An Excerpt from the Habitat of Soul, Decoded from Chamber 21
He remembered Samantha's prediction that the disc would prove more impregnable than the homing device, and he was beginning to believe it. The data records showed a modest change in resonance by using UV 720 and infrared 373 as a blended agent to the standard laser beam frequency. But it only boosted resonance another 14%, hardly a significant improvement.
Neruda opened his email files and saw a message from Fifteen marked URGENT. His heart quickened as he opened the file.
I ASSUME THIS WILL WORK WITH YOUR SCHEDULE. IF YOU HAVE A CONFLICT, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. OTHERWISE, WE'LL SEE YOU THEN.
It was a long email by Fifteen's standards, who rarely wrote emails longer than two or three lines. When he did, they usually meant a serious problem was underfoot.
Neruda wondered why the idea of multiple lasers hadn't occurred to him before. It was typical of Fifteen to hear about a research impasse or irreducible problem and then pose alternative testing paths that were alarmingly obvious, but had somehow been missed by everyone else.
A quiet knock on his office door broke his train of thought. "Come on in."
Emily opened the door and shut it discretely behind her without saying a word.
"So you're still here?" he asked, feigning surprise.
Emily continued her silence as she sat in front of his desk. "I wanted to ask you something," she said, leaning forward in her chair, her hands nervously clutching one another.
"Okay, what is it?" Neruda asked puzzled by his assistant's odd behavior.
"Do you like me?" she said deliberately as if the words had been rehearsed. Neruda was quiet for a few seconds absorbing the question and all its ramifications. "You mean in a romantic way?"
"Yes, in a romantic way."
Neruda pushed back in his chair and crossed his legs. "I like you as a friend, Emily. I can't offer you more than that."
"I know, but just for the sake of discussion, if... if you weren't my supervisor. Would you feel differently about me? Romantically speaking, I mean?"
Neruda stood, walked around his desk, and sat on its corner with one of his legs draped over the edge. He looked at Emily, wondering how to explain himself. "I don't know what I'd feel. I don't know what I'm feeling right now, let alone if this or that changed in the future. What do you want me to say?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I don't want you to say anything that you don't feel." She stood and began to walk to the door. "This was a mistake. I'm sorry. Have a goodnight."
Neruda rushed to the door and put his hand against it preventing Emily from leaving. "I'm no expert when it comes to romance. I've never even seriously dated a woman in my life. My life has been this!" his arms went up in a sign of frustration.
"I like you very much, Emily. I don't want to spoil what we have -"
"What we have," she interrupted, "is a nice little boss / subordinate relationship. Nothing more, nothing less. I was just trying to see if you were interested in more. Obviously, you're not."
Emily struggled to open the door, but Neruda stopped her with his hand holding it firmly closed.
"What?" Emily asked in frustration. "What do you want?"
"I need some time," he said.
"No you don't."
"I just do."
Emily stepped back from the door and slumped back in her chair. "Where I come from, either you feel something or you don't. And you don't."
"I didn't say that," Neruda said defensively. "I said I didn't know how I felt, and... and I needed some time."
"Jamisson, time isn't going to change how you feel. We've known each other for nearly two years. Are you saying it'll take another two years for you to sort out your feelings?"
Neruda leaned against the door and ran his hands through his hair. "Okay, look, maybe my feelings are vague and confused, but I'm not that comfortable around women in general. I... I never knew my mother. I had no sisters. I went to a private, all-boys school, and then I ended up here when I was just starting to think about girls."
He walked back to the desk and sat on its corner as he had before. His voice was faint and he looked tired. "When I got my first promotion, shortly after I started, I threw everything I had into this place. I was only eighteen. And then my father died. My life began to be lived here, not in my home. Home was just a bed... a place to sleep and shave and shower."
He paused, noticing for the first time Emily's arms and how delicately they were shaped. She had on a sleeveless, blue-green blouse that was tucked inside a pair of black, cotton pants. Her eyes stared straight ahead.
"You're afraid," Emily said softly.
"No," she continued, "you're afraid of me because I might take all of this away from you, or somehow shake up your perfect world. And you don't know what would happen if the ACIO wasn't the center of your universe. Isn't that it?"
"So maybe I'm afraid of you or... or what you might bring into my life, but that's precisely why I need some time. I need to get comfortable with all of -"
"You need to get comfortable?" Emily asked in a semi-mocking tone. "Feelings aren't about being comfortable. They're about being passionate and letting go... of everything..." Her voice trailed off in a long sigh of resignation.
"To you, this is all clear. I accept that. To me, it's all very confusing, but you can't... or won't accept that."
"I can accept it," Emily asserted. "It's just not the answer I wanted to hear."
Neruda looked down at his hands. He felt trapped. "Emily, I can't tell you what you want to hear. Not now anyway."
"You know," Emily announced, "to be honest, I feel better. At least I know where I stand with you." She stood and again started to the door.
"Wait a second," Neruda pleaded. "Can you be patient with me?"
"I have my answer," Emily said. "It's no longer a question of patience."
"Why are you so convinced that it's now or never?"
She stepped forward and locked eyes with Neruda. "While I was lying in one hospital bed after another, I watched my husband leave me and my job evaporate. You don't realize how vulnerable you become in that state... my mind was every bit as weak as my body, but I swore that if I lived through that hell, I'd never again wait for things to happen to me in a state of helplessness. I'd make them happen," she looked down at her shoes, and lowered her tone. "But there are a few things you can't make happen, and love is one of them."
"So you just give up?"
"The alternative is too painful..." she turned away as if to hide her face. Her body began to tremble, and she broke down and cried. Neruda sprang to his feet and helped her to the chair. He sat beside her, keeping his arm around her shoulder. With his free hand he brought her face to his chest like a father consoling his child. Emily composed herself and pulled away from him slowly. She could only think about his white, button-down shirt and her mascara and tears.
"I have to go," she said suddenly. "I'm sorry about your shirt." Her hand instinctively went to clean a smudge, but his hand caught hers and he kissed her lips before she could object. Her arms went around his neck, and she kissed him as she had imagined a thousand times in her mind, but then pulled away.
"What's wrong?" he asked, alarm showing in his voice.
"I'm sorry, but under these circumstances, I can't... I can't."
"Why? It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"No, what I wanted was for you to want it, and now I'm afraid you're simply doing it because you feel sorry for me. And that's another thing I can do without in my life."
Emily lurched to the door. "I'm sorry for everything." She ran out before Neruda could speak or move.
Neruda followed her down the deserted hallway. She was fifty feet ahead of him running blindly. "Emily," he yelled. "I'm not clear about many things in my life, but I know when I like something, and kissing you was definitely not charity on my part, nor did I feel coerced."
Emily stopped. Neruda stood still watching her. "Tell me one thing, then," she asked.
"When I asked you how you felt about us, you said you didn't know. You said you needed more time. What changed? Did you mean you only needed a few minutes? Because I was thinking you meant weeks, months, hell, maybe even years. So what exactly changed in those few minutes?"
Neruda's mind flashed on a hundred different responses, but his hesitancy was all Emily needed to hear. She turned and walked away. Neruda watched her until her footsteps faded underneath the ubiquitous whir of the HVAC system, wondering the whole time why he couldn't answer her simple question.
"Did you see it? Did you see the way that fuckin' thing reacted?" Andrews bubbled.
"Unbelievable!" Collin said. "Neruda was right, it's a shape-shifter just like the first one."
The two men were looking at videotape recorded overnight by David, the ZEMI operator assigned to the Ancient Arrow project. The video showed the optical disc separating into two discs like a sandwich with a cloud of light between them. The light was like a prism with thousands of tiny bead-like globes dancing between the two discs in what appeared to be a random pattern.
"Doesn't exactly look like anything we've seen before, does it?" Collin asked rhetorically.
"Just when you think you've met all the neighbors in the cosmohood," Andrews said, laughing in his halted style. "Mother of pearl, wait until the bossman sees this."
David's head came back on the screen. "As you can see, Fifteen's hypothesis was correct, except that it was twenty-three of the index tracks, not all twenty-four that constituted the magic number."
"Okay, so now what do we do with it?" Andrews asked.
"That's where it gets interesting," David commented. "We managed to catalyze a molecular shift, but we have no more an idea on how to access the data on the tracks than we did yesterday. The data, assuming it exists, is in a format that ZEMI can't read, or, for that matter, even analyze."
"Could these lights - I mean between the discs - be reduced to binary code?"
"Negative," David replied. "If you look in the data file I sent you, you'll see a complete analysis of the light structure, but the best we can do is to provide frequency rates, spectrum analyses, and the standard baseline data."
"So all we've managed to do is create a deeper mystery. Great." Andrews lamented.
Collin slapped Andrews on the back. "Don't despair my friend, we have Fifteen's attention. If you can't figure it out, he will."
"Very funny, asshole," Andrews whispered to Collin. He then turned back to the monitor. "So you're telling me that we have absolute chaos in-between these discs? ZEMI can't find anything resembling an ordered pattern?"
"That's correct, at least in the context of our tests thus far."
"How's that possible? What's the longest cycle time ZEMI's analyzed?"
"About thirty minutes."
"We should test longer cycle times."
"We agree," David replied. "ZEMI's been doing that," he looked down at his Rolex, "for the past three hours."
"Good," Andrews said. "Anything else you can show us?"
"One other thing, there's an audio loop occurring between fifty-two and one hundred and ninety-five kilohertz during the time that the shape shift incidence was occurring. It's an extremely complex loop, and we're working on stepping it down to an audible frequency range."
"Woah, that could be very interesting," Andrews commented. "It's a continuous loop?"
"Yes, there's a discernible pattern that repeats every two minutes, thirty-two seconds. Precisely."
"Maybe this is the break we've been looking for. When will you have the audio file?"
David closed his eyes for a moment. "We're close, maybe another thirty minutes."
"Okay," Andrews said, "just send it to my office when you have something. Oh, and by the way, did you think about testing the audio pattern to see if there's any synchronicity with the light show?"
"We already concluded that there was no synchronicity. It's completely independent in terms of the pattern, but the light globules are generating the sound frequency."
"How, then, could they be independent?" Collin asked.
"We don't know."
"Thanks, David. I have to run to another meeting. I assume you've forwarded this to Neruda."
"Actually, I'm meeting with him in Fifteen's office in about an hour."
"Good luck. That's a tough audience, even when you're hooked to ZEMI," Andrews said, laughing.
David smiled politely, his hand reached for something, and the screen went blank.
Andrews turned to Collin with a surge of energy. "This thing's literally gonna sing!"
"We'll see," Collin said. "Don't get your hopes too high. It may be something spurious from the light source."
"Yeah, maybe, but I doubt it. The light is the source of the sound frequencies, and yet there's no relational pattern. Something else is going on here, and it ain't science."
"A light source can't generate audio frequencies independent of its change in frequency," Collin said. "It's not possible, you know that."
"So what're you saying, ZEMI's wrong?" Andrews asked.
"I'm saying that physics is right. ZEMI's another matter entirely, as is this artifact."
"Maybe we're gonna find something here that defies our laws of physics," Andrews offered. "And if we do, it may explain how we deal with the other artifacts we found."
"Perhaps," Collin said, "but I have my doubts."
The two colleagues left CAL and rode the elevator down to their offices in the Special Projects Department. They were excited about the new developments, and hopeful that they would soon know the optical disc's purpose.
"Do you still want to go?" Neruda asked, poking his head into Emily's office. It was eight am, and he cradled his morning coffee in one hand and his briefcase in the other. He leaned against the open door frame, lingering at the threshold.
"Where?" she replied in a monotone.
"To the ETC site?"
"What do you mean?" Neruda asked.
"Why do you want me to go now?"
"We've made good progress on the optical disc, and between Andrews, David, and Collin, we're in good shape for the next few days -"
"Is it something you want to talk about?"
"What happened last night," Emily said. "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
"I didn't sleep much last night," he confessed, "and I have a splitting headache. I'm sorry how it ended, Emily... last night, I mean."
"In what way?"
Neruda took a sip of coffee, trying to gather his thoughts and courage at the same time. "I didn't exactly tell the truth last night. I had a serious relationship with a woman about ten years ago. She was a scientist in the CAL department working on decryption algorithms. She was a subordinate, and she and I became quite close, quite suddenly."
He paused, took another sip, and asked if he could sit down. Emily nodded.
"She wanted more and more of my time, and my work began to suffer. She and I were so infatuated with one another that it was becoming a serious distraction. So serious, in fact, that Fifteen had her removed from the ACIO."
"You're kidding me," Emily said, with a forced laugh.
"No, I'm not," Neruda replied. "I was working on a high-level project with the Nereus Syndicate at the time, and Fifteen saw the quality of my work deteriorate and decided to intervene. It all happened so quickly... and... and she was gone."
"What a hypocrite," Emily said out of the corner of her mouth.
"Why do you say that?"
"Fifteen and Li-Ching? You know the rumors. What's the difference?"
Neruda stood and closed Emily's door. "Look, I don't know what you've heard about Fifteen and Li-Ching, but I can assure you, Fifteen never lets anything distract him from his work. He's put eighty-hour workweeks back-to-back for over thirty years."
"So why're you telling me this now?"
"You wanted to know why I needed more time," Neruda replied, sitting down. "This is why."
"So what happened to this woman?"
"I don't know."
"You never asked Fifteen?" The words were spoken so deliberately they sounded mechanical, like they issued from an assembly line.
"You loved this woman, Fifteen summarily dismisses her, and you don't even ask why or where she went?" Emily's voice was indignant.
"I can appreciate your amazement. I'm not proud of how I handled it either. But have you ever spent more than one minute alone with him?"
Emily looked to the top of her neatly organized desk. She had been playing with a paper clip and set it down. "No. I'm not even sure if he knows I exist."
"Rest assured, he does," Neruda said. "But he's not the kind of man that you can walk up to and simply demand an explanation."
Neruda leaned forward and in a hushed voice said, "Emily, he's the most powerful man on the planet. He knew everything that was going on. I couldn't save this woman; she wanted something from me that Fifteen couldn't allow her to have - my time and attention."
"So what do you think happened to her?"
"Her memory was wiped, reprogrammed, and she was sent away with a very large bank account... probably to Switzerland or Costa Rica. I don't know."
"This is too strange," Emily said, pushing her chair back so she could stand. "You didn't mention any of this in the recruiting interviews. The ACIO, join for life, but don't fraternize with your coworkers or your life'll be reprogrammed and you'll end up in Paraguay or some such place. Shit!"
"You have to keep this to yourself," Neruda pleaded. "Otherwise it could be dangerous to both of us. Okay?"
"Okay." Emily's voice was distant sounding as she sat back down in her chair.
"Do you still want to come?"
"And do what?" she asked, in a cynical tone. "Make you tea, and braid your hair every morning?"
Neruda knew her reference to Fifteen's relationship with Li-Ching was meant to hurt him, but he couldn't ignore it. "You may not like the reality of my situation, but it's as real as the corner of this desk. If you bang your head here, it's going to hurt. If you still want to venture into my world, on a more intimate basis, you should be aware of these realities. There're risks."
"I don't care about risks," Emily answered. "All I care about is to have something normal in my life. I have all this money, a beautiful home, a phenomenal job, a great boss, but absolutely nothing that's normal."
"Like a family."
Neruda leaned back in his chair and took the last sip of coffee from his cup, setting it down on Emily's desk without a sound. "You should have these things. You deserve them. I just don't know if I can provide them to you."
"I know, I know," she said with frustration in her voice. "No time. No interest. That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?"
"I have interest," he said. "But time is another matter, and I fear complications could arise as soon as my work suffers -"
"Why do you assume your work would suffer if we had a romantic relationship?"
"It did before."
Emily stared at a picture she had framed on the wall directly behind Neruda. It was of a rustic, but beautiful farmhouse secluded among the snowcapped Austrian Alps. Sheep were scattered upon the hillsides, as were the abundant wild flowers. A man and a woman were watching their child play with a puppy in front of their farmhouse. All she wanted was in that picture.
"I was just promoted to SL-thirteen," Neruda explained, "and I'm directing operations for the highest priority project on the ACIO agenda. It's not good timing for me to be distracted. Maybe in a few months I could... I could be more attentive to you, but not now."
"Fine, I'll go with you to New Mexico.
"Good," Neruda replied grabbing his briefcase and standing.
Emily leaned forward, her face expressionless. "Before you go, tell me something. What makes you so important to Fifteen? Other high-level managers have wives and families. Why not you?"
"I can't tell you."
"You can't even tell me why you can't tell me?"
"Maybe the real reason you don't want an intimate relationship is because you're afraid that you have too many secrets that might spill out... inadvertently. Or maybe that's what Fifteen fears."
Neruda, frustrated at her insinuations, sat back down in the chair and leveled his eyes with hers. "Fifteen has a major initiative that I've been involved in for nearly fourteen years. It's not something I can talk about. I can only tell you that it's of paramount importance -"
"I see, so he values you so much that he controls your life completely -"
"He values the planet's life..." Neruda stopped short. He sighed. "Can you just be patient?"
"I'll try, if you try to be just a little more trusting."
He nodded and grabbed his briefcase. "I've gotta run. You're definitely coming then?"
"Okay, good. The excavation team is assembling in Fifteen's conference room at sixteen hundred hours. We'll see you then."
"What's my role? On the excavation team."
He paused for a moment while a smile crept across his face. "Well, my hair's a little too short for braids... and I absolutely despise tea, so I guess you'll have to help me with cataloging the new glyphs and establishing their sequence ratings. Still interested?"
Emily blushed slightly and nervously laughed. "I'm disappointed with such a mundane assignment, but I'll manage somehow."
"See you later, then."
Neruda opened the door and slipped away with astonishing speed. Emily's mouth was agape; the word "goodbye" was still dangling from her bottom lip.
As helicopters touched down, their dust clouds obscured the regal sunset. The excavation team poured out of the birds, fourteen members divided into three subgroups. Handlers were responsible for the safe removal of the remaining twenty-two artifacts. Security was responsible for ensuring that the entire site was hidden behind a level twelve Security Fence. Research made up the third group, responsible for assessing the chamber paintings, glyphs, and architecture for any telltale signs that could help explain the origin and nature of the site.
The team had been delayed by five hours because some hikers had been spotted on satellite reconnaissance pictures and were deemed too close to the site. Subsequent satellite pictures confirmed that they were moving in a westerly direction that would take them eight miles north of the ETC site. Evans was comfortable with the buffer. From the high-resolution satellite pictures, he was also confident that the hikers were not NSA operatives.
Neruda called to his team. "Follow me. We have about a kilometer walk."
The dark gray, unmarked choppers flew off like giant locusts. The team gathered its gear and formed a line behind Neruda. They were going to make camp inside the first cavern in order to remain invisible to any NSA "eye-in-the-sky" searches.
Cold, dry desert winds blustered through the narrow canyons, but fortunately, everyone was dressed for such weather, well aware that the interior chambers of the site were only 42° Fahrenheit.
As they approached the cavern's entrance, Evans pulled out a small, flat box that looked like a remote control with numerous metallic buttons. After fidgeting with the device for a few moments, he pointed it directly at the wall of the canyon where the cavern entrance had been before, but was now completely disguised.
In a matter of seconds, the narrow slit began to open up. The red light from the setting sun cast an eerie glow on the face of the rock wall, and the black entrance of the cavern grew like a wound, as the slit gradually became visible.
The ACIO had developed a technology to cloak physical objects. It had been an outgrowth of the Technology Transfer Program (TTP) initiated with the Corteum. The technology was known simply as RICH, or Reality Inference Coessential Hologram. It could be tuned to take on the texture, color, and all material qualities of a desired object - in this case, the sandstone wall of the canyon.
RICH was a perfect technology to hide objects and was used extensively in the ACIO headquarters for Labyrinth Group classified technologies. These pure state technologies were heavily guarded, and RICH was one of them. Only personnel with SL-Seven clearances and above were allowed to observe the workings of the RICH technology, and most of the other pure-state technologies were reserved for only the Labyrinth Group.
The excavation team climbed inside the cavern, one at a time, and set up their camp. The entrance was again placed in RICH stealth mode, and the team was sealed safely inside the ETC site, completely isolated from the outside world.
Donavin McAlester walked down the long hallway of the sixteenth floor to Li-Ching's office. He was in a bad mood. No one was around to talk with, and Neruda had ignored his questionnaire.
"Can you spare a few minutes," Donavin asked, as he knocked on the open door politely.
"Certainly, Mr. McAlester," Li-Ching replied, looking up from her computer monitor. Her green silk dress was subdued in the modest light of her solitary desk lamp. She preferred low light when she was working on her computer.
"Where is everyone?" he asked. "I tried to talk with Evans and Neruda yesterday afternoon and again this morning, but no one can tell me where they are, let alone when they'll be back."
"They're on assignment," she answered calmly.
"I know that. When are they due back?"
"I believe Friday afternoon, or perhaps Saturday, I'm not sure. Is there something I can do for you in their stead?"
Donavin invited himself in her office and slumped in a blue leather chair in front of her desk. "I came here to improve communications between our respective organizations, but I can't seem to find anyone who's interested in talking about it. Everyone's too damn busy. If I filed my report this morning to McGavin, I'm afraid you wouldn't like my conclusions -"
"Mr. McAlester, we're running the most technologically advanced organization on the planet with only a hundred scientists - peanuts compared to any of the government or military labs. We're not as heavily funded as the NSA or any other intelligence organization, so our people are stretched thin. Very thin. No one's deliberately hiding from you. We're all extremely busy. That's all. Don't take it personally."
Donavin looked at Li-Ching with puzzlement. "They're too busy? You do realize the significance of my report?"
"Of course," Li-Ching replied. "But you, unfortunately, don't understand the significance of our work. If you have a problem with our conduct, then I'd advise you to talk directly with Fifteen."
"Hell, he's another one I can't track down. His assistant is the smoothest liar I've ever met in my life. And believe me I've met some good ones in my tenure with the NSA."
"I'm sure you have," she said, smiling.
"Listen, if my report casts a negative light on the ACIO, your funding may be in serious jeopardy, doesn't that make it a priority for your organization? Or am I missing something?"
"In light of the fact that Evans and Neruda are on assignment, what do you want me to do for you?"
Donavin flipped a file on Li-Ching's desk and pointed his finger. "This file has the original blueprints for this structure. It says you have exactly seventy-one thousand square feet of finished space. I'd say our tour provided me with perhaps twenty percent. I'd like to see more."
"And how is that going to improve our communications, Mr. McAlester?"
He looked her squarely in the eye. "Perhaps it will engender more trust."
"Okay, then, follow me, I'll give you a more thorough tour if that's what you want."
Li-Ching stood up and grabbed the file that he'd thrown on her desk. "You can have this back," she said offering it with her arm outstretched.
He took it without reply.
The two walked down the hallway to a metal door that looked like an elevator entrance. As they approached the door, it opened silently to reveal a narrow corridor with elaborate Turkish rugs laid on a parquet wood floor. It looked more like the interior of an expensive home than a government facility. The corridor was about 80 feet long with seven doors - three on each side and one at the end of the hallway. All the doors were closed.
"This is our Special Projects Laboratory," Li-Ching said.
"I thought the lab was on the fourteenth floor," Donavin replied.
"Our main lab is there," Li-Ching explained, "but this is where our most secretive projects are based - what we call our pure-state technologies."
A voice came from overhead and startled Donavin. "Ms. Ching, good morning. Your guest, Mr. McAlester, is not registered for security clearance for this area of the building. Are you overriding Security in this matter?"
"Yes," she replied looking to the ceiling camera hidden in the track lighting fixtures. She touched her right ear with her left hand signaling to the camera that she authorized the clearance and was under no coercion.
"Thank you, have a good visit."
"How high up do you have to be to gain access to this area?" Donavin asked.
"Higher than you," she said deftly, and walked down the corridor to the first door, which immediately opened. She grabbed two surgeon's masks from the wall, shoe covers, and lab coats. "You need to wear these when we go inside. This is a biological clean room. And don't touch anything, please."
Ahead of them was another door, marked "BioLab Level Seven".
Donavin donned the sterile, white clothes, eager to see what was on the other side. "So what's inside?" his head motioned towards the door, as he was preparing to place the cotton mask over his face.
"It's our laboratory for extraterrestrial studies - of a biological kind. It's one of our highlights on the tour. I think you'll like it."
"You mean you have aliens in there?"
"No, mostly we have parts of aliens in there," she said with a coy smile.
Donavin adjusted the mask and followed Li-Ching through the door. Inside was a row of stainless steel examining tables and what appeared to be a medical emergency room. Metal compartment doors filled one wall from floor to ceiling, and the opposite wall bore strange devices that looked like surgical equipment or examination tools, not unlike a dentist might use.
Li-Ching walked to a large, glass tank where something floated inside. She quickly donned rubber gloves, opened the top, and scooped it from the tank.
"This is something new we got in just a week ago from a remote area in the Gulf of Corinth, from a trolling boat, only about eighty kilometers from Athens."
She turned to face Donavin who had been patiently waiting. In her hands was a fetus, maybe two pounds, mostly brownish-red in color, with immense, blue veins surrounding a disproportionately large head.
Li-Ching checked the clock on the wall and then Donavin's eyes. "Are you okay?"
Donavin was staring at the fetus in Li-Ching's hands and his legs began to wobble. Before he could answer her, his knees collapsed and his body crumpled to the floor in complete surrender to gravity.
"I'll need some help putting him up on the examining table," Li-Ching said to a man in a white lab coat who rushed into the room as if on some predetermined cue.
"Get the mask off of him, now! I don't want him out too long," she ordered, as she replaced the fetus in the tank.
Donavin's surgical mask had been coated in a mild neurotoxin that was odorless and tasteless, yet capable of rendering a man immobile and unconscious for twenty minutes. It had one other redeeming quality: it left no traces in the bloodstream or urine.
The two lifted Donavin to the examining table, laying him on his back. His head was carefully fitted into a concave depression at one end of the examining table. A metal sphere, about the size of an orange, silently fell from the ceiling like a spider descending from a silken thread. Red lights projected from the sphere moving slowly across Donavin's face, mapping his facial features.
The metal sphere retracted, and a long robotic arm positioned itself just above his head. A needle extended from the arm and entered Donavin's nasal cavity, where it implanted a tiny transmitter, no larger than a grain of sand.
Known as Personal Moles, or PMs, they had a dual purpose: a listening device that would transmit every word Donavin uttered for up to thirty miles, and a tracking device that could be monitored anywhere on the planet by the ACIO satellite network.
"Verify activation," Li-Ching said.
Her partner, now in a control room adjacent to the examination room, nodded. "We have activation."
"Good," Li-Ching whispered.
"I'll have a keyword list to you within three hours," she said in a louder voice. "You can deliver hard-copy transcripts twice daily, assuming he has something interesting to say. Understood?"
"Let's finish up, then," she said.
She took a small device from a table near the examining table and held it to the bridge of Donavin's nose. She turned a dial and then pressed a small button on the back of the device. It made a small incision, which immediately began to bleed. She sterilized the cut and gently placed a bandage over it. Then Donavin was lifted off the examining table and re-positioned on the floor where he had fainted only eight minutes earlier.
"Are you ready?" Li-Ching asked.
The man nodded, broke open a small packet of smelling salts, and waved it under Donavin's nose.
His body convulsed. He curled up in the fetal position momentarily, and then, as if remembering where he was, struggled to sit up. "What the fuck happened?"
"You fainted," Li-Ching replied.
Donavin shook his head and looked sheepishly to Li-Ching and then her partner. "Who's this?"
"I'm sorry, this is Dr. Stevens. You went down pretty hard, so I asked him to take a look at your nose."
Donavin's hand instantly reached for his nose and felt the bandage. "It's not broken, is it?" vanity showing in his voice.
"No, no," Dr. Stevens assured. "Just a cut and bruise, but you might have some pain or discomfort for a few days. If you need anything, let Li-Ching know, and I'll take care of it for you."
"Thanks. How long was I out?" Donavin mumbled.
"Just a few minutes. Maybe you should get some fresh air," Li-Ching suggested. "Do you want to go topside and get some refreshments?"
Donavin staggered to his feet, leaning against one of the examining tables for support. "Maybe that'd be a good idea."
Li-Ching placed his arm in hers and together they walked out the door, Donavin gingerly testing his balance.
As they removed their lab coats and shoe covers in the anteroom, Donavin looked at Li-Ching like a suffering animal. "What was that thing?"
"An alien fetus - Zeta Reticuli, to be exact. It was jettisoned from one of their submersibles along with a variety of other experimental refuse."
"So they're not exactly pro-lifers then?"
"No, they're more like pro-experimenters."
"It looked part human to me -"
"Please, Mr. McAlester, keep this to yourself. What I showed you in there is highly classified, as high as it can get. I simply wanted you to get a sense of my trust and our willingness to cooperate with you. Let's leave it at that."
"So you won't answer any more of my questions? Which incidentally, number in the thousands."
"Great," he said bitterly. "You don't really expect someone to see that thing and then clam up, do you?"
Li-Ching adjusted her blouse and skirt, while Donavin watched discreetly out of the corner of his eye. Her figure was exquisite - petite, taut like a ballerina that Degas may have painted. Having disarmed her prey, she retorted coldly. "What I expect is compliance. I trust you, you trust me. Isn't that what you want, Mr. McAlester? Or did I misjudge you?"
"Okay, okay, no more questions," he agreed, "but at least tell me one thing, these Zeta's, are they here?" he gestured with his arms.
Li-Ching shook her head and smiled. "Mr. McAlester, if they were here, do you think I'd show you a dead fetus?" She took his arm in hers. "I'll escort you topside. How do you feel?"
"Just a little woozy," he complained.
Her right breast settled directly on his left arm as they walked down the corridor, and Donavin began to lose interest in the tour, feeling more important things were beginning to take shape.
"The satellite images are in, sir," the voice over the intercom intoned.
"Have'em bring'em in, then," McGavin said.
Holden was always scared of McGavin's reaction to anything inconclusive, and the satellite photos certainly fell into that category. McGavin's assistant motioned him in with a subtle nod toward the double, oak doors.
He walked into McGavin's office, situated on the top floor of an obscure five story, office building 30 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia. The NSA's Special Projects Laboratory was nestled in a cultivated pine forest behind a fortified perimeter fence with sophisticated motion detection sensors above and beneath the ground. It was a beautiful, but isolated setting for a clandestine operation.
To any casual observer, the SPL was a company called ConnecTech. To any researcher or journalist, and according to its web site, ConnecTech was a private, tightly held corporation that developed specialized missile guidance systems for the military. In reality, the SPL was owned and operated by the NSA and developed a wide variety of technologies for surveillance and counter-terrorism, many of which had been initially designed and developed by the ACIO and then transferred to the SPL for further development and modification.
Core technologies were often a result of the ACIO's Technology Transfer Program with either the Zeta Reticuli or Corteum. In other instances, an extraterrestrial technology might be recovered without knowledge of its source, and then reverse-engineered. Regardless of how these technologies were acquired, the ACIO would develop them into pure-state technologies for applications related to the Labyrinth Group's agenda. These pure-state technologies would then be diluted for export to the SPL and other clandestine organizations throughout the world.
"So what do we know now that we didn't know yesterday?" McGavin snapped.
Holden sat straight as a board in his chair while his eyes darted around the room, never fixing on anything for more than a second. "We know that three Q-Eleven choppers left the ACIO headquarters bearing in an east-south-easterly direction at approximately eighteen hundred hours."
"We lost radar thirty-two miles from exit site -"
"Why can't we track these idiots?" McGavin screamed, his hairless head, like a chameleon, turning a shade of crimson to match the curtains behind his desk.
Holden began to say something, but McGavin leaned forward in his chair and silenced him with a wave of his hand. "Tell me we have flight path extrapolations."
"We do, sir," Holden assured, his eyes nervously averting McGavin's icy stare. "However, the choppers never returned to ACIO headquarters, so we can't accurately extrapolate distance."
"Just show me what you do have."
Holden opened up a legal-sized file folder and pulled out three maps of the continental United States, each with several dotted lines radiating from southern California going eastward, but at slightly different angles.
McGavin looked them over quickly. "So they went to southern New Mexico... maybe eighty, ninety miles south of Albuquerque -"
"Sir, we don't know if they actually stopped, they may have continued east or stopped in Arizona even California -"
"I know you don't know squat," McGavin said gruffly. "What's the legend indicate. I can't read a damn thing; the print's so small -"
"The red line represents the highest probability flight path," Holden pointed out.
McGavin leaned back in his chair and stroked his clean-shaven chin. "What's the passenger and cargo capacity of a Q-Eleven?"
"It seats six comfortably and can carry a four and half ton cargo load," Holden responded, glad to be reciting facts he was familiar with.
"Why would they fly so many personnel to New Mexico unless they found something big?" McGavin wondered aloud.
Holden waited in silence, aware it was a rhetorical question.
McGavin hit an open phone line, instantly a dial tone filled the room. "Was there anything else?" he asked, looking to Holden.
"No, sir," Holden acknowledged.
"Then you can go," McGavin said, hitting a speed dial button. The staccato tones of a phone number being dialed interrupted the dial tone as Holden got up to leave. He heard McGavin say something about the number "fifteen" just before he closed the door behind him.
"Then find him, I'll wait," McGavin said in a restrained voice.
Silence filled his office as he went over to a secret cabinet door and opened it with a quick, but accurate kick. The door sprung open to reveal several bottles of scotch. He poured himself a drink - straight up - and downed a large belt.
"Mr. McGavin," a voice broke in, "we've located Fifteen and he'll be with you momentarily. Thank you for your patience."
"You're welcome," he replied sarcastically, the scotch beginning to work its magic.
He had just finished pouring his second drink when Fifteen's voice came over the speakerphone. "Hi, Darius, sorry to keep you waiting, but I was in a meeting and I'm afraid my assistant didn't know which conference room I was in. What can I do for you?"
McGavin set his drink down on his desk. "Why did three Q-Elevens leave yesterday for New Mexico?"
"We're doing some reconnaissance with the Ancient Arrow project, looking for more artifacts -"
"We broadened our search area, I thought we'd try a triangular search pattern."
"And what've you found?"
"So far as I know, nothing," Fifteen replied. "But they've only been there about eighteen hours - most of which was sleep and set up. The last time I had an update was early this morning. I'll personally call you if anything turns up, though."
McGavin emptied his drink and set it down hard on the desk. It was already having the desired effect. "I don't want a call after the fact. I want to know your plans... then you can update me on the facts. All I'm getting on this project is some bullshit run-around. And I'm not buying it."
"So what do you recommend?"
"I want to know exactly what's happening," McGavin shouted. "The last report I saw showed the artifact had somehow managed to explode. Our lab confirmed it was alien technology, but to say it was the same artifact you showed me in the Ancient Arrow file... that's a stretch. Even you'd have to admit that."
He paused, wondering whether it made sense to get another drink. He decided it did and repeated his visit to the liquor cabinet. "You've sent three separate missions to the area, and I still don't know the precise location or the logistical plan of these missions. Let's start with that."
"I know you want us to improve our communication, but I can't hire a bigger staff just to perform this type of sensitive communication. I only have Li-Ching, and she's stretched so thin -"
"We have the most sophisticated intranet in the fucking world, all you need to do is to copy me on your emails. I'm not asking for proprietary communication. Just copy me."
"You know we don't trust networks. We can't compromise our projects with communication protocols that are open to hackers, espionage, and sloppy receipt handling. It's not an option, Darius."
"Your lack of trust is ridiculous," McGavin said. "Our IT people say it's impossible to hack our system -"
"I'm not going to waste our valuable time arguing about it, Darius, I simply won't compromise our projects by using it. Nothing's unhackable at the right price and with the right motivation, and you know it. If you want proof, give me a day and I'll send you copies of every email you have in your system."
McGavin sighed long and loud. "So we have an impasse," he observed, ignoring Fifteen's boast. "What do we do about it?"
"You need to trust me," Fifteen offered. "It's that simple. It's the only way this can work."
"Do I have a choice?" McGavin asked.
"No I don't," McGavin complained, the scotch now well in control. "You flaunt your fucking power even in the suggestion that I need to trust you. You're my subordinate, Goddamn it! I'll decide who I trust and who I don't. There's something going on with the Ancient Arrow project that's unusual - every bone in my body tells me that."
"Darius?" Fifteen interrupted.
"I need to go into another meeting, right now. Can we finish this discussion tomorrow?"
McGavin tipped his glass back, finishing his third drink. He let the question dangle in the air, hoping it would unnerve Fifteen. "Fine, I'm tired of this whole line of discussion. Just make sure you give Donavin full cooperation on this."
"Thanks for your understanding," Fifteen said, breaking the connection.
"You're welcome," McGavin returned, the dial tone interrupting his words.
"What a fucking jerk," McGavin snarled as he clicked the speakerphone off.
He looked once more at the flight path extrapolations and realized how little information he had secured from Fifteen. His anger continued to rise the more he obsessed about it. He, the director of the NSA's Special Projects Laboratory, couldn't even get a straight answer on where the location of this supposed search site was. He poured his fourth drink hoping it would assuage his frustration. It didn't.