to handle the box or
the book unless I ask you to. Is that clear?”
“Of course, Professor.”
“Good. Where’s the
remote control you made for the box?”
Chandra handed Miles
the control, which he had jury-rigged from a circuit
board that would produce the signal required to open the
box. Like a standard TV remote-control unit, it worked
with a point and click. “I think you’d better go home
and get some sleep now. We’ve got a heavy day tomorrow.
Come on, I’ll walk you out.”
“Please let me stay and
help?” Chandra begged. “Surely there’s something—”
“There’s nothing that
can’t wait till morning.” Miles stepped between Chandra
and the corridor to the lab, trying to herd him toward
the exit, but he continued oozing his way back to the
“It’s such an exciting
project,” Chandra enthused. “It’s been hard to sleep
“Look,” Miles said with
a growing exasperation, “I just want to make a few
notes, check the animals and get some papers ready for
the CIA people. After that, I’m going home, too.”
“Good night, Mister
As soon as Chandra
disappeared behind the elevator doors, Miles went to
work. He pressed his thumbs against the latches on his
ostrich-hide briefcase. Each latch sprang open with soft
thud. Earlier that day, he’d carefully noted the
dimensions of the Martian book, for he needed something
approaching the same size and weight to double for it.
Only one book in his personal library fit the
requirements perfectly: an old copy of the King James
Bible. Pocketbook size. His grandmother had given it
to him for Bible school. Why he’d kept it even he
He pointed the small,
black remote control device at the Martian box and
pressed the button. The red eye ceased its winking; the
box silently opened. He had color copied the Martian
book’s cover, which he now glued to the cover of the
Bible. “I’ll be damned!” he congratulated himself,
“that’s not half bad. Long as no one looks too closely.”
An errant shiver
surprised him. He looked at the thermometer: one degree
above freezing, Centigrade. His breath formed a light
dew on the briefcase. Another involuntary shiver rippled
up the small of his back, causing his Latex-gloved hands
to tremble as he reached carefully inside the box and
removed the alien book, delicately placing it on the
black velvet cloth Chandra had used, enfolding it
several times before putting it in his briefcase. He
quickly replaced it with the Bible surrogate.
at his watch: 1:30
A. M. He
snapped the briefcase closed, exited the cold room and
headed down the hallway, congratulating himself on how
easy it had been to handle Chandra. He felt the better
part of a cat burglar and a conman. It felt natural, it
felt good. “If that brass-button sonofabitch thinks he’s
taking my project, he’s—”
Suddenly, looming in
front of him, was Blalock. Miles’s heart pounded so hard
that the Crosse pens in his breast pocket clicked
together with the beat.
Blalock said sneeringly, “we keep meeting at odd times.
Why do you suppose that is?”
“What are you doing
“I was about to ask you
“You work for me,”
Miles said, noticing that Blalock’s eyes fixated on the
briefcase. “I’ll ask the questions.” The chill of the
cold room quickly faded. Sweat began to bead on his
forehead. A dull pain ticked at his breastbone.
“When are we getting
into that black rock?” Blalock asked. “Or have you
already?” He reached for the briefcase. Just then
footsteps thundered down the hall behind them.
Chandra called. “I guess government scientists are
the most dedicated.”
“Chandra? I thought—”
Miles quickly used the diversion to step away from
said, smiling oddly at Blalock, who looked slightly
confused, “I was just leaving myself. Walk you out,
at his car, Miles was relieved to see Blalock had
followed them outside. At least he wouldn’t be rummaging
through the lab. And if Roscha wouldn’t help him with
the book, at least he’d have until tomorrow to get it
back into its precious little box before Blalock could
Miles had not spoken to Roscha Venable for
several years, but their relationship had been
forged in the fury of youthful exuberance and
shared indiscretions, and had endured despite
the corrosive effects of time and inattention.
So Roscha did not hesitate to meet him on short
On the way,
Miles sifted through memories nearly a
half-century old: memories of Roscha and him at
MIT, in and out of trouble for pranks both lurid
and vexing; memories of Roscha’s unstudied
brilliance; memories of Roscha’s insatiable
appetite for women, which on more that one
occasion had nearly ended his career, a career
that Miles had followed closely and not without
a considerable amount of envy.
taken his undergraduate degree in mathematics
but had become interested in its application to
linguistics and, by extension, to archaeology.
So he had gone on to get his Ph.D. in ancient
languages at Columbia and had remained there,
eventually to become a fully tenured professor
before leaving to do consulting for the National
Security Agency in cryptology.
When Miles had
told Roscha the meeting would involve very
confidential discussions, Roscha had suggested
his apartment in Bethesda, near Rock Creek Park.
Miles was about to ring the doorbell, when the
door swung open, startling both him and the
young woman of about twenty-five who brushed by
him with a smirk and a swish.
Behind her, a man in a silk smoking jacket appeared
in the doorway. Not the dark-haired, bright-eyed,
vigorous young man of Miles’s memory—but what did he
expect after so long a time? Oh, the hawkish
features and swarthy complexion were still there,
but Roscha was thinner now and slightly bent. His
former dark hair, now completely white, billowed
like a thunderhead above his thick eyebrows, which
sheltered his blue-green eyes—and the formidable
presence behind them.
friend,” Roscha said, extending his hand. “It’s been
a long time.”
Miles grasped his
friend’s hand while he turned to watch the young
woman as she walked to the elevator, making last
minute adjustments to her attire. “I see some things
haven’t changed,” he said, smiling. “Fiancée?”
Roscha said, ruefully shaking his head, “you flatter
me. No, I may be vain, but I’m not foolish. She
comes with all the options—but I pay! Well, don’t
just stand there, come in.”
had the same look as the apartment they had shared
for a short time after their graduation from MIT. A
typical bachelor pad, it was an unkempt assemblage
of mix-and-match furniture, scattered articles of
clothing, magazines, books, dishes with half-eaten
food, overflowing ashtrays, and reams of computer
printer paper. But there were also articles of
genuine antiquity and great beauty. Paintings by
Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali—originals, not
reproductions—hung side by side with rare Japanese
silk-screens and erotic works from the Indian Kama
Sutra. Egyptian and Greek sculpture stood on
pedestals scattered about the room. Bookshelves
bulged with rare, ancient works, intermixed with
modern academic texts, many of which were authored
or coauthored by Roscha himself.
“I see you haven’t
lost your penchant for collecting,” Miles said,
relieved that some things, it seemed, had never
changed. “Nor your exotic tastes.”
“Oh, yes,” Roscha
said. “I still like my knick-knacks. Afraid I can’t
offer you much in the way of food. How about some
“Got any tea?”
“No, thanks. Prefer
these,” Miles said, counter offering one of his
Roscha shook his
head, lit his cigarette, and inhaled deeply. “I must
say I’m intrigued.”
good, Miles thought.
“Yes.” Roscha held
his cigarette like a European, between his thumb and
index finger. “Mostly by why you urgently needed to
see me now, after all these years.”
“Oh, I’ve kept
close tabs on you, Roscha. You’re a bit of a
“Don’t be servile,
Miles. It’s unbecoming. Besides, you’ve no need to
kiss my ass.”
“Sorry,” Miles said
awkwardly. “I guess having to deal with politicians
has infected even me.”
Roscha leaned close
to him. “Now, you said something about secrecy.”
his cigar, Miles carefully considered his reply. He
bit the tip off his cigar, putting the bitter brown
pulp politely down in the ashtray. “Are you aware of
what I’ve been up to lately?”
“I do read the
papers. You don’t exactly have a low-profile job.”
Miles dipped his
head slightly in the service of false modesty. “As
far as the secrecy... I’ve told no one about you or
this visit because what I’d like to discuss with you
may put you in jeopardy—as far as violating your
security clearance, at the very least—possibly
worse. So if you would like me to leave now without
further discussion, I would certainly understand.”
Miles knew a concise and forthright approach was
called for. Anything else would likely scare Roscha
off. Besides, he knew his old friend shared his
addictive curiosity, so phrasing the offer as he did
was calculated to whet Roscha’s appetite.
turned sour as he sat for a silent, millennial
moment before howling in laughter. He slapped Miles
on the knee. “Of course I want to know. But you knew
that, or you wouldn’t have come here. Besides, if I
don’t like it, I’ll just deny everything. Plausible
deniability, right? Like any good politician.”
“Okay, then,” Miles
paused, spun his cigar between his lips. “What is
the most fantastic discovery you could imagine
reading about in tomorrow’s newspaper?”
“Come, now, would
you have me play a game of twenty questions?”
“I’m quite serious,
Roscha. Open your mind. Visualize the headlines!”
discovered how to make cars run on water.” Roscha
gave a puzzled shrug and flopped backwards in his
chair, shaking his head.
something petty or provincial. What would that
headline read?” Miles wasn’t just playing twenty
questions with Roscha; he wanted Roscha’s
involvement in process even before he tried to set
the hook. Too soon and Roscha might not be
emotionally ripe to the concept.
“Miles, if you’re
trying to tell me that you’ve discovered life on
Mars. Well, is that really so shocking. I mean
everyone was betting—“
Miles shook his
head, kept prodding, using his hands to try and drag
out the required response, as if they were playing
charades. “Come with me a bit farther, come on...”
That is the headline you’d read. Except you
never will, because the forces of this government
will not allow it.”
“What makes you
know Admiral Carl Snow?”
but I do work for NSA, and we’re on a tight leash
from the CIA. It would be hard not to know
And not just to me. To America.”
“From what little
I’ve heard, I’d have to agree. He is
ruthless. Back in the eighties his sub rammed a
Russian sub and sank it. Then he refused to pick up
the Russian survivors. This was in the Barents Sea,
mind you. You can guess how long they lasted in that
“I don’t remember
hearing about that.”
“It was hushed up.
The President wanted him canned, but the Joint
Chiefs and a few Rickover groupies talked him out of
it, said he was one his best sub commanders and
didn’t want to make him a sacrificial lamb. At least
that’s the story. But the Cuban caper was the best.”
“Yeah. After Al
Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant, threatened us
if we harmed the enemy combatants held in Quantanamo
Bay, Snow had the prisoners fed a diet rich in pork,
anything pork: bacon, ham, sausage, fried rind,
kidney, you name it. And he made them wear pork-skin
gloves everywhere, all the time. Really pissed ‘em
off. Made Zawahiri so mad, he started making
mistakes. That’s how we got him. Still, Snow’s a
bastard, no doubt about it. Certainly not a man you
want to cross swords with.”
“I’m afraid I
“He ordered me to
keep the discovery quiet. Said some of his people
would be taking over the project. That it’s a
question of national security.”
“The easiest way
out of this one, my friend, is to make it
public. Get the evidence out in the bright light of
public scrutiny. Then Snow wouldn’t have any reason
to seek recourse. Of course you’d never work for the
government again. And who knows? They might even try
to get you for treason. Use something under the
Though Miles could
tell Roscha was intrigued, he detected a growing
caution, if not outright fear. He began to worry
Roscha would accept his earlier offer and terminate
the conversation. A growing tightness in his chest
returned, though he’d tried so hard lately to ignore
it. He started to perspire.
“What exactly is
your evidence, anyway?” Roscha finally asked.
Miles relaxed a
bit, for he knew once Roscha saw the book, he would
be in. “I thought you’d never ask.” He took out the
book in its black velvet cloth. Slowly, almost
lovingly, he disrobed it, taking care not to touch
the book with his bare fingers, which would
contaminate it with human oils. He tossed Roscha a
pair of Latex gloves. “Here. These are for your own
protection as much as the book’s. We’re not
completely sure about the possibility of an unknown
“This came from
Mars on the Areopagus?”
Roscha slowly turned the pages. His eyes glowed with
the delight of discovery.
said, “Do you think you can decipher the text?”
certainly have all the computer power I need.” He
pointed to the computer in the corner. “It’s hooked
directly into everything at NSA on a secure line.
But there’s no telling how long it would take. Is
this the complete discovery?”
“We found a piece
of cloth with a stain—maybe blood. It was folded
inside the book like a bookmark. I plan on having
Molly test for DNA.”
“Does Molly know?”
“No. And the less
she knows the better.”
“I dare say, the
safer she’ll be. Won’t the book be missed?
“It’s secure for
now,” Miles said. But then he thought of Blalock.
“The CIA isn’t due by for a couple of days.”
fascinating,” Roscha continued. “I’ll just bet
Admiral Snow would want this kept secret.
Especially—“ He seemed to catch himself. Then,
rubbing his chin pensively, he said, “The astronauts
who died in the fire.”
“So? What are you
Roscha lit another
cigarette off the first. “There’s a rumor
circulating. Just a rumor, mind you.” He gave Miles
what seemed a cautionary glance. “Some are saying
the fire was no accident.”
murdered?” Miles felt his heart skip several beats
and he felt faint.
they saw something extraordinary, something
extraterrestrial. Something the government—meaning
some renegade like Snow—didn’t want made public.”
“So the paper was
“The Post. A
couple of days ago they had a story saying Snow
would testify at the inquest about the astronauts.
It mentioned UFO groups making that claim. Which I
thought was just nutty.”
said. Slowly, he plucked an errant piece of tobacco
from his lips. “But maybe not so nutty. HAM radio
operators—so the story goes—picked up some of the
transmissions between Houston and the Discovery
II. They did mention UFO’s.”
“More rumors, huh?”
Miles shook his head, as much to keep himself from
falling out of his chair as anything.
I’m afraid. But a possible connection.”
information made the soreness in his chest worse. He
started to feel nauseous. “Then maybe this is more
dangerous than I ever imagined and—“
“Rest assured, my
friend.” Roscha put his hand on Miles’s shoulder.
“Shall I take the
book back, then?” His face began to grow hot. His
heart raced painfully, and he was about to ask where
the bathroom was.
“Don’t be silly,”
Roscha said with his curious smile.
Miles then noticed
his cigar had gone out. He settled back in his chair
and sighed more loudly than he wanted to. Maybe
things would work out. He began to feel better.
“What are your
immediate plans?” Roscha asked.
“I’m going to
announce it publicly in a day or so. I hope that you
will be an eventual witness. If you can decipher
some of the text, all the better.”
“And what about
Molly?” Roscha asked, his eyebrows arched with
concern. “When are you going to tell her?”
“Perhaps I won’t
have to tell her. But if anything should happen to
me, I’d like you to fill her in. Promise me that, my
* * *
Bandar Bliss extended his chubby hand.
Blalock said and pretended not to see the proffered
hand, quickly flopping down at Admiral Snow’s large
glass conference table. He didn’t like Arabs,
especially not this one.
Bliss removed his kaffiyeh and rearranged his
raven black, braided pigtail. Otherwise bald, what
hair remained grew from a small crescent patch low
on the back of his skull and stretched over his
corpulent frame almost to the extremity of his
Snow said, entering through a side door. “Thank you
for coming by.” He handed Bliss a manila envelope.
opened the flap and smiled. “Once again you’ve
renewed my faith in the American spirit of
Snow lit a cigar
without offering one to the ambassador. “Sorry you
couldn’t stay a while.”
“Me too,” Bliss
replied, as he gazed at the cigar. “But my mother’s
in town, it’s her birthday, and I promised to show
her around before I take her back to Riyadh. She
wants to visit ‘The Devil’s Den,’ as she calls it.”
“And what place
would that be?” Blalock asked.
“The White House,”
Blalock and Snow
glanced at each other.
“Well, give her my
regards,” Snow said. Then he patted Bliss on the
back and started toward the door. “Now if you’ll
excuse us, Mr. Ambassador, but I’m afraid I’m late
for an important—“
Bliss waved his
hand and shook his head. “Not a problem,” he
chuckled, as he folded the manila envelope and
stowed it in his breast pocket. “Isn’t that how you
Americans put it? Your language is so quaint.”
“Good a way as
any,” Blalock sneered. God he looks silly. A
kaffiyeh, a pigtail and a three-piece suit.
the threshold, Bliss turned to him. A glint of
fluorescent light shone strangely in his dark eyes.
“Always a pleasure, Paul.”
Bliss’s dark gaze and could have sworn he saw slits
for pupils. “Always.”
Snow quickly guided
Bliss toward the door, which he closed smartly
silverware,” Blalock said, shaking himself like a
wet dog. “Why do I always want a shower after seein’
“Now, now, Paul,”
Snow said sarcastically, placing a Scotch in
Blalock’s hand. “Neat, isn’t it?”
erratically on his cigar. “He was very useful to us
in the Gulf War. And we’d never have clipped the
balls off that cockroach bin Laden without his help.
We still need him.”
“Maybe so, but I
don’t trust him.”
“Neither do I!”
believe that prick takes money. How many billions is
Snow shrugged. “How
many billions are there? Hell, his family owns
better than half of all the oil under Saudi sand.”
“Where’d a Saudi
get a name like Bliss anyway?” Blalock wondered.
“It’s his mother’s
maiden name. She’s half Scottish. He uses Bliss in
the Western world as a convenience. After the World
Trade Centers, he sure as hell doesn’t want anyone
to know he’s related to ol’ Osama. And like most
Muslims, he despises us. Of course that doesn’t stop
him from using us. Doesn’t stop us from doing the
same to him.”
“Think he had his
snake with him?”
“Who knows? He
could have a foot fetish and I’d let him lick my
feet—or better yet, I’d make you lick his. When we
need him, we need him. He’s still the highest placed
source we have in the Middle East. But forget him.
I’m more worried about our nutty professor. What’s
going on at the lab?”
Blalock said, more as a hope than a certainty. “The
book’s still in the lab. He hasn’t even told me
about it yet, so I guess he took your warning
“I doubt it.” Snow
slowly twisted his Naval Academy ring. “The guy’s a
weasel. I can smell ‘em every time.”
“Anything else on
the UFO?” Blalock still couldn’t believe there was
Snow shook his
head. “We know they’re out there,” he said,
pointing upward. “We’ve got to find out where
they are here. This book may just tell us.”
“Jack Beamis know
“Why?” Snow frowned
at him. “You think he should?”
“Well, he is your
Snow threw down a
shot of vodka. “The fewer people the better.”
Blumenthal?” Blalock hoped he wouldn’t need to take
out someone like Blumenthal. Still, he’d do what had
to be done. Because with every fiber of his Special
Forces soul he believed that whatever the admiral
ordered was necessary given the threat.
Snow barked a
laugh. “He’s one of us.”
“Imagine that, I
had no idea.” Relief splashed over him like a cold
“That’s the idea
with secrets, Paul.”
“What’s our next
“For now, just keep
an eye on the book and Lavisch. I don’t want to
kill him if we don’t have to. He’s too high profile.
Hard enough trying to contain this astronaut deal.”
“I’m all over it,” Blalock answered with enthusiasm.
Then he thought, Blumenthal might be a hard one to
swallow, but he would take great pleasure in icing
that idiotic professor.
Molly watched AJ
come out of Johns Hopkins Hospital and move fluidly
and nonchalantly toward her car. She marveled that
even now AJ projected an air of carefree
irresponsibility. How that was possible, she could
not imagine, considering that AJ had just discussed
a bone‑marrow transplant with her sister Katie’s
differences between them were understandable, if for
no other reason than because Allison Jamison was
privileged. AJ, Katie, and their two brothers had
wanted for nothing. Christmas and birthdays were
lavish affairs, given over to stupefying displays of
material indulgence. In fact, AJ had told her, the
two most important events of her life had occurred
on birthdays. She had been given her first horse
when she turned eight, and since that day, horses
had taken up much of her time and all of her money.
On her sixteenth birthday, she lost her virginity,
and to this day viewed men the way she did her
horses—big, dumb animals capable only of passing
pleasure. The Lavischs’ money went to doctor bills
to keep Molly’s cancer-ravaged mother alive and
then, when all hope of recovery was gone, making her
as comfortable as possible until the end.
did so very much envy AJ’s flashy appeal with men.
As far back as kindergarten AJ had taken an interest
in every boy—or man—Molly had fancied. And she’d
always come out on the short end of these battles.
But then AJ, like most of their generation, easily
used an enticement that she, herself, was not
disposed to employ. Sex.
At first, Molly had
thought it was her resentment of her father that
made her keep the boys at arms length. Oh, she’d had
plenty of chances, for, as her mother had often told
her, the ever-rising tide of male libido, if given
the chance, would wet every reed in the marsh. But
later she’d noticed that the casual conveyance of
this once vaunted “favor” by her friends—including
AJ—had produced little in the way of lasting
happiness, and had, among many, been the occasion of
prolonged grief, not only for the participants but
for the innocent issue, which too often came as an
afterthought to but one poorly chosen moment of
By now, her
virginity had become a comfort, a treasured covenant
unto herself, which she would confer upon the man
she chose to be the father of her children.
Old-fashioned? Yes. And it had been a promise kept
at no small cost, but one which, until now, hadn’t
seemed too high. Until Peter MacKenzie. So far, AJ
hadn’t mentioned Peter. Perhaps she wasn’t
interested. Maybe this time things would be
different. She sighed.
“It doesn’t look
good,” AJ said as she slid into the car, immediately
pulling the rearview mirror around to apply some
Molly noticed some
new crow’s-feet had sprouted at the corners of AJ’s
blue eyes. “You know I’ll do anything I can to
AJ smiled warmly
and put her lipstick away. Then, almost dreamily,
she said, “You know, she’s the only decent one among
warmed at AJ’s uncharacteristically reflective
remark. “I’m meeting Dad and Uncle Malcolm for
dinner. Why don’t you join us?”
“Thanks. I’d like
* * *
Molly pulled into a
parking lot around the corner from Tiovanni’s
restaurant, in East Baltimore. Not far from the
docks, it had always seemed to her an odd place for
so fine a restaurant, her father’s favorite.
But now the
prospect of seeing him coupled with the grim
surroundings caused panic to rise in her as lurid
memories of her youth flashed back. She was
thirteen, blossoming into womanhood. He’d come home
late, found her sleeping in a hot room without
covers or clothes. The dank memory caused her
stomach to knot. Down the dingy, shadowy street she
saw the restaurant awning just as she felt a sharp
elbow to her ribs.
“Just look right
through them,” AJ advised. “And walk fast.”
Molly looked up to
see a group of shaved‑headed people in white robes
who marched along the sidewalk in front of the
Aquarian Genomic Research Center, a private
bioengineering company made famous for its attempts,
so far unsuccessful, to clone famous human leaders
like Lincoln, Jefferson and Gandhi. No one believed
the rumors that they were trying to clone the
prophet Mohammed, but intelligence reports had
suggested their involvement with militant Islamic
extremists looking for help with the use of chemical
and biological weapons.
marched two abreast, carrying signs. “Stop Human
Genetic Experiments.” “No Cloning.” “Don’t Play
God.” One that said “Ban Gene-Altered Foods!” had a
picture of a deformed human fetus, all in bloody
disarray, inside a circle with a line drawn through
it. Zombilike, they marched by. One young zealot
held out an old coffee can for money. “Please help,”
he asked in a small but sincere voice.
“Help us stop this
blasphemy!” Another said, “Help our children dying
of cancer because their mothers ate genetically
pollution,” his female companion added in hostile
tone, glaring at the cigarette hanging from AJ’s
“Get a job,” AJ
Molly put a
ten‑dollar bill into the can.
“You’re such a
sap,” AJ said, rolling her eyes.
“What about Katie?
And the jury’s still out on genetically altered
“It’s too late for
Katie. And if it tastes good, I’ll eat it.”
restaurant, the maître d’ led them through a dining
room of rabbit‑warren alcoves. Irregular white
plaster arched columns designed to simulate
rough‑hewn rock were less than charming but afforded
privacy. Past an archway framed by beautiful
maidenhair ferns, alone in a dark corner, she
spotted him: A large cigar in one hand, a martini
in the other.
At least he hasn’t
lit it yet.
“Molly,” he said
delightedly. “And AJ, nice to see you too.”
Molly said, kissing his cheek. “I can’t believe I
still get you and Dad mixed up!”
“It’s the bowties,”
AJ declared. “One of them has to switch.”
Molly pointed at
the cigar. “You don’t smoke.”
“No. It’s your
father’s. I was just trying to fathom his
fascination for them. Our tastes in most things are
said Miles as he plopped down with a huff, “you look
like a thorn between two roses. Have a drink with
“You know I don’t
drink,” Molly said, feeling her face begin to warm.
“I know you ought
to,” Miles said.
“Yes, please,” AJ
responded brightly. “Martini’s fine, but hold the
olives.” She ran her fingers through her blond hair,
and then shook her head to fluff it out, as a horse
shakes its mane. “Molly quit drinking after our
senior-year trip to Ocean City, when she—“
Molly could see her reflection in a baroque mirror
that hung on a pillar across from the table. Her
freckles had disappeared in a sea of red.
“Why no olives, AJ?” He popped one into his mouth
and stuffed another inside a small piece of
“Don’t like the
green ones. What’s that you’ve got?”
This little pocket—“ he outlined the bread’s small
rim with his finger “—is a symbolic ear.”
Miles took the
long, tawny cigar from Malcolm and waved it like a
baton, as he took out a cheap BIC lighter.
matter?” AJ asked. “Couldn’t find any of your
signature kitchen matches?”
harder to find,” Miles said. He flicked the lighter
“Oh, Dad, you’re
“Leave him alone,
Molly,” AJ snipped, then turned back to Malcolm.
“The Egyptian gods,
my dear,” Malcolm responded. “Osiris married his
sister, Isis. Together they ruled the underworld.”
Professor,” AJ said, cradling her chin in her palm
and leaning toward the man. “Especially if incest
turns you on.”
The remark fell on
Molly like ice water and caused an uncontrollable
shiver. She looked at AJ, then Malcolm.
“Want my jacket?”
“It is chilly in
here,” Molly admitted. “Thanks.” She edged her chair
farther away from her father, who beat the side of
his martini glass with the big cigar and seemed
unaffected by the remark.
“As I was saying,”
Malcolm continued, “in ancient Egypt this bread was
sacred. It was called Pharaoh’s bread, and the
priests placed it in tombs with the mummified
Pharaohs to nourish them on their way to the
underworld. The ears were symbolic of a wish that
the gods would hear—and answer—their prayers.”
“But does it taste
good?” AJ asked, rocking her head jauntily.
Malcolm tore off a
little ear of bread. “Try it.”
Rather than taking
it from him, she leaned even closer and opened her
mouth. The tip of her pink tongue darted out and
flicked the morsel from his hand.
Molly closed her
eyes. My God AJ! She knew that with AJ,
flirting was as reflexive as breathing. Sometimes
she wished she could acquire that native response.
She watched her father drain his martini. With
a devilish glance, he flicked his lighter on and
off, teasing the tip of his cigar with the flame, as
if trying to provoke her. Again she felt her face
and neck warming, so quickly she turned back to her
uncle, who was stuffing another olive into an ear of
bread. “Why are you plugging its ears?” she asked,
trying to distract herself. “Don’t you want your
snorted. “Supplications to nonexistent phantoms. Did
prayer give us TVs? Airplanes? Cell phones? No. If
you want to count on something, count on man’s
intellect. Given time, science will answer all
man’s prayers.” He gestured with his empty glass at
“And what about
women, Miles?” AJ said, wagging a finger at him and
“Some would say
that science has been more of a hindrance
than a benefit to man’s spiritual progress,” Malcolm
pointed out in a good‑natured tone. “Our intellect
may have brought us far, but the human heart? Well,
I’m afraid, it’s still stuck in the stone age.”
“My dear brother,”
Miles replied, waving his still unlit cigar, “if it
weren’t for the gloomy prospect of our mortality, I
fear there’d be no need for that kind of heart, much
less a God.”
“Then I’d be out of
a job,” Malcolm grinned.
Molly watched the
end of the swaying cigar as if it were a cobra’s
head. She decided to change the subject before the
brothers got into another serious argument, or
before she did. “I’m surprised you didn’t mentioned
the astronauts the other day at the lab.”
wasn’t it?” Malcolm exclaimed as he peeled back the
edge of another piece of pita. “What does it mean
for your project, Miles?”
Molly noticed he’d
let the flame of the lighter bring an orange glow to
the end of his cigar. “I met a man at your lab the
day Kim Lee died,” she said, tingling at recalling
Peter MacKenzie’s touch. “He said he knew the
astronaut who commanded the Areopagus
mission. He thinks they were all murdered. In fact
he was there to see if you knew anything about it,
disgustedly. “I can tell you this: The contamination
story NASA gave was rubbish. We got the rocks right
away. There was no wait. Hell, as long as the
seals on the cases weren’t broken, they were safe.
And they weren’t broken. If NASA had suspected
contamination, it would have kept the rocks.”
“You knew some of
the crew, didn’t you?” Molly asked.
Miles nodded. “Two
AJ looked at Molly.
“I think the whole thing is scary. Did you tell your
father about the Gypsy’s warning?”
“A Gypsy!” Miles
guffawed. “Now you’ve really gone off the deep
AJ an angry glance. “We were at a carnival. It was
just for fun.”
message?” Malcolm asked.
“Oh, I can’t
remember,” she lied, trying not to pout. She can
be such a bitch. She knew my father would do this.
She focused on the tip of her father’s cigar,
which glowed brighter.
can,” AJ announced. “I was spooked. She said, in
effect, the world is about to end and that Molly was
“She said,” Molly
interrupted in self-defense, “’beware bellchapel’ or
something like that. She had a thick accent.”
corrected. “She dropped the phony accent at the
end. She said, ‘Tell your father Bell and Carla said
Miles blanched. His
cigar fell from his hand onto the floor. He quickly
bent to retrieve it, brushing the sparks into the
antique Persian carpet with his shoe.
“I met a Bill
Quincy and a Carla Pascal at your lecture, didn’t
I?” Malcolm asked.
“Good grief, Dad!”
Your passing will not be easy. She repeated the
Gypsy’s warning silently. Her stomach quaked. “Do
you know what that means?”
“Do you?” AJ
Miles shook his
head. “Malcolm’s right. They were Mission
Specialists, part of the crew that went up to get
the Areopagus. They were to ensure the
integrity of the samples. Escort them to the lab.
She must have read about them—and me—in the
newspapers. I am a famous fellow, you know.”
“But she doesn’t
know you’re Molly’s father,” AJ said.
“Nice people, as I
remember,” Malcolm said absently, gazing into his
glass of ginger ale.
Miles stared coldly
at her. “Can you really be that gullible, Molly?
You’re supposed to be a scientist.” He shifted his
glare to Malcolm.
Molly felt Malcolm
take her hand and squeeze it gently.
started quietly. “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you
think? Oh, I don’t know about this Gypsy—she’s
probably just a good actor. But sometimes I think we
mock prophecy at our own risk. All great religious
tradition tells of a Judgment Day. Or some
watershed event for humankind. So do virtually all
primitive cultures. Most point to this very time as
the end. Even modern science, physics—“
“For Christ’s sake,
Malcolm!” Miles’s face darkened under rising
eyebrows. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your
brain was switched at birth. What’re you going to
tell me next? That you’re moving to a survivalist
commune in the mountains? Or that you’re going to
shave your head and take up a sign like those
Krishna types outside?”
said, burning with resentment, “don’t just come from
religious kooks. What about H. G. Wells? Or Jules
Verne? And what about that white buffalo born on a
ranch in Montana not that long ago? It fulfilled a
prophecy of the Sioux. They say the coming of the
Great White Buffalo signals the end of the age—“
“And the demise of
the white man,” Malcolm added.
“Maybe it’s just an
albino,” she continued, taking on strength as she
forced herself to look at him, “but it’s the first.”
“Or Star Trek, for
that matter,” Malcolm added. “Science fiction
writers have foretold a great deal. Are they all
just good guessers, guessing from an infinity of
possibilities? Or are they modern-day prophets who
hear the whisperings of revealed knowledge?”
you do shame me.”
Malcolm huffed. “Do I need a crowbar and a welding
torch to crack open that closed mind of yours? This
is my area of expertise. And I can tell you
that many familiar ancient prophecies are being
reappraised in light of new scientific evidence.
Yes! By scientists, no less. Why even the great
physicist Freeman Dyson said recently that
“’Religion has a much more important role in human
destiny than science.’”
pounded the table with the flat of his hand. “Or
should I say buffalo shit,” he mumbled under his
breath. “A stupid albino, for Christ’s sake. What’ll
you say when the next one comes. And there will be
more. What then?”
“But you’d have to
agree,” Malcolm said, “the timing is mighty
suspicious. Do you know of Nachmanides?”
“Open just a crack,
brother! Not Nostradamus. But an altogether
different thirteenth-century philosopher and mystic.
Tell me if you recognize what he said. I’m
paraphrasing some, but he said when God created the
world it was an entity so thin it had no
substance to it. Just a dot of space. And that
time didn’t ‘grab hold’ until matter filled the
universe. Sound familiar.”
“The Big Bang?”
Miles sniffed. “Just another coincidence.”
gray-brown eyebrows mirrored his brother’s. “Why,
man’s very existence is still a profound enigma. No
one can yet explain the sudden emergence of so
complicated a being as we. And not all that long
“What now, little
brother? You’d dispute evolution?”
“No! Evolution is
“Well, then!” Miles
mutation,” Malcolm continued calmly, “doesn’t
account for modern man’s sudden appearance only a
hundred thousand or so years ago. Look, Miles, all
I’m saying is that there is more to this universe
than our feeble powers of imagination can discern,
and we ought to be more humble about our
inadequacies. That’s all.”
“Anybody seen a
menu around here?” AJ asked wearily. “I’m hungry.
How about you, Miles?”
“Blessed are the
peacemakers,” Malcolm conceded, “for they shall soon
eat.” Then he laughed.
Molly picked up two
menus, tossed one to her friend and began to scan
the other. “I don’t suppose they have hotdogs here?”
“Oh, God!” AJ
gasped. “Hotdogs again. Don’t you know they’re not
good for you, Doctor Lavisch?”
“Yeah, well, as
you’re fond of saying, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’” She
glared at her father. How can identical twins be
so much the same yet so different? “By the way,
Dad, what became of that beautiful black rock I saw?
Find anything interesting?”
boil on my ass,” Miles fumed. “Bastards want to take
the project away from me now.” He flicked the
lighter’s flint wheel. “Well, it’ll be over my dead
body. But I don’t want to talk about. However, my
good daughter, I do need a favor?”
Molly hoped it
wouldn’t be another offer to come work with him.
Then she looked at his cigar. “Will you do me one?”
Miles held the
flame steady. The cigar’s tip glowed bright orange.
A small streamer of bluish smoke dribbled into the
air. He glanced over at her. “I’ll be sending you
something I want analyzed for possible DNA. Can you
She exhaled a loud
sigh. “Of course I will. What is it?”
“I don’t want to
bias your analysis,” he said sarcastically and
puffed a huge cloud of acrid smoke in her face, “but
it looks like blood.”
blankly at her computer screen. Her thoughts
drifted. She was part of the NIH group that
first helped to map the complete set of human
genes. Though Celera Genomics, a private company
in Rockville, Maryland, run by a former NIH
colleague, had clearly beaten her team to the
punch with a “rough-draft” version of the
sequence, they soldiered on, for determining the
genome’s sequence was the easy part. Determining
each gene’s exact function, posed a much more
difficult—and more important—undertaking. Much
remained to be done. But in the last five days
she’d made no headway. Ever since meeting Peter
to him was an unfamiliar admixture of the
gravitational pull of sexual longing and the
curiosity surrounding the unknown. And the
feelings frightened her. She forced herself to
focus on the computer. Letters designating the
DNA building blocks—the bases that formed pairs
bonded together as the steps in the spiral
staircase of this ancient and life-ordering
molecule—flashed by: a, a, g, a, t, c.
chemicals,” she chanted in nursery rhyme
fashion, “made you and me and the birds and the
bees. Adenine, Guanine, and Thymine, too, and
don’t forget Cytosine, or a ghost’ll get you.”
She leaned back in her chair and stretched.
“Only about two-and-a-half billion more to go.
She knew the
eventual payoff for her efforts, and the efforts
of thousands of others around the world, was the
emerging science of genetic medicine. At least
that was the stated purpose, but she knew the
real power—and danger—in her work lay in
eugenics, the ultimate tool for improving
humankind. And she knew that day was fast
It was a day
her father, much more than she, longed for: the
creation of an entirely new species of human. He
had danced around his lab like a schoolboy at a
pep rally when the news of the sheep “Dolly,”
the first cloned mammal, had been announced. His
alchemistical fervor was shared by many, though
not all, in the scientific community. For
others, like Jeremy Rifkin, the developments
signaled man had reached a foreboding
man,” she murmured, knowing it was now
possible. “What will we create with that
power?” Yet she had to admit, her father was
right about one thing: Mankind could no longer
count on natural evolution to improve the
species. If improvements to man’s unyielding—and
very flawed nature—were to be made, those
changes would come only by dint of human
She sighed and
clicked the mouse pointer to print. While the
printer buzzed away in the background, she
fiddled with her locket. She opened it, looked
longingly at her mother’s faded image. How she’d
loved her. And in the locket’s other golden
half, her father. How much she’d once loved
him, how hard she tried now to suppress her
seething resentment, to find some scrap of
forgiveness. A tear meandered down the edge of
He’d told her
she’d never be a doctor. He’d said she was too
cold, too timid, too heartless. She still
wondered if he’d been right.
She was first
given patients in her fourth year of medical
school, and by the end of her internship she
knew that maintaining an emotional distance
would be impossible. Pediatrics had been the
worst. How could any sensitive, caring person
remain professionally detached from the crack
babies, babies with AIDS, or those suffering
from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? To her, the
desperation and the degradation of humanity was
at once pitiable and reprehensible, for in the
end most of the misery was the result of sad
personal choices. It was the day-to-day dealing
with those sad choices that had almost killed
developed an ulcer, then colitis, and finally a
debilitating depression. Reluctantly, she’d gone
into research, which is what her father had
planned for her all along. He had never let her
forget the failure.
she thought, it is possible to care
too much. Was that what the Gypsy had
meant? Or had she, as she knew her father
thought, just been a coward? She snapped the
locket shut with a sharp click.
assistant, Brenda Cruise, entered the room,
juggling a stack of Petri dishes and a sheaf of
manila folders, several of which fell to the
floor in a shower of paper and clattering
plastic. “Oh poop!” she cursed, bending to pick
up the litter of saucer-shaped dishes and lids.
“Package, Dear. Came by courier. I put it in
Brenda. I’ll be right back.”
In her office,
she looked at the small, plainly wrapped little
box with her father’s return address that sat on
her desk, and then, because of her fatigue,
thought about leaving it for tomorrow. She
wondered why he’d been so vague about the source
of the sample. So she guessed it had something
to do with the Martian project. Was this his
sneaky way of getting her involved?
she’d promised him a quick turn-around, and so,
reluctantly, she snipped the binding string and
removed the brown paper with its grocery-store
label. Apparently he’d wrapped it himself, which
she thought altogether odd, given his nearly
religious avoidance of anything that smacked of
She would have
Brenda do the analysis of the suspected blood.
If all went well, she would know at least what
species the blood came from in just a few days.
She flipped off the top, tilted the box—a
shoebox from the shoes she’d given him for
Christmas—and shook out a silken ribbon.
gasped uncontrollably. Her eyes riveted on the
border’s design. “The Gypsy’s pendant.”
Suddenly the image of Kim Lee’s face as he lay
dying in her arms exploded in her mind; his
terrified expression frightened her to the point
of nausea. Then, as if in ugly counterpoint, the
Gypsy’s warning jolted her like an electric
She picked up
the phone and dialed.
Malcolm!” She exhaled his name with relief, not
even aware she’d been holding her breath.
the buoyant voice said. “Is everything all
I caught you.”
about Dad. And I don’t know what to do about
She told him
about Lee, about her father’s suspicions
concerning Chandra and Blalock, about her
concerns regarding the Gypsy’s warning.
“And I didn’t
mention it the other night, but the Gypsy also
said I was going to die.”
strange.” Then he chortled. “You don’t get many
repeat customers that way in the fortune-telling
not funny anymore.”
Molly. I hate to agree with your father on this,
but I do think you’re taking this a bit too much
“I thought so,
too. Until I got the sample Dad wanted me to
analyze. Remember at dinner?”
“What was it?”
her uncle asked.
“A cloth ribbon
with a stain and a design—the same design the
Gypsy had on her medallion.”
“You know I
collect antique jewelry—like Mom. And I’ve never
seen anything like it. I even checked my books.”
“And you think
the cloth came from the Martian samples?”
Malcolm asked incredulously.
“I don’t know,
but where else?”
tell you, even if you asked. Security,” Malcolm
said, then paused. “And it was the same design
as the Gypsy’s?”
”Hmmm.” There was a long cleft of silence. “It’s
could be a prayer cloth. Or some such. Trouble is,
I’ve never heard of anything quite like that design
either—if I’m visualizing right. I’d like to see
it. Can you fax me a sketch in the morning?”
“It’s just that I
feel so stupid about it all.”
tenderly. “My dear, you don’t have a stupid bone in
your body. Always listen to your intuition. Always.
I don’t know about the prophecy or what this cloth
means, but I wouldn’t totally discount it, either.
Not in light of recent events.”
“What do you mean?”
It wasn’t the kind of comment she was expecting to
hear, even from him, a man who had debated, some
thought very successfully, the great Joseph
Campbell. Unlike Campbell, for whom all was mere
mythology, Malcolm believed some prophecies revealed
hidden, but still knowable human potentials.
happenings around the world. All with spiritual
meaning for some cultural tradition or other. Each
day seems to bring something new and more bizarre.”
She sighed heavily.
“You’re not making me feel any better.”
“I don’t want to
alarm you, Molly. Let me put it into context. As we
were discussing the other night, virtually all the
world’s religious traditions believe in a day of
reckoning or an Age of Aquarius or a Judgment Day or
some existence-altering event. Most surround the
return of some savior or magical being that will
usher in the new era. There’s the Kachina of the
Hopi Indians. And one for the aborigines, the Zulus,
and the Mayans—“
“You mean like the
white buffalo thing I mentioned the other night.
God, I don’t even know why I recalled that.”
“That too,” he
agreed. “It goes on. Because we’re a predominantly
Christian culture, most people think only of the
return of Christ, but parallels exist everywhere. A
lot of people attribute it to a Jungian collective
memory of a pre-existence in which a plan for the
universe was known to all.”
“Carl Jung, the
psychiatrist and philosopher—“
“Oh, yes. I vaguely
remember from psychiatric rotation in med school.”
Dismissed by many as a mere mystic. If you
remembered the buffalo thing, you probably heard
about the Cistine Chapel, didn’t you?”
“No, not vandalism.
Thirty years after Michelangelo finished his famous
ceiling, he reluctantly accepted a commission to
paint the rear wall as well. It turned out to be the
largest fresco ever painted. It was meant to depict
the Last Judgment. Michelangelo put his own
portrait among the damned. Well, last week his
self-portrait disappeared. Gone. Left a hole in the
painting as if it were never there.”
“But how?” she
asked, fearing that all her education was somehow
failing her in her hour of need.
“No one knows,” he
continued. “It’s been played down because frankly no
one can explain it. But it’s gone—clean as a
whistle. There’s nothing left in the spot but fresh,
dry plaster showing no sign of ever having been
painted. Ever. But the plaster is old, not new. It
dates from exactly the right period.”
“Oh my God!”
“There’s more. Just
yesterday, the stone at Mecca disappeared.”
She felt a shiver
and drew her Afghan up over her legs. “The one the
Archangel Gabriel was supposed to have given
“Who would want
“No one knows how.
“There’ll be a war
over that,” she stammered.
“If Islam has been
looking for the ultimate excuse for a Jihad
against the West, they’ve got it now. Our war on
terrorism will probably evolve into something more
awful, I’m afraid.”
“Malcolm, will you
speak to Dad? Find out what he’s up to? Or at least
make sure he’s being careful? I don’t know what else
“Of course, dear.
But it sounds as if you’re the one who needs to take
care. You will, won’t you?”
He seemed to
recover some of his cheerfulness. “But remember
this: keep your eye on the Eastern Gate of Old
Jerusalem; it’s been sealed with stone for
centuries. Judaic tradition has it that if it is
ever again opened, it means that Judgment Day is
raised his glass. “To you, Molly.”
“And you,” she
squeaked. Her heart pounded so hard, it nearly shook
the drink from her hand. Their glasses tinkled in
toast. She took a big gulp of wine. She’d promised
herself just one drink, remembering AJ’s comment
about Ocean City. A welcome splash of warmth
radiated through her body. She didn’t care if
Peter’s only interest was in her father at the
moment, for she intended to change all that. She
glanced self-consciously across the room, where an
older man in a black tuxedo, gray, oil-slicked hair
tied back in a short ponytail, played piano.
“Nice place, Peter.
Come here often?” She cringed even as she said it
and averted her eyes.
“A little fancy for
me, but I thought you might like it.”
Her face burned.
Was her unease so obvious?
He shook his head
grimly. “Molly, I won’t bite. Promise. Now I know
why you and AJ ran off at the airshow before we had
a chance to talk.”
“Oh, no, it wasn’t
what you think—“
“What’s the matter,
then?” He leaned back in his chair with a puckish
grin. “Afraid I might want to sleep with you
She spat out a thin
reed of the wine she’d just sipped. “N-No,” she
stuttered, quickly mopping up the wine. Get hold
of yourself! “Maybe I’m afraid I
might—ah-ah, sleep with me. I-I-I mean sleep with
you—I-I mean. Sheeessh.” She took a deep
breath and stared at the ceiling. “What did AJ tell
He laughed wickedly. “But I am flattered you’d
considered me a candidate. And I agree with you.
It’s best to get sex out of the way first thing.
Gets a relationship off on the right foot, don’t you
“I appreciate the
honesty.” Did he say, Relationship?
For her the word was electric, so charged with
meaning that it hung in the air like a cloud. She
took a quick sip of her ice water, keeping the glass
to her lips as she blew in air, trying to cool her
blush with the backwash.
He plucked the
cherry out of his Manhattan, never taking his eyes
off her, took a sip, and tossed the cherry aside.
She twirled her locket, slowly at first, but under
his gaze she unconsciously spun it faster, wildly,
until he reached over, stuck his finger in the arch
of the whirling locket, which wound around his
finger and came to an abrupt stop. “Sorry. It was
making me dizzy.”
Her face ablaze,
she couldn’t look at him; she looked out the window
instead. The sun, though already behind the taller
buildings, bathed the bustling city streets in a
comforting orange glow. She felt his eyes on her.
Mercifully, the waiter arrived.
“I didn’t see
hotdogs on the menu,” she stammered. “Don’t you have
a children’s menu?” The waiter apologized but said
“They’re my comfort
food. Reminds me of the baseball games my Uncle
Malcolm used to take me to.”
“Guess we have
something in common.”
“No—more of a
Cracker Jacks fan, myself—I meant baseball. I’ve got
a great collection of trading cards. Actually have
an Honus Wagner. Ever hear of him?”
She shook her head,
looked down at her hands, which she had tightly
clasped together, fighting the urge to touch her
locket. Finally, exasperated with herself, she said,
“Can we start over?”
She extended her
hand. “Pleased to see you again, Peter MacKenzie.
How’ve you been?”
They shook hands.
They laughed. They declined another invitation by
the waiter to order dinner and instead got another
drink. They talked animatedly for half an hour or so
about this and that—mostly Molly’s research, her
cat, the events at the air show and baseball. She
purposely avoided discussing her father or the
astronauts. She wanted some mystery to remain; that
way, maybe he’d ask to see her again.
“Well, Peter, all
I’ve done is talk about me. What about you? Your
weekend flying job can’t be all that you do?” She
dipped her head quizzically. “Unless you’re
“You don’t strike
me as the gold-digging type.”
rubbing the scar on his chin. “That is what I
do. Before that, I was a fighter pilot. A naval
aviator.” He paused, gave a thumbs-up and saluted.
“Did that for about ten years. Until I lost an
“They’re kind of
hard to misplace, aren’t they?”
“I like a good
sense of humor. No, I meant I had to eject.”
“I guess you’re
lucky to be here.”
“Yeah...” He seemed
to drift away for a moment. “Hell, I was a whole
inch shorter for a year after. I was in the hospital
for a month with several fractured vertebrae.
Anyway, my back never completely healed, so I got
taken off flight status. I’d had enough of it
anyway, I guess.” He drained his Manhattan. “Hey,”
he said, eyes twinkling, “you know the first thing I
asked the doctors when they fished me out of the
“I asked if I’d
ever be able to play piano again.”
“Not if you’d be
able to fly again?” She thought it an odd joke,
unworthy of him.
He glanced at the
piano. “Tell me the truth, did you really play
“Sure did,” she
said proudly. “Little League. Pony League. I even
played in high school one year. My Uncle Malcolm was
my biggest booster. But then I got serious about
being a doctor, so I concentrated on the studies.
There’s just no future for women in baseball.”
He nodded. “The
biggest regret of my life is I didn’t get to play
when I was a little kid. If you don’t play early,
it’s tough to catch up—“
know,” she laughed, trying too hard to be funny.
“You played piano instead, right?”
Without a word, he
got up from the table and went across to the piano
where he whispered something to the old man, who
vacated his seat. Then Peter took his place. He
looked at her with arched eyebrow and started to
play. And he played beautifully. And what he played
was utterly magical to their moment, a song from one
of her favorite old black-and-white movies,
Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart told Sam to
play it again for Ingrid Bergman. He began to sing
the words, his rendering sincere if not
must remember, Miss, it’s just one great big kiss, a
guy is just a guy…. My love is one you can’t deny,
as time flies by…”
She clapped as hard
as she could. “Bravo! Bravo!”
Back at the table,
beaming a broad grin, he declared, “Aren’t you sorry
you doubted me?”
“I never will
again, Bogie. But you
really need to work on those lyrics.”
“Hey, I like
that. Me Bogie, you Ingrid. Beats me Tarzan, you
Jane, huh?” He looked at his watch. “Well, sad to
say, but just like in the movie, one of us has got
to go. Only this time, I’m afraid it’s Bogie who
goes and Ingrid who’s left watching the plane
“Sorry we didn’t
get to talk much about my father’s project, but I
can tell you this. He agrees that NASA’s public
statements about the fire are untrue.”
“I know they lied.
I just can’t figure why.”
“My father’s giving
a lecture at the Air and Space Museum tomorrow at
eight. Maybe you could come. I can introduce you
“Okay. Must be big
news from the Areopagus samples?”
“I don’t know. He
just asked me to be there. I promised I would be.”
streetlights had just begun to flicker on, as the
sun, already set, slowly rescinded its bounty of
summer light. The evening air was warm, the
sidewalks busy with city life. As she put the key in
the lock, she looked at him expectantly.
He reached over to
her, slipping his hand deftly around her waist. “I
know what we agreed about sex, and I mean to keep my
word, but—“ He pulled her to him and kissed her
softly, discreetly on her mouth, not lingering long
nor pressing with deep passion. Her lips stung
deliciously, and she wanted more, but it was over
before it had begun. She almost wished...
“That was sweet,”
she whispered, trembling so much that she dropped
her purse, which emptied its contents onto the
sidewalk, including the sketch of the Gypsy’s ankh
she’d earlier faxed to her uncle.
“What’s this?” he
said, picking up the sketch.
“An odd piece of
jewelry. I’d never seen anything like it before the
Gypsy at your air show.”
“She’s the Gypsy. I
know her. I never saw that on her, though.” He
fished out his key ring. On it was Apollyon’s gold
At first she felt
oddly relieved, for how strange could the image be
if they were selling them for trinkets? “Please
tell me you got that out of a box of Cracker Jacks.”
“Tooth Fairy would
be more like it. I got it off a guy who said he was
an angel.” His head dropped, as if he’d been hit.
“It was the last time I saw Bo.”
She felt the blood
go out of her face and shivered. She thought about
her father’s bloodstained cloth, but decided not to
pulled on his khaki pants both legs at once and
bounded off the bed. Quickly buckling his belt and
zipping his fly, he headed for the window. On the
way he pulled on a gray Navy sweatshirt, checked the
time on the Rolex he’d gotten for a song in the
Philippines on his second cruise, then threw open
the window and took in a draft of fresh country air,
sweet with the smell of new-cut hay. He had come
straight to AJ’s from his date with Molly the
previous evening. And after last night, he was
hungry as well as sleepy, though the hollow feeling
he had went beyond the need for food. He picked up a
Cracker Jack box off the vanity, shook it and peered
down inside. Empty.
He’d avoided going
home since news of Bo’s death, afraid that Beth
would be there waiting. She’d left a dozen messages
on his machine. He wondered how long he could put
off talking to her. For how could he explain to her
what Bo had meant to him? Talking to a woman in the
way that would require was a chore he didn’t feel up
to. For the bond between him and Bo, an ageless link
between soldiers of every era, was more certain than
blood. Yet their allegiance went deeper still. Had
it not been for Bo, he would never have won his
wings, would never have fulfilled the vaunted image
he’d set for himself the day he’d learned his father
Which was why his
own act of betrayal rumbled around his gut like a
red-hot piece of iron. He’d wanted to square things
with Bo. He’d tried last Christmas Eve, failed. But
then blind circumstance—and the Areopagus
mission—had kept them apart. He certainly couldn’t
have done it over the phone. He was coward enough
Then it was too
Death steals so many unspoken truths.
So Bo’s murder
needed more than avenging. His death needed meaning.
Before all was said and done, he promised himself,
it would, and he would be the creator of that
meaning, if necessary by his own ultimate sacrifice.
He sighed as if
something huge had sat on his chest, pushing the
wind out of him. No. He could put off seeing Beth no
longer. Tomorrow, he said to himself. I’ll
see her tomorrow.
With that behind
him, he would continue pumping his contacts in the
Intelligence community for information, which had so
far yielded little. Peculiarly, the usual
underground grapevine had abruptly withered.
Everyone seemed to be holding back, reluctant to
discuss anything remotely linked to the
Discovery’s crew or the Areopagus. Even
old mutual friends of his and Bo’s, people at the
Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA and the Center
for Naval Analysis, revealed nothing but the
expected niceties conveyed when a fellow warrior has
More bizarre was
the stonewall he’d faced among his own associates at
his home-base at NIMA, National Imagery and Mapping
Agency in the Pentagon, from which he’d taken a
leave of absence because of Bo. They even began to
grill him on why he wanted to know, said they’d pass
on his request to Langley, which is not exactly what
he’d intended. The last thing he needed now was a
high profile. Something was being hushed up.
That left Molly
Lavisch—and her father. She would be easy.
Especially after last evening.
Just then he saw
the rim of the sun peer over the bluff just beyond
the barns. Its yellow rays splashed onto the
pasture, creating a vast golden pool of light. It
reminded him of the sun on the water the day he and
Roy Corbett had crashed his F-14. But he quickly
squelched that thought and turned to look over his
shoulder to the ravaged bed where AJ lay sleeping,
her slender legs askew, half on, half off the bed.
He watched a wisp of her blond hair moving slightly
in the gentle breeze of her breath, revealing one of
many tattoos. Why in God’s name did women think
tattoos could improve on their naturally interesting
feminine curves? For some reason, Molly came to
mind. I’ll bet she doesn’t have any tattoos.
He tossed the empty Cracker Jack box next to AJ’s
“Sun’s up,” he said
loudly. “Better feed your horses.”
“They can wait,” AJ
told him groggily. “Come back to bed. Last night was
even better than the first time.” She laughed like a
drunken barmaid, flopped back onto her pillow, her
blond hair fanned out around her face like the rays
of the sun.
He sat back down on
the bed, kissed her deeply and gently squeezed her
breast, rubbing her hard nipple with his thumb as he
did. He felt her unzipping his fly, but he took her
hand and stood up, looking around for his jacket.
“You’re such a
tease,” she said and picked up her compact with its
little mirror and began to examine her face. “God!
These crows’ feet are gaining on me.”
“You’ve got nothing
to worry about.” He scrutinized her carefully,
assaying the burning blue eyes, the hair bright and
blond as sun on a sandy beach, the lips pink, soft
and swollen. Suddenly, she was every woman he’d ever
known, a vapid cutout that he could, if he wished,
shuffle like a deck of cards, to be played one at a
time, over and over, in a game of solitaire. It was
a fleeting but painful feeling.
“Why do you have to
go?” she pouted. “You don’t have be anywhere today.”
She threw the covers off, spread her legs. Caressing
herself, she licked her lips, taunting him.
He managed a tired
half-grin, thinking she looked like Lilacs from
Christmas Eve with Bo. “All night is all there is,
sweetheart. Don’t you ever get enough?”
“Not of anything I
like. And I like you.”
He took out his
wallet and started sifting through his trove of
business cards, notes, old receipts, match flaps
from some of his favorite bars, looking for Molly’s
card. “Where’s your phone? I’ve got to get in touch
“What do want to
talk to her for?”
“Jealous?” he said
without looking at her.
she sneered. “You’ve got to be kidding. She’s
handicapped, poor darling, and I don’t just mean her
“What do you mean,
“She just doesn’t
know how to get what she wants, is all.”
“She wants you.”
Your not going to say you don’t know. False
modesty’s unbecoming. Especially in a hunk like
you.” She smiled, batted her eyes playfully.
“My best friend
died because of something to do with the
Areopagus mission. Her father has a big part in
that; he may know something. That’s all I’m
interested in at the moment—“ He winked. “Besides
She sat up and
started to dress. “Sure that’s all?”
“I’m sure. And I
don’t want you involved. Not yet anyway. I’m
supposed to meet her old man tonight at one of his
“And what about the
rest of the day?”
“I’ve got some
business to take care of.” Old Cap, he said
to himself. The thought conjured comforting
memories. “I’ll call you this afternoon.”
She reached for her
panties. “What do you do, anyway? Not just
fly airplanes I hope.”
“You and Molly been
“Never mind. Yeah.
But he couldn’t
help watching her put one luscious leg, then another
into her lacy panties with the open crotch, the
nipples of her small but firm breasts still slightly
swollen. He decided to stay a while longer.
When they were
through, he pulled on his khakis again, both legs at
once. She lit a Marlboro with her dainty gold horse
“This time I’ve
really got to get going,” he said, kissing her
one last time and patting her on the buttocks.
“We’ll get together after old man Lavisch’s lecture.
Might be pretty late. I’ll call you later.”
“Come to think of
it, don’t bother. I won’t be here.” She rolled out
of bed and began to dress.
“Yeah? Where’re you
“My sister Katie’s
You don’t look too
Peter MacKenzie thought as he sat by Captain Bob
Donaldson’s hospital bed. He’d known Cap most of his
life, first as a friend of his dad, later as his new
father after his own dad failed to return from
Vietnam. Cap was always there and always good for a
story, usually about his exploits as a World War II
P-51D Mustang fighter pilot. God, how he loved the
old man. But now he wondered how much longer Cap
could hang on. Would it be a stroke, presaged by his
worsening dementia, or his longstanding emphysema
that would take him? Either way, he thought each sad
visit to the hospital would be his last.
“Would you believe
me if I told you I met the Babe?” The old man
“Ruth? Sure, Cap.”
It was a story he’d heard perhaps a dozen times—and
only in the last week. It was the increasing
fragility of Cap’s memory that disturbed him most.
Cap nodded, the
nasal cannula bobbing up and down in affirmation.
“Yep. In ‘thirty-six, when I was just twelve. For
all his faults, he was wonderful to kids. Always
gave a hawker twenty dollars to take care of all his
young fans. I know, I was one.”
“A softy, huh?”
“Yep. Met Ted
Williams, too. In a bar in London during the war.
You know he was fighter pilot, don’t ya?”
“I remember you’d
told me that, Cap.”
“No man will ever
hit like he did again. Not just Texas Leaguers,
either. He was a sorcerer. A magician. He could make
a frozen rope outta smoke. Time after time.”
He’d heard this
one, too, and he laughed. “You mean he could hit a
hard line drive—or a homer—from a fastball? You’re
datin’ yourself with references like that, Cap.”
Cap coughed away
the accumulating phlegm. “Still got the baseball
cards I gave ya ‘cause your mom made you play piano
instead of baseball?”
“Even the Honus
Wagner? That one’s the best, the one that came in
the Sweet Caporal cigarettes?”
“Sure, Cap. Worth
over half a million, I’m told. Though I’d never part
Pirates,” Cap said dreamily, his eyes watery with
memories. “Those were the days... Yep. My father
smoked those Sweet C’s. And seeing where I ended up,
I really admire old Honus for not wanting his name
associated with tobacco products. They did it
without his permission and he made ‘em stop before
they’d made maybe fifty or so. He was thinking of
kids like me.”
“Yeah,” he said and
sighed. “A true sportsman. Trouble is, there isn’t
much sportsmanship left in sports these days. The
old warrior ethic is gone. Sports heroes used to be
like knights of the roundtable. People with courage
and class. Most players today are just
overpaid thugs—and not just in baseball.”
“Sad, isn’t it?
Especially for the kids.”
“Oh, there’s a Cal
Ripken Jr, here and there. Not many, though. No
Williamses or Wagners or Babes.” Cap nodded
“Yep,” Cap said
with wise, aged eyes. Then he shook. He made
guttural sounds, which rumbled through his speech.
“Son, all I can tell you is, some of life’s most
valuable lessons are its most painful.” He did his
best to sit up higher in his bed, but made no
progress, so Peter heaved his frail body up, cranked
his bed more erect, and put another pillow under his
“You mentioned a
‘warrior ethic.’ But, Pete, courage isn’t always so
easy to define. Oh, I agree with you about the
weakness of the human spirit, but war ain’t exactly
what you think—“
“Oh, I was in a
war, Cap. A couple of ‘em, remember? Didn’t get into
any dogfights like you. But then I didn’t get shot
down, either.” He lifted an eyebrow and cast a
joshing glance at the captain, who paused and wiped
the drool from the corner of his mouth with the edge
of his pillowcase. Peter noticed it was bloody.
“I’m dying, Pete—“
“Come on, Cap.
Surrender isn’t in your vocabulary.”
“Yep. I always
loved you like my own son. And before I go there’s
somethin’ I want to tell you.” He looked away for a
moment, coughed up more bloody phlegm. “ No.…
Somethin’ I have to tell you. Something I’ve
never told anyone before. Ever.” He stretched
out his hand.
“Sure Cap,” he
said, taking the old man’s bony hand, with its
silvery skin, thin as tissue, and its large, ropey
veins that stood out like little blue mountain
ridges across its back.
Cap started almost
in a whisper. “It was Christmas Eve nineteen
forty-four—may God have mercy on our souls. In the
prison camp. We were all outside by the fire pit,
where we had to eat what little food they gave us.
Otto—Otto Kessler, he was camp commandant and a
colonel in the Waffen SS—always made us eat outside,
even on the coldest days. Some of us died because it
was too hard to stay warm enough to eat—you’d shiver
so hard you couldn’t get food to your mouth even if
you had it. Anyways, they’d bring a large, black,
cast-iron kettle out twice a day and hang it from a
metal tripod over the fire pit. There was never much
in it, though, nothin’ but the same slop they gave
to a bunch of hogs they kept for butchering behind
the electrified fence next to our barracks. Yep, we
saw ‘em do it—throw some to hogs, then the rest in
the big black kettle. Just leavin’s from the
enlisted men’s mess, mostly rinds, bones and
gristle, and occasionally a half a potato. And you
know what our treat was?”
“Otto always made
sure they put a whole animal head in, usually a
sheep or a pig—once it was a dog, a stray they ran
over with a truck. Odd, ‘cause the Germans loved
their dogs, generally speakin.’ Some men would fight
over the bits of flesh from the heads, even fight
over the eyes, some of ‘em. Everything got ate, even
the hair. Can you blame us? Only this for over two
“Anyways. They made
us chop our own wood every day. Always just enough
to heat the pot, never enough to get us all warmed
up, even by taking turns around it. Two guards would
come with an axe and dump a few pieces of wood. Then
they’d assign someone to chop. Always took several
of us ‘cause we were all so weak. Cold that year,
“On this particular
day, a fight broke out. Over what, I don’t remember.
My best friend, Bernie, and a guy whose name I can’t
recall. This guy was trying to hit Bernie with the
axe. He was a new prisoner, not weakened by the
privations we’d been suffering under. He had
strength all over Bernie, so we tried to stop it.
“Well, I was trying
to break up the fight when who shows up but Otto,
with his jackboots all spit polished. Had his
silver-tipped baton and Princess with him, his all
white German shepherd. I’ll never forget that damned
dog. She was meaner’n Otto. ‘Cause he fed her human
remains. We’d seen it. Sometimes he’d let her attack
one of the men just for laughs, and if anyone tried
to help the poor bastard, he was shot.
“Well, Otto singled
out me and Bernie and the other guy and asked who
started the fight. No one spoke. So Otto handed
Bernie the axe and commanded him to chop my head
off! My head! for crying out loud. Two guards held
my head down on a tree stump. I was so weak I didn’t
even struggle. At that moment I wanted to
die. I pleaded with Bernie, ‘Please kill me and let
this misery be over.’ But Bernie—God bless his
immortal soul—wouldn’t do it. So Otto motioned to
the guards to let me go and take Bernie. Then Otto
grabbed the axe and before we knew it, he’d cut off
Bernie’s head. Oh, God,” he whimpered like an
inconsolable child. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph...God
“Yep. But I was
actually happy for him—‘cause I knew his pain was
“Jesus,” Peter said
softly. His uncle had been in that war, too. A
prisoner of the Japanese. He’d always wondered why
his uncle had never wanted to talk about it. Now he
“But that wasn’t
the worst.” He started to hack again.
“Can I get you
anything?” His face had started to turn that
God-awful purple color again. He wondered how on
earth the story could get any worse.
“Nope. I’ll be
fine.... That bastard—Otto—that bastard put Bernie’s
head into the big black kettle! And so help me God,
Pete, I didn’t eat anything of Bernie. I didn’t. The
others did. Fought over pieces of him just like he
was a pig or a goat or a dog.”
The old man’s
pillowcase was soaked with tears. He paused, coughed
some more, ever turning a darker shade of reddish
blue, then went on: “I’ve never told anyone this
before. Nope. No one. It’s horrible, but you gotta
believe me. I didn’t eat his flesh. Bernie’s head
was in there for days. ‘Till every bit of him was
consumed, brains and all. But I didn’t eat. Do you
know how much real hunger hurts?”
He felt a
sympathetic pang, shook his head. He didn’t want to
know for real.
“What I learned,
son...what I want you to know...is we always have a
choice. Do you understand me?”
Before he could
answer, Cap began to cough and heave violently,
clutching his chest, his face contorted and dark.
Peter rang for the nurse and then ran to the door.
He yelled as loudly as he could for a doctor.
Seconds later a brigade of nurses stormed into the
room, accompanied by the duty Resident. Working
furiously on the old man, they were about to pull
the curtains when Cap stopped convulsing and grabbed
the curtain to hold it open.
“Pete!” he called.
“What is it, Cap?”
He looked directly into his eyes, those azure blue
eyes with the peculiar little yellow flecks in the
iris just around the pupil, unlike any eyes he’d
ever seen, not anything like the eyes of an old man
should look, but clear, bright and full of life.
Eyes he would never forget.
The dying man
smiled. “Don’t worry about me, son,” he said in an
eerily normal voice. “I’ll be seein’ you again
sooner than you think....”
The doctor closed
the curtain. Peter took a walk. His stomach churned.
Not so much for the old man’s pain but for his own.
When he returned,
the nurse was putting new sheets on the old man’s
bed, whisking out the wrinkles with her chubby
A tear trickled
over the mound of her cheek. “I am sorry,” she said.
He wondered who
would hear his confession now, who would hear his
story. Or did it even matter?
Blalock said in a strained voice. Even as he forced
out the words he could feel the heat from the
response he knew those words would elicit. He leaned
back in the polished yellow oak chair, pushing off
from the small glass table in Admiral Snow’s private
Admiral Snow shrieked. “You freakin’ idiot! How?
How, Paul?” The admiral’s florid face seemed to
Blalock drew his head in. He knew first hand Snow’s
habit of summary judgments and equally summary
punishments. “Apparently the lab tech took the case
and the book—“
Snow kicked a chair
across the room, shattering the glass front of a
Snow bellowed. “What the hell good was it having a
camera in there? And who is this, this—“ He shuffled
through the briefing paper Blalock had given him.
Blalock said in soft, fuzzy tones, hoping to dampen
his boss’s fulminations by setting a likely example.
“But I thought your buddy Larry Blumenthal sent him
when Lee died. Besides, who’d of thought some lab
“Obviously not you,
“We haven’t been
able to find a thing on him,” Blalock complained.
“No birth certificate. No social security number. No
wants or warrants. It’s as if the guy never
“And this bilge
rat, Lavisch. Damn that sneaky little sonofabitch.
After I ordered him—“ Snow dropped down into a chair
across the table and shook his head with jerking
motions, before slamming the table top with the palm
of his hand, cracking it with a sharp screech.
Jumping to his feet again, he paced like a caged
animal. “He told you and Haverhills about the book?”
Blalock looked at
his watch. “No more than an hour ago.”
“And says he’s
going public tonight at the Air and Space Museum?”
“That’s what he
said. When he told the people at the museum he had
an important announcement regarding the Areopagus
project, they bounced the scheduled speaker.” He
began to feel better, thinking the worst of the
storm had passed.
“So he hasn’t told
anyone else yet?” Snow asked in a slightly more
“No,” Blalock said
firmly. “He wouldn’t have had any reason to before
now. I’ve got someone watching his every move.”
“Somehow that’s not
much comfort,” Snow snorted. He poured a double shot
of Jack Daniels and bolted it, then kicked the leg
of the table, knocking Blalock’s briefcase to the
“All he has are
“And a big
reputation,” Blalock said, feeling a bit braver.
“Some people might believe him.” He watched Snow in
the wall mirror as he paced back and forth behind
him, alternately twisting his Naval Academy ring and
cracking his knuckles.
“Yeah, he’s trouble
all right,” Snow muttered. “I knew I’d end up having
to kill that sonofabitch.” He spit the words like
fifty-caliber bullets. “Haverhills, too.”
Blalock felt better
now. He rocked back in his chair confidently, “That
will be no problem.”
Suddenly he found
himself staring at the ceiling. The back of his head
stung. Little white stars floated in the edges of
his vision. Admiral Snow looked down on him,
seemingly from a mile high, his face huge and red,
his eyes bulging and swollen.
“Get on it, then!”
“No more mistakes.”
“Stop here!” Molly
cried. What’s she doing out of the hospital?
pulled the Ford Explorer to the curb, nearly taking
out a parking meter and causing several pedestrians
to jump in fright. “Hey! Where’re you going?”
The door flew open.
Molly leapt out and started down the sidewalk at a
fast walk, dodging people only by virtue of her
peripheral vision, for she focused solely on the
young women who seemed determined to widen the
distance between them.
“Katie! It’s Molly
Lavisch!” Why isn’t she stopping? “Katie!”
“Boy!” Peter said,
panting as he caught up with her at the corner of
9th Street and Independence Avenue. “That bad leg
sure doesn’t slow you down much.”
Molly felt her face
screw up into a scowl, but not from his remark,
which she hadn’t even noted. She stamped her foot,
more in frustration than in anger.
“There I go again,
Doc,” Peter said in a silly voice. “Ya see I got
this bad case of foot-in-mouth disease....”
“I know that
woman. Why didn’t she stop?” She looked at him,
unable to ascertain why he looked as puzzled as she
felt. “I know she heard me, and I know she saw me.”
pretty dark. Sure it was who you thought it was?”
“Positive! It was
Katie Jamison, AJ’s younger sister. But it can’t be.
She’s supposed to be in the hospital.”
definitely not her.”
“What do you mean?”
Jamison is dead.”
felt faint and leaned into Peter’s chest. He felt so
good. She imagined herself to be Ingrid Bergman’s
character, in Bogart’s arms, waiting for her fateful
departure in the final scene of Casablanca.
She pushed away from him. God, I’ve got to stop
fantasizing. “That’s horrible. Poor Katie. But
how—? When did—?”
“A few days ago,”
Peter said. “I was sure AJ would’ve told you. Some
kind of rampant infection because of the radiation.
Staff something. Antibiotics didn’t touch it.”
do you know all this?”
“AJ told me. The
funeral was today.”
She had that sinking feeling again, for more reasons
than one. “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me. We
were just at the hospital. Wait! She told you?”
Even before he answered, she knew AJ had won again.
“You might as well
know,” Peter said with the look of a man who’s just
discovered he has no clothes. “We’ve been out a few
“Tell me, Peter,
why did you want to go out with me if you’re dating
AJ? Never mind, I already know—my father”
Peter glanced away
“But I thought
after last night—“
“Look, she was your
friend. I thought she might help me get to know
“And my father?”
She stomped away, bypassing his Explorer, refusing
to look at him. But he kept talking to the side of
close,” Peter said. “We can walk. Molly. Stop, would
date was just a b-bad idea.”
“AJ said you
stuttered when you got really upset.”
“O-O-Oh, m-my God!”
She kept walking away as fast as her limping gate
would carry her. Her vision blurred slightly from
tears, but anger quickly dried them. She stopped so
fast he bumped into her. “What else did she tell
“Come on, Molly,”
he begged. “I’m sorry. Look, I didn’t sleep with
her, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Oh, sure,” she
said with all the ill will she could muster. “And
just what else did she tell you? Did she tell you
about Ocean City our senior year. Or did she go all
the way back to our childhood? Did she tell you I
snore when I sleep? Did she tell you about—?
But Molly was
thinking of her father, not her former fiancé. “Oh,
AJ!” she yelled. The warm evening air, which
had moments before felt so invitingly romantic, now
brought little crystals of sweat to the space above
her upper lip. She walked faster, trying to move
some air over her scorching face.
“What did you
expect?” Peter pleaded. “He’s a lawyer. Hell, Molly,
all men are not alike.”
She hoped the look
she gave him hurt as much as the pain in her heart.
“Well, all right,
“Is that supposed
to be funny?” Molly kept walking, more slowly now,
just sauntering toward the museum, but her mind
raced far ahead. She thought about Glen—and his
wife. Is this how she’d felt on hearing of his
philandering? She was glad she hadn’t slept with
him. And so what if Peter MacKenzie wasn’t her
Bogart; she never had to see him again, though her
heart shuddered at the prospect. Then again, what if
he were telling the truth? Wasn’t she convicting him
without a trial? Without proof? Didn’t she owe him
Peter.” She felt calmer now, in possession of her
dignity again, or what was left of it.
“No, me, Molly.
She even managed a
tiny laugh. “It’s okay, Peter. Really. What you do
is none of my business. As for last night...well...I
guess I made too much of it.”
“No, you didn’t.
She raised her hand
to stop him. “That’s my fault, not yours.” Then she
said almost cheerily, “Let’s hurry up or we’ll be
late for my father’s lecture.”
Peter looked at the
name on the entrance: Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater.
It annoyed him greatly that for thirty pieces of
silver, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum had
sold out to commercial interests and changed the
name that had honored aviation Great, Samuel P.
Langley. He scanned the forum, which was already
crowded, finally locating two isle seats midway up
the steep mountain of seat rows on the right side of
the auditorium, giving them an acute angle, at quite
some distance, to the lectern.
His main concern
was to get to Miles Lavisch. He’d already heard talk
that Bo and the others had been sacrificed because
of something they had seen, possibly a UFO. Though
he thought that a stretch, he wondered if the
Areopagus had discovered something alien and if
that in some way might be connected to the satellite
reconnaissance photos he’d seen over the last couple
Despite what people
imagined, images of suspicious objects were not
always flying. In fact, they usually were not. Those
quirky pictures of Unidentified Metallic-Looking
Objects, or UMLOs as they were known in the
intelligence community, were a constant source of
speculation. Most of the pictures had been from
desert areas such as the Sahara and the Kalahari,
and in recent years a bunch from Ham Hai, the
Gobi Desert, in China. Paleontologists working a
dinosaur dig there had made startling reports. And
there were others, many others. Of course, most of
the intelligence community pooh-poohed the possible
extraterrestrial connection, laying it off to
heat-induced mirages, or other optical artifacts,
especially for the desert ones—even spy satellites
had their limitations. But something was behind
those pictures and the hundreds of other reports of
sightings made by reliable witnesses around the
world since 1947.
Plus, he’d heard
Admiral Snow might be engineering this whole caper.
As a former Navy man himself, and despite his myriad
other shortcomings, he was, at bottom, a staunch
patriot. He had to believe old Admiral Snow had good
reason to do whatever had to be done. But if that
meant that Bo was somehow a traitor, well…he just
couldn’t, wouldn’t buy it.
“Hey,” he said,
gently nudging Molly, “I think I know that old guy
over there.” He pointed to a slender little man with
a shock of pure white hair rising above dark, hawk
“You know him?”
Molly asked incredulously.
professor of mine at Columbia. Roscha Venable, if
“It is Roscha. He’s
a good friend of my father’s.” She lifted her red
eyebrows. “Why didn’t you use him for an
“Yeah, that’s him
all right,” Peter said, ignoring her inflammatory
question. “Tough old bird. Had a nasty reputation
for bedding his female students.”
lurched in her seat and looked stunned. “I can’t
believe it.... Or maybe I can. He’s looked at me
rather oddly ever since I was teenager. When Dad’s
finished, we’ll go over and say hello.”
Peter winked at
her, slipped her hand into his. Its daintiness
impressed him. But she didn’t squeeze back. Worried
that he might have blown his chances, he suggested
they all go out for a drink after the presentation,
but she ignored him. Abruptly, the hum of the crowd
diminished as the lights lowered.
father,” she whispered.
stepped up to the microphone. He set his briefcase
down by the lectern and pulled a sheaf of papers
from his breast pocket. He put on his reading
glasses, which hung from a chain around his neck.
She leaned close to
him: “Well, he finally got a chain for his
glasses—he’s always losing them. Watch, next he’ll
light a cigar.” She shook her head. “He always
starts that way.”
allowed. Too much danger to the old aircraft.”
“That’s why he’ll
From what AJ had
told him, Miles Lavisch was a brilliant, if
pigheaded, scientist who would win no prizes as a
human being. He’d been worse than a lousy father.
According to Molly’s childhood confession to AJ,
he’d sexually molested her, which reminded him of
Bo’s critical remarks about the Professor last
One thing he could
certainly believe: the pigheadedness. For he’d also
detected a good case of it in the Professor’s only
daughter, who sat beside him now with the expectant
gaze of an innocent child. He cocked his head
slightly. The light caught her face in a different
venue, this one wise and womanly, or perhaps sly and
crafty. Which was she? He rubbed the scar on his
chin, which itched furiously.
On stage, Miles
shuffled his papers, then paused, looking over the
crowd intently. In the audience, feet tapped,
bottoms fidgeted; a low murmur became a buzz. The
time for the presentation to begin was far past,
with no explanation. What was the old fellow up to?
“Think he’s looking for you?”
“Doubt it. At least he’s not smoking.”
Miles stepped back
behind the lectern. He took a handkerchief out of
his pocket and cleaned his glasses. He looked at his
papers and the console, then at side of the stage,
as if looking for someone, and then at the giant
screen behind him.
“Your father sure
knows how to work a crowd.”
casually, Miles reached over and pushed a button on
the lectern console. Behind him, the five-story
screen burst to light, illuminated with a picture of
To Peter, the image
seemed more appropriate to a lecture on archaeology
or antique collecting, rather than space science.
White, baroquely decorated, with a curious eye on
its cover, it resembled a jewelry box more than
anything else. He thought at first someone had
goofed up the slides. But he knew better when Miles
looked at the picture without comment.
Miles paused again,
looking out into the crowd, squinting. He looked
impatiently over to the curtained margins of the
stage, moving his head side to side, as if scanning.
Presently, he turned back to the lectern. “Thank you
for your patience, ladies and gentlemen. I have been
asked to read an announcement: ‘In his introduction,
our host, Mr. Stephens, made a gross understatement
when he said you are a privileged group. For tonight
you are much more. You are explorers on the shores
of a brave new world, participants in a grand—even
universal—adventure. For what you see behind me,
ladies and gentlemen is nothing more nor less than—”
The screen behind
Miles Lavisch went red with two nearly simultaneous
thunderclaps that shook the electrified atmosphere.
His head whipped back sharply then forward as he
collapsed in a shivering heap in the center of a
growing crimson puddle.
Molly wailed as she
lunged for the stage, climbing over rows of seats,
frantically trying to pick her way between the
struggling human tide that pushed and shoved and
fought its way along the choked isles, making for
Peter tore after
her, momentarily becoming separated by a human wave
that carried him sideways, as it swept toward the
exits. Catching up, he reached for her, but quickly
lost her again. Finally, he managed to grab her arm,
but a huge man, arms flailing, fingers clawing, eyes
bulging with fear, came between them.
Two more shots
cracked the panicked air, this time from the
opposite side of the auditorium, up in the far
corner from where they’d sat.
registered another flash before the sound crashed
Molly went down,
pinned under the huge man with bulging eyes.
As soon as Peter thought it, he was looking up into
the recessed lights several stories high. Still
holding her arm, he’d gone down with her, and they
were both partially buried under the rubble of many
human bodies. He felt something wet and slippery,
like oil. He knew instantly—Blood! Turning
his head to the side, he saw the pinkish gray of
brains! A bullet had entered the back of
the fat man’s head and exploded out the front of his
face, most of which hung by a flap of skin to the
side with his nose and part of his lips still
attached. Guttural, choking sounds, emanated from
his heaving body, which gushed a final horrid gasp
that frothed with bubbly bright blood.
The smell of
brains, blood and bodily fluids flushed Peter’s
nostrils. Vomit rose in his throat. More shots
punctured the wild din of screaming, shoving human
flesh. Christ! he screamed to himself.
We’ll be crushed to death before they can shoot us!
The realization hit him like a bullet.
Molly’s a target!
He struggled to
pull himself and Molly from underneath the ghoulish
carcass, his hands and shoes slipping in the dead
man’s blood and urine. He fell again. Someone’s shoe
pinched his neck, pinning him back down. Then with a
final desperate tug, he rose, freeing himself and
Molly, who rolled over and looked at him with the
most terrified eyes he’d ever seen. At least she was
“This way, Molly!”
He dragged her toward the red exit sign. But they
were knocked down again by the stampeding crowd. A
dozen sharp heels dug painfully into his flesh; an
elbow nearly knocked him silly. Rising, he pulled
her to her feet and started again for the exit. But
she resisted with a surprising power.
“Come on!” Peter
yanked her by her blood-soaked hair out the exit.
But still she fought with a mulish determination,
trying desperately to get back to the stage. He
slapped her hard. Again, harder. “Goddamnit, Molly!
They’re trying to kill you too!”
She yanked away, but he held firm.
“It’s too late!”
She broke free. Again he tackled her, pulled her to
“Let me go, Peter!”
understand? He’s gone.”
He knocked her cold
with his closed fist.
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