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"A Thriller for the 21st Century"




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" SECOND EDEN is a new kind of thriller, because in the very best sense, it's a new old-fashioned story."

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People who bought SECOND EDEN at Barnes and Noble also bought:

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Moon Is a Harsh Mistress Robert A. Heinlein, Turk

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Back to Homepage...

Read the first 14 chapters of SECOND EDEN

 below. But first, check out these interesting questions probed in Second Eden... 

A recent 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 arisen.  

What caused mass extinctions?
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. 

What 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 answer.

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 questions.

Final Warning!

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 history.

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 summarization...." 

Read many more intriguing questions answered by Second Eden here... Or begin the story now...

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14



Carlton W. Austin


Copyright© 2004 Carlton W. Austin
All rights reserved.
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 author.
 ______________  .   _______________

"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."     Winston Churchill

                    ______________  .   _______________


      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.

                                               —T. S. Eliot

         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.

                                             —Richard Weaver

         Any sufficiently advanced technology

         is indistinguishable from magic.

                                 —Sir Arthur C. Clarke


*      *      *

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 encountered.” 

Peter laughed. “Intimate friend, eh?”

“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 samples.”

“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 will 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 eyes.

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 his neck.

 “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 opposite direction.

“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 mission.”

“Probably so….  I’ll be in Houston right up to launch.” 

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 you did.”

Bo shrugged. “What? Intelligence work can’t be that boring.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“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 you?”

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.

“Wait, Pete!” 

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 something.

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 Egyptian ankh.

“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 cab driver.”

“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 arm.

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, Bo!”

“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 it!” 

“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 something.”

“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 question us.” 

 “How’d they even get here?” Bo said.  “I never called.”

“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 teeth.

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 ball.

“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.”

“Maybe you 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 hollow darkness.




The space CEV Discovery II, in high Earth orbit...23:30 Hours, June 28...


“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 two minutes.”

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?

But magnetically, 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 his communicator.

“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 Star Trek?”

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 was bald!

“Remember 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?”

“Aye, aye, 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—”

“What the—?”

Suddenly, utter 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.

“Complete power failures ain’t supposed to be possible,” Max Hudson said, his voice strained but even. “What’s goin’ on?”

“Certainly not 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 hydroxide canisters—”

“We could use the portable oxygen units...and the suits,” Carla blurted.

“Yeah, right,” Bill argued. “But this isn’t Alien, and you aren’t Rippley. And without power we’re just four space road kills.”

“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 through.”

“That’s bizarre,” 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 that?”

Bo could hear her rapidly click the small penlight switch on and off, on and off. “Let’s get back to protocol. Start the checklists.”

“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 go—?”

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 with pain.

Then it began.

“Hear it?” Carla whispered.

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 window.

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 said it.

“Discovery! 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 a sighting....”




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 glasses.

“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.

Mildly satisfied, he spread the newspaper across his desk. He’d just begun reading through the magnifier when a front‑page headline caught his eye:




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 committee chairman.

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 . . .


“Lying bastard,” 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 find them?”

“In the hallway.”

“Well, well,” he said with mild annoyance, “to what do I owe this rare pleasure?”

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.”

“Allison Jamison 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?”

“Blondie?  Huh, 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?”

“High‑containment 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 devastating.”

“I know.  Like Native Americans and smallpox.  Or Polynesians and syphilis.”

“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 results remotely.”

“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.”

“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?”

Molly’s face 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. “Three-inch?”

“Uh-huh. Standard 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 corner.

“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 Areopagus.”

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.

“Animals from 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?”

Entering the 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 sent—”

“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 guts.”

“You’re not serious?”

“As a heart attack, my dear.”

Molly frowned. “I wish you wouldn’t put it like that. Given your own medical condition.”

He 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.”

“So 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 least.”

“I 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 conclusive.”

“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 you think?”

Very impressive.”

“I call it Fortress Lavisch,” he said proudly. “We’re making history here, Molly.”

“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.”

“Th-th-that’s not f-fair!”

“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 dying.”

“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 taken you.”

She seemed to struggle to puff out the words. “Y-You did-did more than t-t-that—”

“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.

“Molly,” Miles 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.

Relieved she’d calmed herself, Miles continued the introductions. “Doctor Haverhills is the team mineralogist. Paul, here, is the gentleman I mentioned earlier, the one who—”

“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—”

“And everything else around here that moves, blinks, or whistles,” Lee added.

Dr. Haverhills 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, Jim.”

“I’ll help you,” Lee said.

“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 UV light—”

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 mean—?”

“I mean you’ll stay in the control room,” Miles said firmly.

“I will not!”  Blalock moved toward the containment area.

Heart pounding against the too-tight collar of his shirt, Miles blocked the door.

“I really should be going, Dad—”

“Stay!” Miles commanded, while he did his best to stare down the defiant paleontologist.

“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 sample case.

“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 reddish yellow.

“Look!” Lee blurted excitedly.  “There’s the greenish tinge from the Viking pictures!  The colors that changed over time.”

”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 bizarrely.  “Sorry.”

“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 before.”

“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?”

Blalock glanced sideways but said nothing.

“Wonder why it’s so totally different from the others?” Lee said.

“Strange,” Blalock finally said, “since it came from the same area.”

“A real wing-nut,” Haverhills joked. “Can’t wait to break into that one.”

“It’s beautiful,” Molly breathed.

”I counted twenty‑nine pieces,” Blalock said flatly.

“Good!” Miles said, mildly pleased.

“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 elevators.”

“Bye, Molly,” Blalock said with a wink.

Miles jammed his clenched fists into the pockets of his lab coat. “Let’s go!”

“Dad...I’m sorry for upsetting you. Let’s not fight, okay?”

His heart double beat at the thought of her, so young, so many years ago.

“Blalock didn’t 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 well, 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 directions.

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 him.

“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 politeness.

“Molly Lavisch. 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 shake. “Sorry.”

“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 the astronauts?”

“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 sniffed.

“It was part of their flight plan,” he said flatly. “But dying wasn’t.”

“I’m sorry I can’t help you right now. I’m late for a meeting.”

“How about tomorrow?”  Peter handed her two tickets.

“What’s this?”

“Tickets to a flying circus. It’s called Cilly’s Aerial Carnival. At Bealeton, not far from Fredericksburg. You know it?”

“Yes, I’ve been there.”

“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.

“What’s wrong?” Molly asked, startled by the trembling man’s appearance.

“I don’t know,” Haverhills said, his voice shaking. “Kim’s just collapsed!”

Leaving Peter 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 Kim.”

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 Lee’s side.

“Tell me!” Miles commanded Blalock. “What did you do?”

“He seemed 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 room.”

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.

Blalock shrugged.

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 unresponsive…I’m afraid….”

“You’re hiding something, Paul,” Miles accused. “Now tell us what happened?”

“Just what I said, damnit! Nothing!”

“Contamination?” Haverhills suggested in a quavering voice.

She thought Haverhills looked nearly as bad as Leeand 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 Blalock.

Abruptly Lee 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 au-autopsy.”





 Molly Lavisch 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 fell down.

“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.

“Whooo,” 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 herself.

“You’re next, Molly,” AJ beamed.

“How ‘bout a loop and a roll?” Peter said, not taking his eyes off AJ’s backside.

“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 pilot, Molly.”

“Airshow pilot,” he corrected. “We fly planned maneuvers. Stunts imply recklessness.”

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 doctor.”       

“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 right, Molly?”

“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.

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? 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 laid...”

“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 me.”

“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. What happened?”

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.”

“Bizarre.” AJ disposed of her airsick bag in the first trash receptacle they passed.  “What’s this Mars project anyway?”

“Dad’s analyzing 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 it.”

“The Areopagus?” Molly urged with exasperation.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Actually, it’s Greek and it means final judgment. That’s the name of the spacecraft. Let’s get a hot dog and some popcorn.”

“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 dogs, anyway?”

“Sorry,” Molly 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 bank.”

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 her.

“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.”

Fearfully, she 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.”

Haltingly, Molly 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.”

An uncontrollable shudder reverberated through her body as the Gypsy released her grip, dropping her hand. Her black eyes turned sad.

“Your heart is too big for this life, my sweet one. And soon you will pass from it—”

“What?”  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, you!”

“No, no more!” AJ shouted. “She won’t hear anymore.”

Numb, Molly stumbled toward the doorway, AJ both holding her up and pushing her.

“Listen to me!” the Gypsy cried out.  “Your father—”

“Shut up, you creepy bitch.”

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 father?”

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 funny?”

“No, what?”

“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—”

“Human?” AJ blurted.




With a feeling of anxious excitement, Miles entered the outer chamber of the containment area where only yesterday Lee had died.

Lee’s replacement, 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.

Still, Miles 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.

According to 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 assays?”

“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 boxes.

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 case. Hmmm.”

“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 it?”

“It repeats.”

“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 went blank.

“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.

“Unbelievable!” 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 tone.

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 dust.

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, Mister Chandra?”

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 light?”

“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 hieroglyphics?”

Miles noticed 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.”

“The principal 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 it.”

“What? No, Professor!”

“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 electron microscope?”

“If it will fit the chamber.”

“Do it.”

Chandra hesitated, 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 ideas?”

“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 more.”

“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 his head.

“Could be pressure points, Professor. Or something keyed to the magnetic field around the living fingers—”

“Preposterous!” 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?”

“A password?”


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.”

“Certainly,” Chandra said, curiously lifting an eyebrow, “they could have been more advanced than humans.”

“Certainly very, 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?”

Chandra nodded.

      ___________   .   __________ 


“Professor! Professor! Wake up!” Chandra shook Miles’s chair. “I’ve done it. I’ve opened the box.”

Despite Chandra’s 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.

“Serendipity, 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 millimeter.”

“Hmm. “Miles 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?”

Chandra stiffened. “No, Professor. I knew you would want to be present.”

Relieved, Miles smiled and pushed the cigar box toward Chandra.

“No, thank you, Professor.”

“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.

With latex-gloved 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.

“What’s this?” 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.”

Chandra appeared dreamy-eyed as he beheld the book. “I think it’s glorious!”


“Perhaps a prayer cloth?”

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.

“Miles,” Blalock said with surprise. “You’re here early.”

“You, too,” he said calmly. “Glad to see you’re so dedicated.”

Blalock half smirked. “I thought we’d get into that black rock today, and I didn’t want to miss it.”

“Yes.  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 get there.”

As soon as Blalock was gone, he went back to his office and called Roscha.



  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 chocolate pastry.

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.

He fidgeted, 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.”

“Patience, 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.

“Professor Lavisch! I won’t be threatened like this.  As soon as Mr.Blumenthal—”

Before he could grab the polished brass handle, the doors swung open.

“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 the corner.

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.

“Miles, “Blumenthal began, “I’d like you to meet Admiral Carl Snow. He’s Director—”

“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.

Feeling somewhat flattered by the high-powered delegation, Miles extended his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Director Snow.”

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.

His communicator 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 be subdued.

“Pheras! Thank the Lord,” he said breathlessly. “I was beginning to think—well, it doesn’t matter. I’ve located the Covenant.”

“Glorious! Even when the beacon’s signal was confirmed I dared not hope...”

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 death.”

“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 wanted—”

“You must get it!”

He detected in Pheras’s voice an unmistakable—and unprecedented—impatience, unbefitting his usually benign temperament.

“If they should manage to decipher it—”

“Impossible,” he said confidently.


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 candidate?”

“Her name is Molly Lavisch. She knows nothing yet. But indications are her father will draw her in.”

“Good. But remember, if she is to be our Eve, she must face the coming challenges alone. What is the man’s name?”

“Peter MacKenzie.” 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?”

“Emphatically, 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.”

“Knowing her 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.


“There’s something—”

“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 question.”

“I was on my way—”

“The book—”

”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.

Finally Chandra’s 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 initiative.”

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 shut.

“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 cold room.

“It’s such an exciting project,” Chandra enthused. “It’s been hard to sleep ever since—”

“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 Chandra!”

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 couldn’t guess.

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.

He looked 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.

“Well, Professor,” Blalock said sneeringly, “we keep meeting at odd times. Why do you suppose that is?”

“What are you doing here, Paul?”

“I was about to ask you the same—”

“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.

“Professor! Paul!” Chandra called. “I guess government scientists are the most dedicated.”

“Chandra? I thought—” Miles quickly used the diversion to step away from Blalock.

“Actually,” Chandra said, smiling oddly at Blalock, who looked slightly confused, “I was just leaving myself. Walk you out, Professor?”

Back 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 find out.



 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 notice.

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.

Roscha had 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.

“Hello, old 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?”

“Miles, Miles,” 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.”

Roscha’s apartment 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 coffee?”

“Got any tea?”

“Sorry. Cigarette?”

“No, thanks. Prefer these,” Miles said, counter offering one of his hand-wrapped Cubans.

Roscha shook his head, lit his cigarette, and inhaled deeply. “I must say I’m intrigued.”

“Oh?” That’s 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 legend—“

“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.”

Slowly unwrapping 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.

Roscha’s expression 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!”

“Hmmm. You’ve discovered how to make cars run on water.” Roscha gave a puzzled shrug and flopped backwards in his chair, shaking his head.

Think!  Not 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...”

“No! Intelligent life?”

“Yes! Roscha. That is the headline you’d read. Except you never will, because the forces of this government will not allow it.”

“What makes you think this?”

“You know Admiral Carl Snow?”

“Not personally, but I do work for NSA, and we’re on a tight leash from the CIA. It would be hard not to know something.”

“He’s dangerous. 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 water.”

“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 already have.”

“What happened?”

“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 Patriot Act.”

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 microbe.”

“This came from Mars on the Areopagus?


“Fantastic!”  Roscha slowly turned the pages. His eyes glowed with the delight of discovery.

Hook set.

“Miles, it’s fabulous!”

Relieved, Miles said, “Do you think you can decipher the text?”

“Possibly. I 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.”

“Hmmm. Fascinating, 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 thinking?”

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.”

“They were murdered?” Miles felt his heart skip several beats and he felt faint.

“Murdered because they saw something extraordinary, something extraterrestrial. Something the government—meaning some renegade like Snow—didn’t want made public.”

“So the paper was right.”

“What paper?

“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.”

“Maybe,” Roscha 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.

“All unconfirmed, I’m afraid. But a possible connection.”

The additional 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. “It is!”

“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 old friend.”


             *           *            *


“Hello, Paul.” Bandar Bliss extended his chubby hand.

“Ambassador,” Paul 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.

Seemingly unfazed, 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 spine.

“Bandar,” Admiral Snow said, entering through a side door. “Thank you for coming by.” He handed Bliss a manila envelope.

 The ambassador opened the flap and smiled. “Once again you’ve renewed my faith in the American spirit of generosity.”

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,” Bliss replied.

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.

 Before crossing the threshold, Bliss turned to him. A glint of fluorescent light shone strangely in his dark eyes. “Always a pleasure, Paul.”

Blalock returned 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 behind him.

“Check the silverware,” Blalock said, shaking himself like a wet dog. “Why do I always want a shower after seein’ him.”

“Now, now, Paul,” Snow said sarcastically, placing a Scotch in Blalock’s hand. “Neat, isn’t it?”

“Right. Thanks.”

Snow puffed 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!”

“Still can’t believe that prick takes money. How many billions is he worth?”

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?”

“Nothing yet,” 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 seriously.”

“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 one.

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 about this?”

“Why?” Snow frowned at him. “You think he should?”

“Well, he is your deputy director.”

Snow threw down a shot of vodka.  “The fewer people the better.”

“What about 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 shower.

“That’s the idea with secrets, Paul.”

“What’s our next objective?”

“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 oncologist.

The many 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.

Nevertheless, Molly 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 passion.

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 lipstick.

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 help.”

  AJ smiled warmly and put her lipstick away. Then, almost dreamily, she said, “You know, she’s the only decent one among us.”

Molly’s heart 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 that.”


            *           *            *


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.

The protesters 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 altered food.”

“Or from pollution,” his female companion added in hostile tone, glaring at the cigarette hanging from AJ’s fingers.

“Get a job,” AJ snarled.

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 food.”

“It’s too late for Katie. And if it tastes good, I’ll eat it.”

Inside the 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.”

“Uncle Malcolm!” 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 so similar.”

“Well, brother,” said Miles as he plopped down with a huff, “you look like a thorn between two roses.  Have a drink with me, girls?”

“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—“

“Enough, already!” 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.

Malcolm laughed. “Why no olives, AJ?” He popped one into his mouth and stuffed another inside a small piece of flatbread.

“Don’t like the green ones. What’s that you’ve got?”

“Lebanese pita.  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.

“What’s the matter?” AJ asked. “Couldn’t find any of your signature kitchen matches?”

“They’re getting harder to find,” Miles said. He flicked the lighter to flame.

“Oh, Dad, you’re not—?”

“Leave him alone, Molly,” AJ snipped, then turned back to Malcolm. “Whose ear?”

“The Egyptian gods, my dear,” Malcolm responded.  “Osiris married his sister, Isis.  Together they ruled the underworld.”

“Fascinating, 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?” Malcolm offered.

“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 prayers answered?”

“Prayers?  Miles 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 the waiter.

“And what about women, Miles?” AJ said, wagging a finger at him and munching bread.

“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.”

“Terrible news, wasn’t it?” Malcolm exclaimed as he peeled back the edge of another piece of pita.  “What does it mean for your project, Miles?”

“Nothing,” Miles said flatly.

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, Dad.”

Miles sniffed 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 of them.”

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 end.”

 Molly telegraphed AJ an angry glance.  “We were at a carnival. It was just for fun.”

“What’s the 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.

“Well, I can,” AJ announced.  “I was spooked.  She said, in effect, the world is about to end and that Molly was going to—“

“She said,” Molly interrupted in self-defense, “’beware bellchapel’ or something like that.  She had a thick accent.”

“No,” AJ corrected.  “She dropped the phony accent at the end. She said, ‘Tell your father Bell and Carla said beware.’”

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 repeated.

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.

“Miles,” Malcolm 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?”

“Prophecies,” Molly 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?”

“Really, brother, you do shame me.”

“Shame you?” 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.’”

“Horseshit!” Miles 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?”

“Nostradamus?” Miles scoffed.

“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.”

“Really?” Malcolm’s 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 ago.”

“What now, little brother? You’d dispute evolution?”

“No! Evolution is fact.”

“Well, then!” Miles said.

 “But random 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.

“Funny, Malcolm!” AJ clapped.

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?”

“That’s another 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 do it?”

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.”



Molly stared 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 MacKenzie.

Her attraction 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.

“Four simple 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. Then what?”

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 approaching.

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 crossroads.

“Man making 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 intervention.

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 her nose.

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 her.

First she 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.

Yes, 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.

Her lab 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 your office.”

“Thanks, 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?

Nevertheless, 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 domesticity.

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.

“What?” she 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 shock.

She picked up the phone and dialed.

“Uncle Malcolm!” She exhaled his name with relief, not even aware she’d been holding her breath.

”Molly, dear,” the buoyant voice said. “Is everything all right?”

“Thank goodness I caught you.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“I’m worried about Dad. And I don’t know what to do about it.”

“What’s happened?”

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.”

“That is strange.” Then he chortled. “You don’t get many repeat customers that way in the fortune-telling business.”

“Malcolm! It’s not funny anymore.”

“Now, now, Molly. I hate to agree with your father on this, but I do think you’re taking this a bit too much to heart.”

“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’re sure?”

“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?”

“He couldn’t tell you, even if you asked. Security,” Malcolm said, then paused. “And it was the same design as the Gypsy’s?”

“I’m positive.”

           ”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?”

“Of course.... Uncle Malcolm?”


“It’s just that I feel so stupid about it all.”

Malcolm laughed 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.

“Unexplainable 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.”

“Fascinating man. Dismissed by many as a mere mystic. If you remembered the buffalo thing, you probably heard about the Cistine Chapel, didn’t you?”

“Vandalism, wasn’t it?”

“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 Mohammed?”


“Who would want to—?”

“No one knows how. Or who.”

“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 to do.”

“Of course, dear. But it sounds as if you’re the one who needs to take care. You will, won’t you?”

“I’ll try.”

 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 near.”



Peter MacKenzie 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 tonight?”

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 you?”

“Nothing, really.” 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 think?”

“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 no.


“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?”

“Suits me.”

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 independently wealthy?

“You don’t strike me as the gold-digging type.”

“Just curious.”

He hesitated, 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 airplane.”

“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 drink?”


“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 baseball?”

“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—“

“Oh, I 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 accomplished:

“You 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 depart.”

“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 then.”

“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.”

Outside 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.”

“Lilah Blackwell?”


“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 pendant.

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 say anything.



  Peter yawned, 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 was gone.

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 already.

Then it was too late. 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 fallen.

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. Something big.

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 head.

“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 with Molly.”

“What do want to talk to her for?”

“Jealous?” he said without looking at her.

“Of her?” she sneered. “You’ve got to be kidding. She’s handicapped, poor darling, and I don’t just mean her limp.”

“What do you mean, then?”

“She just doesn’t know how to get what she wants, is all.”

“For example?”

“She wants you.”


“Oh, puleeease. 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 you, sweetheart.”

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 lectures.”

“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 comparing notes?”


“Never mind. Yeah. Just that.”

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 head lighter.

“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 going?”

“My sister Katie’s funeral.”


                   CHAPTER 12

  You don’t look too good, Cap, 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 choked.

“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?”

“You bet.”

“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 with it.”

“Pittsburgh 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 agreement.

“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 head.

“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 hundred men?

“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, too.

“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 bless him.

“Yep. But I was actually happy for him—‘cause I knew his pain was over.”

“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 understood.

“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 little fingers.

“Where’s the old-timer?”

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?



  “It’s gone,” 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 anteroom.

“What?” Admiral Snow shrieked. “You freakin’ idiot! How? How, Paul?”  The admiral’s florid face seemed to swell.

Automatically, 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 cabinet.

Blalock flinched.

“Christ almighty!” 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.

“Vishnu Chandra,” 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 technician—“

“Obviously not you, Inspector Clousseau.”

“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 existed.”

“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 subdued tone.

“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 floor.

“All he has are pictures, right?”

“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!”

“Yes, sir!”

“And Paul?”


“No more mistakes.”



  “Stop here!” Molly cried. What’s she doing out of the hospital?

Peter abruptly 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.”

“It’s getting 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.”

“Then it’s definitely not her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because Katie Jamison is dead.”

 Molly suddenly 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.”

“Staphylococcus. But how do you know all this?”

“AJ told me. The funeral was today.”

“What?” 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 times—“

“You what?”

She called me.”

“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 and shrugged.

“But I thought after last night—“

“Look, she was your friend. I thought she might help me get to know you.”

“And my father?” She stomped away, bypassing his Explorer, refusing to look at him. But he kept talking to the side of her face.

“The museum’s close,” Peter said. “We can walk. Molly. Stop, would you!

“M-M-Maybe this 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 you?”

“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—?

“About Glen.”

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, mostly alike.”

“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 that much?

“I apologize, Peter.” She felt calmer now, in possession of her dignity again, or what was left of it.

“No, me, Molly. Honest.”

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. I—“

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 of years.

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 like features.

“You know him?” Molly asked incredulously.

“Old college professor of mine at Columbia. Roscha Venable, if that’s him.”

“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 introduction?”

“Yeah, that’s him all right,” Peter said, ignoring her inflammatory question. “Tough old bird. Had a nasty reputation for bedding his female students.”

“Roscha?” Molly 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.

“There’s my father,” she whispered.

Miles Lavisch 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.”

“No smoking allowed.  Too much danger to the old aircraft.”

“That’s why he’ll do it.”

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 Christmas Eve.

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?

Peter whispered, “Think he’s looking for you?”

She shrugged. “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.”

Then, almost 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 an object.

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.

“Nooo!” 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 the exits.

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.

Bang! Bang!

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.

Peter’s eyes registered another flash before the sound crashed his ears.


Molly went down, pinned under the huge man with bulging eyes.

She’s hit!  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 alive.

“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.

“M-M-My F-father!”

“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!”

D-D-D-Dad-d-d!” She yanked away, but he held firm.

“It’s too late!” She broke free. Again he tackled her, pulled her to feet. “Listen!”

“Let me go, Peter!”

“Don’t you understand? He’s gone.”


He knocked her cold with his closed fist.

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